The Quiet Tragedy of Hunter Biden

In all of the drama and, well, chaos, of the ongoing U.S. election, I’ve found my thoughts returning again and again to that moment in the first presidential debate when Trump viciously attacked Hunter Biden—calling him a cocaine addict and falsely charging that he’d been dishonourably discharged from the military for drug use.

I’d like to think, and I really, really hope, that we’ll look back on that moment as the tipping point in Trump’s fortunes. I suspect that the debate as a whole will be a moment when Trump’s megalomaniacal, compulsive tendencies became too overt to be excused or explained away, but it was that specific unhinged verbal assault on Biden’s surviving son—when Biden had been memorializing his dead son Beau—that most horrifyingly distilled the President’s sociopathy.

As painful as it is, I’ve watched the exchange several times now, mainly because I wanted to make sure I was not misremembering it. There’s a lot to parse here: Trump castigating Hunter’s issues with addiction seems more than a little tone deaf, not least because the opioid crisis that has been tearing through the American Midwest disproportionately afflicts Trump’s principal voting demographic. Perhaps his base can disassociate the scourge of addiction in their communities from Trump’s cruel words; but I have to assume some people—addicts in recovery, family members struggling with their loved ones’ addiction, or else mourning those lost to overdoses—heard the callousness of Trump’s words clearly. And possibly they also heard Joe Biden’s response, which was to say, as he looked directly into the camera, “Like a lot of people you know at home, he had a drug problem. He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”

The contours of Hunter Biden’s story are sadly obvious. His brother Beau was the son being groomed to follow in Dad’s footsteps, earning medals for his military service and then running for office before the tragedy of brain cancer felled him. Hunter was the fuckup, the drug user, the son who couldn’t quite get it right. Speaking about his questionable appointment to the board of Burisma, Hunter offered the not-quite-believable excuse that, with a father in public office and a brother set to run for public office, it fell to him to earn money “for the family.” I suppose it’s possible that the Biden clan was strapped for cash, but that doesn’t quite pass the smell test. More likely—as has been widely reported—Hunter was himself badly in debt, and took on the Burisma position (over strong recommendations that he not) for that reason.

One of the plot points I find most telling in this sad saga is that there were numerous people in the White House who thought Hunter’s relationship with Burisma inappropriate—and advised Joe Biden to that effect—but were rebuffed by Biden, who said that, as a rule, he did not interfere in Hunter’s personal business.

To be clear, we don’t know the details, and so much of this is mere speculation. But Biden’s refusal to ask Hunter “WTF are you doing?” and pressure him to walk away from Burisma reeks of a father’s reluctance to chastise a son who already sees himself as the lesser scion, the pale shadow of the golden child. As foolish as it was not to wave Hunter away from Burisma, there’s a germ of Biden’s empathy and kindness here: possibly, the understanding that his son was in pain, and had been for some time, and thus an unwillingness to hurt him further—even though it meant allowing him to make yet another poor choice.

This is manifestly not something Donald Trump understands. When Biden launched into an attack on Trump’s alleged characterization of American military dead as “saps” and “losers,” citing his dead son Beau, Trump evinced a momentary confusion. “Are you talking about Hunter?” he demanded, to which Biden said no, he was talking about Beau.

Trump’s answer, inadvertently, distilled his thinking on this and every issue. “I don’t know Beau, I know Hunter.”

Again, too much to parse: of course Trump doesn’t know Beau, as he has no understanding of someone who devotes himself to public service. Hunter, though? Who in Trump’s mind is corrupt, a grifter, and only interested in exploiting his political connections for personal gain? “I know Hunter,” he says, perfectly happy to smear his opponent’s son while his own corrupt spawn grin and leer from the audience.

Meanwhile, as Trump yells his invective, Biden repeats: “My son. My son. My son.” Asserting his filial connection. “I’m proud of my son,” he says when he gets a moment.

The cruel part of me wonders if Don Jr. and Eric felt a twinge of pain at that.

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Thoughts on Petards and Hoisting

For an embarrassingly long time, I assumed the expression “hoisted on his own petard” had something to do with someone being strung up on a flagpole, and that “petard” was an archaic term for flag or pennant. As is often the case with colloquialisms, I didn’t examine it too closely—if I had, I might have noticed that the general sense of the expression (i.e. one of poetic justice) did not quite square with a flag-raiser somehow hoisting themself along with the flag. It was only when I took a graduate class on Shakespeare that I learned he coined the expression, that it was from a textual variant of Hamlet, and that the expression is “hoist with his own petard.”

I further learned that a petard was a crude bomb used in late-medieval siege warfare, at a time when gunpowder had been developed, but reliably safe delivery systems had not. A petard was a bell-shaped bomb with a wooden base, which was attached to the gate of a castle or fortified town, or placed underneath the wall. Then the bombardier lit the fuse and ran like hell. Thing was, these bombs weren’t particularly reliable, and often blew up the bombers as well. Shakespeare uses “hoist” to mean “lift,” or as we might express it, blowed up real good.

I’ve seen this expression being used a lot these past few days—both correctly and incorrectly—for reasons that should probably be obvious.

I lost a day of work last Friday. As has so often happened during the Trump presidency, a specific news item effectively blotted out all other thought and left me stewing in anger and worry, trying to put my thoughts into some kind of order. What ultimately resulted was a long Facebook post, which read as follows:

I am so. Fucking. Angry right now.

I hate the fact that my instinctive reaction to the news of Trump’s diagnosis was a kind of schadenfreudistc glee, a smug satisfaction at poetic justice. It angers me that I feel this way, because it means that, in one small sense, he has won—he has infected me, albeit minimally, with the spite and cruelty that is his only mode of being.

And it infuriates me that, no matter what the outcome, he will have again succeeded in making a bad situation worse. If it proves to be a mild case from which he recovers quickly—which is probably the best scenario here—he will use that as vindication for his claim that COVID is no big deal; that his opponents have been making mountains out of molehills all this time; and it will encourage his supporters to flout masks and social distancing even more than they do now. And there will be others whose genuine fears about the disease will be falsely alleviated.

If his case proves more serious and he has to be hospitalized up to or past election day, the kind of violence and unrest we’ve been dreading will likely be worse than anticipated. His most ardent followers will take to the streets demanding that the election be cancelled or postponed, and if he loses they will call it illegitimate. If Trump survives, he will join that chorus and amp it up even more. His Congressional sycophants will do the same. Perhaps this is a situation in which more moderate Republicans will finally grow a spine, but I think that is entirely dependent on whether Mitch McConnell sees himself keeping the Senate majority or not—if he does, he’ll probably be happy to see Trump’s exit, but if not, expect him to want a do-over too. A do-over if we’re lucky, as that scenario assumes that Republicans don’t seize the opportunity to simply annul the election result and call for martial law.

And if Trump dies, he will have won. I don’t want him dead—I want him standing on his own two feet as he’s delivered a humiliating electoral defeat, I want to see him return to a private life with fraud indictments waiting and a massive amount of debt coming due. I want him to be alive for all of the revelations that will come in the aftermath of his tenure as president. If he dies now, he becomes a martyr and a rallying-cry for white supremacists, neo-nazis, and all of the people who found his brand of cruelty inspiring rather than repellent. If he dies now, he never has to face any consequences for the catastrophic mess he’s gleefully caused.

