Steampunk Politics

Steampunk Politics

Many things in our politics that seem new are actually quite old.

Dear Reader (Including those of you who favor busing if it makes Joe Biden look racist, but not if it makes you look crazy),

I’m torn about this whole “took over the airports” thing. In case you’re off enjoying life away from the noise machine, President Trump said that great American patriots seized the British airports during the Revolutionary War. On the one hand, it was a pretty great flub which will be blown out of proportion, just like Obama’s “corpse-man” prompter screw up. On the other hand, these things happen. Reading a prompter in the rain is probably hard. On the other hand—and yes, when writing this “news”letter, I have more hands than I need but not as many as I want—that’s one reason why you practice important speeches, so a misread is less likely. Yet, on another hand, I just want it to be true. I mean, if we’re supposed to believe the Ancient Egyptians could fly, why couldn’t the Brits or the Founding Fathers? On one final hand, even if it’s not true, I’d like to pretend it was.

Retconning” and other forms of updating or reimagining old stories have been commonplace in popular culture for a while now, if not forever. That’s probably inevitable when there are literally tens or hundreds of billions of dollars stored up in very old IP. If Bruce Wayne was never reimagined, he’d be an 80-year-old beating the Bingo caller with his Hurry Cane when he’s not looking for his glasses to reread Atlas Shrugged. If Peter Parker didn’t keep getting rebooted, he’d be like Steve Buscemi saying “How do you do, fellow kids.”

It’s also why popular characters almost never die (“Shweeooo!” – The Couch). If you took the end of Infinity War seriously, you’d have to believe that Disney willingly erased billions of dollars of product from their catalog for dramatic effect. This, too, has a long tradition of existence. When Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes by having him plunge off Reichenbach Falls, the public outcry was so great that Doyle had to later claim Holmes faked his own death.

Steampunk Politics

Speaking of Holmes, I liked the Robert Downey Jr. version, in which he was basically a late 19th century Tony Stark, inventing all sorts of crazy contraptions that didn’t actually exist at the time. I also like the Robin Hood movies where Robin of Loxley—one of the West’s first mythical superheroes— has all sorts of ahistorical gadgets and sidekicks (including his numinous Saracen wingman, who’s better than Robin Hood at everything, sort of like Bruce Lee’s Kato in The Green Hornet). I also dug Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, set in a technologically-advanced 1939, because while fascism sucked, the aesthetics could be pretty cool.

And that’s why I’d love to see a movie where the British did indeed have planes and airports. Now, it would be silly to give them F-35s—no one would believe that. But some badass biplanes? Bring it on. Who wouldn’t want to see Alexander Hamilton and Lafayette play Maverick and Goose? “I feel the need…the need for speed!”? Or, to put it in the argot of the time, “I have the taste…the taste for haste!”

Maybe Hamilton dies in a dogfight over the cliffs of Weehawken?

One of the things that made George Washington such a dominant figure was that he was so impressive on a horse. Thomas Jefferson remarked that Washington was “the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback.” Replace “horseman” with “pilot” and you’ve got a killer movie on your hands.

Nike’s Idiocy

Speaking of the Founders, my column today is on the idiocy of the Betsy Ross flag controversy. I think Nike did a criminally stupid thing, but there’s no need to recycle my argument here. But what I didn’t get into was what this says about how “cultural appropriation” works in our society. Remember the idiotic controversy sparked by this tweet?

This was just one of countless inanities centering around cultural appropriation. As I’ve written before, I think cultural appropriation is one of the best things about our culture. Without it, we wouldn’t have jazz, because black musicians would never have used European instruments to create a new art form. We wouldn’t have many, perhaps most, of the words in the English language. We wouldn’t have democracy—who wants that Greek filth?—or Christianity, that Middle Eastern “cult.” We wouldn’t have Hawaiian pizza either—and reasonable people can debate whether that goes down in the Win column.

Cultural appropriation has even given us yoga and the incredibly amusing spectacle of watching feminists bend themselves into an intellectual version of Kapotasana to explain why yoga is a form of Western oppression. Meanwhile, without cultural appropriation, many parts of the world wouldn’t have democracy—or socialism!—either, never mind running water or property rights.

What’s so weird about the Betsy Ross flag controversy is how the warriors of wokeness and the p.c. paladins fighting the perniciousness of the Pale Penis People were perfectly happy to let a handful of right-wing trolls culturally appropriate the Betsy Ross flag. Of course, they’re happy to do so, because rewriting the Founding as some kind of primordial neo-Nazi klanbake is one of their most cherished projects. Still, giving a bunch of racist goons this power is astonishingly stupid. In a healthy society, it wouldn’t fall to conservatives to defend the original American flag from this association. It would be a patriotic obligation of every citizen not to argue with the peckerwoods—they don’t deserve the attention—but to shrug them off. Instead, the moment a Klansman says “I like this,” the Colin Kaepernick Brigades have a Pavlovian urge to surrender to the theft (because they want the American Founding to be all – and only – about racism).

