Posts Tagged 'social justice / wokeness'

A tinge of regret.

Ron Charles, Washington Post book critic, in an article I quoted already a couple weeks ago:

As Confederate statues tumble across the United States, TV networks are marching through their catalogues and looking to take down racially offensive content. It turns out that little video monuments are lurking all across the TV canon – more shocking with each new announcement. Just in recent weeks, blackface scenes have been rediscovered and removed from The Office, Community, 30 Rock, Scrubs, and Saturday Night Live.

It would be interesting to time-travel back to the mid-2000s, when The Office, Community, 30 Rock, and Scrubs were still on the air, and inform their writers that in a decade or so their attempts at racial levity would be considered so “shocking” that they must be hidden away from sensitive viewers’ sight.

It would be more interesting still if we could summon a time traveller from ten years hence to tell us which of today’s critically-acclaimed, widely-beloved shows were destined for the scrapheap of “racially offensive” material. [1]

joey lawrence gimme a break

Joey Lawrence in Gimme A Break! Image source: Mediaite.

I recall as a child in the 1980s being confused by the episode of the sitcom Gimme A Break! where the teenage daughter, angry at her housekeeper and substitute mother-figure Nell Carter, took elaborate revenge by tricking her little brother into performing a blackface dance routine at Nell’s church. This led to Nell sitting the kids down for an earnest talk about racism.

I asked my babysitter to explain what the big deal was, but her answer wasn’t very coherent. I concluded that blackface was bad because it made nice black church ladies unhappy.

Nevertheless, it was routine in the 1980s, and for many years afterward, for white comedians to slap on brown makeup to impersonate Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder or Sammy Davis, just as they’d slap on sideburns and a fat suit for Elvis.

It didn’t occur to me – or, I’m pretty sure, the performers involved – that these impersonations would someday be damned as “blackface”. It’s only in the last decade or so that the new taboo against casting white people in non-white roles bumped up against the much older blackface taboo to retroactively toxify a whole swathe of previously innocent performances.

However, while the impersonators weren’t trying to be insulting, at least they weren’t specifically flaunting their racial enlightenment. The other category of “rediscovered” scenes newly targeted for removal we might call ironic blackface: scenes meant to illustrate the ignorance of white people who would participate in blackface, like the authoritarian weirdo Dwight Schrute in The Office, or the self-absorbed actress Jenna Maroney in 30 Rock, or the alcoholic dirtbags of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

(As a more recent example, there’s the Washington, D.C. woman who was publicly berated, and later lost her job, over a Halloween costume that mocked TV pundit Megyn Kelly for her comments about blackface.)

I enjoy many of the shows above. Still, I chuckle when I think of their hip, well-educated white writers sneering at their characters’ Neanderthal attitudes – only to find themselves tumbled into the cave with their creations.

Now, I try not to get too worked up about taboos. Every society has them, they’re usually not that hard to follow, and even the illogical ones may serve some important solidarity-building function. Some of us oldsters are having a bit of trouble adjusting to the new taboos because we grew up during an era where the old ones – like those against blasphemy, gay intimacy, and interracial relationships – were crumbling, while the new ones were still being applied in a moderate way. Everyone in the 1980s understood that you shouldn’t use “the n-word” as a racial slur, but nobody held it against you when you quoted a third party using it.

The blackface taboo hasn’t yet gone as far as the “n-word” taboo: as far as I can tell, no-one has gotten in trouble for merely publishing a photo of a person in blackface to illustrate a news article or blog post.

And yet if the mere sight of “the n-word” is triggering to the Woke, wouldn’t the photographs adorning the Wikipedia entry on blackface be equally triggering? For that matter, is it possible that the mere description of blackface could at some point in the not-too-very-distant future be made taboo?

Whipple and the white man.

rex stout too many cooks

In Rex Stout’s novel Too Many Cooks, from 1938, the gourmand private detective Nero Wolfe abandons the comforts of his New York home to attend a gathering of the world’s greatest chefs at a luxury hotel in rural West Virginia. Predictably, one of the chefs ends up with a carving knife in his back.

An eyewitness reports that she glimpsed one of the hotel’s black waiters standing near the alcove where the body was found, raising his finger to his lips, as if to shush another black waiter who was peering in from the kitchen.

Unfortunately, the witness can’t identify either waiter, so Wolfe assembles the whole serving staff in his hotel room for questioning. They are respectful but nervously uncooperative. The detective believes they are shielding the murderer out of racial solidarity:

“You are rendering your race a serious disservice. You are helping to perpetuate and aggravate the very exclusions which you justly resent. The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded; anyone helping to preserve those distinctions is postponing that ideal; and you are certainly helping to preserve them. If in a question of murder you permit your action to be influenced by the complexion of the man who committed it, no matter whether you yourself are white or pink or black—”

“You’re wrong!”

The source of the interruption is a young waiter named Whipple, a college student who chafes at West Virginia’s racial etiquette; the headwaiter has already reprimanded him for not referring to Wolfe as “sir”.

Wolfe said, “I think I can justify my position, Mr. Whipple. If you’ll let me complete—”

“I don’t mean your position. You can have your logic. I mean your facts. One of them.”

Wolfe lifted his brows. “Which one?”

“The complexion of the murderer.” The college boy was looking him straight in the eye. “He wasn’t a black man. I saw him. He was a white man.”

…Or rather, at the time Whipple saw the man, he wasn’t precisely white:

“Do you think I can’t tell burnt cork from the real thing? I’m a black man myself. But that wasn’t all. As you said, he was holding his finger against his lips, and his hand was different. It wouldn’t have taken a black man to see that. He had on tight black gloves.”

Whipple explains to the skeptical Wolfe why he didn’t come clean earlier:

“Because I’ve learned not to mix up in the affairs of the superior race. If it had been a colored man I would have told. Colored men have got to stop disgracing their color and leave that to white men. You see how good your logic was.”

“But my dear sir. That doesn’t impugn my logic, it merely shows that you agree with me. We must discuss it some time. Then you withheld this fact because you considered it white men’s business and none of yours, and you knew if you divulged it you’d be making trouble for yourself.”

“Plenty of trouble. You’re a northerner—“

And indeed, Whipple’s reticence is justified by the local sheriff’s reaction – a string of racist insults and threats – when Wolfe brings him forward to share the story he’d previously concealed.

The ziggaboo jock.

It’s pretty clear that Nero Wolfe’s declaration that “The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded” reflected the views of his creator – civil libertarian, co-founder of the radical Vanguard Press, critic of the “myth of national sovereignty”, Rex Stout.

But Stout’s narrator, Wolfe’s regular-joe assistant Archie, is less ostentatiously enlightened: he sees no harm in jocularly referring to the hotel’s serving staff as “those blackbirds”. (His employer enquires whether “by blackbirds you mean men with dark skin”. Archie clarifies: “I mean Africans”.)

In the title story of Damon Runyon’s 1935 collection Money From Home, the unnamed narrator exercises a far more unrestrained vocabulary of racial slurs: “boogie”, “jig”, “smoke”, “smudge”, “dinge”, “coon”, and of course, “ziggaboo”. [2]

damon runyon omnibus

As the columnist Heywood Broun put it in the introduction to Runyon’s most famous book, Guys and Dolls:

He has caught with a high degree of insight the actual tone and phrase of the gangsters and racketeers of this town. Their talk is put down almost literally. Of course, like any artist, Damon Runyon has exercised the privilege of selectivity. But he has not heightened or burlesqued the speech of the people who come alive in his short stories.

Eddie Yokum, the hapless protagonist of “Money From Home”, by a series of unwise choices finds himself dressed in a stolen fox-hunting outfit, impersonating a visiting English aristocrat, and wanted by the law on a charge of dognapping.

Here he’s cowering in the furnace room of a snooty country club, wondering how to make his escape, when he remembers the time he knocked ’em dead in the Elks’ minstrel show with his imitations of Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor:

The idea is to black up his face right there and walk out to safety, because Eddie figures that anybody who sees him is bound to take him as an employee of the furnace-room, so he peeks into the furnace, and finds a lot of soot, and he makes his face blacker than a yard up a chimney.

Moreover, Eddie gets another break when he finds a suit of blue overalls left by some guy who works in the furnace-room, and also an old cap, and when he sneaks out the door a little later, he is nothing but a boogie, as far as anybody can see, and not a very clean boogie, at that …

Unfortunately for Eddie, when he emerges from the furnace room he runs into the very Englishman he had been impersonating, who tipsily insists upon leading the black man onto the dance floor and “presenting him to the crowd as a bit of real Southern atmosphere”. So Eddie has no choice but to break out the minstrel act that brought him fame at the Elks’ Club.

Eventually Eddie bows his way offstage and makes his getaway. But his adventures aren’t over. Some days later, attending the big steeplechase at New York’s Belmont Park, with the hope of getting near the beautiful heiress whose charms got him into this whole mess in the first place, Eddie hears that his dream girl is in a pickle:

“There is a rumour that Miss Phyllis Richie’s nigger jockey, Roy Snakes, is off on a bender, or something to this effect. Anyway, they say he is missing, and if they cannot find him, or get another jig jock, they will have to scratch Follow You, because no white guy alive can ride Follow You in a race.”

It seems that Miss Richie’s enemies, knowing that her horse Follow You is a racist who will violently unseat any white rider who dares to mount him, have arranged for every black jockey in New York to be out of commission.

It occurs to Eddie that he can save the day, and win Miss Richie’s heart, with the help of some burnt cork :

Well, all the time Eddie Yokum is blacking up, he is saying every prayer he knows that Roy Snakes or one of the other dinge jockeys appears to ride Follow You, but no such thing happens, and by and by Eddie is out in the Richie colors, and is as black as anything, and maybe blacker, and while Follow You gives him quite a snuffing over when Eddie approaches him, the horse seems satisfied he is dealing with a smoke, and afterwards some people claim this is a knock to the way Eddie smells.

Having no experience as a rider, plus a severe fear of horses, Eddie falls off Follow You at every jump. But thanks to the treachery of their crooked jockeys, every other horse in the race is eventually disqualified, and despite Follow You’s growing exasperation at having to take every jump twice, the way is clear for him to win, if Eddie can just coax him over the finish line.

The trouble is that with all the sweat pouring down our hero’s brow, not to mention landing face-first in the water jump, he isn’t looking quite so black as when the race began, and the horse is starting to have his suspicions…

Blackface Bertie.

p.g. wodehouse thank you jeeves

When in P.G. Wodehouse’s 1933 novel Thank You, Jeeves Bertie Wooster finds it necessary to disguise himself as a black man, the urgency of the situation rules out the burning of cork. Luckily Bertie’s unflappable valet has had the foresight to bring along a tin of boot polish:

“The scheme carries your personal guarantee?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you say you have the stuff handy?”

“Yes, sir.”

I flung myself into a chair and turned the features ceilingwards.

“Then start smearing, Jeeves,” I said, “and continue to smear till your trained senses tell you that you have smeared enough.”

The chain of events leading up to this crisis begins with Bertie, ejected from his London flat over banjolele-related noise complaints, taking a cottage on the estate of his old school chum, the cash-poor Baron Chuffnell, AKA Chuffy. Part of the attraction of this locale is the presence of a troupe of coloured minstrels in the nearby village, who, Bertie hopes, might be induced to impart banjolele tips.

The local police sergeant takes a jaundiced view of these entertainers:

“Chuffnell Regis is going down. I would never have thought to have seen a troupe of minstrels singing comic songs within a stone’s-throw of my police station.”

“You view them with concern?”

“There’s been fowls missing,” said Sergeant Voules darkly. “Several fowls. And I have my suspicions.”

Meanwhile Chuffy is attempting to unload Chuffnell Hall on a rich American in order to acquire the funds to marry said American’s daughter, Pauline – who is, as it happens, Bertie’s ex-fiancée. Misunderstandings ensue, culminating in Bertie’s imprisonment on the rich American’s yacht, threatened with forced marriage to Pauline. Luckily the minstrels happen to be aboard the yacht to provide entertainment at a birthday party, and Jeeves devises his scheme to sneak Bertie ashore amid their number.

The plan goes off without a hitch, as Jeeves’ plans generally do, and Bertie flits to pack for the next train to London, leaving his man behind to cover the traces of his escape. Alas, before he can acquire the necessary butter to remove the boot polish from his face, Bertie is chased from his own cottage by a drunken servant who mistakes the black-faced intruder for the devil. Later, at the service entrance to Chuffnell Hall, a scullery maid falls into a fit upon seeing him, believing him to be a spirit that she has summoned with her Ouija board.

Hunted and friendless, wondering where he can scrounge a supply of butter, Bertie skulks among the bushes, reflecting that,

I had never realized before what an important part one’s complexion plays in life.

As Martin Amis once wrote of the comic gauntlet of “bust-ups, alarms, duplicities and misapprehensions” with which Wodehouse’s upper class twits must contend:

The fact that these pitfalls, when translated to the burly contingencies of real life, can cause genuine hurts and fears merely strengthens the glow of innocuousness. Wodehouse loved to play on the genial insensitivity to suffering that centuries of thoughtless privilege produce. [3]

Innocent and insolent.

