The Fantasy of American Decline

American Decline has been the background music of my life. The spiraling fortunes of a once-great superpower provides popcorn and panic for citizens and onlookers alike, as do all great powers in their time. But in these latter days, a particular genre of horror narrative has acquired too grim a currency amongst public intellectuals struggling to describe the American trajectory through the fallout from the Cold War. The increased bombast of the doomsayers has risen in tandem with equally unhelpful counterweight. The replies to these thinkpieces tend to nitpick the superficiality of only some parts of American Declinism, ending up as cheap in analysis as the potshots they seek to address, straying all too easily and frequently into jingoism. Against this background, when the Atlantic writes that we are no longer the country we like to think we are, the intonation rings both deep and hollow in the same instant.

The messiness of language harms us here. We say “decline” while thinking of the kind most familiar to us: our bodies. We waste our youth, mature, flourish, then tread a descending path into the grave, shedding irreplaceable vigor, capacity, and dignity at every step. But “decline” also carries a mundane meaning: that things can get worse at something they were previously good at. Muscles atrophy if you neglect them, whether you are ten or a hundred. Countries can lose their ability to fight wars, build infrastructure, conduct successful politics, etc., decades or centuries after they were first founded. Once vibrant capacities can be lost before you know it. Despite the singular word carrying them, these are categorically different things: the former an established pattern that dooms something, the latter something that any existing thing knows and can prevent, mitigate, or reverse. I will distinguish between them with a mere, mighty capital letter: Decline vs. decline.

Culture plays a major part in our sense of Decline, which is American as baseball and far older. We are so very Protestant, doubly Declinist: the Reformers snatched the failing Church from Babylonian whoredom on top of a world slouching ever towards Gomorrah. Precipice opens our story. Desperate revolution. The Founders had to justify a republican experiment to a world of mostly absolute monarchies, who asked, reasonably, why this failed form of government, entombed in pagan Athens and Rome, was now the path forward. The answer was, indeed, Decline: Republics can work, but always slouch toward failure without safeguards, railings, and ever-vigilant wardens. A Republic, ma’am, if you can keep it. Outside America, the fates of Powers are a bright, familiar lamppost in history. In the West, Rome’s fall is our guiding star, the greatest calamity its identity has ever known, one it has never truly recovered from. Those less blessed by the West’s hegemony can cite such stories with more meaning to them than those around some distant inland sea. Powers come and go; it is the order of things. 

This narrative has practical benefits. We have enough to worry about in our own lives before considering what troubles our government, let alone a Great Power. A Decline soothes dissatisfaction by inevitabilizing it and highlighting its ephemerality. Complications and subtleties, the frustrating friction of reality, can be sidestepped. If you are concerned for America’s fate, Decline imbues that concern with clarity and volume, naturally aligning with those aforementioned cultural instincts that stride partisan lines. American movement conservatives tend to be “prouder” of America’s strength than liberals, but from a crooked place, preferring to deny or paper over the sharpening salience of the criticism levied against the object of their affection. Pat Buchanan simply insists America is not lagging peer nations in the many ways it clearly is, hoping flag-waving will take over. John Bolton has the mind of a spike-helmed Prussian, for whom any notion of Decline is easily soothed by a glance over the shoulder at Minuteman missiles. Then there are more “sophisticated” Transatlantic conservatives, such as Anne Applebaum, who subscribe to a different form of American Declinism, one less eager to buy its national mythmaking and more concerned with “America’s place in the world” as it relates to their own experience. This anxiety reaches leftward to Matthew Yglesias, who uses it as a base to argue for tripling America’s population, and Noah Smith, who remains optimistic and committed to believing in America, but troubled by these spreading signs. To leftists frustrated with America—or happy to see it fall—American Decline is irresistible. How could the fall of the American Empire be bad news? These just desserts let one skip the exhaustion of fighting for a more perfect Union, indulge in venerating other countries, and experience being rid of the idiocies of the Pax Americana. It matters little what the thing is or whence it came if it is about to die.

American Declinism is awash with such motivated reasoning, from natural human proclivities to sinister intentions. There is little cost to playing into it, and all this fuels its dearth of evidence and rigor. It is, in short, a fantasy manufactured for consumption, foreign and domestic. One of its mainstays is the Rise of China, which has deliberately painted itself at home and abroad into an antipole to the West: free of political infighting and the chaos of democracy, united under a totalizing vision, knit by discipline and self-sacrifice. In the propaganda floated by both the Chinese and ourselves, China serves as a neat, yin-yang counterweight speaking to the sins with which we preoccupy ourselves in our own backyard.  It has feasted on our counter-chauvinism, weaponizing our own cruel, crude stereotypes against us, our rampant bias that the outsider necessarily possesses that which we lack. They’re so respectful of authority, while Chinese history is replete with bloody rebellion. Their leaders are educated and clear-eyed, not like Ours, untrammeled by bickering, delusion, ambition, cowardice, boorishness, and stupidity.

But upon closer inspection, its sins are the same as those levied against America to explain its descent. China is a power built on unrepentant racism, jingoism, aggression, and colonialism, a legacy unbroken for millennia, which it has made no attempts to rectify. It believes itself exceptional, One of the First Ones, with an imperial birthright. It acts unilaterally and with increasing impunity in defiance of the international community, wasting energy and treasure on conflicts that are mere points of pride. If these are why America ails, China should too. Yea, it is: from existential demographic decline, a vast and widening wealth gap, worse social mobility than America’s, and opportunity clustered in select cities suffocated by skyrocketing costs of living. Every ill America has, moral or economic, China bears in equal or greater measure. 

This is mostly a shared and human fate rather than a tale of two Declines. The bitter truth is that these are general problems that apply to everyone. We are entering an age of famine in which such bedrock assumptions as the climate and reproductive patterns are foundering. Claims that X is falling inexorably while Y is rising inexorably cannot withstand the rapidly shifting realities of our era. All lands, all nations, all peoples, are in deep trouble, no matter how good things may seem in the moment. We can point to nations in serious Decline due to them—China, South Korea, and Japan—where the demographic arbitrage created by reducing infant mortality is closing as the contraceptive incentives of modern life catch up. But even this Decline was preventable, or might at least have been checked or moderated. Far from inevitable, it was a collective policy choice by these nations, who eschewed very uncomfortable conversations on immigration, gender equality, and other cultural values until bearing their costs, with interest, became unavoidable. These deeper issues are now totally eclipsing the wise, enviable investments made in infrastructure and urban design. In other areas, they are even worse off: Japanese society has generationally retained unhealthy trends and is paying dearly for it while less flashy social infrastructure frays. How many of you know about shibal biyong, the senseless hedonism in which South Korean youth indulge to momentarily escape the hopelessness engendered by their prospects in their country’s own two-tiered employment market?

The asymmetric nature of hegemony feeds into this. The volume of our presence drowns so much else out. With its intimidating language and opaque culture, Americans struggle to judge Japan with clear eyes; the reverse is much less difficult given American cultural and linguistic dominance worldwide. Of course those who live in America’s shadow are going to be more casually familiar with its warts, flaws, crimes, and sins than the reverse. But now the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Things like the horrible reality of American suburbia are worthy of our anger and discontent, in context. They are a symptom of lower-case decline, the kind of atrophy that results from neglect and coasting. They are an instrumental indictment of our past rather than a metaphysical indictment of our future. America’s capacity to teach children, build roads, enrich its people, or work through political problems has not departed forever like the vigor of youthful fingers. America is not regressing to barbarism simply because Germany’s trains or Denmark’s education have done better by comparison. The “America is not a developed country” shtick plays cute for memes, but it is not true and it does not help us fix anything, nor is it right (or analytically other than misleading) to toss out the many areas where America continues to lead. The power of American culture remains second to none. We continue to be a bold vanguard on race, pluralism, and social justice, with laws frequently and literally decades ahead of our supposedly progressive European comrades (look at a US vs. EU timeline on gay marriage, trans rights, or the War on Drugs!). A growing majority of Americans are rejecting the simplistic cultural tropes and original sins we have clung to for so long. Obsession over the entirely fixable holes in our healthcare and transportation infrastructure, while ignoring the flourishing and reimagining of our potential and spirit, is the ultimate and ultimately short-sighted triumph of presentist doom over justified hope. We are ahead and have even widened our lead in ways that don’t show up in life expectancy statistics. America remains a good place to live, the walkability preferences of more affluent liberals like myself notwithstanding. We have a very long way to go, but we are coming a very long way still.

States are not bodies, etched in biological stone. They do not “live,” “age,” or “die.” In truth, we know little about them. The story of each has been peculiar, informed harshly by circumstance and luck. We still do not understand what happened to Rome; citing it as an example of a rise and fall has become a cliché, more distracting than informing. The Ottoman Empire fell over a very long time and was carved up at an opportune moment by predators. Byzantium went through extended periods of decay and renewal. The Mongols were a flash in the pan. The Aztecs and Incas were clad in glory when doom washed ashore. Just as many states, such as France in the Hundred Years’ War, Prussia after the Battle of Kunersdorf, and America before and during the Civil War (as well as the Great Depression), have survived times of chronic and acute crises only to experience revival and dominance. Examine the tapestry of empires and you will find yourself left with a morass of disparate threads weaving more questions than answers.

Our one peak—the well-established absurdity of such a notion notwithstanding—has not passed us by, in either moral or practical authority. Remember that half of us tried to violently secede rather than accept a President who merely failed to look kindly on slavery. Fifteen years on, American government succumbed to white sedition and terrorism. A hundred years later, half the body politic—our parents and grandparents—voted for Nixon and got enraged by black people being allowed to use the same restroom. Our economy was in deep trouble in the 1930s and 70s. There was never any Golden Age. Likewise, the permanent collapse of a state into something else is exceedingly rare. Political power abhors a vacuum. The French state technically “collapsed” in 1958, but France did not disappear. The collapse of the empires of the twentieth century, including the Soviet Union, was possible because there were constituent entities for them to collapse into, or, in the unique case of the Ottoman Empire, powerful external actors able to carve new boundaries out of whole flesh. America is nowhere near such a scenario. The fetish of a Second American Civil War belies a poor understanding of the first, glossing over the need for coherent sections of the populace able to pivot into collective postures against each other. The diffuse nature of America’s modern polarization, population, and economy precludes this. There are no realistic threats to the existence of an American state able to project large amounts of power abroad. That is rooted in America’s geography and lack of powerful neighbors, which is not changing. Consider the behavior of those with stakes in the matter. Nobody in Latin America is acting like the beast to their north will at last be sapped of the power to rampage about. No one in Africa or the Middle East is behaving as if America’s tide is about to leave them in peace forever. In the real world, America is not going away. 