All of this because he’s too narcissistic and self-obsessed to grasp that the office of the president is one of public service, and that him contracting COVID-19 has such dire implications for everyone else. All of this because he’s too narcissistic and self-obsessed to model good behaviour, to wear a mask, to take a once-in-a-century pandemic seriously for reasons beyond his own self-interests. That he has been afflicted with a disease he’s spent eight months dismissing, downplaying, and ignoring isn’t poetic justice, it’s a potential catastrophe for the nation he took an oath to serve.

So, yeah … last Friday was a weird day.

I made the post public, and it was shared over ninety times—which is as close as I’ve ever come to going viral. Apparently I articulated a lot of other people’s inchoate thoughts, or, as some responses indicated, presented possible scenarios that hadn’t occurred to them.

I’m feeling rather a lot better now. I’m even feeling cautiously … what’s the word? Optimistic? Is optimism even a thing anymore? It’s a strange sensation.

I am still dreading what happens November 3rd and afterward. Even if this election turns into a Biden landslide, there is still a lot of potential for Trump, along with his enablers and ardent followers, to make mischief. But my sense at the moment is that the mood has shifted—that Trump, in catching COVID, has been hoist with his own petard. When I posted my thoughts last Friday, an old friend of mine pushed back in the comments, suggesting that I was overestimating the devotion of Trump’s base—that these were people who, having gone all-in on the façade of Trump as strongman, would fall away from him at any perception of weakness … which, in their minds, would entail admitting to an illness their idol had spent eight months dismissing and downplaying. I replied to my friend that I hoped he was right, but that he might be underestimating the conspiracism of his base—that if Trump were to get gravely ill or die, it would all be characterized as a nefarious plot by the Deep State.

It was interesting, then, that the initial conspiratorial thinking came from the anti-Trump side. A not-insignificant number of people were immediately skeptical, seeing the diagnosis as a ploy to (1) elicit sympathy for Trump; (2) distract the news media from his disastrous debate performance, the revelations about his taxes, and the release of recordings of Melania saying vile things; (3) allow Trump mouthpieces to point at the inevitable schadenfreude as proof of the Left’s hatefulness; and (4) most importantly, allow Trump to emerge after a few days looking hale and healthy as proof that the coronavirus was never the big deal Trump’s opponents made it out to be.

Well … Trump et al are certainly trying to make hay out of #4, but they’re not quite sticking the landing, and those voicing skepticism have mostly fallen silent. For one thing, it becomes more difficult to believe it’s all a fake when there is obvious confusion within the White House as to how to communicate a coherent message—something made more difficult by the contradictory reports emerging from Trump’s medical team. One assumes that if this was all  a conspiracy to fake an illness, the messaging would be more consistent (that being said, however, we should never underestimate the incompetence of this White House to do anything). Also, the ever-increasing number of Republican senators, Trump’s inner circle, White House aides, and (most infuriatingly) White House staff, that have been infected, at once makes it less likely that they’re all in on the con, and also makes the virulence of this virus painfully evident.

And finally, there is the fact of Trump’s behaviour itself, which makes it difficult to believe that he would ever agree to a plan that would make him look weak (and as my friend also said, saying “I got sick with the hoax” is just bad branding). His little joyride in a hermetically sealed SUV so he could wave to his supporters was just twenty kinds of pathetic, more so when it was leaked that Trump chose to put the Secret Service agents who had to ride with him, who now have to quarantine, in danger because he was “bored.” And then there was the sight of him, upon returning to the White House, obviously struggling for breath.

I’m cautiously optimistic that this might be the moment when some Trump devotees start seeing through the con. Because I think my friend was right: if your entire brand is bound up in a particular conception of strength and manliness, any chinks in that façade can be deadly. The bluster and bullying that so many of us find repellent, his absolute refusal to ever admit error or give ground even in the face of overwhelming evidence—indeed, his constant doubling-down on his mendacity—has always been integral to the Trumpian projection of strength. Such niceties as facts, science, evidence, and reason don’t matter to his most ardent supporters, because the point has always been the illusion of Trump as vanquisher of the Establishment, the snowflakes and SJWs, the libtards, the Deep State. Anything that might contradict this illusion is obviously a confection of a confederacy of the aforementioned enemies.

But when the Man Himself admits to getting sick with something he has roundly dismissed, that becomes problematic. That Trump knows as much is obvious from his recent posturing, as he claims that catching the virus is a demonstration of his courage; but he is also obviously flailing, tweeting and calling into Fox News to revisit his greatest hits about Hillary’s emails, “Obamagate,” and the FBI spying on his campaign. Desperate to hold rallies again, he has declared himself “cured,” in defiance of everything we know about the coronavirus.

Perhaps this will work for him, but it feels like the golden toilet is starting to shed its gilt.

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A week into classes

The new school year has just started–I’ve now taught three classes over zoom, which is proving less annoying than expected. Actually, it isn’t annoying at all, which is largely due to the fact that I’ve lucked into a great cohort of students who all seem interested and engaged and more than willing to contribute to our discussions.

I’m teaching just the one class this term: a fourth-year seminar on Pandemic Fiction … because, you know, I like to be topical. The class’ first assignment is a personal essay: given that we’re studying pandemic fiction in the midst of an actual pandemic, I thought it might be fruitful to have my students share their own experiences. It’s a far more informal assignment than I would usually give, but then, these aren’t usual times.

But because a personal essay is a somewhat more open-ended proposition than a typical formal essay, I wanted to give my students some examples of the kind of thing they could do. So I’ve written two of my own: the first is a variation on a post I wrote in early May, “Of Bread and Patience”; this one is more personal, and details my experience of depression for the better part of that month. And when I finished writing, I figured what the hell–might as well post it to the blog.

Oh, and because the required word count for this assignment is 1200, this essay is precisely 1200 words. Because that’s how we do it downtown, baby. (It also means this is the shortest thing I’ve posted to this blog in a long time).

My May Doldrums, in Hindsight

My long dark night of the soul during the pandemic took place over the better part of May. I don’t know what it is like for other people, but I seem only to experience depression in hindsight. Even when in the midst of it, I tend to be blind to the indicators: bouts of anxiety, lassitude, lack of focus, avoidance. While the anxiety is the more acute and unpleasant experience, avoidance is more insidious—avoidance of work, of communication with friends and family, of simple tasks I’d promised myself I would do. All of which was, this past spring, exacerbated by the fact that there was nothing immediate that demanded my attention, like teaching classes or other such professional obligations. I’d been on a half-sabbatical in the winter term, going into my usual non-teaching summer research term, and so almost everything I was working on could be postponed for a day or two.

One of the reasons I only seem to recognize depression in hindsight—besides the fact that avoidance also applied to self-awareness—was that it ebbs and flows. I would have a few days in which I woke up with acute anxiety, followed by a few days that felt, by comparison, much better. But those “better” days weren’t actually good, they were just days in which I didn’t feel the tightness of anxiety in my gut. I was still unfocused, still avoiding those things I should be doing. In the early days of isolation, I wrote incessantly in my journal, and posted to my blog with a frequency it had not seen in years. I tried my hand at baking bread. I cooked elaborate meals. And I went for increasingly long walks; my peripatetic ruminations filled pages in my journal and informed blog posts.