Martin Amis’ father Kingsley once anointed G.K. Chesterton’s amiable amateur sleuth Father Brown as one of the “three great successors of Sherlock Holmes”. (Nero Wolfe was another.) [4]

If the Father Brown stories had a weakness, Amis went on, it was not, as some critics had complained, that they were “Roman Catholic propaganda”:

It would be truer to say that what propaganda there is gets directed against atheism, complacent rationalism, occultism and superstition, all those shabby growths which the decline of Christian belief has fostered … My only real complaint is that this bias sometimes reveals the villain too early. We know at once that the prophet of a new sun cult is up to no good, and are not surprised that it is he who allows a blind girl to step to her death in an empty lift shaft. [5]

Atheists and non-Christians of various stripes might legitimately complain that Chesterton has treated them unfairly. But only one of the Father Brown stories strikes me as genuinely offensive (and we’ve established by now that I’m not all that easy to offend).

g.k. chesterton the wisdom of father brown

“The God of the Gongs”, from the 1914 collection The Wisdom of Father Brown, begins with the little priest and his brawny friend Flambeau strolling on a bleak winter day along the abandoned strand of an English seaside town. In apparent idleness Father Brown hops onto the stage of a wooden bandstand, and promptly falls through a rotten spot in the floor. Exploring the dark spaces beneath, he stumbles on something disturbing – a corpse, we deduce, though he is characteristically vague in explaining his discovery to Flambeau.

Next he steers his friend to a nearby inn, where the proprietor is curiously inhospitable to his guests, and even more curiously deferential to his bellowing black cook. Flambeau takes an instant dislike to this cook, who is also the famed prizefighter “Nigger Ned”, on his way to a bout:

He was buttoned and buckled up to his bursting eyeballs in the most brilliant fashion. A tall black hat was tilted on his broad black head … The red flower stood up in his buttonhole aggressively, as if it had suddenly grown there. And in the way he carried his cane in one hand and his cigar in the other there was a certain attitude—an attitude we must always remember when we talk of racial prejudices: something innocent and insolent—the cake walk.

“Sometimes,” said Flambeau, looking after him, “I’m not surprised that they lynch them.”

“I am never surprised,” said Father Brown, “at any work of hell.”

In another Chesterton story, when a hot-tempered Arab is accused of killing an Englishman who had insulted him, the clear-sighted Father Brown recognizes that it is another Englishman who has opportunistically pinned the crime on the foreigner. [6] Encountering the foppish prizefighter for the first time, we assume that he is likewise going to be a red herring; especially when the hotel proprietor whips out a dagger and attempts to murder Father Brown.

But no: like the suspicious sun-cultist mentioned by Amis, the insolent black man is in fact up to no good. Escaping the homicidal innkeeper, Father Brown and Flambeau make their way to the site of the prizefight, where the priest approaches the promoter and explains (with reference to a “book of old travels” which he happens to have in his pocket, describing certain obscure Jamaican folkways) that his star attraction is the chief priest of a secret society of voodoo assassins, and the boxing match the diversion during which one of their ritual killings will occur.

With his secret society exposed, “Nigger Ned” vanishes, leading to a countrywide manhunt that makes no concessions to our notions of civil liberties:

[F]or a month or two the main purpose of the British Empire was to prevent the buck nigger (who was so in both senses) escaping by any English port. Persons of a figure remotely reconcilable with his were subjected to quite extraordinary inquisitions, made to scrub their faces before going on board ship, as if each white complexion were made up like a mask of greasepaint. Every negro in England was put under special regulations and made to report himself; the outgoing ships would no more have taken a nigger than a basilisk.

(No doubt many reader will be puzzled, as I was, by Chesterton’s reference to “both senses” of the phrase “buck nigger”. My Webster’s informs me that in addition to meaning a “bold, lively, vigorous” young man – “sometimes a contemptuous or patronizing term as applied to a young black or Indian male” – “buck” has an archaic second meaning of “fop or dandy”.)

Modern opinion would find the many instances of “the n-word” the most alarming aspect of this story, but my impression is that in Britain the word was accepted in polite society for some years after it had become taboo in the United States: Chesterton uses it more or less as an informal synonym for “negro”, much as he might use “Yankee” for “American”.

What troubles me is that Chesterton seems not to balk at the racist methods he ascribes to the police in hunting up the escaped cult leader. Ordinarily we can rely on Father Brown to pass some acerbic little remark when the people around him are behaving irrationally, but for once, he lets the hysteria pass uncommented on.

In the final lines of the tale, Father Brown and Flambeau are once again dallying near the beach, wondering that the fugitive cult leader hasn’t yet turned up.

“He must be still in England,” observed Flambeau, “and horridly well hidden, too. They must have found him at the ports if he had only whitened his face.”

“You see, he is really a clever man,” said Father Brown apologetically. “And I’m sure he wouldn’t whiten his face.”

“Well, but what would he do?”

“I think,” said Father Brown, “he would blacken his face.”

And he gestures meaningfully in the direction of “the soot-masked niggers singing on the sands”.

The blackface Diggers.

joan didion slouching towards bethlehem

In Joan Didion’s 1967 account of life among the San Francisco hippies, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, we make the acquaintance of the Diggers, a loose alliance of radical organizations that includes the San Francisco Mime Troupe. [7]

The Digger crowd are standoffish to Didion, on assignment for the Saturday Evening Post, because they see mainstream journalists as their enemies. One of their leaders asks her, “How much you get paid for doing this kind of media poisoning?” Another interviewee, Mime Troupe writer and director Peter Berg, blames her “for the way Life captioned Henri Cartier-Bresson’s pictures out of Cuba”.

Didion describes a bunch of Diggers and Mime Troupers showing up at a San Francisco park one afternoon where Janis Joplin is giving a free concert. They’re there to freak out the mellow hippies:

I mention to Max and Sharon that some members of the Mime Troupe seem to be in blackface.

“It’s street theater,” Sharon assures me. “It’s supposed to be really groovy.”

The Mime Troupers get a little closer, and there are some other peculiar things about them. For one thing they are tapping people on the head with dime-store plastic nightsticks, and for another they are wearing signs on their backs. “HOW MANY TIMES YOU BEEN RAPED, YOU LOVE FREAKS?” and “WHO STOLE CHUCK BERRY’S MUSIC?”, things like that. […]

I walk over to where the Mime Troupers have formed a circle around a Negro. Peter Berg is saying if anybody asks that this is street theater, and I figure the curtain is up because what they are doing right now is jabbing the Negro with the nightsticks. They jab, and they bare their teeth, and they rock on the balls of their feet and they wait.

“I’m beginning to get annoyed here,” the Negro says. “I’m gonna get mad.”

By now there are several Negroes around, reading the signs and watching.

“Just beginning to get annoyed, are you?” one of the Mime Troupers says. “Don’t you think it’s about time?”

“Nobody stole Chuck Berry’s music, man,” says another Negro who has been studying the signs. “Chuck Berry’s music belongs to everybody.”

“Yeh?” a girl in blackface says. “Everybody who?”

“Why,” he says, confused. “Everybody. In America.”

“In America,” the blackface girl shrieks. “Listen to him talk about America.”

“Listen,” he says. “Listen here.”

“What’d America ever do for you?” the girl in blackface jeers. “White kids here, they can sit in the Park all summer long, listening to the music they stole, because their bigshot parents keep sending them money. Who ever sends you money?”

“Listen,” the Negro says helplessly. “You’re gonna start something here, this isn’t right—”

“You tell us what’s right, black boy,” the girl says.

The youngest member of the blackface group, an earnest tall kid about nineteen, twenty, is hanging back at the edge of the scene. I offer him an apple and ask what is going on. “Well,” he says, “I’m new at this, I’m just beginning to study it, but you see the capitalists are taking over the District, and that’s what Peter—well, ask Peter.”

Maybe the Diggers were right to accuse Didion of “media poisoning”. She paints the Mime Troupers as slightly sinister idiots, ruining the afternoon’s good vibes in the name of some half-baked idea of social action they can’t even articulate.

Was this fair? The 1968 documentary Have You Heard of the San Francisco Mime Troupe? (viewable, for now at least, on YouTube and at The Digger Archives) provides a pretty thorough immersion in the Digger milieu – almost an hour of interviews, rehearsal footage, and dimestore political theorizing. To me they seem no more crazily ideological than your typical 2020 arts crowd, although of course that’s largely a product of the Diggers’ crazy ideology having gone thoroughly mainstream in the intervening half-century.

The documentary includes long excerpts from the Mime Troupe’s touring blackface production A Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel – “an outspoken comment on the black man’s condition in America”, per the narrator. (These excerpts begin around 24:40 and continue at intervals until the end of the doc.) We see the minstrels jokily interacting with audience members – white and black – in ways consistent with what Didion describes. Everyone seems pretty chill about it.

san francisco mime troupe minstrel show

Minstrel and audience members in A Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel. Source: The Digger Archives.

Putting aside the blackface, the play is extremely relevant to contemporary progressive obsessions: it culminates in the killing of a “black” man by a “white” cop (both portrayed by actors in blackface). Modern anti-racists might find it instructive to see how their grandparents’ generation dealt with the theme – if they could make it through the video without falling to pieces at the sight of six actors (some white, some black) clowning in blackface. They might find themselves agreeing with the reactionary squares whom Peter Berg, in a 1966 letter to Educational Theatre News, blasted for censoring his show:

A Minstrel Show was blacked-out in mid-performance by officials of Olympia College in Washington because of “unsuitability” of its material. The student body audience was loudly divided about the administration’s heavy-handed censorship, and the Minstrel cast called from the stage for a vote. Officials refused, then compounded their Dark Ages policy by clearing the theatre of students and performers.

One of the stars of A Minstrel Show, Peter Cohon, went on to fame as the Hollywood actor Peter Coyote, best known for E.T. You can hear him in the documentary trying to explain what the Mime Troupe had in mind:

When I started in the show, it was like embarrassing, wow. It’s hard to put blackface on your face and be there with three white cats and three black cats in the cast, and you’re making fun of each other, and you gotta be pretty sure where you stand. And you can’t just give lip service to it. Um, before you can swing behind it, you really gotta work some stuff out.

Coyote’s black co-star Jason Marc Alexander, his face half obscured by black greasepaint, adds in a backstage interview:

The way I figure it is, there’s really no-one else saying what we’re saying in the way we’re saying it. We still are dealing with a very old, ugly problem. … And I dunno, I just get the feeling like, uh, this country has done so much running away from itself that it’s going to wind up just going into a circle, just a circle of madness, until it finally, just, flip totally out. Cause there’s so many things we’re trying to pretend aren’t there. And we all know they are.

Which reminds me a bit of something Father Brown says in another Chesterton story:

“And I say to you, wherever you find men ruled merely by mystery, it is the mystery of iniquity. If the devil tells you something is too fearful to look at, look at it. If he says something is too terrible to hear, hear it. If you think some truth unbearable, bear it.” [8]

M.

1. I put in my customary couple hours of half-assed research preparing to write this essay. The two books I skimmed, W.T. Lhamon’s Raising Cain: Blackface Performance From Jim Crow to Hip Hop, from 1998, and John Strausbaugh’s Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture, from 2006, probably couldn’t be published today: not only because both authors are white, but because they offer a more nuanced, even sympathetic, analysis of blackface than is currently acceptable.

2. While Rex Stout’s political commitments were openly worn, I’m less sure about Damon Runyon’s. If I’ve correctly decoded the heavy irony in this 1946 installment of his weekly newspaper column – which takes the form of a scathing review of one of his own books – he was a conventional FDR-era liberal, which would of course make him a Nazi deserving of punching, by 2020 standards.

3. From a 1978 review of Wodehouse’s unfinished final novel, Sunset at Blandings, in Martin Amis’ collection The War Against Cliché.

4. The third great successor of Sherlock Holmes, per Kingsley Amis, was John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell, with whose adventures I am unacquainted. Amis praises Carr for carrying on in Chesterton’s romantic tradition, but with “the wilder flights of fancy brought under control, the holes in the plot conscientiously plastered over and made good.”

5. This essay, “Unreal Policeman”, is in Amis’ 1970 collection What Became of Jane Austen? The story with the sun cult is “The Eye of Apollo”, from The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911.

6. The hot-tempered Arab is in “The Quick One”, from The Scandal of Father Brown, 1935.

7. The text of Didion’s article that appears at the Saturday Evening Post website is slightly different than the version that appears in my copy of her 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

8. The final Chesterton quote is from “The Purple Wig” in The Wisdom of Father Brown.

I’ve left out of this catalogue of 20th century blackface literature John Howard Griffin’s classic book of undercover investigative reporting, Black Like Me, which I discussed in 2010. Also that year I quoted Joan Didion in a review of Jonathan Lethem’s Girl In Landscape. I referred to a different Nero Wolfe story in my 2017 musings on coarse-grained versus fine-grained fiction.

Brung up to it: 19th, 20th, and 21st-century morality.

In H.G. Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes, written in 1898 (revised in 1910), a man named Graham, an ordinary middle-class schmoe from the late Victorian age, falls into an unexplained trance and wakes up naked in a display case 200 years in the future.

It turns out that during his long sleep his assets were placed in trust, the trust acquired other assets, grew to a monopoly, supplanted the obsolete nation-states – and in short, Graham has become de jure owner of the world.

The council that has been ruling in his name isn’t too happy to have him awake and possibly meddling with their arrangements – particularly since a legend has grown up among the oppressed labouring masses that “the Sleeper”, like King Arthur or Frederick Barbarossa, will someday awake and right the world’s injustices.

While the council debates how to dispose of him, they lock him away in a well-appointed private apartment. Killing time, he fiddles with a curious apparatus in the corner and, on stepping back, realizes that its forward surface is a screen upon which miniaturized dramatic plays appear:

It was exactly like reality viewed through an inverted opera glass and heard through a long tube.