In the real world, America is not some backward pond of inbred gringos and ignorant dopes that stumbled into hegemony in defiance of some meritocracy. The caricature of a self-absorbed empire, convinced of its own superiority in the face of a knowing world watching in sadness as it gasps, unable to save itself, is a delusion crafted by self-interested parties. None of these describe the real country of America. It speaks to the unreality of this Decline that we should be rubbernecking the ruin of a vibrant centerpiece of our civilization like peeping voyeurs, as if this is just musical chairs for the board of directors at some cereal company. America’s collapse, balkanization, or permanent atrophy would be an unmitigated disaster. None in the whole earth would go unscathed. The world economy would take generations to recover. Representative government would lose its oldest and most compelling standard bearer. A reliable gadfly would go extinct. It speaks deeper that our saviors are to be skittish Eurocentrism, hypercapitalist Chinese nationalism, or the exhausted models of ethnostates and multipolar diplomacy acquiescing to “interests” / “realities”—all equally tired routes wholly insufficient to meet the  epochal challenges of climate change and the post-industrial demographic bust. They too are Cold War relics, rebrands of the promises of détente or the Non-Aligned Movement, still based on a model that the past thirty years have long swept away.

America is far from invincible. All states are indeed mortal, which has become misleadingly interchangeable with “fragile.” Anything can be killed in an instant. But American representative government is almost two hundred and fifty years old. It has survived a civil war, grinding economic depressions, and long stretches of unaddressed inequality and injustice, crises that have felled countless monarchies and despotates in its time. We even made it through a coup this year. Armed men stole into our Holy of Holies, yet we are still here. It takes more than that to slay a democracy. Even if they had succeeded, America would have continued. We know this, because they have ruled us many times before. We are not in a glass menagerie dreading a strong wind.

Every country is indulging in fantasies about where they are, where they came from, and where they are going. We are unexceptional after all. I am not underselling the threats to America as neo-Confederates return. I am not one of the merchants who greets you past the doors of enlightenment, offering to replace the beloved you just lost. Interrogate your motives for believing in this story. It is often easier slumbering in a hopeless dark than stepping into a painful, clarifying, unhideable light and its beckoning to labor, but we know from experience that days are better and healthier faced upright. Things are not as dark as they seem. These fascists are a shadow of what they once were, a reviled and disreputable minority fading before our tide. We have won the conversation on healthcare, race, LGBT rights, drugs, the Forever Wars, American exceptionalism, and climate change, each of these tidings our past selves would be overjoyed to hear. Close that Google search of America’s symptoms and go to an actual medical professional, who will tell you that they are serious and complex, yet treatable. The educated masses of America cannot be described as “happy with the status quo” or hypnotized by some zombie-like admiration for its Constitution. They are agitating for change, the only way to thread the needle between life and death, for things that are to pass away without simply ceasing to be. You have to spend life to make life, to accept a little death to defeat the great one: that of hope.

A Decline is an apologia, a synonym for Despair. You do not get to throw up your hands and say “now, here, we are truly fucked.” China and South Korea are much nearer to a real Decline than we, and there is still so much they can do; we have by comparison no excuse. America is here to stay. No getting off the merry-go-round, neither in an individual, political, nor cosmic sense. We live in the world made by the actions of others before us. Your actions will determine the world to come. The wise man plants a tree knowing he will never sit in its shade because he has learned there is no human difference between the planter and the sitter; they are contiguous. When the world finally ends, we will be long gone together with the trees we have planted. Apocalypses have no need for audiences.

The Weary Colossus

I’m tired. No, not of 2020. I’m tired of hearing how America Sucks™. There’s a big difference between “hey, racism and the Declaration of Independence contradict each other” and “lawl why don’t you have high-speed rail like the rest of the boys?” There’s an even greater gulf between fundamental atrophy and the vagaries of policy performance metrics. Germany was the “sick man of Europe” not twenty years ago. Keep that in mind while reading this week’s articles on America’s demise.

This is not to say we don’t deserve the beating the virus is giving us: we do. We saw multiple competent national responses to pandemics in the previous administration. We know America’s government is capable of handling this scenario. No state-of-the-art engine can compensate for a poor driver, while a poor driver does not indict the engine. However, it’s also true that America’s civic institutions have atrophied since I was a kid, that it’s high time we updated them. Many of its features, like the Electoral College and the Senate, are either vestigial or questionable, and you’ll hear no objection from me in dispensing with the cult of the Founding Founders. But none of the agony and soul-searching on display today is remarkable; it is merely an extension of the American story. 

This rending of our own garments is no peculiar deficiency, any more than European cities, walkable since medieval times, are a unique virtue. America is struggling and lagging because it is at war with itself, split by a fundamental disagreement on where we are in relation to the words “more perfect” in our Preamble. One part thinks we’re still very far away; the other, despite all the evidence, thinks we’ve shot past the mark and are undoing an existent perfection. As recent events have sharply highlighted, across the slate of issues that continue to dog the nation—housing, healthcare, infrastructure, labor rights—the single header is the continuing stain of racism: America for some, not for all. The consequent victimhood does not strictly respect the lines of color or class, like a good little bully, but its skew is undeniable. We know where those tendrils lead back. And do not think, ancient lands, that your calm in this matter will last. The world changes, and what was once certain swiftly seems unsure. You who stand in judgment should have learned that lesson by now.

America is exceptional as a pioneer in this undesired but necessary war, not as a saint. You’ve been looking for its virtue in the wrong place. There are no post-racial paradises among the nations, merely better-cordoned bigotries than we see Stateside. The shadows and struggles that you see here are real, cast by the harsh light of ideals meeting the sharp crags of circumstance. The same bigotries remain to be fought worldwide; they are simply subtler in their visibility through dimmer ideals or softer situations. 

Make no mistake: the old ideas of race and ethnicity have not depreciated. In Europe (to say nothing of China), ethnic minorities remain largely infinitesimal and disempowered, eclipsed by junior political parties, yet any slightest waxing has sprouted new weeds of hatred across its plains. Your discomfort over Syria speaks for itself. The Balkans are still littered with blood-stained wrecks of buildings from a war between people outsiders couldn’t tell apart if they tried. More finally, the baseline ethnic mixture of the Continent remains unchallenged. Gazing beyond, it wouldn’t be outrageous to claim that the average state on Earth remains an ethnostate, however polite and civil.

Europe has never had to face true demographic change. It kept its plantations on distant shores, took the extracted capital home, then washed its hands of them when the scheme blew up, ritualistically cleaving itself away from its bastard colonial children. The solution, though, remained the ethnostate. The Jews had to be sent away; who could trust a goyish scepter any longer? And now the very children of the Shoah repeat that refrain, a proper scepter in hand, its temptations no less cloying for the chosen, the baptized, the righteous. Evil is a fruit, and life finds a way.

In your eyes, though, we committed a stupid error, a paragon of American naivete. Our plantations became our houses. We brought our slaves home. We took the strangers in and made poetry of it. We made them all our neighbors. Now here they stand, asking us if we meant those verses. Alas, yes. America has always been an idealistic trailblazer, earnest enough to etch its founding principles everywhere without shame, confident in the strength and virtue of having them, of striving for them, regardless of how we measure up. More “mature,” “serious” nation-states, of course, know the deeper “truth”: statecraft is a circus of War-By-Other-Means, wielding power against power for the sake of power. Do note that everyone else pays lip service to freedom and equality, too. Russia’s constitution declares itself an explicitly secular state with a free and fair press. China claims it’s communist and very concerned about the plight of its workers who slave to build our iPhones. France shouts its beloved troika while asking immigrants to go back to Africa. Italy hunts for refugee boats in broad daylight. The shadow of the past dogs our heels in the present. 

A quintessentially European shadow, if you’ll row past the rapids of memory. We tend to downplay how late “democracy” and the “rule of law”— political accountability and popular, peaceful transfer of power —came to the Continent. It was not the norm in 1914. Spain finally unshackled from post-fascist authoritarianism in times my parents well remember and at which their generation marveled. We Americans were not the first experiment in democracy, republics, constitutions, or parliaments. We were the first modern state of heft to make those things its explicit foundation and purpose: to actually mean what it said on some level. The idealism was the point, and it has grown in our time from seeds of red, white, and blue. That idealism sparked the curiosity of many monarchies and despotates in 1776, then their dread upon the fall of the House of Bourbon in 1793, then, late in the game, glee in 1861 when American idealism neared the brink of destruction. Now those realms are gone, and we are still here.

Such transatlantic comparisons found a home here as well. The Mexican-American War, among other sins, was agitated via comparisons to European peers: we were already very close to perfect, but lacked strength, which of course meant imperialism, colonialism, mercantilism, ie., the metrics familiar to them. Treaties, promises, or principles be damned. Contemporaries recognized this for what it was. So said Grant himself:

I was bitterly opposed to the measure [to annex Texas], and to this day regard the war [with Mexico] which resulted as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.

I can’t help but see the parallels when we and others wring our hands over America’s “deficiencies”. I admit that Europe at the moment exceeds us in the core competencies of governance, but with the qualification that said competence lies in territory America carved out. Building better cities for your citizens is a rather easy task; expanding the idea of who your citizens are and what you owe them is not. When American conservatives remind American liberals that the Nordic countries are small and homogeneous, they have a point, though one that tells on themselves more than they’d like. Denmark works so well because, well, it’s mostly Danes. They’ve not moved past the old idea of what that is; they’re just lucky that almost all its citizens already fit.

We instinctively hold America to its stated ideals because we know it believes them. It isn’t Fake™. If it were, we would smile knowingly and pass in cynicism, as we do when someone like Vladimir Putin proclaims his commitment to freedom and democracy. We’re jealous for American sincerity, sensing its rareness and fragility, ever imperiled by the familiar and exhausting instincts of cynicism and pragmatism, which have little to offer us in this brave new world. We need a rugged, intrepid tamer of wild frontiers, not another scheming player in another round of the Great Game. This is hard to see, understandably, in light of recent memory. We remember 9/11 and afterwards, when we lashed out with no one to stop us. The consequences of unchecked American pride are acute, whereas Russia and China have been quiet and well-behaved, so it seems. We live in an American world, and we’re tired of America’s bullshit. 

But if America isn’t exceptional, no one is, and we should all just do whatever the hell we want, right? Genocide the Uigurs? Fine, go ahead. Nobody really believes in human rights anyway, amirite? It’s all fake, a trick, a gimmick. What about the Trail of Tears and Iraq? You’re lying to get ahead, just like us. This is the real prize for autocrats and why Trump excites them: he might, at last, defang America, permanently denude appeals to morality and principles, shorten the reach of higher ideas in the geopolitical colosseum, dragging us back toward the good old days when cynicism ruled and you could just buy or cajole anyone.

