2016-2017: A Books Review

As in my last year-end book recap, this post will cover books that have enriched me in some profound-yet-vaguely-defined way. Two key differences, though: 1.) I’m reviewing two years’ worth of reading at once, and 2.) I’m including both fiction and nonfiction. In truth, I haven’t read nearly as much fiction as I have in previous years, which is mostly due to my dissertation research. Apart from prose style, I still generally feel that ranking fiction and nonfiction against each other is a bit like comparing apples and teakettles. But there’s no version of an account of the books I’ve read in the last two years which doesn’t reckon with the huge swath of nonfiction that has imprinted its contours on my spirit. So I’m not ranking anything strictly, but the following is more or less in descending order.

I must also admit that there wasn’t much fiction in my life within these last two years that gave me such a high as the first three books on my last list. Much was enjoyable, but little really felt like a revelation. By contrast, there were quite a few nonfiction works whose clarity, force, or style really swelled my sails.

As a bonus, I’m going to recommend complementary pairings for several of these books. In the case of some of them, I think that the dialectic forged between certain authors in my reader brain has been more potent than any text alone. All of these (with exceptions noted) are books that I read in 2016 and 2017, and I’m grateful to have done so.

Cornel West.

Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity by Cornel West (1982). A relatively simple contention: we can’t find a workable solution to any political problem in the U.S. without taking to heart the historical experience of African-American Christians. Having grappled with a long chain of promises made and thwarted, black American churches have had to develop spiritual and cultural resources that are necessarily political, and especially well-suited to an era defined by unequal power relations among people, states, and the tectonic flows of global capital. So says West, whose politics are, of course, radical. He’s also a rare visionary stylist who can graft together the patois of continental poststructural philosophy, Marxism, race theory, and American pragmatism and not only make it intelligible, but often lyrical.

Pairs well with: The City on the Hill from Below: The Crisis of Black Prophetic Politics (2011) by Stephen Marshall or The Prophetic Imagination (1978) by Walter Brueggemann. Marshall comes at the African-American political tradition from a historiographical standpoint and affirms the power of black prophetic critique going back to David Walker’s Appeal while also being critical of its patriarchal bias. Brueggemann’s book is justly a classic appeal to Christian theologians and pastors to take much more seriously the Jewish and Christian prophetic traditions as challenges to established hierarchies, especially within the church—and not just for social justice, but for the renewal of commitment to the Gospel.

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (1935). The first time I read this was in the late summer of 2016, in the parlous moment when half the country wrung its hands over the bizarre rise of Donald Trump while still serenely self-assured that Hillary Clinton would, in the end, triumph over the vulgar authoritarian. The second time I read this was in the fall of 2017, not long after President Trump failed to slam-dunk a generic condemnation of violent Nazis in Charlottesville. Looking back at American history, it seems to me that Lewis’s satire is relevant in pretty much any period, let alone the present. That’s because Lewis observed the simple fact that democratic tradition itself is no inoculation against tyranny. All you need is a large enough number of people who desire tyranny (with its deceptive promises of restorative greatness) and are willing to install it in government. Though I don’t think Donald Trump is a fascist per se, he is an authoritarian, a bully, and a hateful human being, and my fear is that his electoral success presages a future in which authoritarianism becomes an appealing option for voters across the political spectrum. Which means that It Can’t Happen Here will continue to be perennially relevant. Sad!

Pairs well with: The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans (2003) or The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton (2004). Frankly, these two books pair nicely with each other, too. Once you read the historical particulars of European fascism, it’s amazing how dead-on Lewis was in nailing the structure of their ideology and political life cycles; it’s even more amazing how well Lewis translated fascism into the all-American tropes which are now standard operating procedure at FOX News and its kissing cousins.

Soulless by Gail Carriger (2009). It’s a steampunk adventure! It’s a Harlequin romance! It’s an effortlessly witty British comedy of manners! For all that, it’s essentially Underworld (the Kate Beckinsdale series, not the DeLillo novel) served as afternoon tea. I’ve read the next two books in the series, and I have enjoyed them, but the first book is free of the burden of developing a saga—it’s just a colorful, sexy, immensely entertaining romp. It’s also one of the relatively few novels I’ve read which made me laugh out loud quite a few times, and the central romance is laser-calibrated to fan the flames of shipper hearts everywhere.

Pairs well with: whatever’s in the current news cycle. Because when you’re in the depths of despair, it helps to read a book about a sardonic woman who tames vampires with her umbrella, werewolves with her force of personality, and her appetite not at all—because there’s nothing not to love about a heroine who loves a good meal while she peruses the latest scientific literature.

Fullmetal Alchemist by Arakawa Hiromu (2001-2010). Though I read the first few volumes in 2015, I finished the series in 2016, thanks to our local library’s shockingly well-stocked comics collection. To date, I have seen precisely one episode of FMA: Brotherhood (after having finished the manga), and I rather enjoyed the experience of reading this without feeling compelled to compare it to its anime adaptations. At heart, it’s a variation on Frankenstein, but it’s one that surveys the wreckage of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which rapidly adopted poor Victor’s ideology and embedded them in the global cultural and institutional framework. Arakawa is wise enough both to seek empathy with her villains but also to recognize political evil for what it is.

Pairs well with: Harrow County by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook (2015-present). I read the first six volumes of this series. I guess it’s considered horror, but it’s much more of a folk tale. This is another story of gods, men, and ghosts and the trouble that brews when powerful people categorically confuse the distinctions between them. Bunn has a storyteller’s sense of evoking resonance with cadence and simplicity, and Crook’s art is almost unbelievably atmospheric.

Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke (1790). The 2002 critical edition I read was edited and very helpfully annotated by J.C.D. Clark. In previous posts here on Catecinem, I wrote a bit about why I can no longer identify as conservative. Actually reading Burke, at long last, was instrumental in that. My suspicion is that Russell Kirk might have understood what he was doing when he elevated Burke into a conservative icon and helped a generation of American conservatives enshrine Reflections as a canonical text for their movement. But those who have imbibed Burke second- or third-hand don’t really grok how historically and culturally contingent Reflections is. Nor would they recognize that conservatism post-Goldwater is basically a kind of fundamentalism—a radicalism that is temperamentally incompatible with Burke’s in this tract. Burke damn well knew, far as I can tell, the difference between taking the historical longview and mythologizing his nation’s past as a model Golden Age for political reform. His very pragmatic point is that sometimes we need to treat the status quo with respect in order to keep fundamentalism at bay. For all his outmoded (even in his day) blindnesses and biases, Burke’s Reflections does not read to me as “conservative” in the narrow ideological sense. It reads, if I were to inadvisedly abstract it into a manifesto (which it is not), as a well-considered warning against revolutionary radicalism. The very idea that shutting down the government, gutting decades-established programs, or blowing up the deficit because free markets will magically solve every program—this is all revolutionary radicalism. And any appeal to the founding fathers, the pre-New Deal status quo, or the genius of Abraham Lincoln as support for such measures is an ahistorical, asinine delusion. If nothing else, what I learned from reading Burke is that people who treat their revolutionary politics as history’s redeeming grace are to be feared.

Pairs well with: Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 by Jackson Lears (2009) or Marxian Socialism in the United States by Daniel Bell (1967). Lears makes a strong argument that the re-alignment of national identity along corporate capitalist lines in the late nineteenth/early-twentieth centuries was guided by a revamped masculinist ideology that continues to shape America’s sense of self and its role in the world. Though it echoes with Lefty Bush-era exigencies, I think it’s still relevant. Bell’s classic essay argues that socialism failed to take root in the U.S. in large part because it fell victim to quasi-religious sectarianism. Besides being a sterling historical argument (not without persuasive detractors, but still a lodestone), Bell’s prose is lively and laced with sardonic humor. It was, strange as it may seem based on the title, a genuine pleasure to read.

My Monster Secret (Actually, I Am…) by Masuda Eiji (2013-2017). I’ll admit, I have a soft spot for harem comedies. I’m not ignorant of the many problems inherent in a mostly exploitative genre. I think the best harem comedies function as romantic comedies, as opposed to unreconstructed adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies. Of course, harem comedies really just inherited the problems of the romantic comedy and amplified them, but… I also have a soft spot for romantic comedies. C’est la vie. As someone who has spent large swaths of my life feeling intolerably lonely, I’m inclined to forgive anyone for responding instinctually to a story in which stifling, bumbling awkwardness is the primary obstacle to two people recognizing in each other the love of one’s life. Actually, I Am… gets that, I think, on a primal level. The characters are all given some dimension, the gags and timing are hilarious, and the art is simply stunning. I’ve only read the first seven volumes so far; this series is sweet and endearing and it’s smart enough to laugh at how absurd its unnecessary complications are.

Pairs well with: A sunny, cold afternoon when your highest ambition is to drink hot cocoa and snuggle under a homemade quilt.

Anime: A History by Jonathan Clements (2013). Physically, it appears to be a coffee table book, but it’s a nuanced, accessible, and (as far as I can tell) scrupulously well-researched history of the anime industry. Clements broadens his contextual focus from key artists and titles to account for how economic trends, technological advances, and institutional gambits work as an ecosystem to produce Japanese animation and its aesthetics. In sum, it’s fascinating, concise, authoritative, and written in a lively prose style. My favorite anecdote from the book, by the by, concerns the role that prints of Princess Iron Fan and Fantasia confiscated during WWII played in the development of Japan’s wartime (and thus postwar) animation.

Pairs well with: The History of Science Fiction by Adam Roberts (2006). Roberts argues that we can best understand science fiction as a mode of artistic creation by tracing its contours as a dialectic between Enlightenment rationalism and the premodern religious worldview. I find his case to be very persuasive, although I admit I may be more bowled over by his audacity and encyclopedic knowledge of the literature than I am convinced by a thorough examination of his interpretation of the evidence. It’s a great critical performance, at any rate. One of the major shifts he charts in sf, especially moving into the twentieth century, is that sf became primarily visual in its mode of expression. Clements is often at pains to emphasize that all anime is not giant robots, magical girls, and high school tournament epics. But the explosion of anime in the international video market in the 1980s was very much tied to sf aesthetics. Further, I suspect that scholars could do a lot more to work though the marketing and fan reception of anime in Western countries in conjunction with Roberts’s thesis. Roberts’s thesis, in turn, could benefit from deeper engagement with historians of the impact on sf tropes in the public imagination worldwide.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962). Easily one of the great alternate history stories, but, like most everything else PKD wrote, its premise doesn’t quite capture how trippy the novel is. A 1960s North America governed by the Japanese empire in the west and the Third Reich in the east might seem like a nightmarish fantasy far removed from the postwar America people knew. In Dick’s view, life under the Japanese isn’t functionally that different from the real world, with its racial hierarchies, authoritarian police, almighty corporate culture, and uneasy Cold War detente with a more aggressive totalitarian superpower. There’s more to it than that, because PKD. Man in the High Castle may be the best novel of his that I’ve read so far, if not his most characteristic.

Pairs well with: Astro City by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, and Alex Ross (1995-present). Though I’ve been reading this series for a long time, there was a long dry spell where I didn’t keep up. In the last few years, I finally devoured volumes six through ten, including the excellent Dark Age arc. As you probably know, Astro City takes place in the titular metropolis where the superpowered heroes, villains, and regular folk are all given roughly equal due, and the series really shines in its vignettes. At first, Astro City came across to me like a more character-driven riff on our favorite superhero icons as well as a love letter to the Golden Age. It is that, but it’s more. The creators have apparently worked out an incredible continuity for their series (no major reboots or crossovers yet!), and it only now occurred to me that they’re not just telling the metastory of superhero comics of the twentieth century. They’re telling the story of America in the guise of an alternate history, and the major movements and tropes of the various comic trends form the periodization. It’s spectacular and stunning and, as the vignettes collage together, it’s breathtaking.