He deduces that the curious little cylinders shelved along the wall represent different dramas that can be played on the machine. Swapping in a cylinder at random, he is treated to an adaptation of the opera Tannhäuser, its opening act set in something called a Pleasure City.

wagner tannhauser venusberg royal opera 2010

The Venusberg scene in Tannhäuser, Act I, The Royal Opera, 2010.
Photo by Clive Barda, The Guardian.

At first Graham enjoys the opera, but its frank eroticism soon offends his old-fashioned sensibilities:

He rose, angry and half ashamed at himself for witnessing this thing even in solitude. He pulled forward the apparatus, and with some violence sought for a means of stopping its action. Something snapped. A violet spark stung and convulsed his arm and the thing was still. When he attempted next day to replace these Tannhauser cylinders by another pair, he found the apparatus broken . . . .

He struck out a path oblique to the room and paced to and fro, struggling with intolerable vast impressions. The things he had derived from the cylinders and the things he had seen, conflicted, confused him. It seemed to him the most amazing thing of all that in his thirty years of life he had never tried to shape a picture of these coming times. “We were making the future,” he said, “and hardly any of us troubled to think what future we were making. And here it is!”

No doubt an Englishman of the 19th century, reawakened in the 21st, would be awed by our technological accomplishments, which are far more marvellous than even H.G. Wells foresaw. But many of the social changes that we accept with a shrug, if we don’t outright applaud their implementation, the 19th-century man would regard as horrific regressions to savagery.

I picture the 19th-century man seated beside me on the patio of the coffeeshop I frequent here in suburban Vancouver. He watches the parade of pedestrians, cheaply and garishly clothed, their tattoo-covered limbs exposed, rings in their noses and lips, men and women alike shouting obscenities into their handheld magic mirrors. More foul language floats from the open windows of passing cars, accompanied by music of staggering loudness and primitivity.

A vagrant clatters by with a shopping cart, reeking and muttering to himself. I mention to my companion that my city is considered a model of prosperity and good government, and that its gravest problem is that it’s so attractive to outsiders that its residents are unable to afford the soaring rents.

But my Victorian friend isn’t shocked by the sight of vagrants, merely mildly troubled that an additional century of social reform seems not to have improved the lot of the poorest of the poor. What shocks him is the girls in yoga pants and low-cut t-shirts, the crudity of manners among citizens that I’ve assured him are of the middle or upper-middle classes, the universal vileness of speech. I explain patiently that we have our own speech taboos, just as strictly enforced, they’re merely different from the ones of his era – and while we’re on the topic, would he please refrain from commenting on the number of Chinamen. He laughs, uncomprehending.

At some point, I know, the 19th-century man is going to get hold of a newspaper, and learn of the mobs tearing down the statues of his contemporaries, and of men asserting their right to declare themselves women, and of gay marriage, and abortion on demand, and “medical assistance in dying”, and a hundred other developments which I can predict will outrage him. But what worries me is all the things that will outrage him that I can’t predict, because they’re invisible to me.

In The Sleeper Awakes, the two developments that most offend Graham are the decline of motherhood – babies are now tended by robots in vast antiseptic crèches, freeing their mothers to pursue their careers and pleasures – and the fact that the restless white masses of Europe are kept in line by black riot police from Africa. It is the imminent arrival of a squad of African police in London that triggers the final battle of the novel, in which the Sleeper, heretofore a fairly feckless protagonist, finally steps into the heroic role that legend has assigned to him.

No doubt the casual intermingling of the races is one of the things that would unnerve my visitor from the Victorian age. The dissolution of sex roles is another: the notion that it is a “liberation” for mothers to trundle their infants off to daycare, and to share with their men the duty of bread-winning, he would find highly questionable. But I suspect that just as it was that sexed-up Tannhäuser that first aroused Graham’s sense of “archaic indignation”, it is modern pornography that would strike the man of the 19th century as the most obvious sign of our descent into barbarism. “Look, look what your ‘liberated’ mothers and daughters have been reduced to!” he’d exclaim, and I’d mumble and blush and change the subject.

***

In the Washington Post a few weeks back, book critic Ron Charles celebrated the purging of “racially offensive content” from old and not-so-old movies and TV shows, while expressing some ambivalence about extending the purge into his own area of specialization:

Just a few weeks after it was published in 1885, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was banned by the Concord Public Library, which condemned Twain’s novel as “absolutely immoral.” Complaints came from white readers alarmed by the book’s coarse language; the Brooklyn Public Library was shocked that Huck said “sweat” instead of “perspiration.” Heaven forfend! But in the 20th century, that silliness gave way to thoughtful considerations of the novel’s treatment of racism and racist slurs.

We may snigger at the palpitations of those 19th-century schoolmarms who thought that children would be harmed by frank reference to bodily functions: mere “silliness”, per Ron Charles. But those 21st-century pedagogues who think children will be harmed by “the n-word”, well, their “critical arguments have been illuminating”.

But is it possible that the harms of exposure to taboo language were exactly as dire for the children of the 19th century as for those of the 21st? If you’re brought up to believe that certain words are dangerous, then hearing those words can induce stress, fear, a lingering state of nervous agitation. Certain groups – in olden times women and children, nowadays “people of colour” among others – are thought to be especially susceptible to such extreme emotional responses, so that knowingly exposing them to these dangerous words amounts to an attack on their composure – an act of violence.

From a Halifax music festival’s public apology for permitting a white presenter to speak aloud the titles of some works by the black composer Julius Eastman:

This event caused direct harm to those involved, those in attendance and to the broader communities surrounding our organization, particularly QTBIPOC folks. [1] We recognize and name this as an instance of anti-black racism. … This resulted in surprise, shock, violence, discomfort, harm and a number of associated experiences for the presenters and those in attendance.

I’d intended to balance the above apology with the complaint of the Brooklyn librarian who in 1905 was “shocked” by Mark Twain’s earthy language. But it turns out that the librarian’s crusade to protect the community was, by 21st-century standards, pretty half-hearted: declaring that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were inappropriate for children, she simply kicked them upstairs to the adults’ department.

On hearing of this, Twain drily observed that,

I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave.

I suspect that many 21st-century progressives would assent unironically to the proposal that the Bible, to say nothing of Huckleberry Finn, is too problematic to be read by children unsupervised.

***

In 1950, just shy of the chronological midpoint between the publication of Huckleberry Finn and today, Lionel Trilling observed that:

Huckleberry Finn was once barred from certain libraries and schools for its alleged subversion of morality. The authorities had in mind the book’s endemic lying, the petty thefts, the denigration of respectability and religion, the bad language, and the bad grammar. We smiled at that excessive care, yet in point of fact Huckleberry Finn is indeed a subversive book–no-one who reads thoughtfully the dialectic of Huck’s great moral crisis will ever again be wholly able to accept without some question and some irony the assumptions of the respectable morality by which he lives, nor will ever again be certain that what he considers the clear dictates of moral reason are not merely the customary beliefs of his time and place. [2]

That “great moral crisis” to which Trilling refers is Huck’s mounting sense of guilt over having abetted the escape of Miss Watson’s slave:

I tried to make out to myself that I warn’t to blame, because I didn’t run Jim off from his rightful owner; but it warn’t no use, conscience up and says, every time, “But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody.” That was so–I couldn’t get around that, no way. That was where it pinched. Conscience says to me, “What had poor Miss Watson done to you, that you could see her nigger go off right under your eyes and never say one single word? What did that poor old woman do to you, that you could treat her so mean?”

huckleberry finn dan pearce illustration octopus books 1978

Huck and Jim, by Dan Pearce, ©1978 Octopus Books.

The “right” thing to do, Huck’s conscience tells him, is to come clean, write Miss Watson with the whereabouts of her runaway slave, and slouch home to Missouri to live down the shameful reputation he’s earned. Huck goes so far as to write the letter, and immediately feels better – “all washed clean of sin” – but his complacency is disturbed by memories of Jim’s kindness and friendship. He plucks up the letter – his salvation:

I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, for ever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” – and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. [3]

***

Having grown up in the 1970s and ’80s, when free speech assumptions were ascendant, and having consequently had my mind soiled in youth by exposure to subversive works by Heinlein, Vonnegut, Kesey, Burroughs, and yes, Mark Twain, I can’t help rolling my eyes at the efforts of censors of all political stripes to safeguard children – and increasingly, college-age adults – against upsetting words and ideas.

But in fairness to the scruples of the 21st and 19th centuries, I should acknowledge that perhaps my desensitization is nothing to boast about. As H.G. Wells’ friend and sparring partner G.K. Chesterton once put it:

Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked. There are two meanings of the word “nervous,” and it is not even a physical superiority to be actually without nerves. It may mean that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal, and that you are a paralytic. [4]

Contra Chesterton, at present it’s the grandparents who are the paralytics, while their grandkids hone their nerve endings to ever finer degrees of receptivity. But never mind, old-timers: your grandkids will someday be despised by their grandkids as coarse-skinned barbarians; while long-vanquished barbarisms will re-establish themselves unopposed, in new guises flattering to those who profit from them.

M.

1. QTBIPOC: “Queer / Trans / 2-spirit / Black / Indigenous / People of Colour.”

2. Trilling’s essay “Huckleberry Finn” appears in his book The Liberal Imagination, from 1950.

3. Though Huck has resigned himself to being a sinner for Jim’s sake, this doesn’t mean he judges other people’s sins less strictly. When Tom Sawyer unexpectedly turns up, Huck is appalled at how eagerly his old friend agrees to assist in Jim’s liberation:

I’m bound to say Tom Sawyer fell, considerable, in my estimation. Only I couldn’t believe it. Tom Sawyer a nigger stealer!

4. That Chesterton quote is from an essay called “About Shamelessness”. It’s included in his 1936 collection As I Was Saying and in his 1949 Selected Essays.

Swap in Brave New World for The Sleeper Awakes and I wrote this very same essay four years ago. Come to think of it, the old one is tighter and better. Read that instead. At other times I have considered works by Wells’ frenemies Bertrand Russell and G.B. Shaw.

The first draft of history is often the last.

A few days ago I discussed an Ottawa pizza waitress I identified as SL, who was fired after sharing a Snapchat video which supposedly showed her sister and her sister’s boyfriend flippantly reenacting George Floyd’s death.

That’s what the headlines alleged, anyway. SL claimed that the video merely showed the couple innocently rasslin’ on the floor, and that the George Floyd connection had never occurred to them.

I argued that the media companies that tarred these young people as racists probably ought to have actually confirmed the contents of the video before composing their inflammatory headlines, which might well dog their subjects for the rest of their lives.

Even assuming the worst about SL’s video – that it really was intended to mock and minimize George Floyd’s sad death – it was only a tasteless joke, the kind that young idiots make all the time. In a sane world they would get a stern lecture, suffer some minor punishment, and after a few months and a suitable show of contrition be accepted back into polite society.

But the internet and social media, along with the ever-mounting moral panic over racism, have made such a proportionate response impossible. There are no longer any intermediate punishments available; it’s either ignore the offense, or call down upon the offenders the full wrath of Twitter.

The media seems to have lost interest in SL’s story – just as it threatens to become interesting. Six months, a year, ten years from now, how will she make her way through life with the first page of her Google results identifying her as a racist?

We’ll never find out. SL will carry on, at a somewhat lower trajectory than before, maybe for another seventy, eighty years. But her story is over. It consists of a dozen or so news articles and blog posts, a few hundred tweets, maybe a couple thousand words of text altogether.

The first rough draft of her history has been written, and it’s unlikely to be revised.

***

Ten years ago I looked into another case that was a media sensation for a couple days. At that time I wrote,

I’m going to set myself a reminder to look into this topic again in a month. Maybe some more facts will have emerged by then.

But it slipped my mind.

The story is described in my post, “The MetaFilter sex slavery story: can anyone actually verify this?”

To quickly summarize, in the summer of 2010 two Russian girls signed up with a job placement agency that promised to arrange “cultural exchange” visas and jobs as lifeguards in the United States. When they arrived in Washington, they were told that the lifeguard positions were no longer available, and that they should instead travel to New York City, where they would be given jobs as hostesses in a nightclub.

It all sounded kind of shady, and when someone who knew the girls posted about it to the then-mighty internet forum MetaFilter, a posse quickly emerged to divert the girls from what everyone was sure was an appointment with sex traffickers. And they were successful! The girls wound up staying in the apartment of a New York MetaFilter user, while the media lit up with feel-good stories about how a bunch of selfless internet heroes had put the boot to wicked Russian mobsters.

As I wrote shortly afterward:

So far so good. The situation was clearly dodgy, and the girls had been rescued from possible peril. I awaited the follow-up investigations into the travel agency that had brought the girls to America and the bar that had attempted to hire them.

A week passed, and no follow-ups have appeared. Meanwhile this bar and this travel agency have been nationally publicized as front operations for an international sex slavery ring.

The bar was called Lux Lounge. Usually, in order to minimize my impact on the blind wanderings of the search spiders, I try to avoid using the real names of non-famous people and small businesses. In this case there’s little harm in referring to it by name because:

On June 14 [2010], Lux Lounge closed its doors. The closing came about three weeks after the [MetaFilter] saga began, and about four months after the club’s grand opening. (The Daily Beast tried to contact the former owners of Lux Lounge and also the landlord listed for the property, but never got a reply.)

That’s from a (paywalled) Daily Beast story from 2011, which seems to be the most recent mention of the case in the media. The implication is that the mobbed-up characters behind Lux Lounge slunk away into the shadows after the media shone a light on their misdeeds.