We have many tasks before us, some graver than others, but I’m not so sanguine that even addressing climate change is worth accepting a resurgence in ethnonationalism. If or when we find climate change behind us, bigotry will be waiting. Not lightly should we throw bones to it so it doesn’t bother us for a while. We in America wrestle with an enemy that waits for you on this dark frontier. You wonder, puzzled, why we’re thrashing against nothing. “Why don’t you have universal healthcare yet?” But you, Europe, marched for Floyd. Why did your young souls come out and shout the same words? Why did they topple your statues that lionized slaveholders and conquerors, saints of the empires you’ve swept under the rug? Though you had no Confederacy, its cousins are found among your ranks.

Sooner or later, we must agree that there are no other races among the single one we are, or not. We must decide whether we truly believe in the worth of aspirations; whether perfection is worth imperfection; whether ideals mean something beyond points on a scoreboard of tactical influence. The climate will punish us and our children for our transgressions against it, but we know no divine hand reaches out to strike us for cruelty towards our brethren. We slouch toward pragmatism because it’s easier: it enforces itself. Principles don’t. As the human spirit is inexhaustible, so is the pain it can bear and the energy that it can be made to produce. There will always be weaker siblings to exploit, always excuses of circumstance to justify it, and always enough profit to make it worth the while. This will lure us until we grind the lesson into our bones. That will not be done through policy, on a platform of walkable streets and single-payer. It will be done through caring and believing.

I’m tired of hearing otherwise, and so are you. America doesn’t suck. It needs work, work that’s well within our power. We’ve survived much worse. We can fix all of this. We can make America much more perfect and help the world while doing it. What saps our energy so is this self-destructive standard of all or nothing. Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. It’s better to brush your teeth for thirty seconds than not at all. That personal revelation is both liberating and invigorating. The same we can say for our deeper beliefs. We see now how desperately and deeply America wants to be pulled towards those. Our failures so far are but more cause to advance.

I’m tired of this worthless despair, of pretending to watch things fall apart. That’s how things fall apart. We’ve shown we have the spirit and desire to slay these gorging parasites. What’s left is the will. Boundless energy is on the other side, even more when they are dead. Succumb, and our reward will be more exhaustion. A giant we yet remain, free to choose. Choose wisely.

It Wageth On

Joe Biden’s massive surge into a near-decisive victory on Super Tuesday is a sign of the times, bright and fell for us in the spring or summer of life. The stranglehold of old lower-case-c conservatives around our politics remains strong, and they’ll not release it until Death comes reaving. With it, they’ll do whatever they can to meet their priorities, the chief being soothing their own anxieties, between which and ours yawns an unbridgeable chasm. In this endless war for a better world, they are now and forever allies, never friends. Amen.

The climate collapses. Siberia melts. Australia is scarred. Moscow and New York just had their warmest winters, California among its driest. Pestilence rides again with a just-forged scythe, honed to eviscerate the fraying fabric of our patchwork, racist healthcare system that has suddenly found socialized medicine quite reasonable and not at all communist. Of course, the work will lean towards the aged and white, the affluent and advantaged, Floridian retirees in their hideous walled gardens, quarantined from Zeit & Zeitgeist, while the young, the brown, and the poor will be left to toil and twist for themselves in the wind, their agony dissipating into the Void, or (with luck) becoming a joule or two of economic heat for a yacht or McMansion. But wait: the data points to this plague strongly favoring them in its harvest while sparing us. Finally some justice, perhaps. I, one of those narcissistic Millennials I’ve heard so much about, will do my civic duty, but shed no tears for any general havoc among older demographics. If that’s what it takes to bring you a twinge of fear and helplessness, to feel what we and so many others are now old friends with, to put the shoe on the other foot for a little while, to remind you of what you truly are and what you’ve forgotten with such conspicuous glee: amen. War is hell, and all’s fair in’t.

Over here in Blueland, we started this primary with the most diverse cast in history. Hundreds of burnt millions later (get it?), before us stands a bowl of familiar pale gruel. Wow. That was all worth it, wasn’t it? The dozen debates, the viral moments—remember when Kamala Harris clawed Biden’s mumbling eyes out for his centrist racism on national television? She’s now being floated as his VP according to some!—, a year spent wolfing down hot dogs across Iowan plains? Why bother? Bring back the smoke-filled rooms and save us the circus. In its most desperate hour, the Party Decided it needed Joe Biden after all to beat Sa—I mean, Trump. Yes, that’s it. Unfurl the banners. See how they read in bright, bold letters: we have to beat Trump. Not understand Trumpism, still less what made and allowed it, still least the growing titans stirring in the world below, shifting the ground beneath our feet. Indeed, what business of ours are they? We’ll not see them, let alone fight them, these vague threats on a distant horizon. As much as Death takes, it grants, and to us? A final privilege.

“There’s no substantive difference between the two parties” remains a blatant falsehood, but the grain of truth at its core is much larger than I thought. With Biden and (mainly) co. at the helm, focus will shift back to the sensibilities of his generation. Take any issue—healthcare, housing, taxes, welfare, the economic contract—the priority will be on defense and preservation, not expansion or improvement. Conservatism. There is no emergency, no real challenges looming over the ORDO SECLORVM, no climate catastrophe worth tangible sacrifice. What separates the two parties is the allocation of leftover resources to those outside the gardens: the Republicans a miserly pittance, the Democrats a respectable tithe. A sizable difference in substance, one that does help many, many people, but meager in spirit. The reliable haves, however defined, are the priority, the rest an afterthought. I see now what they mean.

This battle is lost. My advice is to stop caring, to save your strength and spit. Don’t follow the rest of the primary or the general election. Do your duty and vote Democrat in November, but do not spend your time agonizing over stakes or margins beyond that. Whatever activism you find appealing ought to be focused on the state or local level, where individuals and ideals have much more power. The national level requires a machine and operating, like Sanders has, in its presence. The moment it realized he could actually win, it moved. He cannot win now, even if he somehow recovered a lead over Biden. What’s left is the sound of Joe and the fury of Bernie. Conserve yours. Nurse and shelter it in these looming years of famine. Remember who sowed its seeds.

This is the lesson: Boomers don’t care about us, have no reason to care, and have far more power to resist being made to care than we can hope to muster. Microsoft Word yet baffles them after thirty years of our tutelage. They cannot be taught to heed much greater things that directly implicate them and their stewardship. They will not listen, nor is any revolution coming, not yet, and not in the guise you crave. Sanders has succeeded twice in decisively winning the youth vote, but not in expanding it. There are too many systemic barriers to that. Youth have to spend their youth getting their lives in order, while the American political system caters to older, established members of society with lots of time and clout on their hands. In this place, they’ve the mastery. 

To salt the wound, Biden still sucks. He failed upward in a classic manner. He did nothing to earn his new position. The party pulled off an impressive comeback for one of their own without considering the cost, or the properties of the actual values they were inputting into the equation. Biden is a terrible candidate who hadn’t even won a primary until a week ago, after my lifetime of trying. He needed all the help and luck he could get too. The man has no pitch besides “Frontrunner,” which leans hard on “REMEMBER OBAMA?!!!” He is a counterpart to Trump, not an answer or antithesis, an embrace of the selfsame nihilistic creed: the candidate doesn’t matter, their values or vision don’t matter, nothing matters. What matters is winning, gaining power. In this brave new age, the best way to do that is to appeal to the feelings and fears of the old (a return to normalcy, amity in politics, bipartisan cooperation, deliberation), not those silly feelings and fears of the young (calamitous climate change, the ballooning inequality of wealth and opportunity, racism and bigotry). This sad truism shall remain true until the scythe reaps enough of them out.

Here’s a bitter bow to wrap up the pill: even if Biden wins, even in a landslide, he and his host have no desire to understand the world that is and is becoming, no reason to alter their course in its looming wake, no impetus to care about its residents, and no vision to meet that challenge should they, by some weird serendipity, overcome the former three. They live in a bubble, a glass dome suspended in the 60s and 70s, when they were young. Through this pleasant, pleasing lens they will govern, biding their time, idling, fiddling while Rome and MVNDVS burn, as if they’ll live forever. They’re not wrong:  life and death are two sides of the same coin, infinite in their own ways. Maybe this agitation will work. Maybe it won’t. It’s their problem, not ours. War is hell.

Our priority is to survive and prepare for the future they’re abandoning. The best revenge is a life well lived. Go forth and meme. Improve your station. Foster hobbies. Find friends and keep them. Exercise. Play video games, draw, write, live, love. Claw forth and build a foundation for yourself in the fight against the true enemies that wait in the dark. These are more edifying than internet cheerleading and investing yourself in idols. The kids are all right. They understand that our politics are out of their hands, that there’s nothing they can do until they are rooted and established themselves, so they turn to higher things, those that girdle and transcend life’s foibles: the enjoyment of its pleasures and kindness towards others. In this, based on my own experience and so many of my peers, I have endless faith and hope. We are a great people, gentler and nobler, standing far above these powers that yet be. Their vanquishing shall be deafening.

In the political arena, even in this terrible defeat that will reverberate for years and years, there is a victory: Sanders’ critique is proven correct. The parties exist first and foremost for their own sake, and good causes and passions must be subsumed to this while bad ones play by different rules. The progressive pressure of the past three years has evaporated, slain with purpose, and already come the calls for unity for the sake of victory in this round. If that’s true, then it too is a transaction, something that goes both ways. For those of us youngins lucky enough to be in safe enough positions to engage in politics, it ought be only as necessary for the true cause, to force history to spring back towards its long arc. No allegiance to a banner is necessary, nor desirable.

The old have taken the reins, so let them feel the fatigue of holding them. Let them fight among each other. Let them angst and squirm and tremble. Let them fret over small things and bumps in the road: shifting the frontlines of Obamacare and Medicaid expansion, efficiency percentages, funding for more highways and roads for automobiles into further-flung subdivisions. Meanwhile, beat the drum about climate change and the American dream. Scream in protest. Remind them of the sins they are committing, aiding, abetting, and abiding. Let spite sharpen spite. Set before them, again and again, the simplest and most bitter of truths they’re desperate to deny: they have failed us; they could have done better.

Oh yes, they know. “OK, Boomer.” “How dare you!” Observe the ire such little words have ignited. If there’s one thing the human brain excels more at than rejecting information that clashes with its core beliefs, it’s noticing such information, a perfect cradle for cognitive dissonance. They have drawn a line, their pending corpses as material. It’s tempting to think their malice is invincible, that you cannot defeat someone ready to drag another down into flames just for the kicks, but it is not so. All it takes is a mustard seed of doubt, planted in good, tempestuous soil, waiting for some small, quiet hour—minute, second, moment—to sprout and bloom. Age has a funny way of eroding the mightiest delusions. Some will escape that erosion, as most cells in the body escape a victorious pathogen. No matter. We’ll take some of that final privilege back, so that they might go to their graves with even a kernel of doubt planted in their hearts, pilfered of the satisfaction of their smug certitude in their beloved advantage. That “fuck you, I’ve got mine” might be ruined a little, and ruined in total. 