That all crashed to a halt early in May. It did not feel like a crash at the time, but all of the documentary evidence—the sudden paucity of blog posts, the lack of entries in my journal, the sudden lack of pictures posted in my social media feed—spoke to an obvious and sudden gap in my mental activity. I can see now that in hindsight my fever of writing in the early days was itself a coping mechanism, but also that its lack signaled a descent into depression. What I did instead was play games on my computer while watching movies and TV on my iPad.

I should point out that playing computer games while watching something on my iPad is not unusual for me. I find it soothing to play Age of Empires II, Civilization V, or other such games that do not consume your attention in the way more kinetic games do, while having on my small screen something that I can half-watch. Indeed, this has been my preferred method of watching horror films: I am a wimp when it comes to scary movies, and will only go see them in the theatre under duress. I prefer the controlled circumstance of watching them on my own television, when I can get up and go to the kitchen to make tea or get a snack when the scary parts start going down. “Do you want me to pause it?” my girlfriend will call after me—goadingly, because she knows perfectly well the answer: “No, I’m good.” Even better is watching such films out of the corner of my eye as I direct my villagers to chop wood or mine stone while I send my infantry and cavalry to attack my foes.

These games where you build a society or civilization have always been favourites of mine. I played Sid Miers’ Civilization in its original iterations, and all that have followed; Warcraft, Warcraft II, Starcraft and Starcraft II followed, but I think the most perfectly distilled version of these games is Age of Empires II. The point of such games is, starting with just a handful of workers, build a hamlet up into a city, and, ultimately, develop an army with which to vanquish rival peoples. In years past, the endgame was always the most enjoyable part for me: sending phalanxes of pikemen, missile troops, cavalry and artillery into the enemy settlements and razing them to the ground. As a military history buff, I used historical tactics as much as the game allowed: spearmen out front, protecting the second rank of archers who sent withering volleys at the enemy; always with a column or two of cavalry to send swooping in if I was getting outflanked; and finally, the catapults and trebuchets bringing up the rear, to rain fire on the enemy’s buildings once their armies were defeated.

Yes, there was a great satisfaction in such victories, but a core pleasure of the game preceded it: the accrual of resources and the construction of new buildings. I am always very fastidious in my urban planning: building out farms from the town hall, with houses along one side and military buildings on another, and one end of town given over to such crucial civilian buildings as the blacksmith, church, university, and market.

During the better part of May, I found myself playing hours of Age of Empires II, while incessantly binging and rewatching Archer, Community, and Parks and Recreation—sitcoms whose beats I knew instinctively by that point. Novelty was not desired. Nor, apparently, was ultimate victory in the game: I wanted only to build, to spawn my villagers and send them to chop wood, mine gold or stone, harvest food, or build up my village. I built defenses on the approaches from my enemies’ territory to frustrate their attempts at invasion, but was not myself inclined to invade. Leave me be, let me build my village and see to my people. On occasion, sometimes just out of boredom, I sent my armies to attack; but more often I ended the game when my resources were exhausted, and started a new one. All while episodes of television I could almost recite verbatim played alongside the computer.

It was all, I can recognize now, a soporific, something to distract my mind, and something to occupy me as I avoided all those other tasks I should have been doing. Perhaps that is why I was preoccupied with building and not with battle: the satisfaction of seeing those tiny, industrious villagers erect buildings and chop trees and mine ore served to offset my own glaring lack of industry. Perhaps, too, it was the illusion of a thriving community of people doing their thing, together, while my own reality was atomized, distanced, reduced to faces in small boxes on my laptop screen. And those sitcoms? Sitcoms are always about family, even when the characters aren’t technically related. Hindsight is annoying, because it shows you what you feel you should have recognized in the moment. I missed my family, both my actual family and the family of friends I have made here in St. John’s; I missed my own industry and sense of purpose; I missed community.

I still do. But coming out the other side of what I now think of as my May doldrums, that benefit of hindsight granted perspective I didn’t have in the moment.

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Fear Itself

When I was young and first watched The Empire Strikes Back, I was, as you might imagine, enthralled. But there was one part of Yoda’s now-notorious dictum that always unsettled me: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” I got the anger–>hate–>suffering equation; but I was agnostic about fear as the root of it all. I was, I should admit, an easily frightened child; I grew up into an easily frightened adult, especially where scary films are concerned. So the idea that fear could lead me to the dark side was more than just vaguely disturbing. Wait, I thought—I’m afraid of sharks. That could make me a Sith? I spent much of my childhood being afraid of the dark, and slept under my covers for longer than I care to admit. And it seemed to me utterly unreasonable that Luke Skywalker should not be terrified of facing the many threats before him, not least of which was the implacable evil of Darth Vader himself. Given that I had it on good authority (i.e. my parents) that courage and bravery was not about not being afraid, but being afraid and doing the scary thing anyway, I wondered if perhaps Yoda wasn’t asking rather a lot.

I suppose this says something about the difference between children’s and adults’ understanding of fear, and the way they experience it: I would of course later understand that Yoda wasn’t speaking of specific, circumstantial fear, which is the kind of fear we tend to experience as children—the monster under the bed, things that go bump in the night—but rather the more existential fears that have to do with who we are and how we see ourselves, and how we might continue on in the world.

It occurs to me that the bizarre arms race that gender reveal parties have become hews fairly neatly to Yoda’s dictum. The original idea, which involved making cakes with pink or blue interiors, was somewhat twee and painfully white-suburban from the start, but at least it was inoffensive—an excuse for a weekend afternoon of chardonnay and canapes. How that escalated into using alligators, go-karts, and explosives, is perhaps a question best addressed by sociologists, but let me offer a thought: at a moment in which the binarisms of gender are more and more eroded by the visibility of trans and non-binary people, and the language of trans rights becomes more ubiquitous (along with that of such detractors as Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro), the militant assertion of birth-bestowed gender is an unfortunate but not unforeseeable reaction. Were it to remain in the realm of cakes and balloons it would be innocuous, but as wildfires in Arizona and California attest, there is a not-insignificant number of people who want to assert their unborn child’s gender by literally blowing shit up.

The fear here is not difficult to grasp: the apparent upending of what has been for most people the most elemental feature of identity we have known. Gender has long been the easiest binary, and the most disconcerting one to have troubled. The thing is, anger isn’t the next inevitable step; but then, fear is not itself inevitable, unless one finds their sense of identity threatened. Then, anger is more likely, and at a moment when Facebook and YouTube algorithms will likely connect you to other angry people (like the aforementioned transphobic asshats), hatred can be a short trip. All of which might well convince you that making an explosive box filled with Schrödinger’s gender powder and setting it off in a place that hasn’t had rain in half a year is a good idea—because that’ll show those SJW snowflakes.