Maybe. Or maybe an innocent business was sabotaged by a gang of overwrought internet do-gooders. Or maybe it would’ve shut down anyway, because bars in that neighbourhood are failing all the time: since 2010 there have been at least four different restaurants and bars at its former address on Coney Island Avenue – Mexican, Georgian, Tajik, and most recently Moroccan.

As for Lux Lounge, the Daily Beast writer makes a big deal of the smutty flyer for its “Ass-travaganza Grand Opening” in February, 2010, featuring “a bronzed, near-naked woman wearing bright-yellow thong panties, and just one boot”:

lux lounge coney island grand opening

…And purses her lips over “the club’s Facebook page, full of photos of women in lingerie and fishnets, dollar bills stuffed into their panties.”

Okay, it’s not the kind of joint where I’d like to hang out, as evidenced further by this video of an ear-hammering performance there by a rapper named Akay Stacks in April, 2010. Seriously, turn down your volume before clicking on this.

The club was around for such a short time that after a decade there’s little surviving evidence of what it was like. In the original MetaFilter thread, a user named Bingo suggested that in lieu of lurid speculations, maybe someone should pop by the place and scope it out. Other users warned him off:

[Y]ou’re poking at the Russian Mafia. And they’re probably already aware that at least one of the authorities is watching them.

But Bingo went anyway, and in what strikes me as a pretty level-headed assessment that nevertheless enraged many of his fellow posters, he reported that,

It’s a nice, clean, fairly upscale place in a safe neighborhood. It seems to be popular with 20-something Russian kids.

It is absolutely not a strip club.
It is absolutely not a brothel. […]

Q: Does this mean that the organization(s) that brought these girls over were necessarily on the level?
A: No.

Q: Does this mean that the person who wanted to meet these girls at Cafe Lux was, de facto, an honest person, with their best interests at heart?
A: No.

…And so on. In response, another poster named Astro Zombie gathered some comments from now-defunct MySpace pages indicating that strippers and escorts were present at various events at Lux Lounge, which…look, I’m neither a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League nor an apologist for “sex work”, as we’re supposed to call it these days. But as far as I can tell, this is the closest anyone has come to producing damning evidence against Lux Lounge, and it’s pretty weak sauce.

My 2010 blog post got a comment from someone named Kim W:

Speaking as a MeFite who has been tangentially involved – one of the members who have been more closely involved is on the U.S. State Department anti-trafficking squad, and got involved very early on. There are details about the case that he CANNOT reveal because they now pertain to an ongoing investigation. That may explain why you haven’t heard any further details on the MetaFilter site – for the same reason that the police do not regularly release updates about current ongoing investigations (think about it).

But by the time the Daily Beast article came out the following year,

The police aren’t investigating. Detective Cheryl Crispin of the Deputy Commissioner’s Office in New York City says the case was closed after the two Russian women were interviewed the evening of their original arrival in New York, because they said they didn’t feel threatened at the time.

If a case was opened up at the federal level, apparently nothing came of it. We are asked to be realistic about this:

Explains Ken Franzblau, a trafficking expert who has worked with the human-rights group Equality Now and the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services: “In a perfect TV world of law enforcement, sure, the police would bust open an international trafficking ring.” But that’s not the real world, he says, where police departments are understaffed and overworked. “In this case, the D.A. and the police ensured that these two women were safe.” That, he says, is a triumph.

A triumph? If you believe, as the Daily Beast evidently does, that the girls were about to be forced or blackmailed into prostitution, then the job placement agency that brought them over was knowingly linked to brutal pimps. Both the agency and the girls’ contact in Brooklyn, a person of unknown nationality called George, felt sufficient sense of impunity to continue hassling the girls – no, battering them – after they’d blown off their meeting at Lux Lounge:

The next day, the Russian company battered the women with calls on their cell phones, telling them they were breaking a contract and threatening lawsuits that would cost their families thousands of dollars. The women were told to fly to Texas immediately for new jobs as housekeepers. Or to go to San Diego to be pedicab drivers. Details on housing arrangements were uncomfortably vague.

George called the Russian women, too, asking where they were.

This was after the girls had already been interviewed by two policemen, who left because the girls said they “didn’t feel threatened”. Did anyone pass George’s contact info on to the cops? Or how about the name and number of the dodgy job placement agency? It was still in business a year later:

The two women’s travel plans involved two separate companies in Russia: One is a regular partner of CETUSA [the nonprofit organization that sponsored the women’s visas in the U.S.] but the other company was unknown to the U.S. organization. The latter is the company the women worked closely with. When contacted by The Daily Beast, that company denied knowing George. […]

The Russian company eventually stopped calling, thanks to the efforts of Ksenya’s boyfriend, the Russian lawyer. He managed to get the company to sign a contract saying the women were free of obligation.

In mid-June, the two women flew home to Moscow, having had no luck getting jobs.

By the time someone gets around to compiling the complete history of sex trafficking in 21st century America, it’ll be pretty much impossible to locate George, or the owners of the job placement agency, or the former owners of the Lux Lounge, or the cops who interviewed the Russian girls, or anyone else who might have added some solidity to this vaporous case. So the historian will probably just copy-and-paste the first-draft version: “The Internet Rescues Two Russians From Sex Slavery”.

M.

The theme of today’s essay is reputation, a topic which interested Max Beerbohm, who attempted to reconstruct the character of an 18th century clergyman from a few lines in the Life of Samuel Johnson. I seem never to have blogged about prostitution, but I once shared my surprise at how freely Nancy Mitford threw around the word “whore”. As for Russian mobsters, I’m less bothered by the remote threat of organized crime than I am by the petty misbehaviours of the mentally deranged.

Jokesters and Wokesters.

In the 1960s, when my dad was in his early twenties, he worked in the marketing department of a big insurance company. He and his co-workers would occasionally squander their employer’s time and stationery by producing jokey greeting cards that they passed around among the office staff.

One of those greeting cards consisted of a picture of Jackie Kennedy with John Jr. – possibly the one below:

jackie kennedy with john kennedy jr.

William C. Allen / AP. Image source.

…to which my dad and his buddies had added the caption, “Look, John-John! Somebody just shot daddy!”

I don’t find this particular joke all that funny, but that’s an impeachment of my father’s jokewriting skills, not his sense of propriety.

As readers of this blog’s sidebar will notice, I am a former musician whose folk-rock band never rose even to the level of small-town fame. Before I took to acoustic guitars and major seventh chords, I started out in high school playing gross-out punk-rock comedy songs about incest, necrophilia, aborted fetuses, and so on.

At that time the internet was still an arrangement of pipes and vacuum tubes in Al Gore’s garage. My bandmates and I circulated our dumb songs on hand-labelled cassette tapes to a few friends, much as my dad had circulated his dumb greeting cards among his office pals thirty years before.

Are any of my tapes still out there? If I ever rose to media prominence, how long would it take before one of them reappeared to scuttle my career? Luckily I’m not important enough for enemies to go riffling through old shoeboxes to discredit me.

But in the age of social media, you don’t have to be important. When your shoebox is the entire world, anyone might decide to riffle through it.

***

Among the countless “cancellations” that have marked the current orgy of purification, you may not have heard of an incident a few weeks ago in Ottawa. A woman there, whose name I will abbreviate to SL, used to work as a waitress at a pizza place, until…well, as the Toronto Star reported it:

Woman loses job after video posted on social media mocking death of George Floyd

This Vice headline refers not to SL, but to her sister, also currently unemployed:

Canada Border Services Fires Employee After Racist Video Mocks George Floyd

I’ll call the sister JL. It was JL and her boyfriend who appeared in the video, subsequently shared to Snapchat by the pizza waitress, SL.

JL was (or, at some time in the unspecified past, had been) a “casual”, “non-frontline” employee at Canada Border Services. The agency was prompt to issue a statement saying that she “no longer works at the CBSA”.

So, at least one and possibly two of the three people involved in the video have lost their jobs as a direct result. It’s unclear how the boyfriend managed to get off unscathed. (Maybe he got a pass because, as SL told Vice, in an aside deemed unworthy of further exploration, he “isn’t white”.)

So what actually happens in this racist video? According to Vice,

The white people in [the Ottawa suburb of] Orleans allegedly tried to recreate Floyd’s final moments.

Yes, yes, “allegedly”. But what actually happens in the video? First paragraph of the Toronto Star story:

An employee at an Ottawa pizzeria has lost her job after a video was called out on social media for depicting what many users believed to be a re-enactment of George Floyd’s death.

Okay, they “believed” it to be a re-enactment. Is that what it was? In the screen capture which now seems to be the only extant evidence of this video, the boyfriend has JL pinned down with his knee on her back. Did this have anything to do with George Floyd?

In an apology posted to her now-deleted Instagram account, SL claimed:

In the video, they were play fighting as they always do and in retrospect I can see how the video could be taken out of context given the current situation and I now see how insensitive it is. It was wrong of me to be inconsiderate of the sensitive times at hand and by no means did I use this as a representation of what happened with George Floyd.

According to the woman who first rallied the forces of Social Justice against the pizza waitress,

On Sunday May 30th I was saddened to see a disturbing snapchat screenshot video of 3 non-black Canadians who mocked the death of George Floyd.

I immediately posted the screenshot on my instagram … and asked the public to share my post and message me if anyone had any information on what was said in the video. And to help me identify who these 3 non-black Canadians (from my city Ottawa) were. The post instantly went viral, and witnesses who seen the video and know them personally came forward and messaged me confirming “police brutality” was said in the video.

The Vice story mentions that another news source had claimed the video was itself captioned “police brutality”. SL denied that there had been a caption on her post.

Maybe SL was lying about the caption, but it seems plausible that the “police brutality” tag was added sometime during the screenshot’s spread from her presumably limited Snapchat following to the wider world.

It appears that SL’s Instagram inquisitor didn’t see the video herself. Assuming that her “witnesses” were reliable, I’m guessing that the original video showed JL and her boyfriend tussling playfully on the floor. When JL wound up restrained in a position reminiscent of Floyd’s death, she (or maybe SL, holding the camera) jokingly yelled, “Police brutality!”

To be sure, that’s only my conjecture. It seems to be about as grounded as the conjecture that JL and her boyfriend had been intentionally “mocking” Floyd.

The difference is that my conjecture isn’t going to get anyone fired.

I learned about this incident from Howard Levitt’s column on workplace law. He concluded that Boston Pizza were well within their rights to can their suddenly radioactive employee. The video might or might not have been intended to belittle Floyd’s death, but:

That’s irrelevant as the video damaged her employer’s brand.

Levitt doesn’t give any thought to whether Boston Pizza, or CBSA, or the handful of news organizations that reported this incident, might be obliged to consider the effect of their statements on SL’s “brand”. Here’s what a search for her name currently turns up:

ottawa pizza waitress police brutality

Google results for SL’s name, mid-June, 2020.

Maybe the media’s thirdhand interpretation of the meaning of the video is correct, in which case I suppose you could argue that SL and her sister reaped what they sowed – years of severely curtailed career opportunities as punishment for a tasteless joke.

Or maybe that interpretation is totally wrong. Howard Levitt and Vice and the Toronto Star don’t seem to give a crap either way.

***

I held off on publishing the above for about a week, waiting to see if a more sympathetic media outlet would take a crack at SL’s story. Not so far. [1] Meanwhile, the purification continues.

The latest report comes courtesy of the Washington Post, which shares the horror of a Halloween party held by one of its employees two years ago which was attended by a white woman in blackface.

This was in 2018, shortly after NBC talking head Megyn Kelly had been fired for saying she didn’t think blackface was that big a deal. The blacked-up partygoer wore a nametag saying “Hello, My Name is Megyn Kelly”.

Unlike the Ottawa “police brutality” video – which, if my interpretation of events is correct, wasn’t even really a joke, let alone one at George Floyd’s expense – the Megyn Kelly costume was clearly meant as a diss. To Megyn Kelly.

Now, if you accept, as everyone involved seems to, the premise that Kelly’s firing was deserved – that for a white person to darken his or her face is so inherently offensive that only a racist could defend it – then it follows that mockery of Megyn Kelly can be no excuse for blacking up.

An analogous faux pas would be to attend a party in a half-open bathrobe with your junk hanging out and call it a Harvey Weinstein costume. Funny or not, it would be, by the rules of D.C. polite society, indecent.

So it’s not surprising that a couple of non-white partygoers took offense, and loudly reproached “Megyn Kelly”, who soon afterward fled, “in tears”.

“Megyn Kelly” later called the host to apologize for having contributed to an awkward scene at his party.

And there things stood, until two years later one of the offended partygoers decided that the white lady hadn’t been humiliated enough over her tasteless costume. They got in touch with the Post, which determined that this two year old spat was front page news.

And now “Megyn Kelly”, like Megyn Kelly before her, is out of a job.

Robby Soave struggles to find an adequate level of witheringness with which to summarize this affair:

It’s astonishing that this article – a story about a long-ago Halloween party attended by the Post‘s own staff and principally involving three private persons – made it to print, and everyone involved in its publication should be deeply ashamed.

Well, sure. The actions of the woke viragos at the center of this story strike me as self-evidently insane. Any reporter unlucky enough to be cornered by such a kook ought to have pulled out a phone, said, “Sorry, gotta take this,” and scurried for the nearest exit. Any editor pitched such a story ought to have sternly advised the reporter to reconsider his or her career choice.