Good and truth are more powerful than any evil or lie. The only reason we think it tilts the other way is we’ve been taught—and teach ourselves—that the latter is exempt, the magic exception to Things Fall Apart. It is a passing thing, their shadow. Yes, others will come, and we’ll bring ours with us. Some caution that “they’ll die out” is something they’ve heard for a long time. I’m sorry to respond that this time is different. We have never seen this kind of stark political and ideological polarization based on age. Not only is their order far diminished from the last time in the cycle, there’s strong evidence it’s failing—spectacularly—to reproduce. Loops are both strong and brittle. They need break only once. Ishamael’s Wager is sound. 

Take heart. One day, soon, they will lie in the dirt, and upon that dirt we shall stand, smiling upon the epitaph, trophies in hand, a better world won, with all the time to spit.

Stranger Things 3 – How not to move on

Stranger Things, Season 3, was okay. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good. It made a familiar mistake: trying to do everything and doing nothing well. Growing up is hard. Changing and maturing is fraught and sad. These were the obvious themes the season set up, then ignored in favor of rabbit trails. It wanted to do Red Dawn, but also Upside-Down Horror, but also The Wonder Years, sorta? Somehow, this blunder is old hat to us now. It’s common in the Golden Age of Television, not even that interesting. Plenty of shows burn out, like us.

Really, the season needed to do the opposite of Raising the Stakes™ and Going Bigger™. It needed to dial back, focus on one thing—ch-ch-ch-changes—and the quiet dread and ultimate hope that accompany them. The Mall, Puberty, Moving, Normal is Boring, etc., they all fit nicely into that theme, but the Magical Russians building a magical underground facility under a random mall in Indiana oh so did not. It made it very hard to care, not just because it was impossible to get past those nagging logistical questions, like, uh, “how did these guys get here?” or “why is the Gang so hilariously unprepared for something they’ve been through twice now?”, spoiling much of the screen-time. These were such a blaring hook for Next Season that it robbed them of all gravity. The Magic Box wasn’t inviting, just obnoxious. (Did you get that, JJ?) The best part of Season 3 was those brief, resonating minutes after the climax and before the credits, which had nothing to do with either Slavic Mole People or Squishmeister 3.0.

Like, who cares about those. Those are concrete problems with concrete solutions. Throw a bomb at them, shoot them, punch them, whatever. What’s terrifying is the agony of watching things you care about collapse before your eyes, not at the hands of a Corporeal Evil eating them alive, but normal winds of change. Will’s heart being carved out, watching his tight-knit circle of friends dissolve, innocence lost, moments defaced and spat on, things that will never, ever return, that was awful. I understood. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. Isn’t that why we’re drinking from this stupid nostalgia well? Wasn’t that pain the whole point?

I was struck by how much I felt I was in the Upside Down this time round. The “happy” parts of the 80s were horrible, weird, and alien. It was all shit: the aesthetic, the mentality, the casual brutality of suburbia, none of it seemed appealing in the slightest. Sure, I’m a 90s kid, through and through, but, take note: the 90s were also terrible in most of the same ways. Their only redeeming value was that bygone optimism of our victory in the Cold War, cut down before its time thanks to 9/11. But seeing the 80s paraded in front of me this happy time,—all the seeds of the shitfruit we have to eat day after day in our present—arranged on a silver platter, as if we should miss this: that was a straight kick in the balls. For example, malls were the worst deal ever sold to America: hey, let’s straight-up murder vibrant, walkable city centers, nexuses of community and history that have been around since the dawn of our country. What do we get in return? Oh, lame, tacky shopping parlors that won’t last for even one generation. Wow, that was so worth it. Sign me up!

It made me glad to have not grown up in this time. It made me appreciate the lessons we’ve learned as a culture since then, how it’s become much more acceptable—casual, even—to talk about our feelings, to accept people with slight differences, etc. It made me despise what I was seeing. It was so clueless of its consequence and impact. More insulting was how almost self-aware the depiction seemed, teasing at deconstruction, but still fundamentally cool with the thrill and adventure of it. And that was the thing: there wasn’t any. Did I care what was happening to Billy and Whatsherface? No. I most definitely did not care what the Monster was up to. It’s gonna scream and munch on things, like the last two times. I didn’t care about what Boris and Pals are doing thanks to their obvious Russian Portal that’s gonna be explained in Season 4, maybe, if they bother. Whee. Exciting.

But I did care as the Gang gathered round and looked on that empty house, realizing how much time and effort they’d wasted on petty bullshit, pissing away something irreplaceable, a lost jewel they’ll long for until the end of their days. That tragedy of it, that it all fell apart just because things fall apart, that the factors that bring us together are precisely what cause us to part, that time and chance happens to us all. If there was going to be a Monster, it should’ve been a small, creeping thing, an standard but effective metaphor for this unstoppable tide of change and the dread of it, nibbling at their buried fears and anxieties, helping them fester, gnawing at this side of us that we try to shove behind a bolted door, turning the characters on each other. There should’ve been less physical separation, but vast emotional and psychological gulfs, the tweens, teens, and older adults approaching and dealing with this challenge in their own appropriate ways. “I don’t want to lose this. Please don’t take this away from me. I’ll do anything. Anything.”

This is simple thematics, stuff that garners a much bigger and more lasting payoff than yet another CGI jump-scare. Despite being a 90s kid, Season 1 drew me in through the courage of its convictions. It went all in on a very specific place-feeling, one it examined with skill and passion. It was compelling. Season 3 was not. It was a familiar, shabby ritual. A wasted opportunity. It was doing a Thing, but This Time Bigger and Betterer. It didn’t work.

Nostalgia has a lesson for us, but we refuse to learn it. Can we stop doing that, maybe?

The Game Must End

I seem to be among the few souls satisfied by Game of Throne’s final dumpster fire, which is less dumpster or fire than it seems. I’ve had no high hopes for the franchise’s conclusion ever since I read A Dance With Dragons and realized this was all going nowhere fast. Part of me wants to be baffled by how so many did, but that would be lying. Long have I beat this drum of doom. Now the day is here, this very day, in fact.

Before we continue, full disclosure and honesty: I am a Tolkien fan. Yes, a great part of my grudge with George R. R. Martin (GRRM) and GoT has been me being butt-hurt about how much LotR and Tolkien’s legacy gets dumped on vis-a-vis the former. “The American Tolkien”? I’ve been on a self-gratifying rant against that moniker for a decade, which informs much of my sentiment in this matter. Ironically, Tolkien too had trouble finishing his own works—the Lord of the Rings took about a decade of dithering to finish—but the key difference is that John suffered in private silence until he could produce a finished product, while George has leveraged his struggle in broad daylight, painting a picture of himself that was never going to stand the test of time. He’s cast himself as a ruthless scribe who’ll kill your puppy because that’s “realistic” or “unexpected,” a painstaking realist who pays close attention to logistics and time and something. This is a fire any writer knows not to play with. It’s irresponsible, unprofessional spin. He’s gotten away with it for far too long. What goes up must come down.

Nevertheless, to be fair to George, the “bad” season at hand is not all his fault, nor is he a hack. No matter what I say, no matter what stupid slice of my mind I’d like to indulge, the man is perhaps the most successful author ever. His characters are on everyone’s lips. His Song has been rightfully celebrated as one of the last few common cultural strands we enjoy in this polarized world. In terms of success and scale of influence alone, if not baseline quality of writing, he easily matches Tolkien. This I do not gainsay.

Instead, what irks me now is this attempt at damage control over something that neither needs it nor deserves it, with everyone, from George to D&D (the GoT show-runners) subtly pointing fingers, walking back earlier statements, and just plain lying about the roles they’ve played in this. To the first, the main problem with the last two, probably three, seasons of GoT has been pacing, and with it, characterization, which is indeed a betrayal of the show’s roots. Its earlier seasons were defined by its plodding pace and quieter moments filled with characters talking, getting us to like them through that talking. It was restrained. Now everything is compressed to hell for no better reason other than “we didn’t feel like taking our time.” Alas, things do take time, and Time does not suffer fools.

Still, it’s way too easy to take this mistake of execution and conflate it with a mistake of essence, which brings us to the divide tearing a once proud fandom apart. Take away all the shoddiness of bad scheduling and the core of the plot, the essence of what happens, the points on the outline and the beats they’ve aimed to hit—those all remain well and good, fitting neatly into the Song’s long tack. The Night King and the Walkers are Walking MacGuffins on page and screen. It’s only fitting they would come to a MacGuffin-y end. Dany’s turn to insanity has been set up from the very first book. You might be mad it went there, but you can’t deny it was a pretty straight shot. If you have earnest grievances with what’s been happening, not how, then I’m sad to be the bearer of bad news. Alas, the books won’t save you either. This is your supper. It’s Martin’s vision, albeit squeezed and dehydrated through a studio, but he signed that deal with his own arm and led it every step of the way.

Before we continue, let’s agree: D&D own all the blame in the world for the extent of the pacing problem. They had the luxury and leisure to choose whatever amount of time and resources they’d’ve liked to close this sucker out. They chose poorly. Nobody put a gun to their heads and told them they had to wrap up everything in 13 episodes. On the contrary, plenty extended the offer of more time. Nah, they wanted to do other things, which, uh, no. It doesn’t work like that: you don’t get to shirk from the obligations you sign up for. You made your fame and fortune on GoT. It’s only right and professional that you give it a proper send-off.

Continuing on, the sad fact that there was Everything To Wrap Up rests on the lone shoulders of George. He sowed the seeds of this fire long ago. Those who’ve been keeping careful eyes on his progress have known how troubled his handling of ASoIaF has been. As someone who’s taking a stab at writing books, I know very well how some parts of the piece write themselves, while others are a chore and a slog in the best of moods. Martin, like every author, has his preferences. He has a knack and love for historiography, that granularity of lists, names, details, heraldry, attention to (certain) details, that make his heart sing. But people age, the neurons adapt, time passes, and lo, chores that were once easy become monkeys on your back that won’t ever get off. It’s way more fun to plant seeds and watch them bloom than bring in the harvest. It even seems kinder: letting things grow, not cutting them down, yet in truth, unrestricted growth leads to choking and death. Pruning is just as necessary to health and prosperity in any sphere. In realizing how poorly we’ve exercised our will over the generations, we tend to overemphasize the catastrophe of will and ignore the catastrophe of chaos, even though catastrophe is catastrophe no matter its seed. Here, Martin has planted an overgrown garden of characters, plots, places, and names while procrastinating about that pruning. As of the last book, there remain more winding, disconnected plotlines than ever festered in the worst of Dorneville with less relative time to resolve them. I have no idea how you’re going to snip off Zombie Catelyn (wait, what?), the Dornish Cul-De-Sac, the Euron and Victarion (who?) Cruises, the Aegon (who too?) Invasion, the Littlefinger Loitering, the High Sparrow Session, the Jon Snow Resurrection (yep, still in the wings), the Flayman Chronicles, the Arya Training Montage (yep, still in progress), the big Meereen battle (still hasn’t happened after two books of setup) and bring things to a close within two books. Not without breaking a few omelettes, at least. There were (never counting the one-offs, of course) eight point-of-view characters in the first book, each with a relatively even amount of narrative. In the fifth, there were twice that number, but Jon, Tyrion, and Dany took up the lion’s share with the other baker’s dozen spread out like thin butter. There isn’t enough time to give them all their due. Some are redundant, easily pared down or dispensed with, but a reckoning there must be for any of this to move on.