And suffering? Well …

The fear of which Yoda spoke was the same conception of fear invoked by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1933 inaugural speech (and yes, I did just mention Yoda and FDR in the same sentence—life goals!). “There is nothing to fear but fear itself” is another dictum my young self found questionable, because sharks. But of course, FDR was talking about the same nebulous societal and cultural fear as Yoda, fear born of ignorance. Fear, after all, can be galvanizing—it can inspire courage and solidarity. But when we are uncertain of what we’re afraid of, and only know that we are in fact afraid, that is when reason gives way to anger and hate. Doris Kearns Goodwin has recently pointed out that the oft-quoted “fear itself” line of FDR’s speech is really only comprehensible in the context of a line immediately preceding it: “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today.” It was in speaking truth about the hardships facing the nation, and the difficult road ahead, Roosevelt asserted, that the blight of fear could be obviated.

And as Jill Lepore observes in These Truths, her magisterial history of the U.S., FDR employed the relatively new medium of radio to unite a nation with his Sunday evening “fireside chats”—in which he would explain what his government was doing; why it was doing it; and how it would affect ordinary Americans. In this way, Roosevelt talked the nation through the worst of the Great Depression, and was its anchor through the Second World War.

Which is why it was acutely galling to read that, in the wake of the revelations made by Bob Woodward this week, Fox News host and Trump’s putative shadow chief of staff, Sean Hannity, compared Trump’s handling of the coronavirus to FDR’s tenure as president:

Did President Roosevelt fan the flames of misery? Did he call for panic and anxiety? No, he actually rallied a nation in a time of need. He focused on making Americans stronger by staying positive, and he got to work and he rolled up his sleeves. During World War II, with the country on the brink, FDR proclaimed, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Well, those were brutally tough times. Did the media attack him? Of course not … The president’s job is to maintain order, and by the way, right the ship during and after a crisis, not spread panic, not spreading fear among the population. Let’s make one thing perfectly clear, President Trump has never misled or distorted the truth about this deadly disease.

This, it should be pointed out, was in defense of Trump’s comments to Bob Woodward that he deliberately downplayed the severity of the coronavirus so as to avoid a panic. Leaving aside the fact that there hasn’t been a panic Trump didn’t gleefully inflame, let’s recall two points I made just a moment ago: first, FDR spoke of “fear itself” in reference to the Great Depression, not WWII (which might seem a persnickety quibble, were it not for the fact that Hannity’s historical error came during a bit titled “Hannity’s History Lesson”); second, FDR espoused radical honesty. His very first fireside chat was about the week-long “bank holiday,” in which banks across the nation were closed so that the government could instantiate federal deposit insurance in the interim. Banks had been closing all across the U.S. since the crash of 1929, with millions of people losing their savings (remember that scene from It’s A Wonderful Life?); having the president talk the sixty million people listening through the rationale for the bank holiday not only soothed their fears, it enlisted them in FDR’s project.

The best responses to any national crisis always proceed from honesty. The greatest insult proceeding from Trump’s ostensible concern about “panic” is how profoundly it condescends to the electorate.

The thing is, aside from getting the timing of FDR’s “fear itself” line wrong, Hannity wasn’t wrong about anything else—until he says, “President Trump has never misled or distorted the truth about this deadly disease.” I don’t know if we can even call this gaslighting, as gaslighting at least entails a measure of subtlety. This is simple, outright lying, mendacity directed at an audience that doesn’t need to be gaslit. Which makes me think that Yoda possibly needed a prefatory condition for fear: ignorance.

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The Mafioso-in-Chief

In the virtuosic opening sequence of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, we are treated to a sumptuous and lavish wedding reception. Present is Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton). Michael wears a Marines dress uniform; the Second World War has recently ended. In his conversation with Kay, Michael notes that his father Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), a powerful mafia Don, was none too pleased with Michael’s enlistment. At the end of Godfather II, we get a flashback to the moment when Michael reveals to his brothers that he has enlisted. His eldest brother Sonny (James Caan) is incensed—immediately prior to Michael’s revelation, he had been going on about how people volunteering to go fight in the war were “saps,” because they’re risking their lives “for strangers.” Michael counters, “They’re risking their lives for their country.” “Your country ain’t your blood,” Sonny snaps back. “Don’t you forget that!”

Within the limited economy of organized crime, especially crime organized around family connections, Sonny’s perspective makes a certain amount of sense. If there is no higher loyalty than family, and the family’s prosperity, signing up to fight for a country whose laws the family in question flouts and rejects is, at best, an act of stupidity; at worst, of betrayal.

Michael Corleone will of course become the new Don by the end of the first Godfather, and become one of the most compellingly villainous anti-heroes in American film. But at the outset, nothing sets him apart from his family more, and nothing invites audience sympathy more, than his uniform. One of the great tensions at work in the Godfather films is this contrast between the blood ties of family and the abstractions of nation—given that politics is depicted as being as much of a scam as the rackets of organized crime, with law enforcement and elected officials all having their own price, the only real, authentic connections one has are to family. But like much art that challenges prevailing cultural mythologies, The Godfather uses Michael’s enlistment and his family’s anger at it in the service of troubling audience perception—the contrast between the gorgeous wedding reception and the usually-universal approbation attached to a WWII uniform, here the mark of Michael’s shame.

This week in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg published an article citing a variety of anonymous sources who quote Donald Trump echoing Sonny Corleone on numerous occasions. Referencing the time Trump cancelled a visit to the Aisne-Marne American cemetery in 2018, during the centennial of the end of WWI in Paris, because of “rain,” Goldberg writes:

Trump rejected the idea of the visit because he feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain, and because he did not believe it important to honor American war dead, according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day. In a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, Trump said, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” In a separate conversation on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed.

I’m beginning to think that “Shocked but not Surprised” should be the title of the definitive history of the Trump presidency.

The White House has of course denied these allegations and condemned Goldberg’s article, so I suppose we must in good faith acknowledge the possibility that his sources were, for reasons passing understanding, all lying. And indeed, it would be difficult to credit that any sitting U.S. president would voice such thoughts aloud. To anybody. Ever. Even if they were genuine sentiments.

But of course we’ve heard such things from Trump before, such as when he denied that John McCain was a war hero, because “I like people who weren’t captured.” Or his attacks on the parents of Humayun Khan, an Army officer was killed in Iraq, for having the temerity to speak for the Democrats at the 2016 convention. Or, as was detail in Philip Rucker and Carol Leonig’s book A Very Stable Genius, when he called the assembled Pentagon brass who were trying to give him a crash course in geopolitics, “a bunch of dopes and losers.” Or, when he saw that the White House flags had been lowered to half-staff when John McCain died, he exploded, “What the fuck are we doing that for? Guy was a fucking loser.”