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in Post-Christian America by Rod Dreher (2017). Yes, this is that book by the American Conservative blogger who thinks Obergefell is the court case that tipped America over the precipice into moral chaos. Unless and until you read it, though, you’ll miss that it’s an essentially utopian jeremiad. The wrack and ruin at the heart of American communities is a symptom of the self-imposed degradation of Church culture, which hollowed Christian identity out from the center of American culture, or so Dreher contends. His critique of the Enlightenment’s legacy and its effect on Christian praxis is not so far flung from the diatribes of the Frankfurt School, save for the fact that he thinks rebuilding the church from the inside out is the most important task for saving the human spirit (as opposed to socialist revolution). This is not a book advocating total separation of Christians from secular culture; it is also not a book attempting to impose draconian rules on who gets to be in a Christian church and who doesn’t. (Surprise: in his own way, Dreher tries to make room for LGBTQ Christians in the BenOp!) It’s a book about the fact that the Church has sold Christian orthodoxy down the river for the comforting illusion of cultural relevance and the power that comes with being capitalism’s handmaiden. Thus the Church has hollowed out its internal resources for resisting the relentless advance of a social hierarchy that values only efficiency, exploitation, and the genuflection of the atomized individual before the almighty dollar. I don’t accept every claim Dreher makes, nor do I subscribe to his brand of small-o orthodoxy (my church ordains LGBTQ+ clergy, soooo…), but I think his diagnosis and his prescription are worth pondering. A challenge he struggles with is how to integrate his Benedict Option into liberal churches. He makes the claim that liberal churches can and should do so, but he never really articulates how that would work. I think that those of us who belong to churches with more progressive tendencies should take up that challenge in good faith, even if it’s only a starting point for constructive dialogue.

Pairs well with: News from Nowhere by William Morris (1890). While it’s a failure as a novel (as many nineteenth-century utopian novels tend to be), and thus a bit of a chore, I found Morris’s retrograde, pastoral utopia to be a welcome challenge to Edward Bellamy’s industrialized corporate vision of command and control. While Dreher tends to reject the label of “utopia” for his own project, I think he and Morris are actually kindred spirits in significant ways. Not least is the fact that Morris insists much more persuasively than Bellamy on the importance and sustainability of community—one that is organized around duty and pleasure, not ease and competition for status. One significant feature that serves as a complement to Dreher’s call for pastoral monasticism is Morris’s focus on crafts and beauty. Dreher knows we need those things, but his book wasn’t the place to address it satisfactorily; Morris shows in a more dramatic fashion how the building of community and the production of culture in a localist framework might actually work.

My Hero Academia by Hirokoshi Kohei (2014-present). About as winsome and exciting as high school manga get, this series is also a wonderful homage to superhero stories and why they matter. The art is jaw-dropping, and the character designs are distinctive and quirky. (Pun intended.) I’ve read the first ten volumes, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. If you like superhero comics and you’re not reading this, get thee to a biblioteca!

Pairs well with: Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson, Sana Amanat, Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa, et al. (2014-present). Wilson is crackerjack at dialogue and characterization. Takeshi Miyazawa, artist of the last couple volumes I read, draws dynamic panels with evocative facial expressions. But Adrian Alphona’s art in the first couple arcs is truly amazing. Besides being dynamic and expressive, Alphona also squirreled away tons and tons of details that made studying each panel a real delight. The quirkiness of his art paired well with Wilson’s writing, and I don’t think the series ever quite matched that high afterward. Ms. Marvel’s rogue’s gallery doesn’t have as many villains of archnemesis quality in it (yet), but Kamala Khan and her friends are a wonderful cast of characters, and Wilson works hard (sometimes not quite effortlessly) to write a comic written for teens that offers hope untainted by saccharine falsity. As a Christian, I found it refreshing that the main heroine is a person of faith—a Muslim—and that the creators don’t seem to think it’s their sacred duty to lead her to reject her faith or angst about the seeming rigidity of her family’s or community’s religious practices. Her faith is, in fact, instrumental in leading her to want to use her powers to help people. I feel like artists of faith in any media could learn from this example.*

Log Horizon by Touno Mamare (2011-present). I’ve only read the first two volumes of this light novel series, but it’s a captivating pastiche of fantasy adventure, political social novel, and science fiction mystery. In a post-Sword Art Online fanscape, the premise of MMORPG players trapped in their favorite fantasy realm might smell like a clone. It’s not. This is a utopian story through and through, and it is far more about the difficulty of creating and sustaining community. In almost Asimovian fashion, a great deal of the series so far consists of Touno establishing rules for this world, then having his main protagonist work out ways around those rules. Weirdly, the author (real name: Umezu Daisuke) was charged with income tax evasion. Upon discovering that, my only real reaction was a gripping terror that he’d never finish Log Horizon or that the publisher would stop translating it.

Pairs well with: Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber (1970). From the author’s introduction: “This is Book One of the Saga of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, the two greatest swordsmen ever to be in this or any other universe of fact or fiction, more skillful masters of the blade even than Cyrano de Bergerac, Scar Gordon, Conan, John Carter, D’Artagnan, Brandoch Daha, and Anra Devadoris. Two comrades to the death and black comedians for all eternity, lusty, brawling, wine-bibbing, imaginative, romantic, earthy, thievish, sardonic, humorous, forever seeking adventure across the wide world, fated forever to encounter the most deadly of enemies, the most fell of foes, the most delectable of girls, and the most dire of sorcerers and supernatural beasts and other personages.” How could you not want to read this? It’s one of the ur-texts that the RPGs (and later digital versions) drew on to make stories like Log Horizon possible.

When Harlem Was in Vogue by David Levering Lewis (1981). Had I the time, I’d re-read this for Black History Month. Most reputable editors will include representatives of the Harlem Renaissance in American Literature anthologies; hence your familiarity with (even in passing) such writers as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Perhaps you are more familiar with legendary jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington or Fats Waller. Besides being an exciting, nimble account of the dozens of luminaries for whom Harlem became something of a Mecca, Lewis manages a tricky feat: he shows how foundational the ferment of the Renaissance was to the formation of American culture from the mid-twenties onward while never losing sight of the specific people, place, and time of his story. I remain scandalized by how little I knew of the Harlem Renaissance, even with my years of English education, and humbled by how much I have yet to learn. This is simply an outstanding intellectual and cultural history, perhaps more urgently needed now than at the time of its original publication.

Pairs well with: Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 by David M. Kennedy (1999) and Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil by W. E. B. Du Bois (1920). Of Kennedy’s magisterial volume, there’s little to be said: it’s simply a great overview of a period of American history that has attained mythic status. And it’s an incredibly helpful survey of the context of the Harlem Renaissance and its artists. I think he does justice to it without letting myth overtake good history. Du Bois, by contrast, was a mythopoet of the first order, but only part of the time. A scrupulous sociologist and debunker by training, a polemicist and muckraker by profession, and prophet by disposition, Darkwater is one of Du Bois’s counter-myths of pan-African history. Brilliantly composed, Du Bois places black Americans at the forefront of history in a series of essays, poems, and stories that comprise a ferocious and poignant mosaic. For those looking for more on Du Bois’s life and times, Lewis has written an authoritative two-volume biography.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985). The occasion for reading this was my wife’s Engaging Books Challenge, but it’s a book I should’ve read long ago. Far from being an anti-religious screed, it’s a testimony to the ways that oppression and violence are woven into our culture and institutionalized beyond reckoning. If anything, Atwood takes pains to emphasize how cynically the guise of religion is abused by the men and women in power in her futuristic dystopia. Nothing about the world of The Handmaid’s Tale is plausible in the strictest sense of being an extrapolation of how current trends could fall together. That is to say, I don’t think the world of Handmaid’s Tale could exist in the form in which it’s presented. The tensions between the conflicting desires, ideological mystifications, and historical memories could not be sustained in this particular thought variant. Then again, it often strikes me that our current, real-world conflicts of desire, ideological mystifications, and historical memories are mindbendingly unsustainable and implausible. It violates plausibility that the hot mess of American civilization has not flown apart in centrifugal rage—not really—since the 1860s. That’s why I think The Handmaid’s Tale ultimately feels real, even if it doesn’t feel strictly plausible. It doesn’t seem possible that the endless flow of women stepping forth to testify about the horrific systemic abuse they’ve suffered could have gone on so long unchecked. It doesn’t seem possible that people could, even now, ignore and deny the sheer flood of plausible allegations of sexual assault and misconduct, or—in grotesquely comic fashion—tacitly acknowledge the truth of these testimonies and simply keep on keeping on without doing a damn thing about them. When the world as it exists feels unreal, that’s when we most need science-fictional narratives to make sense of it all. Offred’s story isn’t realistic because the world could become Gilead; it’s true because the horrors of Gilead already surround us in all their numbing complexity.

Pairs well with: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003). I confess: I’m cheating a bit. I first read this in 2015 and didn’t include it on that list. In retrospect, the prophetic value of this novel has only been amplified. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, I don’t think it’s the holistic assemblage of specifics that are likely to come to pass. Instead, I think Atwood’s parable accurately captures the essence of a certain amoral emptiness at the heart of how we deal with the problems of power. Oryx and Crake is a North America plagued with industrialized excess, pornography, corporatized inequality, and engineers and technocrats who, thanks to gene-editing technologies, have the power to be like gods. The emergence of a Crake, in whose nihilistic narcissism someone like Snowman finds direction and purpose, well… Does it sound paranoid to say that this is not merely inevitable, but that it’s the current state of the world? How many Crakes do you know? How many Oryxes and Jimmies? How badly have we underestimated the implications of remaking our reality at the genetic level? How badly have we failed to grasp how unready we are—as a society, as a species—to be our own gods? The men in Handmaid’s Tale have a taste of that power, but Gilead is, strictly speaking, only a corner of North America. The Crakers inherit the Earth.☕

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  • Quick nerdrant: At its most frustrating, Ms. Marvel is a perfect example of why I’ve generally always loathed mainstream superhero comics. Picking up any mainstream superhero title is sort of like randomly starting to watch a long-running soap opera, but worse. I mean, there’s probably forty years of history you don’t know about, with all sorts of characters and setting details that are totally obscure unless you’ve been reading the whole time. So the buy-in is pretty steep to start with, and the publisher just tilts it further. Story arcs are interrupted for major, universe-changing events which are given zero context; characters from other titles are randomly shoehorned in, because oh my lord we absolutely must have Wolverine fanservice in every freaking single Marvel property ever. Without being a total poop about it, I get why Marvel (and the other major publishers) pull these stunts. They help drive sales. Sure. Except readers like me have not time nor money nor interest in reading thirteen other titles just to get the big picture. If it weren’t for the fact that most of the references from Ms. Marvel are echoed in Marvel’s film and TV franchises, I’d have been totally lost. It’s a serious drawback in a title that is otherwise delightful. The idea that Kamala’s story cannot be decoupled from the rest of the Marvel Comics Universe has some appeal; in theory, it gives dimension and weight to living in a particular place and time, with the decisions and actions of mighty powers far away having major impacts on others who don’t have that kind of power. Handled right, that could be poignant and meaningful. The way it’s actually handled feels cheap and random. Rather than feeling connected to the “Marvel Universe,” Ms. Marvel often simply feels chained to the exigencies of Marvel’s marketing division, which is less interested in telling meaningful stories than larding comic book stores with a neverending succession of crossover EVENTS that always ultimately cancel each other out. One thing you can say for soap operas is that at least their stars grow old and die. I sometimes feel like being a Marvel or DC superhero with the self-knowledge of my role in the comics universe would be the greatest existential nightmare: I exist, I have no agency, my creator-gods themselves manipulate me at the discretion of senseless forces beyond even their control, my actions have no meaningful consequences whatsoever, and my torment will never end.
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D&Determined to prove a villain?

“To entertain these fair well-spoken days,/ I am determined to become a villain/ And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

Since I started Dungeon Mastering D&D, a few people have asked me on separate occasions why I don’t permit evil-aligned characters in my games. Initially, it was out of reflexive distaste. When I first started playing D&D, whenever my fellow party members did something evil or evil-adjacent, it frankly made the game less fun for me. I made the game less fun for myself on occasion by making evil choices that were, in retrospect, outside of my character’s alignment.

Until I started DMing, I’d sort of assumed that most players, at worst, played fantasy world Jack Bauers. You know, people who did bad things, but who were basically committed to a kind of code that nudged them toward heroism. Later on, I discovered the legendary player archetype of the murderhobo—easily one of the most felicitous coinages in the English language. From my first session as a player, I knew I wanted to be a DM, but I also knew that I didn’t want to run a murderhobo campaign.