Now, a Reckoning we have. Characters get cut, die like flies, or tossed out of the script like bad Halloween candy, begging the question: what did you expect? What were you expecting, really? Something unexpected? What would that look like? There’s only so many battles and scheming and routine treachery and shock and surprise you can take before it becomes provincial and boring. Chasing the phantom of “unpredictability” paints you into a different predictable corner, not above it. The flat circle remains flat and circular. People age, the neurons adapt. It’s been ten years. Cersei has always been the evil, ruthless, short-sighted wanna-be queen who’s been absurdly successful. Jon has always been a bland, expressionless idiot Chosen One who’s been absurdly successful (he got resurrected, for Christ’s sake). Daenerys has always been an absurdly successful semi-mad queen with no idea what’s she’s doing. Bran was always going to be the Three-Eyed Raven. Arya was always going to stab important people improbably. You see, Westeros? The tropes didn’t ruin you. The tropes were inside you all along. 

The Reckoning is putting GoT’s reputation in its proper place, and with it, Martin’s. That place isn’t a trash heap, but it’s not Valhalla either. Any author worth their salt knows damn well you can’t just kill off characters willy-nilly. They know better not to go out on that limb lest it break off while you’re dancing on it. Martin has. He’s done it guns blazing, because he, like a human, thought he could handle the risk when the time came. Now the limb’s cracking. That temptation to spin it as somehow being different, to kinda wash your hands of it just enough to get off the hook, is very strong, well-nigh irresistible.

The Reckoning is taking you to task for not keeping yourself in check. This is the advantage of maturity in consumption: when the bill comes due, you can afford it. The message behind Ned Stark’s death wasn’t “life is cruel” or “the good guys don’t win,” but “being a good guy itself isn’t enough to win.” Even that falls into the realm of “dying mentor figure sparks the Action.” Likewise, where its plot could have gone was always very predictable. There were only a handful of roads to follow, each fraught with charges of “ugh, obvious.” If Dany somehow defied all the odds and ruled wisely, wouldn’t that strike you as canned and contrived? Or what if Tyrion died without any resolution to his loose ends? Were the dragons were going to come through unscathed? …well, no otherwise there wouldn’t be much tension in the final arc. She’d just steamroll everyone, hmm. Did you think there wouldn’t be a Zombie Dragon? …well, it’s pretty obvious, but all the pieces were there and it’s a straightforward way to raise the stakes, huh. Did you think Dany was gonna waltz up to the Iron Throne and suddenly become a Good Queen with zero problems? …err, wait, she had that depressing vision of the Iron Throne with the ash and she didn’t get to reach it and, yikes, she does tend to make weird angry faces and over(re)act a lot…oh. Whatever the choice, someone will braid it into a rope to hang you with. Think about what that says about fandom.

So you’ll forgive me if I savor, just a little, not too much, how people, after enjoying their delusion for years, have turned on their baby in murder. “Why does GoT keep trying to surprise me? I CAN’T BE SURPRISED ANYMORE. EVERYONE’S SO HORRIBLE AND DUMB AND I’M OVER IT.” Hmm, well, maybe it was never that horrible, and maybe being horrible isn’t inherently noteworthy. How many of Shakespeare’s characters die horribly? Is that why people love them? Maybe. Or maybe “realism” isn’t what we’re looking for in stories, but something a bit more human and useful than “life is shitty.” Life is more complicated than that. We humans are capable enough that we’re right to expect more from each other. This uncomfortable truth is why GoT is failing to rise above its own essence. Martin’s critique of fantasy, that ruling is hard, life is cruel, virtue isn’t enough, etc., has always been insufficient, trite in its own way. “He ruled wisely” isn’t a dilemma he’s managed to solve because his take is still steeped in and wedded to a contradictory fascination with byzantine schemes, backstabbing, betrayal, awfulness, and the voyeuristic thrills that come with them. The Game is the point. The Wheel isn’t meant to be broken, not really. There are no people in Westeros questioning why hereditary monarchy or autocracy is flawed and inevitably leads to Mad Kings and Queens, that even the best kings suck because you’re still basing power and authority on random chance and Survival of the Fittest, that Ned Stark, Jon Snow, and Daenerys Targaryen end up looking rather the same to the common peasant. We can do better than the Game, both as individuals and as systems. It’s not enough to be “honest” in one direction. What saves Tolkien’s works is a lack of such pretense. The Lord of the Rings is an unabashed fairy tale, celebrating fantastical things, but reaching deeper and truer into our core through that. Game of Thrones is trying to have it both ways: take the fancy trappings of the fairy tale to get people on board, but still be edgy and “real” enough to be “taken seriously.” Which means, in the end, we can’t take it seriously at all.

The irony of fandom is that it’s so wrapped up in being smarter than stories, analyzing them, picking them apart, theorizing about them and bickering about those theories (the Protagonist Is Related to Someone Unexpected?!!), constantly hanging lanterns on “unlikely” things and demanding creators hang more of them on their own works, whatever the cost, that it’s ended up being too dumb for stories. The basic concepts of contrivance, theater, and the cute silliness of a narrative are unacceptable. Somebody has to comment on how silly it is. We can’t be children anymore. We have to be adults, very smart adults. Turns out that sucks, like we always knew. Most of Martin’s characters have survived, otherwise how else would you have a show? And most of those characters have done really stupid and baffling things from the beginning. Did you remember how Cersei started all this for…some reason? Remember how she constantly proclaimed her only concern was her three children, but then she killed Her Last Boy because zpzocbhapoihdproaksjds right after blowing up the Westerosi Vatican…right after that Vatican publicly humiliated her …and then people crowned her Queen instead of just storming the Red Keep and ripping her, one of the most despised figures in Westeros, apart, because apparently nobody in King’s Landing can put two and two together? Wait, this is a story? It has plot-holes? It’s been playing fast and loose with time and consistency forever? Why didn’t anybody tell me?

This is not LOST. This is not two suits making things up as they go along, or a sleazy auteur playing cutesy with a Mystery Box. No, there was a vision, an end-goal. The Original Screw-up, the only one that ever mattered, was in getting there. Martin set the stage for ridiculous expectations. D&D tripped off it. And yet, despite all that, this season is fine. Episode 2 was fantastic, easily on par with the series’ other great moments. Episode 3 was gripping and satisfying. Episode 4 was really stupid. (Ed Sheeran took up like ten minutes of gratuitous screen-time once, remember?) Episode 5 was abrupt and odd and filled with tons of people dying in horrible ways. That all sounds like GoT, doesn’t it? Things are turning out…pretty okay, and for a series that was always pretty okay, rough around the edges and trapped between competing mediums, treading a lot of familiar paths well but lying about it, enhanced and hampered by its production values, uplifted and leashed by its plot and actors, that’s hardly the worst end. You’re not mad at GoT. You’re mad the high is over, that you’re coming down to earth again.

Welcome back. When GoT ends tonight, however it ends tonight, think a bit more about these things. Develop your tastes, refine them, and remember why you loved this series so much in the first place. Don’t rewrite history yet again because it’s uncomfortable. Look at it in the eye this time. The moments that resonated with you will stay that way…if you let them. If you admit this is all pretend, that if anyone is to blame for being disappointed with the ending of a soap-opera of Swords, Boobs, and Dragons, it’s you. Not Martin, not D&D, but you. They have their own things to answer for. Take out the log in your own eye first. See clearer.

The show will go on, one way or another. But the Game…

Let Cursive Go

Cursive handwriting is the epitome of nostalgia. Many a screed, always repeating time-honored truths forgotten by the hasty modern world, has been written lamenting its demise. “It’s faster, prettier, easier, and flows better.” I used to have really bad handwriting, cursive or otherwise. It got so tiresome that I’ve spent the better part of three years analyzing and working on improving my handwriting, while this past year I’ve finally dove into calligraphy as my art. The progress has come from abandoning all pretenses to cursive and focusing on using engineering/architect letters for anything I want other people to read. Along this path, I’ve wondered to myself why that is so, despite all the conventional wisdom. Studying calligraphy has given me the answer.

First, some cold water for cursivists: no study has ever shown even a slight consistent advantage in speed between print and cursive. Shocking, I know, but not surprising when you think about it. It’s quite a difficult topic to study. How do you control for all the variables? Practice is a big one, and the mother of most of the differences people perceive casually between the two styles. Grandma Mavis who never learned to type and spends all her day writing letters will probably scrawl faster than her grandson Zachary who writes a birthday card maybe once a year. There’s also a standard of fairness to consider: both scripts have to be equally legible in order to count. My mom’s cursive was a legend in our family for just how awful it was to read. I’m pretty sure she could write “faster” than me, though. Does that count? No, but this leads into why cursive isn’t as awesome as its practitioners think. Even if there is some minor speed advantage for cursive in a Platonic pocket dimension somewhere, it doesn’t matter. There’s a reason forms say “print please.” Cursive is inherently less legible than print, and always will be.

All glyphs are bound by rules, but the most crucial is the dance between positive and negative space. The empty space between the script we draw is just as (and often far more) important than the script itself. If you look carefully at the modern scripts we use on our phones and letters, you’ll see this immediately: there’s a lot of empty space that makes the letters pop out. Essentially, letters are tiny pictures your brain has to form into words. Developmental psychology can attest to how children, when first learning to read, approach letters as individual parts as opposed to a greater whole. Overcoming this leads to literacy.

So here we peel back the first myth of cursive, speed. What even is cursive? What’s it trying to do? Hint: it’s not trying to be fast. It never was. Did I just blow your mind? Good. Look carefully at any sample of cursive you can find. What is its goal, its raison d’etre? It’s staring at you in the face: don’t lift the pen. Lift the pen as little as possible. But if glyphs consist of both positive and negative space, how much versus how little you write, how does that even work? Simple: you keep writing, messing with that dance, creating more positive space, much more than would otherwise be necessary, thus encroaching on legibility. This is really obvious when you compare print and cursive exemplars:

Who’s doing more work?