But what seems self-evident to me is far from evident to a sizable percentage of the population. And it’s those people, not I, who have the power to decide who gets their grudges splashed across the front page of the Washington Post, and who is unworthy of unemployment as a pizza waitress.

***

Let me return to my own background as a teenage punk rocker. I’ve previously told the story of our sole public performance, at a 1994 high school Battle of the Bands in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, of our song “Pee on Jesus”. It began:

Pee on Jesus, pee on me
How I love the taste of pee

As I wrote in that earlier essay, the song “had no coherent satiric agenda. It was pure juvenile provocation.”

And how did the school authorities respond to the provocation? The singer got a perfunctory dressing-down from the principal. Later that year he was elected senior class valedictorian.

My anecdote was meant to illustrate how, in contrast to Islamic societies – where you could whip up an angry mob with the rumour of an insult to Muhammad halfway around the world – in Canada you could be as vile as you liked about Jesus and the people sitting ten feet away could scarcely stir themselves to object.

How pleasant it was, I implied, to live in a civilization so highly evolved that it could afford to shrug off attacks on its most sacred idols.

It didn’t occur to me that my comparison was nonsense because by 1994 Jesus had already been demoted from the top rank of our civilization’s idols.

Of course there were other taboos we might have violated that would have gotten us hauled off the stage forthwith. In our naïve way, we calibrated our level of offensiveness very carefully. We were just obnoxious enough to cause a mild stir, but not enough to really piss anyone off…except a few religious weirdos, whose feelings didn’t count for much anyway.

A quarter century later, those religious weirdos are more irrelevant than ever. But these religious weirdos

At a park in New York City, I witnessed something odd. A group of women silently formed a circle in the middle of a large lawn. Their all-black outfits contrasted with the surrounding summer pastels, and they ignored the adjacent sun bathers as they began to kneel and slowly chant. They repeated a three word matin.

The words of their chant were, of course, “black lives matter”.

It’s become commonplace lately to point out that wokeness has many of the characteristics of a religion. John McWhorter wrote up the most influential treatment of the idea back in 2017 – three years before those videos emerged of white people weepily repenting of their racial sins; three years before every media organization in North America simultaneously agreed that henceforth Black (but not white) would be spelled with a capital letter.

But the idea had been circulating in right-wing circles for far longer than that: in the early 2000s Paul Gottfried was characterizing progressivism as an “altered religious consciousness” which (as a book reviewer paraphrased it)

seeks for its elites a species of visible immanent grace that will mark them out from all others as delivered from the damning, fallen consciousness (of racism, sexism, and so forth) that predisposes men to evil.

The trouble with defining Antiracism or Wokeness or Social Justice as a religion is that it leaves non-believers like me conflicted about how to go about registering our dissent. It’s one thing to make rude jokes about a daffy and dangerous list of policy goals. It’s a totally different thing to blow raspberries at someone’s sincerely held religious beliefs.

In 1994 I wouldn’t have seen this as a conflict: I had no compunctions about hurting the feelings of whatever religious believers happened to be in our audience at the Battle of the Bands. Not coincidentally, I was aware that those believers had neither the will nor the means to retaliate against me.

I didn’t see myself as bullying those mild-mannered Christians. As I saw it, they were the bullies, the ones with all the cultural power, which they used to suppress ideas and books and music they didn’t like (all of which were somehow still readily available to me) and to force people to accept their belief system (which my friends and I could mock with no consequences whatsoever).

Nowadays I’m mildly embarrassed by our performance. Not by “Pee on Jesus”, which was harmless idiocy, but by the self-absorption that inspired us to inflict it on an auditorium full of unsuspecting strangers. But what the hell. We were only dopey kids.

In my supposedly mature middle age, I tend to look on religious believers sympathetically. Why should I care if they abstain from pleasures I regard as harmless? Why should I be offended by their attempts to warn me away from what they regard as acts of severe self-harm? However, I’m aware that my adult broadmindedness is as cost-free as my teenage pugnacity; believers lately have been too focussed on preserving their shrinking privileges to worry much about the private activities of the godless.

Wokeness is a different thing. The Woke in 2020 are becoming as powerful, and as intolerant of slights, as I imagined Christians in 1994 to be.

If my friends and I were snotty teenagers again, in the current year, would we have the stones to get up on stage and blow a raspberry at the holy martyrs of Black Lives Matter? Knowing that it would probably lead to outrage, expulsion, and enduring Google infamy?

Of course not. At most we’d indulge in private expressions of irreverence.

But that’s fine, right? As long as we kept our voices down, and chose our friends carefully, and took care to destroy all physical and electronic evidence of our conversations, we’d still have complete freedom to whisper our blasphemies in private. So what, really, am I complaining about?

M.

1. Double-checking my links before posting this, I discovered that the GoFundMe page for the young woman who first publicized SL’s “police brutality” video has been updated (or maybe I missed this comment when I first looked at it) to indicate that SL and JL’s family lawyers had:

sent me a document stating that if I do not make a public apology with their specific script they will sue me 200,000 each … I stand behind what I said and I will not be apologizing.

So perhaps a lawsuit will be launched and we’ll see more coverage of this controversy. I’ll try and remember to keep an eye out for it.

 

Rye and weeds: Solzhenitsyn and Jordan Peterson.

One afternoon not long ago, as I walked through a quiet residential neighbourhood near my home, I heard a vehicle coming up the hill behind me. It was a pickup truck which, just as I arrived at an uncontrolled intersection, made a left turn across my path.

Seeing that the pickup had plenty of room to pass in front of me, I stepped off the curb without breaking stride. Instead of continuing his turn, the driver stamped on the brakes, coming to a stop in the middle of the intersection. Maybe he hadn’t noticed me until then, or maybe he misjudged my walking speed.

No harm done. It happens to every driver – you start a maneuver, second-guess yourself, hit the brakes, and wind up in a more awkward position than if you’d just carried through. Continuing past the front of his truck, I glanced at the man behind the wheel, prepared to exchange a good-humoured shrug. He was a young blue-collar guy with a short-trimmed beard, one elbow propped in his open window.

“You ever hear of lookin’ both ways before crossing the street?” he said.

This was very vexing, as I not only had the right of way but had seen him clearly. “Nope, that’s a new one on me,” I muttered, keeping my face blank.

“It’s called situational awareness. Look into it,” he yelled, as I reached the opposite curb. I ignored him and kept walking.

A trivial encounter. What amazed me was how agitated I became immediately afterward. I gulped for air, my heart beat faster, my throat seized up. Regretting the clumsiness of my retort, I realized to my shame that even if I’d been able to think of some withering comment to put the pickup driver in his place, I would’ve been too tongue-tied to articulate it.

I lead a very stress-free life. I’m rarely forced to interact with people who challenge me. When I am confronted with an unexpected rebuke – even a trivial one, like this – I find it emotionally overwhelming.

By ducking confrontation I’ve saved myself some pain over the years. But it appears that I’ve lost the protective crust that should allow me to shrug off the gibes of random strangers.

Shuffling home I found myself sympathizing with the coddled college students of right-wing lore who, when confronted with an opinion that challenges their progressive beliefs, can do nothing but curl up in their safe spaces and weep.

***

I have a friend who, measured against the extremely woke crowd she pals around with, is something of a dangerous free-thinker. When she gets tired of watching her friends polish their halos she’ll come to me to vent; and when she’s had a snootful of my melancholy detachment she goes back to her friends and, I suppose, vents about me.

Although broad-minded by 2019 standards, my friend is still pretty credulous about the narratives she imbibes via social media. For instance, on several occasions she’s brought up Jordan Peterson as an exemplar of right-wing demagoguery. In her mind, Peterson is a hate preacher who endangers the mental health of trans people by rejecting the government’s authority to legislate which pronouns we use when discussing them.

When my friend brings up stuff like this, I purse my lips in an ambiguous way, and say nothing.

I don’t know much about Peterson. I’ve read a handful of reviews and an excerpt from his book, and I’ve seen his ideas discussed in various forums, most recently in Rod Dreher’s blog. Based on this limited information, I suspect I sympathize broadly with Peterson’s views, but I’m not interested enough to buy his book or download his podcasts.

Suppose I attempted to convince my friend that Peterson is not the dangerous avatar of unreason that she seems to think he is. As I see it this argument could have two possible outcomes:

I could fail to convince her, sparking a quarrel to no useful purpose; or,

I could succeed, making my life slightly easier (I would no longer have to bite my tongue when she slandered Peterson) but making her life slightly harder (she would now have to bite her tongue whenever her progressive friends slandered Peterson).

Since my friend is at least as sharp-witted as I am, I don’t have much confidence that I would win the argument anyway; and since I place more importance on our friendship than I do on making sure she holds what I deem to be the correct opinions, I’ve opted to evade the issue.

That’s what I tell myself. But you may conclude, having just read about my encounter with the rude pickup driver, that the above rationalizations are pure eyewash, and that the real reason I keep mum whenever my friend brings up Peterson is that I’m scared of conflict.

In any case, I’m probably not doing my friend any favours. If she ever runs into someone who takes issue with one of her snide comments about Peterson, or some other belief she holds because it is accepted unquestioningly among her progressive crowd, she’ll be unequipped to defend herself.

***

I know from Slate Star Codex‘s review of his book that Jordan Peterson, like me, is prone to quoting from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A big part of Peterson’s schtick is the importance of recognizing our own capacity for error; without checking, I can assert confidently that somewhere in Twelve Rules For Life is the famous line from The Gulag Archipelago about how the line separating good and evil passes through every human heart. Peterson emphasizes the need to earn wisdom through adversity; Solzhenitsyn, realizing that his capacity for good had been awakened by the hardships of his time in the Gulag, said, “Bless you, prison!”

alexander solzhenitsyn the first circle

Solzhenitsyn’s semi-autobiographical 1968 novel The First Circle is set in the waning years of Stalin’s USSR, in a “special” prison where political prisoners with technical skills work on projects useful to state security – devising a scrambler for Stalin’s personal phone, for instance, or analyzing voice prints to identify a suspect from a wiretapped phone call.

By the brutal standards of the Gulag these prisoners are in clover. Instead of starving and swinging pickaxes in the far north, they pass their days indoors tinkering with vacuum tubes, and for supper it’s all the black bread they can eat. The book’s title derives from the not-so-bad First Circle of Hell, where Dante placed the pagan philosophers whose only sin was being ignorant of Christianity.

The First Circle doesn’t have a whole lot of plot; it’s mostly a series of interconnected vignettes set over a week or so in the prison and in nearby Moscow. The nearest thing to a central character is Gleb Nerzhin, whose philosophy and experiences roughly mirror those of the author, who was in just such a special prison after World War II, before doing harder time in a Kazakhstani mining camp.

Early in the book, Gleb chats with his young friend Ruska, who has absorbed the older prisoner’s cynical attitude. Gleb regrets the death of his friend’s idealism:

“This kind of scepticism, agnosticism, pessimism – whatever you call it – it all sounds very clever and ruthless, but you must understand that by its very nature it dooms us to futility. It’s not a guide to action, and people can’t just stand off, so they must have a set of positive beliefs to show them the way.”

“Even if they land in a swamp? Anything just to keep going, you mean?” Ruska asked angrily.

“Well, yes…damn it all!” said Gleb, a little unsure of himself. “Look, I think scepticism is very important – it’s a way of getting at people with one-track minds. But it can never give a man the feeling that he’s got firm ground under his feet. And perhaps it’s what we need – firm ground under our feet.”

In a recent essay about George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan I wondered,

If it’s true (as I’m far from the first to observe) that Social Justice is essentially a religious movement, with its own saints, sacred objects, and acts of devotion – and if that creed is in the process of supplanting or has already supplanted Christianity as the dominant creed in the West – then is it disrespectful and petty for a non-believer like me to publicly violate its taboos, in the same way it would be disrespectful and petty of me to disrupt a church service, profane a temple, or masturbate with an icon?

Likewise, if I run into someone who enjoys “firm ground under his feet” thanks to his simple and annoying faith in the words of Jesus Christ, or Karl Marx, or Jordan Peterson, should I hold my tongue lest I accidentally lure him, by my cynicism, into the mire of uncertainty and self-doubt?

If I were a happy person I might say, “Pick away at your convictions one by one, until you’re left with nothing solid but an awareness of your own ignorance – and you’ll be happy like me!”

But I’m pretty miserable. I suspect my misery is unrelated to what I believe – that I was simply wired for anhedonia – but nevertheless I can’t with any credibility recommend myself as a positive example to anyone.

So perhaps I ought instead to tell the believers, “Try not to think too deeply about your convictions, in case they fall apart under close examination, leaving you with nothing but your unbearable self.”

But even that might draw the believers’ attention to the possibility that their convictions are shakier than they suspect. Maybe it would be best to keep my mouth shut altogether.

***

In Twelve Rules For Living (which, to repeat, I haven’t read) Peterson identifies one incontestable, unbanishable fact, “the reality of suffering”, from which he derives his whole moral code:

Each human being has an immense capacity for evil. Each human being understands, a priori, perhaps not what is good, but certainly what is not. And if there is something that is not good, then there is something that is good. If the worst sin is the torment of others, merely for the sake of the suffering produced – then the good is whatever is diametrically opposite to that. The good is whatever stops such things from happening. . . . Make that an axiom: to the best of my ability I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering.