One time, when we were scouting out a goblin stronghold, I cast charm person on a goblin, and after we got the information out of him, another player and I simply beat the confused sod to death while making wisecracks. At the time, I thought it was hilarious, but in retrospect, I was really ashamed of myself. Partly, I was upset that I wasn’t true to my character—which is apt to happen when non-thespians engage in sustained improv sessions—but I was also a bit disgusted by the glee with which I’d made my character murder someone with no capacity to fight back. My wife and I also had a bad experience playing an evil one-shot at a con, which sort of cemented my prejudice against that kind of game. That prejudice has begun to crumble a bit, but it’s taken a while.

In the past few years, I’ve reflected quite a bit on why I don’t want to run that kind of campaign. My instinctive distaste for evil roleplay as I experienced it has underlay the justifications I’ve conjured, but the following reasons are the result of introspection and observation.

There are two pretty pragmatic reasons I don’t permit evil characters. Extrapolating from my own feelings as I participated in situations with evil RP, I figured that there must be other players who also would find their game to be less fun in a party with evil characters. While I think people who enjoy playing evil characters can have fun playing good or neutral characters, the reverse is not necessarily true: some players simply wouldn’t have fun playing evil characters. Therefore, I don’t feel like I’m boxing out the people who would enjoy evil characters. Good characters won’t ruin the game for someone running an evil character, but one evil character could bring the game down for other folks. For the sake of maximum fun for everyone at the table, it’s simply easier to proscribe evil characters.

The other practical reason is a corollary to that. Evil characters are more likely to drive internal tension in the party, especially if there’s a lawful or chaotic good character committed to high ideals. Players who aren’t thoughtful about their choices could very easily torpedo a campaign without attention to common goals and intra-party politics. And that’s just if their evil actions are outwardly-directed. Stories abound of evil characters murdering their own party members or getting their party killed, and that can be a social disaster for a lot of groups.

My other reasons for proscribing evil characters are a bit more abstract. The most kneejerk reason for not permitting evil characters makes me sound like a fusty old marm—“there’s enough evil in the real world, why recreate it in the game?!” I’ve repeated some variation of that numerous times, but even I don’t find it all that convincing, for reasons I’ll get to later. It took me a while of running Dungeons & Dragons to realize the major reason why I don’t want evil characters in my game, and it’s one that is unique to being a DM. Running a game is not about what you don’t permit at your table; it’s about your vision of what you want to create with other people. That is, I think a good DM isn’t there simply to place negative boundaries, but to use boundaries to give positive shape to a particular kind of storytelling experience.

He almost deserved it.

I couldn’t articulate it at first, but the game I was interested in running was an epic heroic adventure. Whatever pretensions I have, at heart I’m a kid who grew up reading the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings and the Wheel of Time. To me, fantasy stories are about people who save the world because they succeed in the struggle to become better versions of themselves.

Great fantasy is about the forging of heroes, and great fantasy heroes like Bilbo Baggins or the Pevensie children inspire us because they show us how hard it is to be worthy in a world that too often fosters or celebrates unworthiness. And great fantasy storytellers understand that we need to see heroes fail as well as succeed, or else they are not convincing. Because we can relate to failure and human flaws, we can therefore also relate to our heroes when they overcome those failures and flaws to become superheroes. Overcoming obstacles does not just make fantasy heroes better people, it serves as a way of redeeming their worlds—and by virtue of their inspiration in readers’ lives, our own.

This is not the only kind of fantasy, nor is it the only way to write great fantasy. But it’s the conception of fantasy coded into my DNA. As a DM, I need to love my players’ characters. I need to root for them. They can and should fail sometimes; my players should absolutely roleplay their characters’ flaws. But I can root for inept, wayward, misguided, unlucky, or otherwise maladapted heroes. In fact, heroes like that are perhaps more endearing by virtue of their flaws—I’m even more invested in them succeeding. By contrast, an evil character’s chief flaw is also his ideal. If an evil character succeeds, then that’s the opposite of heroism. Then she hasn’t become a better version of herself—she’s only become more crafty, underhanded, or powerful.

I’ve said in the past that I’m not interested in running a Forgotten Realms variant of Natural Born Killers or Goodfellas. These happen to be films that I personally despise, despite the fact that they are made by master filmmakers working at the top of their game. I’m mature enough to concede that these are masterpieces, in the sense that they make maximal use of film form to tell truthful stories about indelible characters. They are also the kind of stories that I don’t think I could tell truthfully, nor would I want to. Telling these stories wouldn’t be true to who I am or to the kinds of stories I most deeply value.

Which is not to say that I don’t want to be capable of telling those stories some day. As I’ve grown more comfortable with the role of DM, I find that my ambitions grow accordingly. Recently, I’ve been watching High Rollers: Dead Reckoning, and it seems to me to be a classic model of how to run an antiheroic campaign.

From session zero through the campaign proper, Dead Reckoning shows a D&D group in total control of their characters, their setting, and tone. The characters are antiheroes, but the players find ways to give dimension to them, embracing what makes them disturbing without losing sight of what gives them humanity. It’s also a game where internal party tension is part of the point of the campaign, keeping with the tradition of Dirty Dozen-style suicide squad missions. Mark Hulmes, the DM, has a knack for balancing mordant humor with a pervasively dangerous situation that compels the group to work together to survive, even as the moral complications of that situation threaten to pull the group apart. It’s a campaign that thrives on roleplay, and for the experienced, imaginative players in the High Rollers cast, it certainly seems to be thrilling drama.

I’m not there yet. But my kneejerk aversion to evil characters in my stories contradicts one of the main reasons I love D&D in the first place: the immersion in the experience of an imaginary world where your choices define the story. Good stories need to be real, and some players might feel that me placing evil characters off-limits makes their agency less real.

Placing that kind of limit also implies that I don’t fully trust my players to play certain types of characters. As DM, I play evil characters all the time, and I don’t think anyone would argue that there isn’t a difference between a DM running evil characters and players doing so. But just as players enjoy tangling with a complicated evil NPC with morally-ambiguous goals, I think some players would enjoy that kind of dramatic tension within the party. RP-oriented players especially could generate productive drama from that kind of tension, and they would probably appreciate having the freedom to explore that.

I can’t imagine throwing an evil PC into a campaign without having a conversation ahead of time with everyone in the group about it. First, to make sure that every single player is on board with this—if anyone had any reservations at all about being in a party with an evil PC, that would be a no-go. Second, to make sure I understood what makes that character tick, and what the appeal would be in playing that character. Maybe a question as simple as, “What does playing an evil character add to this campaign?” would be sufficient. And if nobody found the answer persuasive enough, that would be that.

Joe Manganiello joins Sam Riegel, Taliesin Jaffee, and Marisha Ray on Critical Role.

Joe Manganiello is a good example of a player who knows how to align his evil character’s goals with the party in a non-game-breaking way. In Critical Role and Force Grey: The Lost City of Omu, he plays Arkhan the Cruel, a paladin of Tiamat, the major villain of D&D Fifth Edition’s first major storyline—an evil dragon goddess. Besides just being great at calibrating his role-play presence to the groups he’s in, Manganiello makes a point of clarifying his character’s motives. I loved how, in Force Grey, when he’d use his paladin powers to restore other party members’ hit points, he’d say, “A gift from my queen.” It was creepy and funny—here’s this giant evil red dragonborn proselytizing with that classic apostle’s gambit, the healing miracle. It gave the party reason to trust him, and while Arkhan clearly saw most of them as useful pawns, it was still a comprehensible, recognizably human dynamic. And in a deadly campaign where everyone needed to rely on each other in order to survive each encounter, it at least established that Arkhan wasn’t the kind of character who would needlessly waste their lives. After all, if they proved really useful and felt a lasting bond with him, he could exploit that later.

Another way of approaching the problem would be to abandon alignment as part of character creation altogether. Satine Phoenix and Jason Charles Miller talked about this in GM Tips. Unlike Phoenix, I do think that good and evil are generally useful categories. But it might (might) be more useful to have players simply focus on nailing down their characters’ traits, goals, ideals, and flaws in more depth rather than leaning on alignment as a definitive category. During gameplay, players would be free to form their own judgments about each character’s morality, and the customs and other social pressures of the setting would also play a part.

The risk is that I’d end up running a misbegotten bastard variant of Blood Meridian. The potential reward is that players would have a bit more freedom to find their own redemptive arcs, and I’d have more freedom in emphasizing the complicated nature of justice in a fallen world. I have that freedom now, but my players might feel like they don’t. Maybe dispensing with labels can let us address certain ideas and situations with more clarity. One of my favorite moments in Dead Reckoning came after one of the party members straight-up murdered a NPC as a sort of misguided mercy killing, and another rebuked her in no uncertain terms: “That was wrong.” Instead of having the DM rule out that kind of behavior at the outset, it might (might) be more meaningful for players to face the truth squarely on their own terms: right and wrong are made tangible by when you can make your choices and act accordingly.

One of the things I never fully appreciated about D&D before I started running it is how risky a venture it is. Things can go off the rails pretty quickly, and a bad call as DM can destroy a player’s entire experience of the campaign. Then again, things can go off the rails in a good way. In the first campaign I ever ran (and it’s still going!), I presented the party with an artifact that would turn the bearer chaotic evil as long as it was on their person. I did this after we’d been playing for a year, and I felt like the group could handle it. I even had a shortlist of those I expected to be the one to pick it up. The player who picked it up rolled with the temporary alignment shift brilliantly. For the next four or five-ish sessions, the party was never far from the precipice of disaster, but there were tons of memorable scenes and creative role-play. It’s one of the high points of my short career so far as DM, and all I really did was present my player with a different set of choices and let her rip.

That kind of calculated risk is one I may run again at some point, but it will depend greatly on the player, the group, and the campaign itself. At the end of the day, as most GMs say, it’s all about whether the group has fun. If I ever get to the point where everyone at my table thinks it would be fun to party up with a villain, I guess we’ll see what happens. This is not a personal goal, but it is a possibility about which I’ve very slowly begun to shift my stance from resistant to ambivalent. ☕

Mark Hulmes (DM), Chris Trott, Katie Morrison, Tom Hazell, and Kim Richards on Rogues One: A High Rollers Story.


Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)

Today, all readers of science fiction have occasion to celebrate the life’s work of Ursula K. Le Guin. We too often celebrate the life of people when they’re gone, but the passing of Le Guin feels less like a loss than it probably should. In large part, that’s because her stories celebrate the cycle of life and the search for harmony, of which death and life both play their parts. It’s also because Le Guin attained a cultural status almost commensurate to her accomplishments.

I’ve rambled about the canon quite a bit on this blog, not always coherently or with well-justified arguments. I don’t know if Le Guin will be mandatory reading one or two hundred years from now. But as many of the obituaries have noted, she earned pretty much every meaningful award in her field and several outside of it. Her books are widely read by adults and children, especially the Earthsea series. Her two most famous science fiction novels, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974), are taught in high schools and universities, and literature students of any level often cut their critical teeth on her work. There is no question in my mind that at some point in the not-distant future, some ambitious TV producer will adapt one of her stories into a popular and critically-acclaimed series. At that point, Le Guin’s transition into the cultural mainstream will be complete. Mainstream acceptance isn’t a prerequisite for canonicity, but it helps.

When I say that Le Guin’s current cultural cachet is almost commensurate to her accomplishments, it’s not to downplay the accolades mentioned above. It’s to acknowledge that the effort Le Guin expended to pull herself—and by proxy, science fiction as a literary category—will likely never be recognized outside of fandom or scholarly circles. Vociferous and prolific, Le Guin was one of sf’s leading apologists and theorists: the sheer number of speeches, essays, and interviews she’s done, in which she always made a shrewd observation, uttered a provocation, or simply told the truth in a colorful way, are also a part of her legacy. That kind of labor requires diligence, ingenuity, a certain restlessness, and courage. It’s a labor that demands recognition not for its own sake. It’s never enough to be a great artist. Great artists require great apologists, and nobody was a better advocate of her work than Ursula K. Le Guin.