Cursive has to do this, because otherwise you have to (gasp) lift the pen, so you have to swerve, back and forth, coming up with clever, awkward, and downright silly alternatives to simply stopping the glyph and moving onto the next. You’re basically inventing new characters, squishing more and more into the same area until it collapses into squiggles. The basic principles of writing demand that cursive slouch towards illegibility no matter how hard the scribe tries to perfect their vaunted penmanship.

Cursivists appeal to the purported advantage of this and the “natural flow” it generates, again likely mistaking practice and mastery for inherent advantage, but it also doesn’t make sense from the standpoint of sheer physics. With cursive, all you’re doing physically is trading vertical distance—lifting the pen up and moving it to the next position—for horizontal distance. Instead of a single, simple stroke for l, you have to cover the same distance twice, plus a little more for the joiner. There is no advantage to be gained in the first place. It’s a wash, through and through, which explains why what few studies there are can’t find any speed advantage at all. In fact, the literature says a combination of print and “cursive” that joins some letters, but definitely not all, is the fastest.

Now, let’s say you’re back in 1985 or something and have to write a 40-page thesis by hand. Cursivists go back to this time that doesn’t exist anymore and talk about how much easier it is to do that, appealing to how people who print get tired easily. Kids, let me give you some life advice: anytime a Very Serious “Adult” cites some magical paradise in the past that neither you nor they can check to see if it was true…they’re lying. There was no magic time when people’s hands didn’t get tired from writing thanks to the mystical flow of cursive. Scribes doodled in the margins a thousand years ago praising God that the sun was going down because they could finally stop writing for the day, and that was slow, methodical work in a quiet monastery. Discomfort and pain involving writing is almost always an issue of technique or management: your grip is too tight, you’re forming letters only with your hand and wrist without employing much shoulder-work, you’re taking too few breaks, etc. Long-form handwriting is damned exhausting no matter what technique you use. As scale increases, you have to make trade-offs, usually through abbreviations, summarizing, etc., so that you have to write less physical material. A crisis in handwriting has little to do with the script and mostly to do with the scribe.

This begs the question: why is cursive trying to lift the pen less? Why is that such a bad thing? In an age where all the fundamental instruments of writing are both superior to and cheaper than what scribes had in the past—the ballpoint pen is one of the greatest achievements of humankind—it’s easy to forget how much of a nightmare the physical act of writing used to be. It’s a long history, full of wonderful twists and turns worth seeking out, but, briefly: in the West, the place we’re discussing, you used quills, while your paper was either awful-but cheap (papyrus) or AMAZING-but-definitely-not-cheap (parchment). Economy of materials was key, not time. Scribes came up with tons of abbreviations to an insane degree just to save paper, which is half the reason why older manuscripts seem like gibberish, because they’re actually written in an ancient form of texting. Yeah, it’s been around for a long time. Here’s a transcript of part of the opening to Titus (i.e., the Holy Bible, the most important book ever) from a random 13th century manuscript:

Paul’ servus di’ apls’ aut’ ihu’ ch’ scdm’ fed’ elector’ di’ & agnitione’ v’itatis q’ sm’ pietate’ e’ i’ spe’ vite et’ne.

Paulus servus dei, apostolius autem ihesu christi secundum fidem electorum dei et agnitionem veritatis quae secundum pietatem est in spem vite eterne.

They weren’t trying to be fast; they were trying to literally not run out of space. In addition, it was advantageous to write at a slight angle to avoid smudging the (meh-quality) ink, which would waste even more paper. Another concern was keeping the writing instrument working. The more you stop, the more opportunity the ink in the nib has to clog, while the more times you put the quill down on paper, pressuring it harder in that initial moment of contact, the more likely the quill would snap, blowing ink across the paper, ruining more materials (potentially an entire page), and costing you additional time in having to reshape a new quill point. This was the impetus to keep the hand flowing with minimal interruptions, not TEMPVS FVGIT. In fact, our predecessors had far more time to work with. Travel was inefficient, as was work. They could take their time and did. Their constraints weren’t your constraints. That’s why cursive came about—and why it’s dying.

By the way, this all applies to print too. Studying the history of Western writing, you’ll notice two-ish major font styles in illuminated texts before the Renaissance: insular and blackletter. Blackletter descended from insular, and it’s really easy to distinguish from the rest:

Blackletter is like cursive print, in that it focuses on one thing to the exclusion of all others, in its case: regularity. It forces you to keep everything straight, angled, narrow, never deviating from its prescribed rules. All letters are strict variants on a basic shape, differentiating glyphs only through what amount to mere flourishes or diacritics. By eliminating the curve and shape variety, it slaughters legibility to create an inimitable aesthetic. When Italian scribes rediscovered “ancient” insular manuscripts from around the turn of the millennium, they were shocked by how legible they were compared to blackletter. Being the subtle bigots they were, they of course ascribed this mastery to the Greeks and Romans they wanted to praise, despite being only a few centuries old. What commentary that survives on writing at the dawn of the Renaissance gripes bitterly about how illegible blackletter. With that spigot opened, Italians and all those they influenced (the Dutch, English, etc.) dropped blackletter like a hot potato. It looks cool but suffers from the same flaws as cursive. All modern type is based on the Humanist scripts that arose in blackletter’s wake, when Italian scribes refocused on legibility and approachability. Just see for yourself:

Humanist minuscule

I keep harping on legibility because that’s the whole point. Writing is meant to be read. An illegible squiggle you write out 0.5 seconds faster is utterly worthless. A squiggle you write 0.2 seconds faster means nothing if you have to spend more than 0.2 seconds reconstructing what it means. Bet you haven’t thought about that, have you? You’re always better off doing something right but slowly once than quickly but sloppily 3-4 times. I changed my handwriting because that’s what kept happening to me. Haste makes waste. As for cursive’s aesthetic appeal, here’s another hard fact: good penmanship looks good, period. Honed handwriting is always beautiful by its very nature, no matter its form. If you care about how it looks, there is always time. If you’re stuck with handwriting for some arcane reason and speed still troubles you, you’re going to get a lot more mileage out of refining your note-taking techniques than your penmanship. Eventually, handwriting will fail you. We invented typing for that reason. Before you start, no, the studies that show handwriting helps aid in retention are really showing that concentrating on information and summarizing it to yourself in the process of absorbing it aids in memory. Which, uh, duh. Handwriting does do that, but so does proper note-taking in general.

If you want good penmanship, you need to want it for its own sake. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter which form you use. In this nascent scribe’s opinion, cursive is a flawed approach to writing because it messes with legibility for the sake of priorities that haven’t mattered in generations. There’s a lot of grace and elegance in cursive forms, but beauty has nothing to do with the science of it. Calligraphy/typography are not the same as writing. Writing is meant to be read. Make the thing legible and sensible. Let God sort the rest out. The cursive-ignorant kids are all right.

Homeschooling is a Lie

Oh ho ho, a provocative title! (Though that’s the very point of a headline, you pedantic philist—)

“Homeschooling is a lie” in that the term is extremely dishonest. The giant elephant in the homeschool room is how rare it is for a kid to be tutored entirely within their own home throughout K-12 or whatever, and usually those kids are, how did Liz Lemon put it, crazy. (As one would expect.) Rare is the homeschooled kid that hasn’t stumbled through some variation of what is, for all intents and purposes, some form of traditional education. This is what my own experience was like. We did, what, two or three years of Abeka VHS training in our house? Even then we had a school day and homework and a curriculum. Then I started taking college classes at 11 and did a simultaneous co-op (a mini private school based on social circles) for most of what we’d call “high school.” How is that “homeschooling?” Because that’s what we called it so we could avoid talking about the elephant.

Think about it. It’s impossible for your parents to provide you what we consider a modern education. By definition, a modern education is a very broad knowledge base taught to you by specialists, either in how to educate and handle a mob of tots or subjects like math and geography, a base we expect everyone to have just to be a productive member of society. Such a thing didn’t exist in 1620. We created an education system to make that happen. It’s incoherent to try to do that, but differently. You can try to make paper on your own, I guess. Most of the time it’ll be crappy; some people might get lucky and get it right, but the reason we systematized it is to take luck out of the equation and make crappy paper a rarity. We want the most number of people to as educated as best they can. Trying to homeschool kids is missing the forest for the trees in perhaps the most pristine way possible.

Now, setting aside illegitimate reasons for wanting to homeschool your children—namely religious/ideological ones hiding behind legitimate complaints about the public school system, or a wicked desire to control every possible aspect of the rearing of ANOTHER LIVING BREATHING HUMAN LIKE YOURSELF as if they’re some pottery vase you’re trying to perfect, or laziness, or sheer fear and ignorance—, the most common reason for parents to “homeschool” their progeny boils down to something like “I think they could do better in a different environment.” Schools, private and public, specifically those common in the developed world (YES, I KNOW FINLAND EXISTS, BUT IT’S 5 MILLION WHITE PEOPLE WITH A CRAZY LANGUAGE. WOULD YOU STOP TRYING—) are kind of zoo-like, often stifling children’s creativity, focusing way too much on metrics, tests, and the quantifiable aspects of education, fostering bullying, cliques, bad social habits, etc. Legitimate, as I said, although please make sure (really, seriously, no honestly, check yourself) that those are your actual concerns for trying to wing one of the most important parts of your child’s development. Being worried doesn’t qualify.

As an aside, it should be noted that, indeed, some children with learning disabilities might not do well in a more traditional classroom. That’s a thing, yes. Still, A) go back to the previous paragraph and make sure that’s relevant to your concern, B) a highly developed school system with a long history and lots of resources is a lot more likely to be able to find a happy medium between educational needs and specific learning limitations than your own household. This isn’t an argument against the traditional school system per se, only for expanding its ability and performance in accommodating such needs. Stick to your lane.

Now back to the lane. You know those issues are par for the course, right? Parents have been complaining about them since public schools came into existence. Nobody likes seeing Junior struggle with multiplication tables they couldn’t care less about. Fine. But…what are you going to do? Not have them know their multiplication tables? Do you think they shouldn’t know multiplication tables? Then make that argument. (I’ll wait.) If you do think they should know them, how are you going to teach them then? Wait around for them to decide they want to? Great parenting, that. If not when their five, at the most crucial time in their physical and mental growth, then when exactly? And how are you going to structure your approach to this? How are you going to organize their day? How are you going to get them to stick to task when their mood swings? In short, how are you going to get s— done? It’s not going to do itself. Walk down that path and you’ll find yourself making many of the same decisions as those evil, soulless teachers who just won’t leave those kids alone.