The point here isn’t that we unequivocally owe military personnel our respect and reverence—I would, indeed, argue that the “thank you for your service” default setting, which allows people to be utterly unreflective about the nuances of uniformed life, is about as harmful as the reflexive hostility of anti-Vietnam protesters—but to observe, with an exhausted sigh, that these most impolitic of thoughts on Trump’s part only serve to reinforce what we know about the President’s narcissism and sociopathic self-regard. Perhaps the most appalling distillation of this is summed up by another tidbit from Goldberg’s article:

On Memorial Day 2017, Trump visited Arlington National Cemetery, a short drive from the White House. He was accompanied on this visit by John Kelly, who was then the secretary of homeland security, and who would, a short time later, be named the White House chief of staff. The two men were set to visit Section 60, the 14-acre area of the cemetery that is the burial ground for those killed in America’s most recent wars. Kelly’s son Robert is buried in Section 60. A first lieutenant in the Marine Corps, Robert Kelly was killed in 2010 in Afghanistan. He was 29. Trump was meant, on this visit, to join John Kelly in paying respects at his son’s grave, and to comfort the families of other fallen service members. But according to sources with knowledge of this visit, Trump, while standing by Robert Kelly’s grave, turned directly to his father and said, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”

Part of me doesn’t want to believe this. Not just the sentiment, but the fact that anyone would say as much to the father of a dead soldier while standing at the graveside.

Part of my doesn’t want to believe it, but at the same time, I have no difficulty believing it—not because, as some might charge, I’m invested in thinking the worst about Trump, but because he has, during the five years since announcing him campaign, given me no reason whatsoever to disbelieve it. Everything Trump does is transactional—as I said in my last post, he has made it obvious that his worldview is absolutely zero-sum. To paraphrase John Goodman in The Big Lebowski: say what you will about Sonny Corleone, but at least he had an ethos. Trump’s business and Trump’s presidency have both been compared more times than I can count to mafia-style operations; but to my mind, Trump et al are the mob at the end of the movie, when all of the original bonds of family and loyalty have been frayed by corruption and graft and over-reach. There was a time when I thought Goodfellas was a superior film to The Godfather and its sequels, because it seemed to me that, where Coppola romanticized his mafiosi, Scorsese was far more clear-eyed in depicting their sociopathy and moral bankruptcy. I’ve since come around on that: the decline and fall of Michael Corleone is the subtler of the two tales, not least because it showed how, criminal though the Corleone enterprise might have been, it had its roots not just in family, but a community at once ignored and victimized by an indifferent nation.

If the history of Fred Trump, Sr. and his successor Donald has showed anything, it’s that there was never that originary matrix of family and community. As Mary Trump details, the Trump legacy was never not zero-sum.

What was in it for them? Trump isn’t just asking that of dead soldiers. He’s asking it of anybody who does anything not just for themselves. He’s asking it of anybody who takes on a job whose labour and effort exceeds the fiscal reward—teachers, nurses, EMTs, firefighters, social workers—but which is done in the name of helping others, of serving a community. In Trump’s worldview, they’re all suckers.

And I think what’s most frustrating in the present moment is that his most ardent supporters—those that aren’t rich, that is—don’t grasp that he thinks the same thing about them. He loves their adulation, but was never about to stand for four hours of selfies like Elizabeth Warren did, or hear their stories. His attitude is best summed up by Bono, of all people, who told Jimmy Kimmel, “”He likes to see their faces in the crowd, but I don’t think he wants to know who they are when they go home.”

Of course he doesn’t. They’re not people to be served, they’re means to an end.

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The Chaos is the Point

Hoo boy. Okay, so wrote this post in part as a failed effort at catharsis. I’ve been running election scenarios in my head, and none of them are happy. I don’t mean I think Joe Biden will lose—I mean I think Trump will render it all moot. I was not encouraged when I read about the “war games” played out by the Transition Integrity Project. Suffice to say, there were no scenarios that did not involve violence in the aftermath of election day.

I went back and forth about whether to post this, or relegate it to a lonely folder of forgotten musings on my desktop. But, well … misery loves company.

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A truck from the pro-Trump “caravan” in Portland.

Two years ago, The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote what I think has been the most incisive evaluation of Trump, his administration, and the phenomenon of Trumpism as a whole. It’s also one of those articles whose thesis is plainly stated in its very title: “The Cruelty is the Point.” I feel as though the “is” in that title should be italicized, in tacit response to the sort of punditry that affects bafflement or bemusement at Trump’s behaviour and that of his acolytes, and attempts the Sisyphean task of framing it in terms of everyday politics. What ideology exists in Trumpism is the ethos of resentment and revenge, in which the infliction of pain and suffering on one’s foes is not a bonus accrued in the process of political gamesmanship, it is the game. Serwer writes,

We can hear the spectacle of cruel laughter throughout the Trump era. There were the border-patrol agents cracking up at the crying immigrant children separated from their families, and the Trump adviser who delighted white supremacists when he mocked a child with Down syndrome who was separated from her mother. There were the police who laughed uproariously when the president encouraged them to abuse suspects, and the Fox News hosts mocking a survivor of the Pulse Nightclub massacre (and in the process inundating him with threats), the survivors of sexual assault protesting to Senator Jeff Flake, the women who said the president had sexually assaulted them, and the teen survivors of the Parkland school shooting. There was the president mocking Puerto Rican accents shortly after thousands were killed and tens of thousands displaced by Hurricane Maria, the black athletes protesting unjustified killings by the police, the women of the #MeToo movement who have come forward with stories of sexual abuse, and the disabled reporter whose crime was reporting on Trump truthfully.

It is this cruelty, and the outrage it reliably incites, that bonds Trump to his base and makes his stubborn refusal to do anything that might disappoint them comprehensible. “Their shared laughter at the suffering of others,” Serwer says of Trump’s most loyal adherents, “is an adhesive that binds them to one another, and to Trump.”

Even now, pundits and columnists not employed by Fox News still wonder why Trump can’t seem to grasp the fairly basic political ramifications of not presenting at least a thin façade of statesmanship and condemning violence on all sides, of saying something tepid that gestures toward de-escalation. And this after he’d actually managed to be relatively disciplined for four days. The Republication National Convention somehow managed to keep the president on a tight leash and somehow convinced him to stick to the teleprompter during his speech, and presented a carefully stage-managed spectacle specifically designed to give disaffected or alienated Trump voters a permission structure to vote for him again: trotting out every Black Trump supporter they could find, staging a naturalization ceremony for conspicuously dark-skinned new citizens, parading a veritable cavalcade of women (the balance of whom were, true to Trump’s pageant-owning past, blonde and statuesque) attesting to Trump’s kindness behind the scenes and his equitable treatment of women; all of which was by way of soothing people’s misgivings about Trump’s racism and misogyny. Don’t believe the liberal liars and Fake News, and don’t believe everything you think you’ve seen and heard for more than four years—this is the REAL Donald J. Trump.

Cue the panicking of the Chicken Littles, suddenly terrified that the Republicans had been successful in snowing the public yet again.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m afraid the sky is falling, too. I’m just not quite so worried about electoral math. If that was the only problem now, I’d sleep a lot better.