And she certainly is a great novelist. I find that I don’t ever appreciate her work the first time I read it. I always feel underwhelmed. Then I find that her stories and ideas become essential to my own way of thinking about and expressing things. It’s a process that takes years, a sedimentation. Which is to say that if I call Le Guin’s work foundational to my own approaches to culture and literature, I mean that it forms geological strata in my consciousness.

Like all great stories, Le Guin’s writing helps make sense of the world and our place in it. And like all great stories, her work always contains a moral framework. No great story is intelligible without a moral framework. One of the great fables of her career is The Lathe of Heaven (1971), in which a man whose dreams can literally remake reality must refuse to allow a utopian psychologist to use him to improve the world. It’s a very Taoist fable, in which the exercise of individual agency to remake the world in one man’s image leads ultimately to disharmony. It’s also a piercing feminist critique of the patriarchal hierarchies built into therapeutic discourse. More fundamentally, it recognizes that using power to reconstruct the lives of others is not always the right thing to do, even if it does improve security, stability, and happiness. Totalitarianism and the erasure of people and their history are utopian projects, but in the negative sense where the search for perfection really is the enemy of the good.

Much as I’ll miss Le Guin as an active commentator and personality, I won’t miss her presence. She’s right there in her writing, and we’ll hear her voice every time we read her words. Her voice has been echoing in my head for years already, and she’s been very companionable indeed. If our kids and their kids are lucky, they’ll hear her voice echoing far into the future.


The Books of 2015

I was quite blessed last year to have a read a number of wonderful books, both fiction and nonfiction, some of which were new to me, and some of which were old acquaintances. I’ve read Mansfield Park and Macbeth, for instance, several times already, but they unfold unwonted revelations upon each reading. The following is a list of books that I read for the first time in the last year; it is all fiction, mostly for the sake of categorical clarity (I don’t really think I can justify how I would rank The Principle of Hope, Vol 1, for instance, against Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead; it just don’t sit right). Let me quickly give mention, though, to two impossible-to-categorize memoirs: Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. They are required reading for reasons that, in all honesty, elude my critical capacities. They’re simply that good. In any event, the following are all books I read in 2015 that have, in some way, deeply enriched my comprehension of life, the world, and the soul.

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Technically, I had already read The Inferno back in high school, but I figure a gap of nearly 20 years ought to qualify reading the Commedia in its entirety as “new.” I’m not sure whether it’s because of arrogance, ignorance, or some bizarre combination thereof, but I went into the Comedy with relatively low expectations. What I learned from Dante is a truth universally acknowledged but not often enough reiterated: the classics have new things to teach us. In particular, Dante pretty nearly revolutionized the way I think about divine love and its relation to sin. Truly, if you haven’t ever read The Divine Comedy, please do so. The edition I read was the translation by Robert and Jean Hollander. To be honest, I didn’t care so much for their translation. It seemed as though I got the content of the poem, and the translation was elegant, but the side-by-side comparison showed me that, even with my tourist’s-level Italian, their English version contained almost none of Dante’s poetry. That said, the endnotes and introductions were enormously helpful and endlessly fascinating. I’m going to make a point of re-reading the Comedy throughout my life, and I will likely try a different translation each time until I finally find the one that’s right for me. I hope you all find the one that’s right for you.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Yes, much like Gravity’s Rainbow, it’s that book that everyone claims to have read (but really hasn’t), because she has borrowed it from the library 20 times with every intention of reading it, only to get a couple hundred pages in (if that) and stop, or she’s had it sitting on her shelf for twenty years, relying upon friends and visitors picking it up and rifling through the pages as a substitute for actually having to dust it off, or has sworn never to read it on general principle, because it’s: a) the book all those obnoxious hipsters/English majors claim to have read and loved, or b) a thousand effing pages long, and screw those endnotes (because, honestly who does that?). So. I read it. The whole thing. Not only worth finishing on its literary merits (which are considerable), but a prophetic diagnosis of a culture that has resorted to self-fulfillment as the ultimate authority, and a remarkable feat of authorial empathy.

Tracks by Louise Erdrich. Opening lines: “We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. It was surprising there were so many of us left to die. For those who survived the spotted sickness from the south, our long fight west to Nadouissoux land where we signed the treaty, and then a wind from the east, bringing exile in a storm of government papers, what descended from the north in 1912 seemed impossible.” If reading those lines doesn’t make you want to read the book, I don’t know what would.

steinbeck-center-grapes-of-wrath

 

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Another feat of authorial empathy, this classic of twentieth century American letters is justly considered to be an epic. It’s Dickensian social realism in the best possible ways: a feel for the vernacular patois of the characters, a masterful control over the rhythm of the sentences, and a surefooted sedimentation of the chapters. This is an edifice erected as a monument to a hard time in our history, to all who survived it, and to all who didn’t.

Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore. One of the great things about science fiction is that it can give thought experiments the moral weight of narrative. To a certain extent, all stories are fables. We are invited to exercise judgment on the actions and meaning of the characters we read about, and the exercise of judgment is a healthy thing to do if we want to keep our consciences in trim, fighting shape. In Bring the Jubilee, Moore mounts one of the great thought experiments on sf about the nature of free will and historical determinism. There are ambiguities, as there must be in most great stories. In the end, however, he implies, in grand existential fashion, that free will or not, we still bear moral responsibility for choosing whether or not to act.

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy. Can you believe I never read anything by McCarthy until 2015? While I also read Blood Meridian and The Road for the first time, The Crossing is the one that blew me away. It’s really stunning, prophetic. The artistic invention of grace out of the whole cloth of human cruelty and cosmic indifference.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Another one that rather eludes my critical capacities, but it’s another prophetic work that manages to be utterly alienated and utterly tuned in to the need for authentic connection. Somehow caustic, bitter, and unsparing without giving up hope.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. I know, another one I can’t believe it took me this long to get around to. I don’t have the excuse, as with Infinite Jest, of it being particularly long or aesthetically forbidding. Le Guin is a challenging and precise writer, but not in that way. I can see why this is considered to be her masterpiece, and while I did appreciate the structure, the overwhelming impression left one me was that it manages to dramatize the complicated nature of social injustice. Le Guin is about as merciless as possible with her socialist-anarchist Anarres, emphasizing that problems remain in even the best of possible worlds, yet she manages to inspire palpable relief when Shevek finally returns home—home to his planet, to his family, to the way of life he knows best. Whatever its flaws and shortcomings, the striving for a better world only has meaning when it is embedded in a particular context, and Le Guin imbues that context with the kind of utopian possibility that can only be illuminated by disappointment, but a disappointment put in its proper perspective—the kind bred by intimate familiarity.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Though it doesn’t really stand alone very well (and, as part of a pre-planned series, it’s not meant to), Hyperion rather lives up to its reputation as a masterpiece of sf worldbuilding. Its rep as “cerebral” sf may be a touch overblown, but only in comparison to, say, The Book of the New Sun. Simmons is a very smart writer, and he manages to weave together a story that is sort of about everything that sf is about: human nature, free will v. determinism, ontological reliability, etc. Each section of the book is a wonderful variation in tone and subgenre, ranging from characters study to action adventure to bildungsroman. No trope is left unturned, and Simmons always ties character development into the weirdnesses of his recognizably alien universe.

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt. This is a book about how neoliberalism screws us from behind. Metaphorically or literally? Sort of both. Satire’s brutal honesty depends on being a bit outré, and as brutal riffs on contemporary society go, this is damned prophetic.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Lily Bart’s decline and fall is full of pathos, but like any good social satire, it’s also shockingly lively and witty. Wharton’s genius is in finding a way to make her ruthlessness a form of empathy. As with Lightning Rods, she’s brutally honest, but her tonic doesn’t taste bitter, just a sad combination of bemused and furious.

Sort of Dishonorable Mention:

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. This is the worst novel I’ve ever read that I think ought to be required reading for all Americans. Unlike most folks who hate Atlas Shrugged, I found the prose to be bracing, and for all the tedious sermonizing, Rand knows how to craft rhetorically compelling speeches. This is polemical pulp fiction at its stylistic best. It is also an argument in favor of straight-up anarcho-capitalist plutocratic oligarchy. The heroes are people who actively sabotage civilization so that they don’t have to put up with any peons or government bureaucrats siphoning any of their precious bodily fluids wealth. On the one hand, you might be tempted to feel sympathy for these ingenious captains of industry who have to deal with the incompetent jerks bleeding them dry at every turn. On the other hand, they cause an extinction-level event in order to make more money for themselves. To the extent that anyone can be sympathetic to the plight of genocidal one-percenters, this book makes the best possible case on their behalf. For the rest of us who have something resembling a social conscience, it’s a window into the ideology driving both the Tea Party and Trumpism.☕


Stranger Things ☕ Season One, 2016

I’d have to say that my favorite single character scene in the series involves the boy’s science teacher, Mr. Clarke. As boys are bombarding him with questions concerning parallel universes (it all makes sense in the end), they throw out an obscure Dungeons & Dragons reference and he knows exactly what they’re talking about. It’s little moments like this one where Stranger Things feels authentic — where the nerdy references and pop culture homages become more than the sum of their parts because of the delightful, sympathetic characters making them.

Jason Morehead nails the appeal of Stranger Things pretty generally in his review, but that paragraph clinches it. If you haven’t already binged on it, Netflix’s latest nerd-friendly show is possibly the best Stephen King adaptation never made. Without spoiling anything, it’s about a kid vanishing under mysterious circumstances and the encounters those searching for him have with weird things involved in his disappearance. Beyond the main title font and a few explicit nods to King’s work (like the guard reading Cujo in the morgue), Matt and Ross Duffer’s story takes advantage of the Netflix format to indulge a sprawling story peopled with a fairly large cast of small-town characters. Like Derry, ME, Hawkins, IN, is a fully-realized community. Unless you’re talking about Tolkein or perhaps Austin T. Wright, fiction is rarely able to give you a firm sense of topography; texture comes primarily through characterization or other tools of world-building: the accumulation of details often overlooked in real life, but which make all the difference in grounding audiences in other worlds. Detail is especially key to historical fiction, and critics have already spilled plenty of ink (physical and digital) over Stranger Things’s recreation of the early 1980s. But it’s really the characters that make it feel real, because they arise from real historical possibility, as Georg Lukacs might have put it.

While I’m not Stephen King’s biggest fan (to put it mildly), the standout trait of all his work that I’ve read is the amount of time he lavishes on his characters. His worlds feel real because of the often complicated (or overwrought; perhaps overdetermined or unnecessary) networks of characters that comprise his stories. King’s work often doesn’t focus on a single central protagonist. His heroes are often groups: motley assemblages of stereotypes tweaked by his eye for psychological detail into three-dimensionality. Obviously, this is not always the case, but even in stories focusing on a scant few individuals, they are always rooted in relationships with others, perhaps even people you never meet within the pages of the story proper. This is King’s greatest asset as a storyteller, even as his predilection for overstuffing his stories with subplots—sometimes stemming from an overabundance of characters—is also one of his greatest weaknesses.

At a relatively trim eight episodes, Stranger Things doesn’t tend to fall prey to King’s excesses in this regard. Joyce’s relationship with her no-good ex, Lonnie, for instance, might seem to go nowhere. He’s not a fully-realized character by any stretch, but the framework is there for him to become one. More importantly, Joyce’s hysterical personality comes into focus a bit when you finally meet him. A lot of folks haven’t dug Winona Ryder’s performance; I did. You get the distinct impression, seeing how Lonnie interacts with Joyce and Jonathan, that this guy is a master of playing his loved ones’ insecurities off each other. It’s easy to see how Joyce might have been “high strung” in her youth and how Lonnie pushed her relentlessly into something short of a basket case. Then, of course, there’s Barb, bookish and loyal to a fault. Her relationship to Nancy makes total sense, as does Nancy’s increasingly thoughtless behavior toward her friend. To put it bluntly, supporting characters are props. They need to be plausible; they need to have some dimension. But they are, in some ways, terrain, and the protagonists are the ones who traverse it. The role of the terrain is to give better shape, definition, and psychological dimension to the heroes; in turn, if the protagonists are well-crafted, the terrain itself becomes more real, better-defined. A world apart. We love supporting characters like we love gravity and breathable air. They’re necessary for life.