The “reality of suffering” – I guess that’s something solid to build on. But it doesn’t take long, piling your philosophy up brick by brick, before you find the structure sprawling onto unstable ground. The various functionaries of the Canadian justice and higher education systems against whom Peterson has waged rhetorical battle are convinced that by shutting down dissidents like him, they can protect trans people from unnecessary pain and suffering.

Solzhenitsyn’s stand-in Nerzhin struggles with such uncertainties. Later in The First Circle he befriends a fellow prisoner, a simple peasant named Spiridon, and listens in awe to his life story, an astounding sequence of misjudgements and reversals guided by no coherent principles besides his untutored sense of right and wrong. Nerzhin wonders whether Spiridon’s seemingly random choices belie “some universal system of philosophical scepticism”. He enquires gently:

“All these years you’ve been thrashing around trying to work things out, haven’t you? What I mean is, what’s your…” – he almost said “criterion” – “what’s your judgment of life in general? For instance, do you think there are people who do wicked things on purpose? Is there anybody who says to himself: ‘I’ll show everybody what for’? Do you think that’s likely? Perhaps everybody wants to do good – or they think they want to do good, but since none of us are blameless and we all make mistakes – and some of us are just crazy, anyway – we do all these bad things to each other. We tell ourselves we are doing good, but in fact it all comes out the other way. It’s all a bit like that saying of yours – you sow rye and weeds come up.”

Spiridon was looking hard at him, as though suspecting a trap. Nerzhin felt he was not expressing himself very well, but he went on:

“Now, suppose I think you’re making a mistake and I want to put you right, and I tell you what I think, but you don’t listen and even tell me to shut up? What should I do? Hit you over the head with a stick? That wouldn’t be so bad if I really were right, but suppose I only think I’m right? After all, things are always changing, aren’t they? What I mean is: if you can’t always be sure that you’re right, should you stick your nose into other people’s business? Is there any way for a man to know who is right and who is wrong?”

Later we will meet the prison’s Security Officer, Major Shikin, who demonstrates Nerzhin’s point about putting people right by hitting them with a stick:

If Shikin had been told – though he never was – that he was an object of hatred because he maltreated people, he would have been genuinely indignant. He had never found pleasure in any form of cruelty or thought that it was an end in itself. It was true that there were such people: he had seen them on the stage and in films. But they were sadists who loved to torture people, and had lost all human feeling. In any case they were always White Guardists or Fascists. Apart from doing his duty, Shikin was concerned only to prevent people committing wrongful acts or thinking harmful thoughts.

The canny old peasant Spiridon is untroubled by the paradox of well-meaning torturers like Major Shikin. To Nerzhin he cryptically sums up his philosophy:

“I can tell you,” Spiridon said, brightening up, and as readily as if he had been asked which of the warders had come on duty that morning. “I can tell you: wolf-hounds are right and cannibals are wrong.”

“What’s that again?” Nerzhin said, taken aback by the simplicity and force of Spiridon’s judgment.

“What I said was,” Spiridon repeated with stark conviction, turning his head towards Nerzhin and breathing hotly into his face from under his moustache: “the wolf-hounds are right and the cannibals wrong.” [1]

M.

1. The chapter ends on Spiridon’s words. My edition of The First Circle is haphazardly footnoted, and there’s nothing to explain whether the wolf-hounds and cannibals are common symbols in Russian culture, or whether Nerzhin is as bemused as we are by this nugget of homespun wisdom.

Update, July 29, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

We may prate of toleration: Saint Joan and the Inquisition.

I’m pretty wishy-washy. I’ve changed my mind often enough that I no longer delude myself about the permanency of my opinions. Much of what I now believe I might well have second thoughts about tomorrow, or next year, or on my deathbed.

The one opinion I would regard as impregnable – the one that, for all my wishy-washiness, I doubt I’ll ever renounce – is that society and the law ought to permit the widest possible scope for freedom of thought. That the Overton Window ought to be thrown open to its maximal extent, and that those visionaries and lunatics who insist on considering possibilities beyond its frame ought to be left free to preach their aberrant ideas. That however troubling or even dangerous those ideas may be, the petty tyrants who stir up mobs to persecute deviant thinkers are much more to be despised.

I have at least the normal human complement of cowardice and muddleheadedness, but I do try and apply these principles consistently. To take a couple recent examples from the archives of Spectator columnist Dominic Green, I agree with him that the British far-right ex-thug Tommy Robinson ought to be free to speak to any audience willing to listen, but disagree that a Boston College “queer theorist” ought to be smeared as a pedophile based on his turgid ruminations on Henry James and “the erotic child”. [1]

I don’t dispute that Robinson’s and the professor’s ideas are potentially harmful. In my view the benefit of being free to consider those ideas – all ideas – outweighs the real risk of harm. I would believe this even if I hadn’t noticed that the people we appoint to police our dangerous ideas eventually and unfailingly end up policing our songs, jokes, and poems.

However: in the spirit of wishy-washiness, which is also the spirit of engaging with uncomfortable ideas, let me consider the possibility that my one impregnable opinion is dangerous, and ought to be suppressed.

***

One of the problems I’ve been grappling with over the last few years, during the rise of what I’ll non-judgementally call Social Justice ideology, is at what point a person of conservative temperament is obliged to defer to the incoming set of taboos.

(When I speak of a “conservative temperament” I’m referring not to a set of political opinions, but to an outlook we might call Burkean, or Chestertonian: an attitude of modest deference to long-established traditions, on the grounds that, however silly they might appear, they must have some social utility in order to have been adopted in the first place, and passed down through the generations.)

If it’s true (as I’m far from the first to observe) that Social Justice is essentially a religious movement, with its own saints, sacred objects, and acts of devotion – and if that creed is in the process of supplanting or has already supplanted Christianity as the dominant creed in the West – then is it disrespectful and petty for a non-believer like me to publicly violate its taboos, in the same way it would be disrespectful and petty of me to disrupt a church service, profane a temple, or masturbate with an icon?

This is quite apart from the question of whether it’s physically safe for me to violate those taboos: I would obviously prefer, in accordance with my belief in maximal toleration, that believers of whatever faith deal gently with taboo-breakers, non-violently ejecting them from the holy precincts but otherwise ignoring their provocations. But I’m not concerned here about the responsibilities of believers: I’m about as likely to embrace Social Justice as I am to convert to Hinduism. The question I’m asking is, how much deference do I, as a resident non-believer, owe to the majority religious community? – particularly when it’s not clear whether that community is in the majority, or whether it’s a religion at all?

***

It was with the above questions in mind that I found myself reading George Bernard Shaw’s 1924 play Saint Joan, which depicts the brief military career, trial for heresy, and posthumous rehabilitation of Joan of Arc.

george bernard shaw saint joan

As Shaw explains in the Preface, the play was written to correct the audience-flattering mythologies that had gained currency in the intervening centuries – namely, that Joan had been done in by a conspiracy of villainous and superstitious buffoons of the type that we, in our sophistication, would see through today. In Shaw’s view, the Inquisition was no more inhumane in stamping out Medieval blasphemies than an English court would be in stamping out their 20th Century equivalents. Shaw shows the prosecutors extending every opportunity for Joan to save herself by denying that the voices which had guided her were divinely inspired; which she finally does, to their relief. But when she discovers that this petty lie won’t gain her her freedom, merely save her from the bonfire, she recants her recantation, and chooses martyrdom.

As Shaw tells it, Joan was tried fairly, and found guilty “strictly according to law”. Her prosecutors, however we might scoff at their certainty that the Catholic church was alone capable of interpreting God’s will on earth, were correct enough in their estimation of where heresies such as Joan’s might lead: first to Protestantism – the dissolution of Western Christendom into a jumble of warring sects – and then to Nationalism – the collapse of the feudal political order – and the diminution of religion to a minor handmaiden of the state.

Before Joan’s trial begins, the Inquisitor gives a lengthy speech – two and a half pages of solid text, in my Penguin edition – imploring the members of the court to “cast out” both anger and pity, while bearing in mind the unseen consequences of their verdict:

God forbid that I should tell you to harden your hearts; for her punishment if we condemn her will be so cruel that we should forfeit our own hope of divine mercy were there one grain of malice against her in our hearts. But if you hate cruelty – and if any man here does not hate it I command him on his soul’s salvation to quit this holy court – I say, if you hate cruelty, remember that nothing is so cruel in its consequences as the toleration of heresy.

Nothing is so cruel in its consequences as the toleration of heresy: a sentiment that any modern Inquisitor, of whatever ideological stripe, could get behind. If a demagogue like Tommy Robinson is permitted to say mean things about Islam, it will lead to discrimination and violence against Muslims. If a professor is left free to muse about the ethics of sex with minors, it will lead to the sexual abuse of real-life children.

Of course, dire real-world outcomes can be imagined for any controversial opinion. A famous playwright helps sway a generation of idealistic intellectuals into sympathy with Stalinism and millions of unlucky Third Worlders wind up living under Communist regimes. A group of disaffected ex-leftists cobble a new political philosophy out of their reading of an esoteric classics professor and tens of thousands wind up dying in futile Middle Eastern wars. A minor YouTube celebrity, to annoy his girlfriend, uploads a video of her pet pug dog giving the Hitler salute and – well, who knows what genocidal consequences might follow?

Shaw writes in the Preface to Saint Joan:

We may prate of toleration as we will; but society must always draw a line somewhere between allowable conduct and insanity or crime, in spite of the risk of mistaking sages for lunatics and saviors for blasphemers. We must persecute, even to the death; and all we can do to mitigate the danger of persecution is, first, to be very careful what we persecute, and second, to bear in mind that unless there is a large liberty to shock conventional people, and a well informed sense of the value of originality, individuality, and eccentricity, the result will be apparent stagnation covering a repression of evolutionary forces which will eventually explode with extravagant and probably destructive violence.

This is the pragmatic argument for toleration: it’s not that we should leave people free to speak their own minds because it’s the right thing to do, but because if we clamp down too tight, the reaction may lead to anarchy and societal collapse.

But it’s no easy thing, calibrating the level of toleration; and reckless thinkers like me, smuggling our arguments for unfettered speech under the cover of “temperamental conservatism”, should be properly wary that we might, by sanctioning the miscalibration of the social machinery, accidentally bring about the end of civilization.

M.

1. The essay characterized as pedophilic by Dominic Green was subsequently extended by its author to book length: I attempted to read the section on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw but found it impenetrable.

Surprisingly, it seems I haven’t mentioned G.B. Shaw on this blog before. An anecdote I shared in 2010 about the farcical fact-finding mission of a “great Humanist” author to a Soviet work camp in the Arctic could have involved Shaw, who was similarly duped on his visit to the USSR; but that anecdote actually concerned Maxim Gorky. In my discussion last year of John Updike’s The Coup I lamented that “the skill of entertaining opposite possibilities” was increasingly neglected, and a couple months back I took issue with William Hazlitt’s attack on wishy-washy writers.

Update, July 29, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

Shame wizards.

In the second season of Netflix’s kid-centric, definitely-not-for-kids cartoon Big Mouth, the pubertal protagonists are haunted by a Professor Snape-like spectre called the Shame Wizard, who slides out of the shadows to remind them what revolting little sex-obsessed freaks they are.

Eventually the kids come together to share their feelings, admit their imperfections, and drive away the Shame Wizard – a victory they celebrate with an ecstatic spree of public masturbation, homosexual experimentation, pants-free hoverboarding, and so on.

Now, in Big Mouth’s progressive worldview, sexual hangups are ludicrous and outdated, and for the main characters, emancipation from shame leads to nothing more harmful than a little exhibitionism. But we’ve seen the Shame Wizard lambasting the children not only for mouldy old sins like horniness and homosexuality, but for evergreen ones like hypocrisy, dishonesty, and gossip-mongering; and in the wake of his departure we get glimpses of the supporting cast exploring their freedom in darker ways – setting the school gymnasium ablaze, starting up a fight club, enacting a scene from Lord of the Flies.

In a subsequent episode, this more nuanced take on shame is affirmed when obsessive masturbator Andrew runs across the Shame Wizard in the halls of the Department of Puberty. This time he stands up to his tormentor:

Andrew: Yeah, I get it. I jerk off quite a lot. But why do you have to be such an asshole?

Wizard: Ah…perhaps I’m too harsh sometimes. But I only want you to be a better person.

Andrew: You do?

Wizard: Of course! I don’t want you to grow up to be one of those men who waits six months for a customized sex doll.

Big Mouth speaks in the inherited vocabulary of sexual liberation, in which shame is a musty old prude scolding us for touching our privates; a destructive inner voice that must be silenced in order to release our truer, better selves. But the show’s creators seem to realize that, while we can afford to tune out that voice now and then, we need to hear it when our self-indulgence threatens to lead us into folly: when we find ourselves eating the whole bag of Oreos, or putting off our work to binge-watch Netflix cartoons, or thinking about placing an order for a customized sex doll.

However, it’s probably time to update the mental image that goes with that pestering little voice. The modern Shame Wizard won’t look like Professor Snape, but like purple-haired cool chick Nymphadora Tonks:

nymphadora tonks

Nymphadora Tonks, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

She swears, she has tattoos, she doesn’t give a f**k what you do with your genitals (so long as all parties are consenting); but she’s as vigilant as ever, because if she lets up for a minute, the kids might break out in behaviour the creators of Big Mouth wouldn’t hesitate to characterize as shameful: victim-blaming, whitesplaining, deadnaming, voting Republican…

***

As a lonely occupant of the zone of intersection on the Venn diagram “Watches Big Mouth / Follows American Conservative blogger Rod Dreher”, I’m probably the only who thought of the Shame Wizard while reading this review of Dreher’s book The Benedict Option.