I’ve had a lot of people asked me if I think Trump can win in November. I say no, I don’t. The worry creasing their faces eases for a moment as I break down my reasoning. As we’ve seen since the 2016 election, Trump has a strangely resilient approval of around forty percent. It goes up and it goes down, but never by too much. For any other president, never once cresting fifty percent in the polls during a first term would be catastrophic, something we tend to forget in the present moment, because, however egregious Trump’s behaviour, however monumental his incompetence, and however disastrous his mismanagement of the pandemic response, the economy, and race-based civil unrest, that forty percent remains durable. That is, of course, cause for concern, as that was more or less the number he had going into 2016. But there are a handful of factors at play in 2020 that make a key difference. First, Trump is no longer an unknown and untested quantity. In 2016, it seemed a lot more reasonable to some people to give the chamber a spin and play Russian roulette with a Trump vote. What’s the worst that could happen? was asked a lot—or, as Trump said in his plea to Black voters, “What have you got to lose?” (Which is one of the many, many reasons White liberals need to pay more attention to Black voters—they’re very keenly aware of what they have to lose). After almost four years of corruption and self-dealing, and of course an economy cratered by a pandemic and a death toll pushing two hundred thousand, we’re now living “the worst that could happen.” Second, for a critical mass of unwarranted reasons (and a handful of warranted ones), Hillary Clinton was a deeply unpopular candidate whose unfavourables were comparable to Trump’s. Couple that with the divisiveness caused by a bitter primary fight, and it exacerbates the problem of the third item—third party candidates, who provided safe haven for people who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton (but who also believed she would still win in a walk). A possible Kanye West candidacy notwithstanding, third party candidates aren’t a factor this time around. And even if they were, anyone who bought into Trump’s spiel in 2016 about deal-making and his promises to build infrastructure and tax the rich aren’t about to be fooled again (I sincerely hope).

All of that makes Trump’s chances quite dire, even with that static forty percent popularity, and I haven’t yet mentioned the name Joe Biden. To be clear, he was never near the top of my list during the primary (Team Warren all the way!), and in the present moment I think a ficus in a fedora would give Trump a run for his money, but I’m not unconvinced he’s the person for the moment—someone whose history of tragedy and heartbreak has gifted him with the humility and empathy needed to heal a suffering nation. That, and (touch wood) it looks as though the Democrats have their shit together this time around.

Remember, Trump lost the popular vote; he won the electoral college by eking out victories of less than one percent in three key states. I’m not saying that can’t happen again, just that the factors listed above make it far less likely, at least mathematically.

And this is the point, when I’ve eased my friend’s worry somewhat, that I make their face fall by saying, “But that probably won’t matter.” Because I’m not worried about electoral math: I’m worried about Trump’s capacity to foment chaos.

Which brings us back to the ostensible confusion among some of the pundit class about Trump’s apparent inability to help himself politically by, say, condemning the vigilantism of armed pro-Trump militias in the same breath as he attacks rioters. Or possibly disavowing the ludicrous QAnon conspiracy theories. On one hand, it shouldn’t be surprising—these are, after all, of a piece with his refusal to condemn neo-Nazis after Charlottesville. But this close to an election he looks poised to lose, shouldn’t he do the politically expedient thing?

Well, no. For one thing, as I’ve already pointed out, he loves the adoration of his base too much to ever do anything that might ameliorate their ardour. But he is also by nature a provocateur and an agent of chaos. It’s tempting to quote Littlefinger’s “chaos is a ladder” speech from Game of Thrones, except that would be entirely inappropriate to the example of Trump—Littlefinger is a character of comparable amorality, but one who sees five moves ahead and foments chaos to further his own plans.

Trump, by contrast, doesn’t plan. In the present moment, chaos isn’t a ladder—chaos is the point. Chaos is an end in itself.

As we’ve learned from innumerable articles and books about Trump, his “management style” has always been to pit people against each other and see what comes of it. His multiple bankruptcies speak to the fact that, however many times he refers to himself as a “builder,” he’s never really been interested in building (indeed, his entire election campaign isn’t so much asking voters to be amnesiac about the past few years as it is an attempt to declare Chapter Eleven and start from scratch in January 2021). And there’s a reason he was so adept at reality television, a form that privileges conflict for the sake of conflict, and rewards cruelty and betrayal.

This is my fear: for months now, Trump and his acolytes have been laying the groundwork for abject chaos in November. The pandemic—or rather, Trump &co.’s catastrophic mismanagement of the response—might be the principal torpedo in the hull of Trump’s re-election, but it is also providing him his best means to disrupt the process and the results. Trump and his people have been banging the drum for weeks now about widespread mail-in voting fraud. The fact that this claim is itself demonstrably fraudulent is immaterial—the point is to make the claim as loudly and often as possible. Couple that with the fact that a preponderance of mailed ballots will almost certainly mean that the election won’t be called on the night of, but will take days or even weeks to tally votes, and there is a wide window for Trump to make mischief. I fear that the “Brooks Brothers Riots” of the 2000 recount in Florida—when Republicans organized preppie mobs of lawyers and political operatives (something Roger Stone had a key hand in, let us not forget) to harass the poll workers—will come to seem a genteel exercise. Imagine instead mobs of Trump supporters, many armed, descending on polling locations to denounce the “rigged” election; imagine also counter-protesters, and imagine what side law enforcement will take in such confrontations.

We’re seeing the first glimmers of such a scenario now. Why on earth would Trump make any move to de-escalate the violence of this latest round of protests? Why, indeed, would he discourage wannabe militiamen like Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two people in Kenosha with his friend’s AR-15, or the “caravan” who went to Portland to shoot paintballs and pepper spray at Black Lives Matter protesters? As John Cassidy observes in The New Yorker,

By cheering on the members of the Portland caravan—“GREAT PATRIOTS,” he called them on Twitter—and defending Rittenhouse, despite the fact that he has been charged with two counts of first-degree homicide, the President has crossed a threshold. Faced with the prospect of losing an election, and power, he has gone beyond mere scaremongering and resorted to fomenting violent unrest from the White House.

It doesn’t help matters that Trump obviously sees chaos and disorder as helping his re-election prospects. In keeping with her boss’s habit of saying the quiet part out loud, Kellyanne Conway said on Fox and Friends, “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.”

Trump thus has several reasons not just to abdicate any obligation to cool temperatures, but to actively raise them; but the central and unavoidable reason is that he knows no other way. As he has made painfully clear in everything he has ever done, his worldview is zero-sum. You’re either a winner or a loser, a predator or a mark; to be a loser is the worst fate, and so he has crafted his self-image with a single-minded determination to always be a winner, at least in his own eyes. While he obviously fears losing the presidency and, with it, legal immunity from the various investigations currently being pursued, it’s obvious that his greatest fear is being seen losing on the largest and most visible stage he’s ever been on.

And I think—I fear—he will do literally anything to avoid that.

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Lovecraft Country, “Sundown”

lovecraft country

As I started to say in my previous post, Lovecraft Country, among other things—perhaps above other things—isn’t just an extended engagement with the fraught legacy of H.P. Lovecraft, but deploys that legacy as an extended metaphor for the even more fraught legacy of race in America. And though I refer here to the novel by Matt Ruff, the first episode of HBO’s adaptation, “Sundown,” is very much on the same page.

Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) is a young Black man from the South Side of Chicago; a veteran of the Korean War; a son whose relationship to his father Montrose (Michael K. Williams) is fraught to the point of estrangement; and a lover of pulp science fiction and fantasy. The opening sequence of “Sundown” is at once a flashback to his time in Korea, and a dream  wrought by Edgar Rice Burroughs and other pulp authors, starting with visceral black-and-white hand-to-hand combat with North Korean soldiers, and moving into a technicolour attack by flying saucers, alien tripods á là H.G. Welles, and Lovecraftian, batlike monsters. The Cthulhu-esque tentacular beast confronting Atticus is suddenly split down the middle in a spume of green slime by none other than Jackie Robinson.

And then Atticus wakes up, on a bus taking him north, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel A Princess of Mars resting on his chest.

Atticus—or “Tic,” as others call him—comprises the central conceit of Lovecraft Country: a young Black man who knows as well as anybody the brutal realities of Jim Crow America; who served as a combat soldier in Korea, but doesn’t accrue any respect or gratitude for that from whites; but who is an enthusiastic reader of pulp fiction, in spite of the fact that those stories not only have little to say about him, but what they do have to say is racist and demeaning. Even the older Black woman with whom he ends up walking down a country road after their bus blows out doesn’t have much use for his choice of reading—pointing out to him that John Carter, the hero of Burroughs’ Mars novels, was a Confederate officer, and thus doesn’t deserve Atticus’ sympathies. Later, after Atticus makes it home to Chicago, he tells his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) that his father Montrose had tried to cure him of his pulp addiction by making him memorize a certain piece of doggerel by H.P. Lovecraft. (I won’t cite the vile title of the poem or quote it—typing “Lovecraft on the creation” into Google will take you to it if you’re that curious—but the most euphemistic way to summarize it is to say it suggests the gods saw a gap in creation between man and beast, and filled that gap by creating Black people). When the woman he met on the bus points out that John Carter doesn’t get to be an “ex-Confederate,” because “he fought for slavery. You don’t get to put an ‘ex’ in front of that,” Atticus replies that, “Stories are like people. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try and cherish them, and overlook their flaws.”

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Coming as it does in the first minutes of the first episode, this assertion initially felt like a lame, mealy-mouthed defense, and Atticus doesn’t really speak the line with much conviction—it feels as though, more than anything, he’s trying to convince himself. “The flaws are still there,” the woman points out. “Yeah, they are,” Atticus concedes. On reflection, however—and on re-watching the episode—it strikes me that Atticus’ words, here at the outset, articulate a key theme of the series. For one thing, it becomes obvious that he’s talking as much about his father as about his beloved pulp stories—over the course of “Sundown,” we learn that his father Montrose is an abusive alcoholic who was himself abused by his father, but also that he loved Atticus deeply, even if he couldn’t express it—and that his loathing of Atticus’ pulp fiction addiction was of a piece with his rage at Atticus’ enlistment. Why give yourself over to these people who hate you? Why read fiction that extols whiteness and vilifies blackness? Why fight for a nation that makes you a second-class citizen?

While Atticus is an admirably nuanced and well-realized character in the novel—and Jonathan Majors’ performance so far promises to be extraordinary—he is also Lovecraft Country’s central conceit; that is to say, his love of fiction that doesn’t love him back, but which nevertheless resonates with him, is a poignant metaphor for the contradictions of the American Experiment. “In the beginning was not only the word,” wrote Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, “but its contradiction.” That contradiction is baked into the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, slave-owner. Black scholars and thinkers, from Frederick Douglass to Ellison to Toni Morrison, have long pointed out this contradiction between the promise of America and its practice, and demanded that the promise be fulfilled.

[It was at this moment in the drafting of this post that I abandoned the laptop and worked longhand, as I usually do when trying to work through ideas that aren’t easily gelling; I filled a few pages of a legal pad with several attempts to speak to the larger issues concerning race that have been brought to the fore in the past few months, and how Lovecraft Country bears on them. I have chosen discretion over valour, however, because (1) I want to get this post done in a relatively timely manner, and am loath to articulate thoughts on such topics not fully baked; and (2) I don’t want this post to be Tolstoy-length. Suffice to say, TL;DR: the timing of Lovecraft Country airing now is serendipitous, not least because we just saw the historic nomination of Kamala Harris as the VP candidate.]

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Aunjanue Ellis as Hippolyta and Courtney B. Vance as George Freeman.

“Sundown” does an admirable job of establishing the world of the story and introducing its main characters: in addition to Atticus as his uncle George, there’s George’s wife Hippolyta, and their daughter Diana, who has her own genre obsession—she draws comics featuring heroic characters. George and Hippolyta publish The Safe Negro Travel Guide, which lists towns, restaurants, and hotels that are Black-friendly. And if that publication sounds familiar, well, that’s because it’s based on the historical Green Book, which, as it happens, had its own movie not long ago. Writing for NPR, Glen Weldon lists the similarities and differences between the movie and the series:

Here is a list of things that the HBO series Lovecraft Country, premiering Sunday, August 16th, has in common with the 2018 film Green Book:

  1. Setting: Jim Crow-era America
  2. Acting: Subtle, nuanced performances (Viggo Mortensen’s dese-and-dose Green Book gangster notwithstanding).
  3. Subject: Story features a road trip involving a travel guidebook written to inform Black people where they can safely eat and stay. (Green Book: Entire film; Lovecraft Country: Opening episodes only.)

And here is a brief, incomplete list of the things that Lovecraft Country prominently features that Green Book emphatically does not:

1. A story centered on the lives of Black characters.
2. Black characters with agency, absent any White Savior narrative.
3. Shoggoths.

The second list is key: though Matt Ruff, author of Lovecraft Country, is white, he scrupulously avoids injecting white characters into the story to act as saviours. Indeed, Atticus’ name is a wry nod to the longtime liberal custom of telling nominally anti-racist stories in which victimized Black characters are saved through the intervention of a virtuous white protagonist—the veritable archetype for this character being Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, immortalized in Gregory Peck’s performance in the film adaptation. Green Book was only one of the most recent examples of this tendency, mercifully eschewed by Lovecraft Country.

But to get back to the characters: we also meet Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett), who ends up hitting the road with Atticus and George as they go looking for Atticus’ missing father. And we also briefly encounter Letitia’s older sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku), who doesn’t figure much into this episode, but, assuming the series remains faithful to the novel, will have a more significant role later.

We do not, unfortunately, meet Atticus’ father Montrose, but I’m fairly sure he’ll show up in episode two (Omar comin’!).

At issue in this episode, and in the series more generally, is Atticus’ genealogy: he has returned home from Florida, where he’s been living since his discharge from the army, because of a letter from his father. Montrose wrote to say he’d discovered something about Atticus’ late mother’s ancestry, which was somehow related to a Massachusetts town called Ardham. Atticus, with understandable perplexity, initially reads as “Arkham” until George corrects him. One way or another, however, as Atticus observes, their search is going to take them deep into “Lovecraft country”—both literally, in terms of the New England countryside in which Lovecraft set much of his fiction; and figuratively, insofar as they encounter the virulent, violent racism of a sheriff who informs them that Devon County—in which Ardham is supposedly located—is a “sundown country,” meaning that unless they can remove themselves beyond its borders by sundown, the sheriff will hang them.