Which brings me back to Mr. Clarke. He’s pretty much the greatest teacher ever. He’s also very much of his time and place. Lots of middle school teachers, I’m sure, go above and beyond to help their students. But in 2016, teachers have to wary of boundaries. Mr. Clarke is both teacher and buddy (sort of) to the boys in Stranger Things. He’s a mentor in an era when institutional structures didn’t make the kind of relationship he has with the boys totally weird. One of the other great scenes in the film is when the boys phone him at home while he’s on a date with questions on how to build a sensory-deprivation tank. Randall P. Havens is pretty great throughout, but if the scene where he explains string theory with D&D references is the most charming, this one offers the greatest insight into how far away 1983 really is. Not only do the boys interrupt his date by calling him at home on the weekend, but Havens plays Mr. Clarke as savvy enough to know that the boys are Up To Something, yet, because they’re so invested in scientific geekery, he can’t help but give them the information they need to really get in trouble. In 2016, when your adolescent students call you at home to ask you how to build a DIY sensory-deprivation tank, you hang up and send an email to someone in the administration. In Stranger Things, Mr. Clarke’s bond with and trust in his students is what helps them save their friend.

He’s a minor character, of course. Someone that my friend, Scott, calls “Mr. Plot,” a supporting cast member whose main function is to deliver exposition. Yet he feels real because his function in the story makes the main characters more grounded. He adds to the world. Another great minor character is Chris Sullivan’s short order cook. Because Stranger Things sets up a world in which a sprawling cast of characters can be supported, his scenes early in the series with Millie Bobby Brown are both tense and heartfelt, suggesting layers in his own personality and the potential of their own developing relationship. He functions mainly to give you a sense of the kind of town Hawkins is and the stakes of Eleven’s plight, but Stranger Things can spend time on his scenes with Eleven that a feature film would condense quite a bit more.

Netflix originals have been criticized in the past for not really understanding how to make the most of their medium. Jessica Jones, for instance, was critiqued for its pacing, as have other Netflix series. Making shows for a binging audience is a new thing. It’ll take time to crack that code on a consistent basis. I think the Duffers have taken us a good deal further toward that goal. Whereas time spent on supporting characters in a superhero show might feel like “filler” (though I’m not sure I totally agree with that assessment), for a show like Stranger Things, the little scenes spent with tertiary characters are utterly necessary to the show’s raison d’être. This is world-building, not padding. Even if those scenes don’t have a payoff in terms of plot mechanics, I can’t think of a scene from Stranger Things, off the top of my head, that isn’t in some way necessary to capturing the messy, sprawling reality of interpersonal relationships in a small town. Sometimes resolution is itself a bit of a cheat. Unlike a lot of the adaptations of Stephen King’s actual work, few of the “dead end” subplots in Stranger Things subtract from the overall experience. If there is to be a second season set in Hawkins, these things are utterly necessary for establishing a solid foundation for future chapters. Even if the first season of Stranger Things were to stand alone (and I think it certainly does), there’s almost nothing about it that feels totally wasted—if you consider replicating King’s dense texturing of community to be a paramount aesthetic goal.

Especially when you consider how important redemption is to the thematic arcs of so many characters, this becomes more important. It’s often easy to think of personal redemption in terms of individual achievement. Even when presented as something sought within a particular context, or something achieved with the help of others, stories of redemption often have a very individualist ethos to them. King’s stories often emphasize that doing the right thing is made more challenging by those in your own corner; those you love and rely on don’t make your life easier. They’re not supposed to, even when you’re doing all in your power to save yourself and them. Adversity creates fault lines as often as it cleaves people more strongly together, and even as a series like Stranger Things builds toward the main characters finally (finally!) pooling their knowledge and resources, it has to set the stage for fallout. No good deed goes unpunished, as they say, and no action provokes anything less than an equal and opposite reaction. You don’t just get scars from fighting monsters; you get them from friends and family, too. The best of us impose our flaws on the undeserving. That’s human nature. Without a capacious cast of characters and the little moments of grace and light that comes with them—like the boys’ interactions with Mr. Clarke—the dark lattice of shadows all people cast would not stand out so starkly in relief. Like all good tales of terror, Stranger Things knows that we are all made of light and shadow. Meaningful sacrifices aren’t made for one person, but for a world. Without a world of people—all fallen, all too human—you’ve come to know and care about, what difference would even one sacrifice make?☕


Ghostbusters ☕ d. Paul Feig, 2016

A modest prediction: like the original, 2016’s Ghostbusters will age well. Everyone knows that there are many New York Cities. There’s the real, actual NYC. There’s the NYC that each New Yorker lives in his or her own little world. Tourists, of course, have their own NYC. Then there’s the New York we see in movies: the violent dystopia, the romantic urbs bucolica, yesteryear’s city of tomorrow, etc. To paraphrase Whitman, it contains multitudes. The best movies set in New York City can only be set in New York City. Woody Allen doesn’t film, for the most part, in Boston, and despite what the Academy says, I don’t think it was such a hot idea for Martin Scorsese, either. By the same token, it’s impossible to think of the Ackroyd/Ramis/Reitman version of Ghostbusters taking place in Chicago, L. A., or New Orleans. “Let’s show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown.” Right? It’s gotta be set in New York, or it doesn’t quite work.

Or maybe it’s just that NYC as a milieu works so well as a catalyst for galvanizing types of humor honed elsewhere. After all, the original Ghostbusters cast was a mix of Canadians and Midwesterners, all connected with Second City and/or Saturday Night Live. The discipline of comedy tours and weekly television are rather like classical training for American comedians, who must adapt their routines and sketches to the demands of one of the most diverse audiences in the world. Live comedy demands an often tricky mix of topicality and timelessness—great jokes have to plugged into the here and now, but you can’t assume that everybody in the audiences is as plugged in as they should be. Film comedy is a different kind of tricky. Again, sharp humor always feels contemporary—but sharp humor always feels contemporary. The characters of Manhattan are as pathetic and funny in 2016 as they were in 1979; Peter Venkman’s narcissistic assholery and Ray Stanz’s blue collar geekery translated across state lines in 1984 as well as they translate across the three decades since they first appeared.

There’s little topical humor specific to 2016 in the new Ghostbusters, few allusions outside the franchise. Characters reference classic films like The Exorcist, but only to elements already deeply soaked into the pop culture consciousness. For instance, Andy Garcia plays the mayor of New York (because of course he does), and he deeply resents Kristin Wiig’s desperate scientist begging him not to be like the mayor from Jaws. Melissa McCarthy spends the whole film trying to get a decent bucket of wanton soup from her favorite Chinese restaurant—a running gag that works even better because only in (movie) New York City would someone stubbornly keep ordering the same disappointing soup from the same take-out joint and berate the delivery driver for it. Instead of “We’re ready to believe you!” or “Who you gonna call?,” the first slogan these Ghostbusters come up with is, “If you see something, say something,” only realizing after the flyers are already printed that someone is already using that one. In fact, that might be the most specifically New York joke of the film, and its topicality is restricted only in the sense that you have to know that the film takes place post-9/11.

In fact, that reference is probably the single strongest signal of the film’s temporal setting. There’s one instance of a smartphone video uploaded to YouTube costing a character a job, but apart from that, there’s little reference to the latest communication technologies, which probably comprise the single most conspicuous trait of our historical period. The (fictional, s’far’s I can tell) Mercado Hotel replaces 44 Central Part West as the site of the the climactic battle, and its art deco lobby is vintage (movie) New York City: it’s exactly the kind of perfectly preserved building you would expect to sit atop ancient ley lines, in addition to being an architectural expression of yesteryear’s cutting edge. It’s nebulously nostalgic, and while art deco might look simply dated elsewhere, it feels strangely a part of contemporary life in (movie) New York.

The Mercado Hotel climax is symbolic of what’s great about the film as well as what’s not so great. While it evokes that wonderful movie-NYC contemporary-nostalgia, it also evokes some of the most memorable scenes from the original Ghostbusters. Unfortunately, 2016’s Ghostbusters does entirely too much of that, and not cleverly enough. One callback that works well is the way this film brings in the classic logo, here spray-painted into a subway as a bit of mockery by a graffito. Another classy nod is the bronze bust of Harold Ramis glimpsed early in the film, gracing the hallowed halls of Columbia University. Cameos by other original cast members range from nice to outright distracting. Annie Potts essentially plays Janine, except here she’s the desk clerk in the Mercado. It works in part because her shtick is still funny, and because it’s a brief beat in the narrative flow. The single worst cameo is, unsurprisingly, Bill Murray’s. It’s not so much Murray’s performance as a paranormal debunker that clunks, but the fact that the film builds an entire sequence around him. While I think Paul Feig and Katie Dippold wanted him to be this version’s Walter Peck, it doesn’t really work out that way. For one, his cameo is too brief and poorly structured into the narrative to serve the catastrophic purpose of Peck in the original. For another, even if Murray’s performance is fine, he’s just too much Murray. Maybe other fans of the original will really dig him here. For me, the entire sequence screamed, “OMG you guys we got Murray for a day we gotta DO STUFF WITH HIM!!”

There’s really no way Feig et al. could win. Remaking a beloved film like Ghostbusters entails its own challenges that have little to do with the mechanics of storytelling and everything to do with fan service. Apart from the clunkiness of Murray’s extended cameo, he shows up at almost exactly the wrong time, a little more or less than halfway through the film. Until his appearance, the film had done deft work in metatextual commentary, sprinkling allusions to the earlier films into its original material in ways that were pleasing without interrupting the flow. In fact, the first 45 minutes or so of 2016’s Ghostbusters is borderline magnificent. It sets up a distinct cast, a different kind of villain, and it does all this with the workmanlike professionalism that makes for durable Hollywood cinema. The thematic arc is even distinct from the original. Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters were underdogs who got to prove their worth to a city famed for its facility with dream-crushing, and Peter Venkman learns to be a little less of a selfish asshole. Feig’s Ghostbusters are still underdogs who get to prove themselves, but this movie is really about what a difference friendship makes to said underdogs. The difference between the good guys and the bad guy here is that human connection. In a culture that frankly still often celebrates bullies and narcissists, the outcasts who save the city in the new film are honored for their personal strengths in ways that are subtext (if that) in the original Ghostbusters.

The cast makes that work. And as someone who is a big unplugged from pop culture, this was my first time really seeing Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones as performers. SNL fans know them, but I don’t think I’ve watched SNL since about 2001 or 2002. They are simply terrific, as is McCarthy, whom I know going back to Gilmore Girls. The dialogue in this movie is good, and the special effects are okay; this is a movie you kind of have to see for the actors, though. Besides the great chemistry shared by the principle leads, they also spark with pretty much everyone else who shows up. I recognized Charles Dance, Ed Begley, Jr., Matt Walsh, Michael K. Williams, and Michael McDonald, of course; Cecily Strong, Neil Casey, and Steve Higgins are (apparently) SNL alumni as well. This isn’t quite an Ocean’s Eleven-level Who’s Who, but there are no wasted scenes with any of these performers. It’s all good stuff. Oh, and, yeah—Chris Hemsworth: delightful.

I’m interested to see how this movie plays over the long haul. Unlike a lot of my contemporaries, I didn’t see 1984’s Ghostbusters (or its sequel) until I was in my teens. So the nostalgia factor is a bit blunted, but I have watched the first film at least a dozen times. It’s impossible for me to watch 2016’s Ghostbusters and not be at least a little distracted by all the callbacks and cameos. Will younger audiences, those less attached to the original movies, feel the same way? What about viewers my age or older, who simply enjoy the cameos for what they are? I don’t typically see the point in doing a remake/reboot unless the filmmakers can find a reason to justify doing something new and different. Most of the new film hits the sweet spot between honoring the structure and vibe of the old one while still infusing it with the unique sensibility of its (re)makers. The very presence of the old cast (awesome though they are as individual performers) and some of the callbacks simply feels like an unwelcome intrusion, sort of like the VIPs that you’re obliged to put on the guest list even though the party will be super-unhip if they actually show up.