In a characteristically way-too-freakingly long chapter-by-chapter analysis, the neoreactionary blogger known as Handle takes on Dreher’s argument that if traditional Christians want to preserve their lifestyle in the coming secular age, they must, like Saint Benedict, find new ways to set themselves apart from mainstream culture. While Dreher is usually attacked as a gloom-monger, Handle thinks he’s far too upbeat about Christianity’s prospects for survival.

The Benedict Option was inspired in part by Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, whose premise Handle questions:

Ask whether it makes sense that virtue is being undermined to critically low levels at the same time that “virtue signaling” is exploding in frequency of usage. … One can’t signal arbitrary, individualized virtues.

Dreher has been taken in, he argues, by all that obsolete sixties jive about finding your own path and letting your freak flag fly. From a Christian viewpoint it may seem like the rules are dissolving into a free-flowing state of (one of Dreher’s catchphrases) liquid modernity. Whereas in fact:

[Christianity is not] being eroded by a neutral, empty, nothing of relativism with … individualist secularism as the end point. Instead, it is simply being replaced by a new ideology … with its own mythologies, orthodoxies, and an endless efflorescence of sacred norms, rules, and regulated status relations.

According to Handle, that old conservative bogeyman moral relativism had its heyday

during what we can now appreciate to have been merely an intermediate phase of our political evolution. It characterized an early stage of the diffusion of a minority elite ideology into the cultural mainstream, until that ideology established sufficient levels of adoption and dominance to encourage its proponents to switch gears.

Or as I put it (somewhat more concisely) in a book review a while back:

Some of us are old enough to remember when the Left represented resistance to mob freakouts over sacrilege and indecency; we imagined this was a question of principle, not opportunism. Now it’s obvious that my young adulthood happened to coincide with a period of uncertainty between the collapse of one set of taboos, and the rise of another.

I’m beginning to realize how lucky I was to grow up in that period of uncertainty between the old order and the new. With the two sides evenly balanced, the lines stable, the true believers dug into their respective trenches, life away from the front could proceed largely undisturbed. In fact there was a lively trade in the intellectual surplus of both sides: the classics of the beleaguered Christian civilization, whose beauty was still universally recognized, as well as the products of the encroaching army, crass and potty-mouthed but with a certain tacky vitality. But now the lines have been breached, Christians are in full flight, progressive armies are blitzing across the countryside, and anyone who doesn’t show the proper flag risks being shot on sight.

No doubt progressives who arrived here expecting a discussion of the show Big Mouth will reject the above take on current events. They’ll say either (or sometimes both) that Dreher is cherry-picking isolated incidents of Social Justice craziness to exaggerate the threat to traditional Christianity, or that traditional Christianity is the real threat and needs to be crushed by doubling down on Social Justice.

I’d remind them that the right-wing positions they find most enraging – that illegal immigrants are lawbreakers, that marriage should be between a man and a woman, that freedom of speech means defending speakers you don’t agree with – were only declared out of bounds a couple years back, and weren’t even considered especially right-wing while I was growing up. Progressives have overrun a vast amount of territory in a short period of time, and if they feel vulnerable right now it’s only because the 2016 Trump breakthrough made them realize their forces are spread pretty thin. I think Dreher’s right, though: the traditionalists’ occasional victories on the political front are irrelevant when the cultural rout is ongoing.

The war will be wrapped up in time, and there’s no reason to think we won’t adapt to the victors’ “sacred norms, rules, and regulated status relations” just as non-believers adapted to the previous ones. Those who mouth the new pieties will be tolerated; those who don’t will be scorned as unrefined buffoons, or shamed out of their careers, or who knows, maybe tossed in jail. Most art will go on being terrible, but some artists will find ways to create beauty despite the restrictions imposed by the guardians of morality: whether you or I, if we lived long enough, would find their creations beautiful or even comprehensible, is harder to say.

Now, there’s a real chance that the new order will prove to be inferior to the old older it’s replacing: but lacking the convictions of either group of believers, I don’t really know what I mean by “inferior”. Will people be happy under progressive rule? Will their lives be enjoyably peaceful, or stimulatingly chaotic? Will they be fruitful and multiply? Will their offspring go forth and colonize the uncivilized parts of the world?

So you can see why I’m sitting out the fight. I don’t want the traditionalists to win, anyway, I just want them to take back enough ground to re-establish the uneasy stalemate that characterized my earlier years. I doubt that’s in the cards.

Despite the paranoid fantasies of some progressives, Christians will never again have cultural supremacy in the west – which, again, is fine with me – but personally, I hope Dreher and his followers manage to carve out a few retreats where they can keep on doing their own weird thing.

M.

On the other hand, a dozen years ago I worried that religious conservatives’ high birthrates would lead to their demographically overwhelming secular civilization. Six years later I began to wonder what would happen if the West’s low birthrates spread to the rest of the world. By 2016 it had dawned on me that I’d been ignoring a growing habit of insularity and obliviousness within my own urban, irreligious tribe.

Muddle and melancholy.

I told a friend recently that I was running out of things to write about. I have only a handful of non-trite ideas, I said, they’re not that hard to explain, and it’s a struggle to come up with new ways to express them.

One of the ideas I keep returning to is representativeness. Not in its narrow modern sense of balancing ethnic grievances, but as a vast and under-explored domain of epistemic muddle.

We base our opinions about the world partly on direct observation, but mostly on the news we receive – through conversation and gossip, through the media, and lately through social media, though these three sources are increasingly blending together. But the news that gets passed on is, by definition, newsworthy – which is practically synonymous with out-of-the-ordinary.

99.95% of Americans Went About Their Day Untroubled By Violence Or Controversy

…is not news. This is:

Illegal Immigrant Uber Driver Rapes Passenger, Skips Bail, Flees Country

So is this:

Black Guys Get Arrested For Loitering At Starbucks

Why do people get worked up about incidents of violence or injustice or gross idiocy? Because they believe those incidents to be representative, to have some meaning beyond “stuff happens”. If the Starbucks story had been written up as This One Philadelphia Coffee Shop Manager Is Weirdly Anal About Sharing The Bathroom Code, it would have gone nowhere. The story took off because people believe it’s about something more than one coffee shop and one manager.

It’s impossible to tell, based on a sampling of media accounts, necessarily skewed toward sensation and controversy, how representative a news event really is. Especially when what excites people isn’t the event itself, but how it suggests a whole category of events, which might or might not themselves attain the threshold of newsworthiness. “So what, I saw a white lady get arrested for loitering just last week” isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about the Starbucks story. If one could examine the records of everyone ever arrested for loitering in a Philadelphia Starbucks, or in any Starbucks, or in any public space, and prove that blacks had been treated fairly, it still wouldn’t change anyone’s mind – because the story isn’t solely about Philadelphia or Starbucks or loitering or even black people.

Nor will arguing that immigrants have lower crime rates than native-born Americans change anyone’s mind about the Uber rapist story: the outrage isn’t about law-abiding immigrants, but illegal immigrant criminals, or liberal judges’ coddling of illegal immigrant criminals, or the mainstream media’s suppression of stories about liberal judges’ coddling…and so on.

There are 325 million people in the United States; another 140 million or so in the wider Anglomediasphere. Every week, tens of thousands of them experience some kind of injustice. If all the injustices committed last week were ranked from most to least egregious, would either of these instances be in the top 1000? The top 10? I have no idea.

Suppose the Starbucks story turned out to be the number one injustice of the week. That would make it more newsworthy…but less representative.

***

Okay, maybe instead of freaking out over whatever tumbles down the media’s outrage-powered conveyor belt, we should conserve our outrage for statistically significant problems. But statistics can be gamed, deliberately or unconsciously, and few of us have the inclination, let alone the mathematical chops, to scrutinize the underlying data. No surprise, then, that shoddy but headline-grabbing statistics proliferate – more widely, I’m tempted to say, than sound ones, although once again, maybe I’ve been misled by an unrepresentative handful of outrageously bad studies.

Most areas of social science defy statistical analysis anyway, being based on fuzzy concepts like privilege or equality, or on legal terms whose definitions keep mutating, like obscenity or sexual assault. Rarely do the terms stay constant; rarely is there consistent collection of data across jurisdictions or time periods; rarely is it possible to count actual occurrences rather than just reports of those occurrences. Usually researchers are in much the same position as news consumers – building rickety edifices of speculation on a foundation of incomplete data. The more intellectually honest researchers acknowledge this, humbly unveil their squat little constructs timbered with ifs, maybes, and neverthelesses, and watch as the mob streams past to gawk at flashy towers of popsicle sticks and cellophane. Or so it appears, from the vantage point of my own shaky stepladder.

It was this Slate Star Codex post, in which Scott Alexander dissects the results of his recent reader survey on sexual harassment in different professions, that got me thinking along these lines again. (He alludes to immigrant crime rates in an aside.) Scott wonders whether the STEM fields report less harassment than others not because there’s less of it going on but because the kind of people who pursue STEM careers define harassment more narrowly than, say, people who go into the media. (He characterizes this as, basically, “STEM nerds are too oblivious to know when they’re being harassed” but it could equally be phrased as “media snowflakes think every awkward interaction constitutes harassment”.) But Scott recognizes that his blog’s relatively small female readership may be selected in ways that distort the survey results.

As I see it, while there are a handful of smart folks out there, like Scott Alexander, trying to build up little neighbourhoods of reason and goodwill, they’re isolated in a megalopolis of muddle that sprawls from horizon to horizon and becomes more rundown and anarchic every day. But do I see the cityscape accurately, or have I blundered into a cul-de-sac that I’m mistaking for the whole? And if the residents assure me that they’re very happy here – who am I to contradict them?

It’s a line of thought that leads to fatalism and inertia.

***

I recently marked this passage in a 1940 essay by E.M. Forster called “Does Culture Matter?” [1] Forster wonders whether the practical, forward-looking generation then coming into power with the decline of the old English aristocracy will have any use for the kind of culture he was raised to deem valuable. He thinks of his upstairs neighbour, who “judging by the noises through the floor … doesn’t want books, pictures, tunes, runes, anyhow doesn’t want the sorts which we recommend. Ought we to bother him?” And if we do, is there any likelihood the neighbour will be grateful?

It is tempting to do nothing. Don’t recommend culture. Assume that the future will have none, or will work out some form of it which we cannot expect to understand. … Out of date myself, I like out of date things, and am willing to pass out of focus in that company, inheritor of a mode of life which is wanted no more. Do you agree? Without bitterness, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings, ourselves the last of their hangers-on. Drink the wine – no-one wants it, though it came from the vineyards of Greece, the gardens of Persia. Break the glass – no-one admires it, no-one cares any more about quality or form. Without bitterness and without conceit take your leave. Time happens to have tripped you up, and this is a matter neither for shame nor for pride. [2]

Forster eventually decides against lying down and letting the barbarians take over – but I’m not convinced that he’s convinced by his rallying conclusion. [3]

As I peer around at the shanties thick on every hillside, unable to see a way through the maze, unsure whether my own actions are adding to the confusion, like Forster I’m tempted to plop down in the shade with a glass of wine and let the future take care of itself. I’m descended from that vulgar upstairs neighbour, after all – provincial, uncultured, borderline illiterate, at least by Forster’s standards – and yet I’ve had a pretty comfortable time of it. It’s reasonable to suppose that the next generation will manage to extract about as much pleasure out of their debased pastimes as I have from mine. While I feel increasingly out-of-place in their world, a few sheltering nooks of the older world should survive as long as I do.

Of course, there’s a self-protective motive for staying engaged. The consequence of ceding the streets to the barbarians is that our nooks will be overrun all the faster, so that the youngest of the old fogeys may find themselves with no place to shelter. Likewise, if muddle-headed melancholics like me try to duck out of the ideological fray, there’s no guarantee that the true believers won’t trample us as they lunge for each other’s throats.

And yet…even as I type these words, I worry that my reflections, well-intended though they may be, will dishearten and enervate the few readers they manage to reach. Am I sapping our civilization’s fragile spirit? If I can’t stand up forthrightly for truth, any truth, mightn’t the responsible thing be to lie down and (metaphorically) die?

M.

1. Of course, it’s reading Forster that has made me think of “muddle”, one of his favourite words.

2. “Does Culture Matter?” is in the 1951 collection Two Cheers For Democracy.

3. “[T]he higher pleasures,” Forster argues, “are not really wines or glasses at all. They rather resemble religion, and it is impossible to enjoy them without trying to hand them on. … What is needed in the cultural Gospel is to let one’s light so shine that men’s curiosity is aroused, and they ask why Sophocles, Velasquez, Henry James, should cause such disproportionate pleasure.” And if our evangelism for these dry old names should fail, as seems likely, to ignite the upstairs neighbour’s curiosity? Forster changes the subject.

Updike’s The Coup: Opposite possibilities.

john updike the coup

An African official, in the act of organizing the non-violent coup which culminates John Updike’s The Coup, slyly invites the complicity of some visiting Americans:

“The channels of the mind, it may be, like those of our nostrils, have small hairs – cilia, is that the word? If we think always one way, these lie down and grow stiff and cease to perform their cleansing function. The essence of sanity, it has often been my reflection, is the entertainment of opposite possibilities: to think the contrary of what has been customarily thought, and thus to raise these little – cilia, am I wrong? – on end, so they can perform again in unimpeachable fashion their cleansing function. You want examples. If we believe that Allah is almighty, let us suppose that Allah is non-existent. If we have been assured that America is a nasty place, let us consider that it is a happy place.”