No matter what, schooling requires some amount of rigor, some amount of scheduling, some amount of discipline, some amount of control, some amount of focus, and some amount of give-and-take in what things you want the curricula and philosophy to emphasize. Yes, kids don’t react to that as well as adults—because they’re kids. They’re full of energy, their bodies and brains developing at an astonishing rate. You can’t just let them run around in fields sniffing flowers all day. They won’t learn anything in the end. Learning is a skill. It’s work. You have to do sit down and do it. It’s the same thing as teaching them how to sit still quietly, to take no for an answer, and be nice to people. They don’t naturally learn these things. They have to be taught. Being taught is more than worth it.

One larger motif in this line of thought is that we’ve recast growing up and “adulting” as some sort of miserable injustice that shouldn’t be foisted upon innocent young souls in the prime of happiness. One, that’s projection—your early years aren’t coming back—, and two, it’s called infantilization. Childhood is not the point of life. It’s supposed to go away. You can’t build a civilization on children. My God, man. Think of what you speak. The mess, the chaos! When Junior is in first grade or fifth or whatever, they’re not even remotely mature. They’re useless. They can’t function on their own. They don’t know enough about the reality around them to make sense of it, to go out into the world and own themselves. That’s why we sit them down in these zoo-like buildings. Left to their own devices, kids don’t magically turn into scholars, engineers, writers, or even worthwhile laborers. Education is a massive infusion of worth. It’s not all they amount to, yes, but yikes, it’s pretty crucial, don’t you think? Please, argue this point with me. I’d love to hear about how being school-smart is somehow a bad thing. No, an overemphasis on school-smarts isn’t healthy, but neither is eating French Fries at every meal. This is obvious. Debate class was ages ago.

It’s good to be an adult with a broad scope of knowledge and capability. It’s good to be be able to do your own laundry without (much) griping, to socialize and interact with people of very different backgrounds and worldviews, to be knowledgeable, smart, and wise. These things are virtues. We as a society have spent untold amounts of effort making sure the next generation receives the fruit of the toil of the previous one. Kids don’t do that. If we’re being honest, they’re mostly little idiots who haven’t learned how to behave. That process never stops, by the way. Remember the kind of person you were ten years ago? Wow, were you stupid. So was I.

Back to homeschooling, it should be pretty obvious a better term for it is “ad hoc schooling,” as my friend Rob put it. No two homeschooled kids have the exact same experience, because the crux of the enterprise remains throwing different books, programs, teachers, and schools at the wall and seeing what sticks. You don’t want to shove them through the traditional system (boooo! hiss!), so you form one by the seat of your pants, yanking them in and out of stuff that doesn’t seem to work (far too often just based on a gut feeling or how much you’re pitying them in the moment), ignoring the serious downsides to that approach, then hoping your socioeconomic status will take care of the rest.

Yep, that’s the gist of it. Don’t lie. Do you see lots of single black mothers among the ranks of homeschooling apologists? No. Most glowing stories are of kids who would’ve almost certainly come out fine going through the public school system anyway, because their parents had the ability and, just as importantly, the desire granted by that ability, to guide their child’s development with a strong, steady, loving hand. Just as war is mostly determined at the outset by those boring macro-factors of economics, demographics, and logistics, just as parenting comes down to mostly how stable and loving a home environment you can create, the range of your educational outcomes for children are determined overwhelmingly by your socioeconomic status. Parents like to concoct Great Men Theories about how they were the deciding factor in why their Junior is so special and awesome. Individual actions do have an impact; sometimes they can be a deciding factor. But scale is a thing, and scale brings all valor and cowardice low. Sorry, Eustace and Margaret, but putting kale in Junior’s cereal and deciding to enroll him in the Parkside Afterschool Program for Excellence did not make or break his path to success, just as one more bayonet charge didn’t decide WW1. I know you know this, Homeschool Success Story. If you don’t, that begs an inconvenient question.

Aye, sure, there are lots of great homeschooled kids out there. There are also, what, eight billion people on planet Earth at this point? If you’re a homeschooler or parent wanting to tout the virtues of your tribe (that’s what it is) and the esteemed caliber of your education, maybe, I don’t know, avoid making such basic scholarly mistakes in public. It doesn’t matter how many potential scripts for a Lifetime movie you can reference off the top of your head. What’s relevant is the overall breakdown of success and who benefits from it. Spoilers: we don’t have that. All we know is that homeschoolers represent maybe 1-2% of the educational population in the US, i.e., a very small fraction. The rest is largely speculative nonsense, tainted by a mountain of pro-homeschooling organizations with every impetus and motivation to inflate the prowess of their particular shtick. The HSLDA is notorious for playing up every possible public school horror story, protecting parents blatantly guilty of abuse, and tainting the whole idea of public schooling for their own obvious selfish gain. They aren’t looking out for you, and they sure aren’t making sure whatever literature they publish extolling the virtues of their cause are rigorous and accurate.

Speaking of which, are you citing rigorous studies in your defense of homeschooling? No, because there basically aren’t any. And if you aren’t citing rigorous studies, then cease and desist. If you really are an amazing HS student who’s As Good as the Rest, odds are you got lucky. That’s not an argument for an educational paradigm. There are just as many (if not far more) homeschooled students whose parents didn’t make a combined $250,000 a year and who had serious gaps in their upbringing, adults who will now carry that burden for the rest of their lives. Those kids are ignored, forgotten, and outright erased from that gilded narrative. If you don’t take into account the full horizon of outcomes, to include the failures—the myriad of abused, neglected homeschoolers—you’re doing yourself, them, and your cause a disservice, not to mention selling someone else’s snake oil. In this day and age, you have no excuse. Their stories are a Google search away. Here’s one. Now go find another. Do your homework.

Finally, if you want your child to be raised in the Finnish education system, just move to Finland. Here’s a chart of all fifteen Finnish grammatical cases. You’d better start Junior on them now! They grow up fast, after all.

Water Runs Downhill – 1

I’ve been asked to comment on the recent pullouts in Syria and Afghanistan announced by Trump. Allow me to exploit this as a springboard for a continuing analytical series on the topic of geopolitics as I feel like.

To the matter at hand, both these statements are correct:

  1. We have and haven’t had any strategy governing our presence in the Middle East since I was a tot.
  2. No strategy governs our announced pullout from Syria and Afghanistan, which may end up helping antagonistic actors like Russia and Iran.

I say this because geopolitics is a godless morass of competing concerns and interests. Boiling it down to a simple equation, moral or otherwise, is the province of charlatans. Now, people rejoice at the withdrawal, others decry it. While I can see arguments for both, I’m divided, highly inclined to agree on Afghanistan, where we’ve been spinning our wheels for nigh two decades. If our presence has proven so ineffectual, it begs the question as to what possible calamity our absence might work. Regarding Syria, I’m more skeptical. The question there is “why.” The larger conflict is decided insofar as a butcher like Assad will survive, a tall king of ashes. What lies beyond is unripe speculation, and I’m not sure it matters much anyway. If one’s concern bends towards Iran, I’m sorry to say that ship has sailed. There was little we could have done to blockade it. Even in an intervention scenario, Iran would have attained a net positive increase in its influence and reach. If, on the other hand, the concern bends toward Russia, well, that’s a different story. I’m not terribly concerned by even a stark victory for a dying power squandering its last frail spring on more misplaced imperial adventures. Let the little people blow. Sauron will deal with them later.

To specify, my only real concern with the Syria pullout is the motivation of those who made the decision–a single mendacious Individual-1–and those reacting to it with either dismay or welcome. The presence of a few thousand American troops, such formidable currency in such parts, cannot be said to be the crux of the conflict. I agree that the Kurds don’t deserve to be abandoned again, but again, see #1. If we wish to support the Kurds, there must a goal and vision for that other than mere maintenance. Maintenance, prevention, deterrence, etc., are better called “idling” without those. The bitter truth is that Trump has brought some much-needed sense to the analysis (broken clocks, man), bolstered entirely by a question that hasn’t been asked in a shameful while: what the hell are we doing there? There are worse things to do than throw up his hands and withdraw when no general or expert can give him a convincing answer. “Bad things might happen” or “the bad people might win” aren’t that, but how children answer questions about a bedtime story. The American Empire ought not be run with such scholastic dotage.

I suspect Trump is tainted by an atavistic, selfish sympathy toward Russian whispers, but I can’t help but think that here his instinct just saw a vague, interminable mess and said “screw it.” That’s how the readout seems to me. It’s not his fault that American Middle Eastern doctrine is bankrupt and can’t meet basic questions. That such an approach is better than what we have is a condemnation of the latter, not the former. There a number of better approaches to tackle this issue, the best of which lies not in bases or allies or scheming above a map, but by building insane amounts of solar panels, wind farms, and nuclear power stations, rendering the one thing that keeps this region’s medieval squabbles relevant a sunbleached relic. For Iran, the better approach was the goddamn deal we made that opened a path to rapprochement, also known as neutralization. The best way to thwart Iran is to transition from a hated to a neutral potential partner across the wide sea. As long as Tehran can cast us as an acute enemy, they’ll be a threat, as we’ll be one. Were we to become something more benign, their scheming would fall by the wayside, their eyes and hands turned elsewhere. Oftentimes the best defense is a dodge.

That’s it. One minor Parthian shot: there’s a tendency and temptation to treat every last development in the Game as apocalyptic. No. Everything matters, not everything is key. Most waves cancel each other out.

Space Gaslighting

Fans suck, especially the Star Wars variety.

I don’t have much pity for The Last Jedi. It’s a terrible movie, as I’ve explored at length. That said, I’ve despised the alt-right bullshit “reactions” around it from the very beginning, exploiting the existence of a banal, weak character like Rose (as opposed to every other character in the same movie) to rally around an anti-SJW agenda. SJW is pronounced “s’jewwwwwwwwwwwwww”, by the way, just in case it wasn’t clear it’s become a meaningless slur in direct harmony with its anti-Semitic predecessors. These are liars, idiot bigots who want to go back to a magical time when there was no progressive message in their media and everything was just nice and timeless and oh wait X-Men the Animated Series was more leftist and hardcore than most things on the air today and remember how Captain Planet was overtly anti-corporate with a highly diverse cast?

None of these alt-right losers care about “cinematic integrity” or “ethics in game journalism.” It’s an excuse to act out their bigotry in public, pure gaslighting meant to reframe and reshape reality to fit their goals, to restore public acceptability for their hatred, to make their bile seem like good ol’ common sense. Meanwhile, the alt-right is about as natural as a nuclear bomb. It’s an artificial monstrosity, one that has been deliberately fostered by its advocates and tolerated by corporate hacks in favor of profitability, as well as the occasional naive moron in a comical position of power who probably has sympathies towards them.