On the whole, though, it’s an enjoyable and—dare I say—necessary extension of the Ghostbusters franchise into the 21st century. The weird mix of welcome and unwelcome nostalgia is likely an unavoidable cost of that labor. All the same, what I kind of dig conceptually about the new film is that it formalizes the Ghostbusters not just as a viable franchise, but as a cultural institution, one that’s multigenerational in a meaningful, active sense. What would America be without its institutions—and what would (movie) New York be without its Ghostbusters? ☕


Reflections on revolution in American conservatism, part 2

Previously, I said that I have disavowed conservatism because a majority of American conservatives are aligned with bigotry. It’s a very presentist case to make, and the emergence of Donald Trump as the Republican (read: conservative, or at least “less liberal” than Hillary Clinton) candidate has made it not only easy, but convenient. To be perfectly honest, there’s a little bit of self-defense involved in my sudden deconversion: I don’t want to be associated with the racists and religious bigots on the Right who have made Trump their candidate. Since this blog is public, I don’t want anyone to make the mistake of thinking that I’m on board with the Lars von Trier melodrama unfolding within conservative circles. I’m not, in any way, interested in performing the ethical and rhetorical contortions to justify why I’m still conservative that other self-identified conservatives have been performing in order to explain away why they’re still voting for Donald Trump. I’m also not interested in performing the ethical and rhetorical contortions that other self-identified conservatives (the ones with a moral center) have been performing in order to place the responsibility for Trump’s ascendance on the Left. There’s blame enough to go around, I suppose, but I agree with Damon Linker that the main blame lies with the Right.

Therefore, a question that’s been vexing me for the last year is whether I’ve contributed to the surge of bigotry in any way simply by offering up conservative apologetics in the past.

This isn’t just navel-gazing; it’s a question of ethical responsibility. It’s a question I think every self-identified conservative ought to wrestle with. What is it in American conservatism (leaving aside other Western right wing traditions) that has enabled Trump, of all people, to be The Guy?

In assaying this question, I hope to make it clear that my disassociation with American conservatism as a political movement is not done purely for convenience, but something that is principled and which has been coming for some time. The truth is that it has been difficult for me for a long time to find much overlap between my own politics and the politics adopted by a majority of self-identified conservatives in this country. The difference now is that I no longer see myself as occupying a neglected corner of a big tent, but a place somewhere outside of it. In some ways, I feel that American conservatism pulled up stakes and left me behind some time ago, but it’s also likely that I simply wandered outside the tent at some point without realizing it until, just recently, I took a big gulp of fresh air and noticed that the circus, with its angry clowns and great heaps of elephant dung, was far, far away.

Most of what I wrote below with reference to historical context is mostly boilerplate summary and in no way my own original argument. As this is a personal reflection and not an academic essay, I’m not going to track down every document that has, for the last several years, nudged my thinking in this direction. Perhaps I’ll cover that in future reflections. At any rate, the historical context is my own words, but not my own ideas. Please read with that in mind.

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Russell Kirk is probably one of the most famous twentieth-century theorists of conservatism as a distinct political philosophy. Among other things, he’s famous for enshrining Edmund Burke as a canonical forerunner of what we, in America, now think of as conservative ideology. His essay on the “Ten Principles of Conservative Thought” is one that I’ve returned to at different points in my life as I’ve tried to balance current political circumstances against my own evolving framework. It’s necessary to remember that Kirk’s main body of intellectual work was published in the context of the Cold War. In fact, it’s necessary to remember that what is now mainstream U.S. conservatism was developed in that context. American society underwent a number of social changes in the decades stretching from the end of World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

For the moment, it’s important to keep in mind that conservative intellectuals contended with three political antagonists that they saw as mutually overlapping (or, rather, in alliance against them): 1.) the radical Left intelligentsia, based mainly in universities and cosmopolitan, mostly coastal, urban centers; 2.) international communism, exemplified by the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and, after the 60s, various countries in South America; 3.) the progressive/liberal political movement, dating back at least to Wilson and TR, with presidents like FDR, JFK, and LBJ carrying the torch forward. It’s true that these three traditions have included people who have felt kinship with all of them, and it’s also true that there were people in all of them that utterly despised and disavowed association with the other traditions. Broadly speaking, the only thing these traditions have in common is that they were generally “Leftist.”

Apart from that, there were often sharp disagreements in terms of ideology and praxis between them. One of the more important distinctions is that the radical Left was often deeply critical of the entire European Enlightenment tradition, going all the way back to Locke, Kant, and Smith, while liberals often championed their causes on the principles that the radicals despised: individual liberty and reason. The radical argument (and I’m being quite reductive here) is that the Enlightenment tradition paved the way for the worst excesses of capitalism, which undergirded the material wealth and accomplishments of the West, including the wealth gained through the various colonial projects of the European nations. For radicals, individualism and the celebration of reason were just tools for keeping democratic populations docile and too motivated by self-interest to actually follow through on overcoming inequality. Liberals, by contrast, often achieved their most significant victories—making voting more democratic, civil rights legislation, social safety net programs—by emphasizing the dignity and choice of the individual and her exercise of reason. Few of these progressive achievements actually undermined or attacked the foundations of capitalism itself, which is why the radicals saw those victories as nice but ultimately hollow. Communists, for their part, tended to combine the worst elements of Left agitation for equality and liberal designs for rationalized social equality. Liberals deplored the abuses of communist regimes; radicals were often split, with some simply turning a blind eye to communist horrors, some ascribing communist failures to capitalism’s unending malignancy, and some moving even further beyond the framework of the nation-state, often championing variations on anarchist subversion of convention, whether liberal-democratic, fascist, or communist.

Into this context, the modern conservative movement as such was nursed into being.

The “ten principles” outlined by Kirk were originally delivered to a speech to the Heritage Foundation in 1986, late in his life, and more than three decades after the publication of The Conservative Mind. By this point, “movement conservatism” had become an ideology of its own. William F. Buckley, Jr. had the ear of President Ronald Reagan, and National Review was the flagship publication of conservative intellectual thought. Conservative pundits had also established a significant presence in mass media. Readers could follow writers like George Will and Charles Krauthammer in syndicated newspaper columns or The Weekly Standard, while radio listeners could tune into Rush Limbaugh or Phyllis Schafly. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, in the meantime, had consolidated the so-called Religious Right into what they termed a “Moral Majority,” citizens who tuned intoThe 700 Club or subscribed to newsletters from organizations like Focus on the Family. The Heritage Foundation itself had become a leading conservative think tank by the mid-80s. Organizations like this one were vital to the project of welding a more hardline ideological conservatism, developed among the activist base that had propelled the Barry Goldwater insurgency a generation earlier, to the forefront of the political platform of the Republican Party.

In reading Kirk’s declaration of principles, we cannot afford to ignore this context. The Cold War caused a lot of misery globally, and to consider only the American context, it resulted in at least two wars fought to loss or stalemate (Vietnam and Korea), the support of often horrific dictatorships in South America, and the support of the proxy insurgents in the Middle East (to fight Soviet aggression into South and Southwest Asia) who would evolve into radical Islamist terror groups or theocratic dictatorships. On a more abstract level, it also managed to calcify ideological divisions in the United States—as far as conservatives were concerned—into two groups. On the one side were the three Left traditions outlined above, conflated by conservatives into a single monolithic force. Movement conservatives are as adept at invoking Stalin and Mao when talking about the Left as liberals are at invoking Hitler and Mussolini when talking about the Right. The Right’s calcification of the Left into a single, homogenous entity with respect to the Cold War is significant for my purposes only in that movement conservatives still have not moved on from that (wildly distorted) paradigm. What they have yet to come to terms with is that the particular fusion of political interests developed during the Cold War era—Christian social/religious hegemony, economic libertarianism (free market triumphalism combined with slashing federal programs), hawkish military spending and belligerence, increasing the militarization of police (coupled with extreme positions on individual gun rights), and expanding independent power of the executive branch for national security purposes—were also calcified. Outside the context of the Cold War, the Reagan fusion makes little to no ideological sense. As a coalition of interests threatened specifically by Soviet-style communism, it does. Much as movement conservatism falsely conflated various strains of Leftist thought,  it at least responded to a specific real-world situation. That’s not where the world is now, though.

The ten principles outlined by Kirk are not presented specifically as anti-communist resistance. They give the impression that they transcend their moment in time, as principles are meant to do. Kirk’s summation at the very end feels apt to what it is that conservatism ought to be, a recognition of “an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.” That’s almost too transcendent, though. It’s not much different from the affirmation that we ought to bend toward our platonic ideals, rather than bend a mutable universe to our own will. As the foundation for political philosophy, we could do worse, but there have been moments in progressive thought, especially of the Hegelian varieties, that see progress as teleological, which is often simply another form of pursuing transcendent ideals. We do better to consider some of the specific principles Kirk outlines to get a sense of what he means.

I won’t go through all of them, but I’ll highlight a couple that are most pertinent to my reflections.

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Let’s start with this one, which is probably the most recognizably conservative in the American political context.

Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked. Separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Upon the foundation of private property, great civilizations are built. The more widespread is the possession of private property, the more stable and productive is a commonwealth. Economic leveling, conservatives maintain, is not economic progress. Getting and spending are not the chief aims of human existence; but a sound economic basis for the person, the family, and the commonwealth is much to be desired.

You can see the fingerprints of the libertarian strain of Austrian economists all over this principle. More specifically, it is thinkers like Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, and Murray Rothbard, who developed the foundations for latter-day libertarian politics. Leviathan is a synonym for statist totalitarianism in this snippet, and libertarians contend that economic liberty and individual liberty are isomorphic concepts, and that if a single entity (such as the modern nation-state) controls the majority of private property, then the freedom to exercise individual liberty is necessarily curtailed. It follows, of course, that those who posses more wealth have more liberty than others, but this is, in the anarcho-capitalist realm of political theory, acceptable, because it both incentivizes individual striving for more wealth and allows individuals who exercise their freedom irresponsibly to lose it.

I’ve flirted with libertarianism for years, and I think it to be one of the most ideologically consistent political philosophies; the consistency itself is appealing to me. Unfortunately, my interest in libertarian thought led me to read a good deal of it. As with many things, direct exposure to something is the best inoculation against it.

Libertarian social economists have yet to provide an explanation of how statist nonintervention is to prevent a form of corporate oligarchy from replacing a functioning representative democracy, apart from the hazy belief that if a corporation runs its fief inefficiently, it will crumble and be replaced by another. For anyone concerned at all with maintaining social order, valorizing the volatility of free market competition and its fallout strikes me as naïve at best, and malicious at worst. Furthermore, the alleged efficiency of the market in weeding the strong from the weak competitors conventionally draws parallels between the processes of capitalism and natural selection. Natural selection, as a natural process, is amoral. Why, then, would human society wish to acclaim an inherently amoral process as a “good,” especially in contrast to public institutions erected to promote specific social goods? Finally, drawing a theoretical link between the amount of wealth one has and the amount of liberty one may exercise is something that both Marxists and libertarians have in common. The main difference is that Marxists wish to promote relatively more freedom for all, whereas libertarians wish to promote more freedom only for the wealthy. In a world where one’s labors directly correlate with the amount of private property one is able to amass, the libertarians might have the theoretical edge. In the real world, where things are not now and never will be fair, yoking possession of private property to possession of freedom is as much the road to serfdom as state socialism.

Of course, Kirk does not specifically advocate libertarianism per se as a principle of conservatism, nor does he say that it is the highest good. Instead, his emphasis on the benefits of protecting private property ownership, taken in tandem with the other principles, is meant to highlight the benefits of having a society in which individuals are encouraged to reap the benefits of investing their time, effort, and wealth into their own property.

Since this is but one of ten other principles, we might also recall that it takes no precedence over the others. Yet I do not think that there is any other principle in contemporary conservative thought that is held more dear than the idea of “limited government,” especially with respect to state intervention in the economy. Opposition to or critique of unions (public or private sector), state spending on education, welfare programs, environmental protection, and business regulation of any sort invariably falls back onto the notion that “the market” is better suited to mediate virtually every human endeavor, rather than the government.

Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France was particularly animated by the revolutionaries’ confiscation of private property, which he saw as a precondition for the lawless totalitarianism soon to follow. But even for Burke, a key issue was the balance of power between the landed nobility, the church, and the crown, whose mutually-dependent property relations underwrote the economy of the ancien regime the revolutionaries sought to upend—in short, Burke wasn’t defending private property rights as defined against the state as such, but against the illicit confiscation of property by a particular (in his view, illegitimate) government, judged against the particular historical circumstances of its constitution. That’s not quite the same thing as championing private sector solutions to public sector problems. Kirk’s own position, as stated in the principles, clearly is pitched against total state or communal ownership of property, but in no way does he militate against government intervention per se. What is primarily at stake here, as I see it, is the degree to which private property is the medium of individual liberty. In the context of the Cold War, it makes sense that a conservative would uphold the necessity of private property in opposition to the communist governments of Russia and China, which often used privation tactically to neutralize dissent, or, at the very least, had millions of citizens who had equality but nothing to do with it.

Confiscation is a powerful political weapon, and communist regimes have rarely hesitated to deploy it. (Again, I recognize my reductiveness.) Though Burke had indeed harshly condemned the French radicals’ confiscation and redistribution of property—as well as charged them with economic illiteracy—his eighteenth century view of property rights was much more moderate than late twentieth-century conservatives’ view. Kirk’s argument is favorable to the libertarian-ish Reagan era, but to say that “freedom and property are closely linked” is not to say that freedom depends upon private property. At the heart of Burke’s critique was the state’s exercise of power  through the lawless disregard for private subjects’ established claims to their property. Kirk observed a similar operation in the communist regimes of his century, but those were examples of totalitarian state tyranny, not examples of what happens whenever the state is an economic agent. That’s a distinction lost on whomever conflates all Left traditions into a monolithic whole. Despite conservative claims to the contrary, Keynesians are not de facto socialists or communists or totalitarians. Seeking the state’s aid in addressing the consequences of gross economic inequality is not tantamount to seeking complete economic leveling across the board. A close link is not a necessary causal relationship.

There aren’t many communist nation-states left, and arguably none that don’t qualify as failures, dictatorships, or (as in China’s case) quasi-state-capitalist. In 2016, much of the rhetoric surrounding economic justice is directed toward the obvious fact that a relative handful of people control the economic futures of everyone else on the planet. It may be the case that private property and personal freedom are indissolubly linked, but for most people in the world, that only means that most people have less freedom than others, and the structure of capitalist accumulation always works to the benefit of those who have already accumulated more capital. Any speech about infringements on freedom that is related to business or environmental regulation that is made on behalf of people who already have money is therefore a speech about preserving the inequalities that already exist.

I’ll say that again. When conservatives in 2016 talk about defending the free market, they are talking about defending economic inequalities that are part of the current economic structure.

Take that as you will. I’m just trying to put it in historical context.

The conservative principle of yoking personal wealth and personal freedom against economic leveling is not about protecting us from state communism. It is about enabling those who already possess property to get more. Again, in theory, maybe this isn’t so bad. It’s the American Dream to take your shot at prosperity, right? Well, yes, but in a market based on competition, there will always be losers in that competition. And in a market-based competition, the loser loses his property to the winner. The loser loses freedom.

Part of what makes freedom scary is that we have the freedom to fail. In theory. It also means that we have the freedom to succeed, often in amazing, unpredictable ways. In theory. That also means that we can fail in traumatic, unpredictable ways. A free market offers no provision for the losers. For those with a modest amount of private property to gamble, the stakes involved might indeed inspire prudence and innovation. For those with a great amount to gamble, the stakes involved might lead to recklessness. After all, the wealthy can afford golden parachutes. They have that freedom, whereas Joe and Jane Smith, who opened a restaurant with their life savings, will simply lose everything if the economy turns south.

Mind you, I’m not saying that the market is inherently bad. It is not inherently good, either. And having respect for the social benefits of private property ownership is not the same thing as libertarian free market triumphalism. So when I read conservatives prating about the efficiency of the market or how capitalism is pretty much the greatest thing ever or that money equals free speech, or that we can’t have freedom without unfettered capitalism, it grinds me to the core. I happen to accept the analogy that the market functions similarly to natural selection, but, because I have a moral sensibility, I am always inclined to weigh the human costs involved in that proposition. As a result, I don’t think the market deserves protection from state intervention; I think that human beings deserve protection from the fallout of a free market system.

Kirk, of course, was willing to associate himself with the Reagan coalition, which had quite radical ideas. I lack both the knowledge and time to discuss Kirk’s entire corpus as it relates to movement conservatism’s apotheosis in the 1980s. What is fascinating to me in the passage I quoted, though, is how tempered Kirk is, how much nuance he leaves in his contention that property rights underlie political freedom. Not only is this principle just one of ten (clearly not taking precedence over the others), but his presentation of property as foundational to the commonwealth really is fundamental—in the sense that it provides a stable basis for the family, for the community. This is not free market triumphalism. When conservatives valorize the market, with its volatility, its amorality, its blind indifference to reason and human dignity, they embrace the violent chaos of a Darwinist cosmos. It is to this vision of the cosmos that Kirk’s seventh principle stands opposed. Civilization is not built upon the chaos of the market, but upon the investment of human striving into material artifacts. The market is, as Joseph Schumpeter put it, an engine of creative destruction. This kind of instability, of rupture, of impermanence in the natural order is not, cannot be, representative of the transcendent moral order that Kirk declares to be first and foremost in the conservative mind.

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Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. It is old custom that enables people to live together peaceably; the destroyers of custom demolish more than they know or desire. It is through convention—a word much abused in our time—that we contrive to avoid perpetual disputes about rights and duties: law at base is a body of conventions. Continuity is the means of linking generation to generation; it matters as much for society as it does for the individual; without it, life is meaningless. When successful revolutionaries have effaced old customs, derided old conventions, and broken the continuity of social institutions—why, presently they discover the necessity of establishing fresh customs, conventions, and continuity; but that process is painful and slow; and the new social order that eventually emerges may be much inferior to the old order that radicals overthrew in their zeal for the Earthly Paradise.

Conservatives are champions of custom, convention, and continuity because they prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know. Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long social experience, the result of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice. Thus the body social is a kind of spiritual corporation, comparable to the church; it may even be called a community of souls. Human society is no machine, to be treated mechanically. The continuity, the life-blood, of a society must not be interrupted. Burke’s reminder of the necessity for prudent change is in the mind of the conservative. But necessary change, conservatives argue, ought to be gradual and discriminatory, never unfixing old interests at once.

Once more, the context of the Cold War is essential to understanding this principle, and Kirk uses notably Burkean language when he describes “the old order that radicals overthrew in their zeal for the Earthly Paradise.” In the eighteenth century, the “radicals” would have been Jacobins; in the twentieth, they were the Bolsheviks. What’s at stake here is both preserving “custom, convention, and continuity” and rejecting the rupture that revolutionaries often champion when attempting to subvert the old order.

In the American context, this principle is more than a little weird when it’s advanced by conservatives who insist on using the Founding Fathers as pole stars in their rhetoric. Just in case you forgot, the United States formed in the wake of a revolution fought by British colonists against Great Britain. This revolution was founded in Enlightenment notions of natural rights and it pitted the received parliamentary tradition directly against the monarchy, rather than in partnership with it. While I happen to be of the mind that the American revolution was indeed quite radical, and that my nation’s forerunners had just grievances that were unjustly not addressed, I also am fully of the conviction that there was nothing conservative in temperance or politics about the revolution. Historians would be quick to point out that when the Constitution was drafted, it drew upon a long tradition of English common law, and that the colonies already had a functioning civil service apparatus to fall back on once the shooting stopped. In short, the radical break from their colonial overlords was founded upon inherited principles and transitioned (somewhat) smoothly thanks to laws, traditions, and infrastructure that were already in place. In that sense, the American revolution preserved much in custom, convention, and continuity.

But it was still a revolution.

Men, women, and children were killed in battle and as collateral damage. British loyalists were sometimes tortured or killed for their beliefs. Early American history is not my forte, but when I say that the revolution exacted a horrific human cost on both sides, I do not exaggerate.

The Declaration of Independence is, for good reason, one of the canonical documents of American society. In its language, statesmen, philosophers, and everyday people have found a wellspring of wisdom and authority—most often the latter, when invoking the Declaration to frame their own agenda. I return to it each year on or around our Independence Day, and it always strikes me anew as incredible. Mind you, I use that term in a somewhat nominal sense, rather than as praise or condemnation. What people often forget is that the Declaration was not a mere statement of beliefs; it was an argument. Allow me to quote liberally from it by way of illustration:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

All of this is praemunitio for the series of specific charges laid against the British government, the charges that justified the colonists’ secession from their government of more than 150 years.  While the lines about “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are likely the most-quoted, it is really that last sentence in the above quote that forms the core of the document’s purpose: the colonists had to prove that what England had become to them was really “absolute Despotism,” rather than a constitutional monarchy. A despot, you recall, is a dictator who arrogates all civil institutional power to himself alone. To charge England with reducing them to absolute Despotism was to charge the king with ignoring the rule of law and acting autocratically, outside his prescribed legal authority, to oppress the Americans. In short, to justify their own flouting of all legal authority, the colonists had to prove that the king flouted all legal authority first.

The Americans’ allegations had teeth, of course. What remains outstanding in the introductory remarks of the Declaration is that the authority to make their political rupture was arrogated to themselves as a “people,” somehow no longer quite English, but owing their decision as much to their own “duty, to throw off such Government” as to “the opinions of mankind.” If this feels vague and jazzy-handsy, it is. It’s grounded in a lot of well-established political philosophy (Locke looms particularly large), but it nevertheless hinges on the premise that a rupture between two distinct peoples has already occurred, and this justifies the further rupture between them. It is a document that acknowledges the continuity that previously existed, then alleges that the fault for its dissolution really lies entirely on the other side.

One of the many great ironies of American history is the contemporary resurgence of interest in the Founders among the radical right. Most notably, the grassroots opposition to President Obama that coalesced on or about 2009 dubbed itself the Tea Party. Instigated first by the president’s stimulus programs (intended to spur an end to the recession that started in 2008 with the collapse of the housing bubble and the derivatives market), then really galvanized by the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the latter-day Tea Party’s talking points in the early days revolved around the role the federal government ought to play in its citizens lives and how much it ought to spend toward that end. Basically, Obamacare was to them simultaneously an egregious intrusion upon citizens’ freedom to manage their own health care and a condensed symbol of Washington’s spendthrift waste of taxpayer resources. To hear the rhetoric, you would think that Barack Obama was quartering redcoats in our homes and torching our shopping malls with napalm. Tea Partiers see themselves as fighting to protect long-cherished liberties that are inherent to the American character and necessary to preserving our way of life.

While I think Jill Lepore has written the definitive essay on the Tea Party movement’s appropriation of American history, I do think that the the movement, quite by accident, stumbled into the perfect metaphor for itself. According to the latter-day exponents, the Boston Tea Party of 1793 is a symbol of the people’s refusal to let its government exercise tyranny through unjust economic policy. So it was.

Never mind, though, that England’s coffers were sapped, in part, by the British Empire’s efforts to head off French imperial ambitions aimed at, along with a few other continents, North America. You might recall getting confused back in school about who was on what side in the French and Indian War—American colonists called it that because the French persuaded indigenous people on this continent to fight alongside them against the British. At that point, Americans were still Britons, as was a young soldier named George Washington, who cut his military teeth in the conflict fighting alongside British forces. The French and Indian War, however, was just one part of a conflict that spanned the globe. Fighting wars has always been expensive, and when this particular war of empires ended in the 1760s, that tyrant, King George III, whose armies had killed and bled to protect his American colonial subjects, had to recoup costs. British legislative efforts to balance the ledger that had become stained with red on behalf of Americans (among other British peoples) were the first to stoke the fires of revolution in the thirteen colonies. If I may put it a bit ungenerously, the Americans didn’t want to foot the bill for a war that England had fought to preserve their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

So the Americans were one people with the British when the French were storming their borders, but fifteen years later, they were merely “one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.”