That’s why I’d love to see alt-righters start wearing Nike T-shirts and sneakers. Then maybe the buffoons of the Nike C-Suite could appreciate their idiocy. I’d also love it if they started wearing Asian outfits or embraced yoga, and not because I want America’s right-wing bigots to be more limber (they’re already quite adept at putting their heads in their asses). No, it’s because I suspect that the Kaepernick crowd would be more outraged by the sight of dreadlocked neo-Nazis wearing tie-dyed Bob Marley shirts than Betsy Ross flags. “My culture is not you’re goddamn T-shirt!”

Fear and Self-Loathing in America

I’ve long argued that America suffers from an auto-immune disease; our anti-bodies are attacking healthy organs of the body politic because there aren’t enough natural pathogens to contend with anymore. America’s admirable ability to self-correct by attacking bigotry and injustice is on over-drive, in part because it has become an industry unto itself: from the Southern Poverty Law Center to the business models of countless colleges and universities. That’s why murals of George Washington need to be painted over and why Charlottesville will no longer celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. In the war against institutionalized racism, this isn’t even tantamount to shooting the wounded; it’s the equivalent of disinterring the dead and putting new uniforms on them so you can stab them again.

We’re told that racism and “white supremacy” are still the threats they once were, if not worse. This is all nonsense. By any objective measure, attitudes on race have improved at a revolutionary clip.

But people need to see themselves in a heroic narrative, so they invent enemies to conquer for fun and profit. This is just one of the factors that creates a witch hunt atmosphere where tiny slivers of pseudo-evidence of heresy or devilry are magnified into systemic and existential threats. My favorite recent example remains the Salem-level freakout at Oberlin College, when a woman wrapped herself in a white blanket on a chilly day and someone with weak eyesight immediately assumed the KKK were invading. Oberlin cancelled classes and eventually organized education and support groups that are the modern-secular equivalent of prayer circles formed to ward off evil spirits.

Motivated reasoning often leads to this kind of craziness, even absent a witch-hunt atmosphere. Sailors desperate for female companionship saw the tails of dolphins flapping in the water and convinced themselves they’d seen the bottom torso of mermaids. Sometimes it is quite forgivable or understandable. Desperate survivors of the USS Indianapolis, dying of thirst and beset by sharks, would believe hallucinatory stories about fresh water being served on the deck of the sunken ship. Someone would yell, “The Indy is down below, and they’re giving out fresh water and food in the galley!”, and some sailors would dive down only to be eaten by sharks.

At Salem, paranoia was so intense, “spectral evidence” was considered admissible. Someone would claim that the devil appeared in the form of some teenager, so obviously the real teenager seen in the vision was in league with Satan.

If Oberlin weren’t run by the secular equivalent of Salem’s preachers, they would have chalked up the spectral evidence of the Klan as damning testimony against the climate they fostered. Instead, it was an opportunity to reinforce the dogma of paranoia.

Flight 93 Elections All the Way Down

I bring this up for a few reasons. First, I am obsessed with ways behaviors and attitudes that we associate with the superstitious past reemerge in new forms in the present age. When I look around the world, I see replays of ancient themes all over, from North Korea’s reinvention of heritable monarchy and the Divine Right of Kings (or Kims) to the way zoning laws and other regulations are modern incarnations of guilds and serfdom. I could go on about it all day.

But more relevant, I think the myriad hysterias and obsessions of the present age have more in common with our ancient past than any novel ideas. Humans are wired to conflate hygiene with morality, and so many of the moral panics we see today look like that part of our brain is misfiring. Whenever I hear people talk about diseased or “dirty” immigrants, I feel like we’re replaying arguments from the Progressive era or Ancient Rome. When I read about liberals being triggered into feats of asininity by a MAGA hat, I see a moral panic over fear of contagion. This guy honestly thinks he confronted a Nazi in the name of keeping D.C. free of racism. Portland’s antifa goons live in one of the whitest and most liberal cities in the country, and they’ve convinced themselves they are at the bloody edge of the fight against Nazism. Colin Kaepernick’s bedwetting response to a Betsy Ross flag—Betsy Ross was a member in good-standing of the Quaker faith which had opposed slavery since the 1650s—is a secular form of talismanism

This helps to explain why I feel so politically homeless these days. I didn’t like “Trump’s Salute to America” precisely because that’s how the media covered it: Trump’s salute. I revere the U.S. military and I am happy to celebrate their heroism and sacrifice. Plus, I dig jets. But by inserting himself into the celebration—even though his speech was fine—he inserted his polarizing effect into a non-partisan celebration. But let me be clear: It wasn’t that big a deal. The people who made it a big—or certainly much bigger—deal are the ones who suggested this was reminiscent of the days before the Tiananmen massacre. That’s an insult to Trump, sure, though he welcomes such trollish reactions. More importantly, it’s an insult to the U.S. military, which would laugh off orders to open fire on American citizens. It’s also an insult to the heroism of the Chinese protestors who actually did risk their lives by speaking truth to power. The guy who yells at someone wearing a MAGA hat isn’t a brave freedom fighter; he’s a paranoid witch hunter who wants to claim bravery on the cheap, as are the cowards who want to “fight fascism” in the streets of Portland just so long as you can’t see their faces.