The official is advertising to the Americans his ideological flexibility, in contrast to his country’s dictator, the prophet of a macaronic anti-Western creed called “Islamic Marxism”. Putting aside the speaker’s cynical intentions, is there something to be said for entertaining challenging thoughts to activate the cilia in the “channels of the mind”?

It’s not a fashionable idea at present; witness (to pluck three examples from as many weeks of escalating Social Justice puritanism) the firing of Kevin Williamson by The Atlantic for carrying his anti-abortion beliefs to their logical conclusion, or the conviction of a Scottish YouTuber over a gag about his girlfriend’s Nazi pug dog, or the preposterously overheated responses to Jordan Peterson’s mild conservative nostrums.

Some of us are old enough to remember when the Left represented resistance to mob freakouts over sacrilege and indecency; we imagined this was a question of principle, not opportunism. Now it’s obvious that my young adulthood happened to coincide with a period of uncertainty between the collapse of one set of taboos, and the rise of another. For a half century or so, the skill of entertaining opposite possibilities was valued, idealized. Those of us who grew up during that half century assumed that keeping our cilia well-lubricated and flexible was healthy in itself. But maybe rather than the cilia, the fontanelles of the infant skull are a better analogy: they’re soft and yielding during the time of transition – the passage from one state to another, from pre- to post-natality – and then protectively harden. If taboos are a natural condition in human societies, thick-skulled acquiescence may be the healthiest option.

The Coup is a cilia-stimulating exercise in opposite possibilities, asking us to sympathize with the despot who, among other atrocities, burns alive a well-meaning American diplomat on a pyre of food crates intended for famine relief. His overthrow is possible because he takes leave of the capital to tour his country’s remote north, where he discovers an oil refinery, complete with an American-style suburb to house the native workers, has sprung up without his knowledge. He incites the locals to rise up and smash “this evil visitation, this malodorous eruption” of Western greed that is despoiling their pristine desert; his wavering mob is seduced away by the management’s offer of a free beer apiece at the refinery’s canteen.

Deposed, ignored, the ex-dictator winds up working as a short-order cook in a luncheonette, slinging burgers for the refinery workers. “[I]mmersed…relaxed at last” in the homogenizing, bourgeois End of History he had struggled to resist, he discovers subtle virtues in his deracinated countrymen:

There was no longer, with plenty, the need to thrust one’s personality into the face of the person opposite. Eye-contact was hard to make … The little hard-cornered challenges – to honor, courage, manliness, womanliness – by which our lives had been in poverty shaped were melting away, like our clay shambas and mosques, rounded into an inner reserve secret as a bank account; intercourse in Ellelloû moved to a music of disavowals that new arrivals, prickly and hungry from the bush, mistook for weakness but that was in fact the luxurious demur of strength.

I think in 1978 Updike assumed the reflexive anti-Westernism of the newly decolonized Third World was a last gasp, fated to be swept under in the inundation of pop culture and fast food and cheap consumer goods. I used to think so too; now I’m not so sure. Forty years on, Muslim opposition to the soft, seductive, soulless West of their imagination is more widespread, more entrenched than Updike could have foreseen; while in the West itself, impatience with the unevenness of our prosperity gives rise to new fanaticisms.

It remains to be seen whether we inheritors of the bourgeois order will prove to have reserves of unexpected strength on which to call.

M.

Update, July 28, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

Anti-demons.

In my little suburb not long ago, some local leftists organized an “anti-fascist” demonstration. Or, as the flyers put it:

ANTI-FASCIST AND ANTI-RACIST
DEMONSTRATION

The flyers were decorated with a cartoon of a masked thug stomping on a giant swastika. The demonstration must have gone down without any actual Nazi-stomping, because I didn’t hear anything further about it. Later the posters disappeared, except for one near my apartment which had been affixed to a transformer box with some kind of glue. The city worker assigned to remove it had only managed to peel off a vertical strip, leaving:

ANTI-
DEMONS

***

In the wake of the white nationalist Richard Spencer getting punched in the face by a demonstrator on the day of President Trump’s inauguration, I noticed a bunch of articles in the popular press more or less openly celebrating physical attacks on Nazis. Here for instance is the AV Club describing a Nazi-punching video game as “constructively violent”, and here is Comics Alliance approvingly quoting the left-wing comics writer Warren Ellis on one’s moral obligation to punch not only Nazis but those who support Nazis’ right to go out in public without being punched. (If I’m understanding the purport of the comic excerpted at the bottom of the page, Comics Alliance endorses the tossing of Nazis off balconies, too.)

Many articles of this type were illustrated with the famous cover of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America #1, with Cap braving a hail of bullets to sock Hitler in the jaw – a tad more glorious than the reality of a thug in a mask sucker-punching an unprotected private citizen then darting off into the crowd. My own apparently quaint view is that physical assault is a crime for very good and very obvious reasons, and that people who commit that crime ought to be prosecuted, and their actions condemned, however outrageous the speech they claim to have provoked them. I guess this makes me a reactionary nowadays.

***

Toward the end of his recent, widely-shared review of the book Days of Rage, about left-wing anti-government terrorism in the 1970s, David Z. Hines speculates about whether the current glamorization of anti-fascist street brawlers might mark the start of a new cycle of leftist violence:

Lefties said Ted Cruz was a Nazi, Mitt Romney was a Nazi, George W. Bush was a Nazi. I’ve done human rights work that had me working in proximity to the U.S. military, so at a professional meeting a Lefty called me a Nazi.

So if you tell me that I’m a Nazi, and tell me people I respect are Nazis, and tell me you’re in favor of going out and beating up Nazis, guess what? I am suddenly very interested in the physical safety of Nazis.

That was posted (originally to Twitter) a week before Spencer was assaulted. About two weeks later came the outbreak of hooliganism at UC Berkeley over an appearance by the alt-right-orbiting provocateur Milo Yiannopolous. Another month passed between the Milo riot and the mobbing of Charles Murray at Middlebury College, Vermont, where a female faculty member who’d had the temerity to interact respectfully with the visiting speaker wound up in a neck brace. It took the anti-fascists less than a month and a half to expand the circle of Nazidom from the white identitarian fringe to a libertarian who’d endorsed Hillary Clinton in the last election – and to those unlucky enough to be in his vicinity.

Maybe the anti-fascists will stop there. Maybe they won’t. Maybe it’s time for the rest of us to start worrying about the physical safety of Nazis.

***

My repulsion over incidents like these has made me take a fresh look at a Nazi-punching scene in a favourite movie of mine. In William Wyler’s post-World War II homecoming drama The Best Years Of Our Lives we find Homer, the armless ex-Navy man, dropping by the workplace of his buddy Fred, a former Air Force captain reduced to pushing sundaes at a drugstore soda counter.

Another customer notices Homer’s prosthetics and extends his sympathy: “It’s terrible when you see a guy like you that had to sacrifice himself. And for what?” Homer, good natured but none too bright, doesn’t grasp what the stranger is driving at. “We let ourselves get sold down the river,” the guy elaborates. “We were pushed into war.”

The only people pushing for war, says Homer, were the Japs and Nazis. But the stranger tells him no, the Axis powers had no quarrel with America: “They just wanted to fight the limeys and the Reds. And they woulda whipped ’em, too, if we didn’t get deceived into it by a bunch of radicals in Washington. Just read the facts, my friend,” he says, thumping his newspaper for emphasis. “Find out for yourself why you had to lose your hands.”

Homer takes issue with this guy’s interpretation of the “facts”, leading to the fight. Now, in my recollection of the scene, it was the stranger who struck the first blow. But watching it again, I observe that the guy grudgingly complies when Fred, overhearing their conversation, leans in to tell him to take a hike. It’s Homer who escalates things by tearing off the stranger’s American flag lapel pin. Then Fred leaps over the counter and floors the man with one punch, knocking him into a glass display case. When the manager scurries over to attend to his customer moaning in a pile of broken glass, Fred preemptively hands over his apron. “Don’t say it, chum. The customer’s always right, so I’m fired. But this customer wasn’t right.”

I’ve only seen this movie on home video, never in a theatre, but I suspect in the current climate the punch would draw a round of applause. Serves ‘im right, that loudmouth so-and-so, riling up the good citizens with his anti-American B.S.!

But rewatching it, it occurs to me how the loudmouth with his anti-government paranoia sounds an awful lot like the left-wingers I used to hear spieling in coffeeshops around the time of the invasion of Iraq. Radicals in Washington. Pushed into war. Just read the facts.

And it occurs to me how an older Fred could easily be the right-wing galoot who gets into a scuffle with disillusioned Vietnam vet Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July.

born on the fourth of july bar scene

Why, that lousy hippie, undermining our patriotic resolve with his anti-American B.S.!

Of course, Ron Kovic was a good guy, while that America Firster in the drugstore was a bad guy, so the situations are totally unrelated.

***

As the Days of Rage review indicates, we’re still a long way from the kind of chaos that emanated from American campuses a half-century ago.

allan bloom the closing of the american mind

In his 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind Allan Bloom, a professor at Cornell during the last outbreak, describes how his colleagues were beaten, held hostage, and intimidated into compliance with the demands of student radicals aroused by a moralistic fervor:

But what was meant by morality has to be made clear. There is a perennial and unobtrusive view that morality consists in such things as telling the truth, paying one’s debts, respecting one’s parents and doing no voluntary harm to anyone. Those are all things easy to say and hard to do; they do not attract much attention, and win little honor in the world. … This was not the morality that came into vogue in the sixties, which was an altogether more histrionic version of moral conduct, the kind that characterizes heroes in extreme situations. Thomas More’s resistance to a tyrant’s commands was the daily fare of students’ imagination. … It was not, of course, the complexity of such cases that was attractive but their brilliance, the noble pose. Somehow it was never the everyday business of obeying the law that was interesting; moreso was breaking it in the name of the higher law.

Bloom’s thesis – which I can’t claim to fully understand, but indulge me for a moment while I pretend – is that the root of this anarchy was a “cheapened interpretation” of Nietzche’s critique of Enlightenment values, transmitted and distorted via Heidegger’s acolytes on the European left. This critique had earlier been associated mainly with the right, until Heidegger had embarrassed himself by embracing Nazism in a period of German campus disorder not unlike the later American one:

The fact that in Germany the politics were of the Right and in the United States of the Left should not mislead us. In both places the universities gave way under the pressure of mass movements, and did so in large measure because they thought those movements possessed a moral truth superior to any the university could provide. … The unthinking hatred of “bourgeois society” was exactly the same in both places. A distinguished professor of political science proved this when he read to his radical students some speeches about what was to be done. They were enthusiastic until he informed them that the speeches were by Mussolini.

I linked above to Rod Dreher’s discussion of the Middlebury College uprising because along with Charles Murray’s first-person account it includes a link to this op-ed in the campus newspaper articulating the anti-speech position:

Indeed, when I first arrived at Middlebury I was clueless to the systems of power constructed around race, gender, sexuality, class or ability, and found that when I talked about these issues as I understood them – or rather, as I didn’t – I was met with blank stares and stigma rather than substantial debate. As a young bigot, I can recall thinking: “I thought at Middlebury I would get to have intellectual discussions, but instead it feels as though my views are being censored.” However, as a first-year I had failed to consider a simple, yet powerful component of debate: not all opinions are valid opinions. I had fallen into the trap of false equivalence.

False equivalence is simple: just because two sides are opposed does not mean they are equally logically valid.

Having embraced the Truth, you see, this student can’t risk repolluting his mind by engaging with what he now knows to be falsehoods. Furthermore, it’s his responsibility as a possessor of the Truth to shout down those falsehoods to protect other, weaker-minded people from being influenced by them.

As it happens, the Truth the student has newly embraced is the truth of what we currently call Progressivism, or Social Justice, or the Right Side of History. It might as easily have been Mussolini’s truth, or Mao’s, or Mullah Omar’s. One more quote from Allan Bloom:

Rousseau noted that in his time many men were liberals who a century earlier would have been religious fanatics. He concluded that they were not really reasonable, but, rather, conformists.

But the student would no doubt say that Rousseau and Bloom were themselves only conforming to the “systems of power” designed to keep women and minorities in their places, so why should anyone listen to them?

Now, it’s possible this kid with his Middlebury education really has sussed out the eternal, immovable, logically unanswerable truth about race, class, and the heritability of IQ. But the moment he steps off campus he runs the risk of finding himself in a crowd of less enlightened souls, equally committed to suppressing what they see as falsehoods, who might mistake his empyrean proclamations for the blitherings of an anti-democratic kook.

I can picture him now, thumping his student newspaper like that drugstore noodge in The Best Years Of Our Lives – “Just read the facts, my friend” – while the good citizens watch him through narrowing eyes.

M.

PS. In naming this post I had in mind Dostoevsky’s Demons – translated previously (and better known to old-timers like me) under the titles The Possessed or The Devils – which I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never read. I was going to delay publishing this until I’d finished the novel, but I thought I’d better stay ahead of events. How many others might get punched between now and then?

I haven’t read Dostoevsky’s The Devils but in 2010 I was confused by a remark in Tolstoy’s The Devil. In 2012 I blogged about Allan Bloom as remembered by Saul Bellow as related by Martin Amis. It appears I’ve name-checked Charles Murray once before, in this 2015 post about Bertrand Russell’s prescriptions for overcoming conformism.

Update, July 28, 2020: Added The Closing of the American Mind cover pic and linked to Bibliography page.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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