In the space of one generation, a rupture in cultural and institutional continuity had been effected by men who were primarily incensed over taxation without representation, a rupture of such magnitude that they went right back to mass slaughter, this time over the principle of liberty.

Once again, I acknowledge my historical reductiveness, as well as the fact that I’m playing fast and loose in my selection of historical facts, which seem always to conspire in their complicatedness to thwart every easy narrative that we try to make of them. Mea culpa.

What this digression is meant to illustrate is that contemporary conservatism is largely shaped by a spirit of radicalism. It is, furthermore, a radicalism that seeks to sever custom, convention, and continuity on multiple levels. While conservatives are busy embossing their newsletters with quotes from the Founders, they neglect to acknowledge the legally dubious nature of any revolutionary project. They further neglect to acknowledge that the rationale justifying the entire revolutionary project devolved upon a parcel of citizens the authority to decide whether or not any other “people” have a say in the matter who disagreed with them about what form of government is most conducive to the ends of providing Safety and Happiness. The logic of American Revolution, in other words, dictates that you can justify any political action, so long as it is in response to Despotism—and, as luck would have it, those with the authority to identify Despotism usually happen to be the ones proposing the radical political rupture with others who were, until just recently, their fellow citizens.

It is my fundamental contention that American conservatism, as currently expounded by a majority of its self-identified adherents, effaces old customs, derides old conventions, and breaks the continuity of social institutions. And if American conservatives think it unfair of me to say so, they might consider the fact that it is they who nursed the antigovernment, anti-establishment rhetoric for decades which eventually birthed the Tea Party, a political movement that named itself after a bunch of middle-aged white dudes dressing up in racist costumes and committing an act of large-scale vandalism because their parliamentary representatives approved a tax hike.

I’ve no idea what Kirk would have thought of the contemporary Tea Party or its radical politics. At the time that Kirk wrote his ten principles, his counter-revolutionary ideas were adequate to address the manifest failures of the Soviet Union and its offspring to follow through on their own revolutionary ruptures. Perhaps there’s contemporary relevance to the efforts of ISIS to destroy the cultural history of the cultures whose people have been afflicted by the misfortune of residing in territory occupied (however briefly) by the so-called caliphate. (Perhaps.) What strikes me is that we have had Obamacare now for about as long as the American Revolutionaries had King George’s tariffs before they decided to dump tea into Boston harbor. I doubt that many conservatives are making serious plans to secede from the Union. I do see, however, a parallel logic between the Declaration’s division of two peoples and the commonplace call to “Take our country back.” From whom? Our fellow Americans?

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If you think that perhaps I’m being unfair to overlay conservatism so isomorphically with the Tea Party, allow me to direct your attention to the all-but-concluded Republican presidential primary. No, not to Donald Trump (although I’ll come back to him in a bit). Indeed, I think it is far more significant to reflect on the fact that the two men left standing at the end of the long march to Cleveland were Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

Cruz is about as emblematic of the Tea Party as you can get, and he was widely acknowledged as the most conservative candidate running in this election cycle. While Trump is the most overtly noxious of the two, I think Cruz to be much more symbolic of this cultural moment in American movement conservatism, even in his failure to win the Republican nomination.

How many times did Cruz vow in his campaign to “repeal every word of Obamacare”? He offered a list of four cabinet positions and 25 agencies he would fight to eliminate. He said he’d carpet bomb ISIS strongholds, regardless of civilian casualties. When Donald Trump called for a ban on all Muslim immigration, Cruz countered by suggesting that we turn Muslim neighborhoods in the U.S. into state-run panopticons. He vowed that, on his first day in office, he would tear up the historic diplomatic deal with Iran. He led the fight in the Senate to push the government into a shutdown rather than fund the Affordable Care Act.

Conservatives call Cruz “principled.” Indeed he is. (Except when he apparently doesn’t tell the truth about his main opponent for eight months, but whatever.) The question is how he goes about applying those principles. It is my view that Cruz is not conservative. He is radical. It is radical to eliminate entire cabinet positions and agencies, just as it is radical to “repeal every word” of a law that is now an integral part of the nation’s health care system. It is radical to violate the constitutional rights of Muslims on account of them being Muslim. What Cruz consistently espouses is the violation of procedural norms for the sake of ideological purity. That’s radicalism. How is the word-for-word repeal of Obamacare by executive fiat any less radical than its creation and passage by duly-elected representatives of the American people? (It is, in fact, more so.) How is Cruz’s open declaration to turn American Muslim communities into de facto police states any less radical than, say, anything the president has said about limiting access to guns designed for efficiently killing mass numbers of people? (Again, I think it’s more so.) If anything, I think the president has largely worked within the institutional norms established by his predecessors, for better and worse. That is de facto conservatism.

Except, to the vast majority of American conservatives, it’s not.

The #NeverTrumpers endlessly repeat that Donald Trump is not now, nor has he ever been a true conservative. Indeed, Trump hasn’t really claimed to be. His supporters are the ones who claim to be conservative. Those agitating for the GOP to modify its rules so delegates won’t be bound to coronate that orange pile of smarm (as my wife calls him) are quick to point out that he didn’t win a majority of votes—just a mere plurality, as if the fact that only winning more primary delegates than any other single person is insufficient reason to nominate him the torch-bearer of the party whose candidate in 2000 was swept into office by overwhelming popular vote barely eked out a victory with a contentious Supreme Court decision that upheld the validity of the electoral college. These same #NeverTrumpers who pooh-pooh Trump’s mere plurality spent four years defending the legitimacy of George W. Bush’s first term on the same principle that Trump’s supporters cite to defend his right to the Republican nomination.

That’s why it’s important to consider Cruz and Trump together. Quite apart from the Republican media machine, the fact is that Cruz and Trump, considered together, do present a snapshot of conservative America. A majority of American conservatives voted for one of these two men. The question is what these two men have in common. Certainly not policy ideas. While they both took hardline stances on immigration, and while they are both bigoted against Muslims (though Cruz talks his way around more smoothly than Trump does), the only thing they really have in common is that their notions about how to go about actually governing the country are fundamentally extreme. Radical.

I do agree that a big part of Trump’s rise is simply attributable to old-fashioned racism. Old bigotry dies hard. I’d like to suggest, though, that there’s a deeper link between the fears of racial contamination and the trend toward polarization fueled by increasing ideological puritanism.

More than authoritarianism, what I think radicalism often does is lead people to place greater and greater faith in the power of ideological purity. Conservatism, as expounded in America for the last twenty years, takes extremism as a litmus test of seriousness.

When an entire political movement vets its candidates based on their commitment to radicalism, it is not difficult to see how a bully like Trump would appeal to its base. His entire shtick is premised on being extreme. It shows that he means business. The real story of the 2016 election is not how Trump got to be the Republican nominee. The real story is how people like John Kasich, Chris Christie, and Jeb Bush—politicians who are already very conservative—were deemed too moderate by the conservative base that turned out for the primaries.

Cruz and Trump were the last men standing because they were the most extreme candidates of the bunch. Despite all their manifest differences, what united them in their electoral successes was that every other conservative in the primary field was insufficiently radical. And when it came to the particular constellation of policy issues on which the conservative movement has staked its claim for the entirety of my lifetime, the conservative base didn’t go with the guy who became the most hated man in Washington for his utter commitment to ideological purity. No. They simply went for the guy who took the most pride in being offensive and amoral.

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To me, conservatism is quintessentially a productive, perhaps even progressive, resistance to radical change.

Is there any other conservative in American that you can think of who sees conservatism that way? Oh, aye, I’m sure there are a few. As I said in my previous post, however, a “few” do not a political philosophy make. Not unless they gather adherents; not unless those few are deemed in time to be originators of the discourse, as Foucault might put it.

In the last few years, I’ve found myself gravitating more toward thinkers who openly declare at least some allegiance to the tradition of liberalism, like Alan Jacobs or Damon Linker. My go-to source for news analysis is Vox, and for political scuttlebutt I hit Talking Points Memo. My favorite general interest magazine is The Atlantic. I relish reading Walter Benjamin. I’ve transmogrified into an over-educated, low-income Mugwump. I’ve kept thinking of myself as conservative, even though, apart from a few amateur bloggers, the only conservatives I read regularly publish in The American Conservative, which is notable for the diversity of nuanced, erudite perspectives found among many of the contributors who aren’t named Patrick J. Buchanan, who is a racist ass. The rest tend to be pretty good, which is to say that they did not spend the first eight years of this century circling the wagons around George W. Bush and the past eight years frothing at the mouth every time Barack Obama laced his shoes left side first.

The fact is that, in terms of my opinions on specific issues, I’ve not been conservative for some time now. It feels as though I woke up one day this last year, looked around at the political landscape, and thought, “Have I ever actually been one of these people?” Well, yes. I was, at one point. That much is true. And though I will admit that I feel ashamed of it, I feel compelled to declare that I ought not to be. First and foremost, I believe that every person ought to be granted the right to be persuaded to change their opinions over time. Mine certainly evolve, but very slowly. My current political outlook could only have been formed by the path I’ve traveled to get here. Being able to recognize the moral insanity of American conservatism is a blessing (I think?) that flows from what I’ve attempted for years to call my own conservative political convictions. The fact that my political convictions are not, in aggregate, conservative is the sort of epiphany only granted, I suspect, to those who have the perverse sensibility to luxuriate in disillusionment. What’re those sayings? “A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality,” and, “Reality has a liberal bias.” Here’s one, just for kicks: a liberal is a conservative who has been mugged by radicalism.

At bottom, I don’t really feel that I have a particularly large share of blame to shoulder for American political conservatism’s collective embrace of bigotry and radicalism, because it’s my temperamental conservatism that causes me to regard that spectacle with moral horror. It simply means that, politically, I must formally recognize that I am the loyal opposition to their ranks, not an outlier within them.

As tempting as it is to switch my label, as Linker did years ago, to liberal, or to triangulate myself, as Jacobs has, somewhere within a constellation of conservative-liberal-socialist positions, that doesn’t feel right to me, either. Not at this time, anyway. Given my temperamental conservatism, it’s probably obvious to you by now that such a shift would be a bit too swift, a bit too premature. What I hope that my conservative, liberal, socialist, libertarian, anarchist, distributist, and communitarian friends and acquaintances understand is that whatever our differences, there are some principles to which I will continue to adhere for the time being.

First, I will presume good faith on the part of individual political advocates—just because we disagree on something (or most things) does not mean I must ascribe to you all that is unholy and pernicious, and I hope you will extend the same courtesy to me. Second, I will presume that no individual is beholden to all that is most rotten in his own political tradition—I will continue to refrain from holding each Leftist accountable for Stalin and Mao as I will from holding each Right-winger accountable for Hitler and Trump. Third, I will endeavor to blunt the appeal of radical measures as political solutions, regardless of the nobility and justice of the goal. Fourth, I believe that I have something valuable to learn from all political traditions, and I will presume that interactions with someone from any tradition will teach me something I can reflect on as my own political philosophy continues to evolve.

I believe that each tradition is capacious enough to include someone with those principles. It seems to me that these principles create enough of a foundation for mutual understanding that productive dialogue can take place between us.

That said, I do think that labels have power, and I wish I had one that could accurately capture my political philosophy. As J. L. Austin argued years ago, words do things. To call myself liberal or socialist is to perform some sort of meaningful social act, and consequences follow. Unless and until I have better understanding of what those consequences are, I don’t think it prudent to throw in with you, whatever your political orientation may be. This isn’t because I don’t wish to associate with you; on the contrary, I wish our association to be productive. I wish to test you, and to make myself a better thinker and to clarify my own political ethics as part of the exchange. I just don’t wish to identify with you unless you and I are satisfied that, by doing so, we’re being accurate, and that there is something to be gained for all by having me join your tribe. By all means, proselytize me if you can.

It is my belief that politics ought to be productive. I don’t place my utter and complete faith in politics, but politics ought to serve a purpose beyond establishing and maintaining the hegemony of a radical minority. Conservatism in the United States, at present, is opposed to this conviction, which is why I therefore stand in opposition to American conservatism. ☕


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