The insulted male wracked with grief over the injustices foisted upon him by the FEMINISTS and a rabidly leftist world is a farce. They’re assholes seething at a world that now might punish their obnoxious, childish antics instead of rewarding them. Everything else is a smokescreen. An angry man ranting about how a bad corporate turd of a movie is RUINING THEIR FRANCHISE WITH A POLITICAL AGENDA (whatever that is) should not be given any benefit of the doubt, let alone respect. Can they define what that agenda is? Can they explain what the hell they’re talking about? No, because that’s not the point. The point is to find an excuse to make their hatred and bitterness sound reasonable, whatever form that takes.

You want to know why these fans, authors of 10-hour-long videos about how Rose is somehow the worst Star Wars character ever, really hate Rose? It’s because she’s Asian and has chubby cheeks. That’s it. They’re racist woman-haters. End of story. Nothing that Rose does in TLJ is remarkable. There’s that one stupid line at the end where she says “Love Will Save Us” as the Space Empire’s Lazer Ram breaks through the door. Oh no. As opposed to this:

This scene pissed me off way more than anything else Rose ever did. Why? Because it’s also gaslighting. Noticing a theme here?

“The height of their power?” Have you all forgotten that the Jedi were consistently stated to be at a worrying nadir in all three prequel films? Go back and watch them. The Jedi were in trouble the whole way through, and they knew it. It’s not like they were being deliberately undermined by an evil Sith Lord. Oh no, it was all the good guys’ fault for being mercilessly slaughtered by a power-hungry tyrant while trying to keep the Galactic Republic from falling apart. No no no, the legacy of the Jedi was total failure…apart from over a thousand years of peaceful, stable, democratic rule. More than we’ve ever done. If that’s failure, then what’s success?

How odd that all these defenders of integrity don’t seem to care about a movie rewriting history. They know few, if any, will go back and watch what amounts to a historical record, so they can just lie and say whatever they want, tweaking Star Wars to appeal to the tired cynicism of the 2010s, reinforcing the caustic idea that good and evil are lies, no different from one another, legitimizing distrust in our institutions and the good people in them. This is far more insidious than Rose saying something stupid in one scene. There’s way stupider shit in the movie itself anyway. Luke Skywalker cynicizing the entire legacy of the Jedi? Who cares! Rey wanting to save a murderous asshole who killed his father showed no remorse for it? Eh! Finn forgetting about Rey, the person who changed his life? Meh! Leia having no plan and flying through space like Mary Poppins? Whatever. Poe having no character arc? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But “LOVE IS WHAT WILL SAVE US” is what gets you riled up. Sure, Jan.

Stop taking these people at face value. Their grievances are a performance to themselves, curated rage, all to enjoy the experience of being an awful human being while gaining power. Most of all, they want you to defend these movies. That’s their game: to put you between a rock and a hard place. Do I try to justify TLJ because defending representation in movies is more important, even though, yeah, Admiral Holo’s actions make no sense?

No. This is a Disney movie made to sell toys. You don’t owe it a damn thing. Captain Phasma being a woman doesn’t make her character good. That plays right into their hands. It makes you seem like a zealot out of touch with the real world. Here we have a corporation and racists exploiting your well-meaning idealism from different angles. As a different example, the new Ghostbusters was a travesty, and everyone who tried to defend it simply because it had an all-female cast fell for it, hook, line, and sinker. This harms our cause, as less informed, less insightful people on the sidelines will watch the movie and think of us as fools, reinforcing the cynical message of the alt-right: we weird coastal elites and liberal activists don’t care about the truth that us common folk can grasp; we’re just purple-haired activists who don’t care about whom we trample to remake the world in our image. Unlike them, beleaguered guardians of reason and justice.

Don’t fall for it. TLJ is bad. Why? Because most movies today are bad, because studios have turned an artistic exercise into a focus-group-centered mathematical puzzle. There’s no mystery to it. It just so happens that nowadays putting more women and people of color into them stirs up hype. I just saved you hundreds of hours of arguing on the internet.

It should be noted that even this half-hearted effort is worthwhile. Black Panther is a good example of how it can pay off eventually. Cultural change has to start somewhere. You just have to approach it with some cunning and patience. There are countless good movies out there pushing the bounds of diversity and social justice. You don’t have to die on any particular hill. Save your blood for something worthy.

By the way, the climate is changing really fast and we’re so far behind on addressing it that we’re probably completely screwed.

Dear Blue – I

Dear Blue,

We won last night.

No, we didn’t clinch the slaughter we hungered for. That was always a distant dream, best used for motivation, not a serious performance metric. The true prize was the House, which we have. With it we’ve paralyzed Trump and his Red minions until 2020 at the worst. Obamacare is safe. Most of Barack’s legacy lives intact (for good and ill). That long battle is over. Rejoice.

All this is only as much of a “defeat” as you make of it. It’s only a disappointment in the sense that we didn’t get everything we wanted, if you frame total victory–seizing both House and Senate with iron claws quick-rusted in the spent blood of our enemies–as the only victory. That’s not how you win a war. Remember how poorly the first half of the Civil War seemed to go for the Union. Self-inflicted despair, treason of the spirit, is our greatest foe. Rome didn’t give up after Cannae. This was Fabius’ first stroke.

Setting aside irresponsible historical metaphors for a moment, we won big on the policy front, one of several rising bastions that will lift us to the ultimate victory: Florida re-enfranchised its felons, Medicaid expansion surged forth in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah (our enemy’s heartlands), Michigan defeated gerrymandering and voter suppression, more states decriminalized marijuana in some form, on it goes. Our vision has become reality. It hasn’t yet come to full ripeness, nor may it ever in some crueler fields, but it’s survived a harsh frost..

A quick, easy lesson you should learn, Blue, if you haven’t yet somehow, is that narratives are a double-edged sword, vital and dangerous. Like all guides, they can go astray. We need them and our own eyes, ears, hands, and legs. There’s cause for frustration and hope in everything we see. So many of our bitter defeats were within a hair’s breadth in places we had no right to threaten: Georgia and Florida, for one, but one can find a plethora of contests all across the country within a 5-point margin, shedding further light on the existential crux of voting rights, which we’ve long neglected. Red persists in it because it still knows this better than us. In the deepest crooks of its cunning, it grasps how just much it must cheat to survive. It’s why they’ve trudged away at it for generations and why we must do the same. Our enemy remains strong, but so do we.

Instead of narrative, focus on reality. There now exists an undeniable check on Trump’s power, our check, to drag his grosser excesses into the pitiless light of day, to dismantle the charlatan’s image propping up his standing in the eyes of fools. We already know he doesn’t stand up well to actual scrutiny, while his success has painted him into a corner from which he can’t easily dart, his trademark survival tactic. It may seem unwise to focus so much on the person of Trump instead of things that seem to have more weight, like pet policy issues, but again, consider reality: Trump’s image is his policy. He’s the epitome of a rich, white bigot, the kind that flouts the most basic norms, says the terrible things his racist kind has wanted to say for so long, makes stupid, selfish decisions with wild abandon, all while getting away with it. By showing the way, he lets others do the same. To its benefactors, it’s as concrete a policy as any other, the only one he has, a mighty one indeed, and now the Republican Party has cleaved unto it. There’s no going back. The die is cast.

Is that disgraceful to our country and its professed ideals? Of course it is. Still, remember that those have been a convenient facade from the beginning. America aspires both to equality and a vicious racism that has inspired many. It remains a Great Experiment, worthy of love and praise, now fanaticism and fawning. As for their hate, it’s wicked, still wickeder for the fury and power it gives their limbs, letting them punch far above their rightful weight. It’s wickedest, though, in that it’s an untruth. These always have their due. “Nothing matters?” No. Everything matters, this most of all. Those who truly love him will never leave him, not even perhaps when the river rises. Those that use him have their limit, and those who hate him outnumber him on every level. It’s a gamble on genetics, culture, and socioeconomics, hoping that chance will have rendered someone vulnerable to its lies, just enough to cobble an army together.

But they remain lies, sound and fury, signifying nothing. They will pass and are passing. I take this as an opportunity to address the forlorn hope of Demographics is Destiny, which we’ve abused. What is meant by that is so simple: the old bigots aren’t replacing themselves. The polarization of the country continues unabated: the farms and wide spaces rush right, the suburbs and cities, the beating heart of our nation, flee left. It does not and has never meant that we will win the day by automatic math, because Latinos and Blacks and women are ours to command, without minds and feelings of their own, whose oaths to us they must respect. It means that those capable of holding forth the banner of modern conservatism are decreasing unto its doom. Red has mortgaged its future to win its present.

Understand, Blue, that this doom may not come in a form you or I expect. Before us lie many defeats unlooked-for and victories unforeseen. As I say, this is a war, of words and ideas. In such wars, things shift. What was “conservative” and “liberal” yesterday in America isn’t that today. We may see tomorrow’s climate “conservatism” as being pro-nuclear and opposed to a harsh carbon tax in the face of a bold Green New Deal. That’s a good future. Should a new Red Phoenix arise, one that shifts left and embraces our greater causes–universal healthcare, gay rights, etc.–we ought to welcome it with open arms. We destroy the Republican Party not to blot out the word “Republican” from every text in the universe, but to erase what it’s chosen to represent. When they remind us that “Democrat” used to signify slavery, they make this point for me.

None of this is to lull you or me into complacency. War is a hell fraught with risk. However, this one is no evil. Ours is a holy war, most holy, for we know our cause is true, not through faith in tomes and saints, but the stronger knowledge of science, reason, and judgment, the careful, disciplined uncertainty of evaluation and reevaluation that gives rise to true certainty, reinforced by the preponderance of the evidence, strictures mightier than any commandments of hate. They win every time because they aren’t that: they don’t rely on having to whip idiots into a frightening, fragile furor, because they don’t have to expend that energy in the first place, because they’re their own witness that stands the test of time. All we have to do to keep them alive is to practice them.

Here’s a most instructive illustration: do you remember how bad things were when Germany had conquered Europe and Britain stood alone? Imagine how much worse things might have been had Hitler stood back, consolidated his gains, and asserted what he’d won in a calm, confident manner? He didn’t have to commit the Holocaust. He could have written a Novus Ordo Seclorum, accepting Jews and others into his cause, rolling back the dreaded tide of revolutionary communism and other feared hordes on the horizon. But he couldn’t, could he? Crafty and cunning, formidable and fearsome, yet when all was said and done, when all the theories and speculation as to what he was really up to passed into history, he was a plain and simple bigot. He believed in his hatred with heart and soul, in the fevers of his mind with an unwavering conviction. He couldn’t resist invading the Soviet Union, in pushing his luck, making mistake after unnecessary mistake, until he died at his own hand in utter humiliation. Evil is both devilishly wily and incredibly stupid, capable of such comical errors Good could never imagine. Fear most the Evil that hasn’t yet fallen so low. Trumpism has.

Keep faith, Blue. Never stop. Never give up. Take your victories and know what they look like. Hope lives. The Republic fights another day, in the form of you and countless others. We won and will win, if only you want it.