Do I think Trump has an appalling fondness for dictators and other strongmen? Yes. Do I think he has an unhealthy disregard for the rhetoric of democracy and the rule of law? Absolutely. Do I think he’s a would-be Hitler? Of course not. Hitler was a vastly more serious person. Yeah Hitler was a narcissist who liked military parades but his ambitions were categorically more sinister than wanting to be the center of attention and having good photo-ops. Triumph of the Will and Nuremberg rallies were means to an end for Hitler. Military parades and bromances at the DMZ are ends in themselves for Trump. It’s amazing how Trump constantly talks—and acts—like he wants to get out of foreign wars, yet his critics in the resistance say, “See! He wants a war.” I’m reminded of James Burnham’s retort during another panic (that was at least focused on a real foreign enemy), when some hysterics accused Eisenhower of being a Communist: “Ike’s not a Communist, he’s a golfer.” Trump’s not Hitler, he’s a golfer—albeit a golfer who cheats to make himself the club champion whenever he can.

But when thanks to social media and civic decay, the fight over “the narrative” becomes the defining battlefield of our age, the pressure to choose a side in competing panics becomes intense. One of the amusing themes of the current moment is that it is now liberals shrieking “it’s a binary choice!” They take grave offense that Trump-skeptical conservatives (and—“yawn”— “Never Trump Republicans”) might not willingly—or eagerly!—jettison their opposition to, say, socialized medicine because of the “existential crisis” facing America. Now it’s their Flight 93 election, too. My chief objection to my friends—current and former—on the right who insist I have to “support” Trump is that what they ultimately mean by supporting Trump is ignoring or denying the existence of his flaws. In short, they want me to lie by omission or commission. Now liberals want me to do the same thing about Democrats.

Screw that; screw all of it. I’ll stay in my window seat, confident both that we’re not sitting on Flight 93 and that the only thing that will risk a crash is if everyone keeps pretending that we are. Maybe they’ll even play a movie with George Washington taking out the original Red Baron over the skies of Trenton.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: The doggers are doing well, despite the unbearable D.C. heat. Zoë even managed to muster some energy for her favorite pastime, bullying Sammie. Oddly, Pippa handles the heat better, despite the fact she was raised to zip around the cool English countryside, and Zoë’s forebears resided in the swamps of South Carolina and Georgia. We had an interesting incident yesterday. Chester, the neighborhood feline Liberty Valence, came around to rub her cheek all over our back deck as a way to torment Ralph and Gracie. Zoë and Pippa were not amused. The somewhat mysterious thing was Pippa’s behavior. I assumed, with ample historical evidence on my side, that Pippa was doing her “Hold me back!” routine, where she pretends that, if she were given the opportunity, she’d open a can of whupass on someone (she often runs away from big dogs only to circle around and bark as if to say, “That’s right buddy, you walk away! I’m right here!”). But someone on Twitter suggested Pippa was actually going after Zoë, protesting the suggestion that Zoë was the head of the Queen’s Guard. There’s some evidence for this, too. Sometimes, when Zoë gets into a scrap with a dog, Pippa will run over and seem like she’s intervening on the other dog’s behalf—or piling on. It’s hard to tell. Theories welcome.

Meanwhile, Zoë is becoming ever more vocal at home, chastising us for all manner of transgressions, even when we’re not sure what they are. One last thing: Some of you who follow me on Twitter may know that @ComfortablySmug is constantly attacking Zoë and Pippa as “garbage” or “bad dogs” and insists they should be put into the pound. While in reality it doesn’t really hurt their feelings, some of you have asked where his newfound hatred for my dogs comes from. Well, it starts with his being a terrible person. But beyond that, he once loved Zoë and Pippa. But then they won the conservative dogs of Twitter contest, beating out the lovely and talented Dana Perino and her excellent dog Jasper. Because he’s a political consultant/demonizer for hire in the pocket of the Bush Hegemony, he turned his guns on my dogs the way he did against the upstart Rubio. Now you know.

This week's first Remnant, with Brad Thor

Blame Hillary Clinton for the Democrats’ leftward lurch

Why doesn't Trump's tough talk on China extend to Uighur persecution?

This week’s second Remnant, with Ilya Shapiro

Nike fans the flames of the culture war

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Friday links

Who said it...

The 1996 post-aliens presidential debate

England's mysterious walls

A Lake Michigan mystery

Second languages

You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain

May this thread not give you monachopsis

The Japan that could have been

The Japan that is

Iguana bloodbath to come

Meth squirrel

Points for trying

There is more than one of everything

First contact?

Look at the cat

Robots taking our jobs

"The Eye of Sauron the Terrible few could endure"