Sundown towns were distressingly common, and were actually quite prevalent throughout the northern states. The consequences might not be as extreme as lynching—though that was not unheard of—but would certainly be violent. Hence the need for a motorists’ guide that would inform Black travelers about which such towns to avoid (one criticism leveled at Green Book is that it elides the fact that the north was actually worse for sundown towns, and that New Jersey—tacitly depicted in the film as friendly territory—was particularly inhospitable, and that Viggo Mortensen’s character, the driver hired to chauffeur Mahershala Ali for his concert tour, only starts to consult the titular green book once they enter the south).

Sundown thus obtains a dual sense of dread—the real-world, historical threat it posed Blacks in such locales, as well as the horror-story fear of the dark that comes with night. For it is when Atticus, Letitia, and George have made their way into Devon County that these two threats intersect. While stopped in the middle of a forest as they vainly search for a road that will take them to Ardham, they find themselves confronted by Sheriff Eustace Hunt, who informs them of Devon County’s unwritten sundown law. Though they manage to cross the county line with seconds to spare, they are then stopped by more police. Sheriff Eustace, it seemed, called ahead. They are taken into the forest, forced to lie prone on their bellies, and accused of a string of burglaries while the cops hold shotguns to their heads. And then …

Well, then is when “Lovecraft country” becomes actually Lovecraftian, as they are all attacked by the aforementioned Shoggoths. Shoggoths, for those unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s fiction, are monstrous, amoebic blobs, dotted with many eyes. Or, as described in At the Mountains of Madness:

It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter.

The shoggoths of Lovecraft Country aren’t quite so blob-like as they are huge, hound-like beasts with round mouths forested with teeth, and quivering slimy skin with the consistency and complexion of dead fish. They do, however, have many eyes.

shoggoth

True to its pulp roots, Lovecraft Country doesn’t aim for subtlety in its metaphors—though to be fair, neither does much of the horror genre. Monsters are always representations of the most prevalent fears and anxieties in the cultural imaginary at a given moment. And people are often the worst monsters, even when there are actual monsters present to offer comparison. Lovecraft Country is about the monstrosity of racism, so when Sheriff Eustace, having been bitten by a Shoggoth, starts to transform into one, the point hits home quite plainly.

The presence of Shoggoths—or, perhaps more accurately, the suggested analogy between their beasts and the malevolent blobs of Lovecraft’s imagining—might also be read as a subtle dig at Lovecraft. In At the Mountains of Madness, the Miskatonic University exploratory team of scientists finds in Antarctica an ancient city of “cyclopean” proportions (one of Lovecraft’s favourite adjectives, meaning enormous). The city had been built by the Old Ones, ancient god-like alien creatures (like Cthulhu) who predated human existence on Earth. The shoggoths were created as a slave race to serve them, but ultimately rose up against their masters and destroyed them. Though the series is mostly faithful to the novel, some of the names have been changed: Atticus’ surname in the series is Freeman (with all of the significance that obtains), but in the novel it’s Turner—an allusion to Nat Turner, a slave who led a rebellion in Virginia in 1831. Also, when looking for news of his father, Atticus goes to the bar that was his habitual haunt—which is named Denmark Vesey’s Bar. Denmark Vesey was a free Black man who was executed in 1822 on the charge of planning a slave rebellion.

It takes “Sundown” some time before the supernatural elements intrude—we’re four-fifths of the way in when the Shoggoths appear—but the narrative and thematic build makes it worth the wait. Perhaps the most poignant sequence is a montage of our three heroes driving from the Midwest to Massachusetts—a montage scored not to music, but by a speech delivered by writer James Baldwin in 1965 at Cambridge University. The speech was Baldwin’s rebuttal to William F. Buckley in a debate over the proposition “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” It is worth watching in its entirety, or else reading the transcript.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Baldwin won the debate resoundingly.

As we hear Baldwin’s eloquent and mellifluous words, we see images of Atticus, Letitia, and George at various points in their road trip, and we see images of a segregated America. At key moments, the mise-en-scène precisely echoes photographs by Gordon Parks, a Black photographer who, among other subjects, chronicled segregation in Jim Crow America.

gordon parks

On the left: Gordon Parks’ photography. On the right: stills from Lovecraft Country.

One of the most infuriating moments comes when, as they’re paused at a gas station, a skinny white boy mocks Atticus—who is eating a banana—by making monkey noises. Atticus looks threatening for a moment, but Letitia holds him back. Atticus settles for throwing the banana peel in the asshole’s face, which only evokes more laughter from him and his friends—secure in their societally sanctioned safety, in spite of the fact that the impressively muscled, combat veteran Atticus could likely snap the boy in two with no great effort.

As they pull away from the station, we see a billboard advertising Aunt Jemima across the street.

aunt jemima

I think I’ll end this post here, not because I’ve run out of things to say, but because I could go on and on. The ending of the episode sets us up for the next one, so I’ll talk about that some time next week.

Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on here.

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Some preliminary thoughts on H.P. Lovecraft before I post about Lovecraft Country

lovecraft countryI’ve taught the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft twice now: first in a second-year introduction to science fiction and fantasy, in which I paired up “classic” texts with more contemporary ones (Lovecraft I counterpoised with short fiction by China Miéville), and more extensively in a fourth-year seminar I called “The American Weird.” In the latter, we spent three weeks of a twelve-week semester looking specifically at Lovecraft’s short fiction, as well as his novella At the Mountains of Madness. And then we looked at authors who have been influenced by Lovecraft (Stephen King, for example), or who more specifically engage critically with Lovecraft’s tropes, preoccupations, and, importantly, his racism. One of the latter texts was a novella by Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom, which is a retelling of Lovecraft’s hella racist story (even for him) “The Horror at Red Hook,” from the perspective of a Black protagonist.

One of the other texts in the latter category was Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country.

Lovecraft Country NovelLovecraft Country was easily a class favourite—which was something of a relief, as it was easily my favourite, and indeed one of the reasons I’d conceived of the course in the first place. So when HBO announced that Jordan Peele would be producing a series based on the novel, I was about as excited as I’d been ten years ago about Game of Thrones. The fact that one of the main characters was slated to be played by Michael K. Williams, aka Omar from The Wire, was just icing on the cake.

And after what seemed an interminable interlude, the series premiered this week.

I’m mulling whether I want to do episode-by-episode posts, á là my GoT posts with Nikki (except sans Nikki, unless she wants in). This may or may not happen. But I cannot let the first episode go by without airing my thoughts.

However … I won’t be talking about the first episode in this post. I’d originally thought I should have a brief little primer on H.P. Lovecraft, so as to better get into what Lovecraft Country is doing.

But, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I don’t do brief. And so I’ll be doing a second post in a day or two on the episode—this one is a more in-depth discussion of Lovecraft than I’d intended.

lovecraft

Lovecraft, it needs to be said, is something of an odd literary figure, insofar as he was an objectively terrible writer, both in terms of his prose and his storytelling, who ended up exerting an outsized influence on horror and its overlapping genres of science fiction and fantasy. When I said as much in my SF/F survey class, one student protested, saying he didn’t think there was anything particularly bad about Lovecraft’s prose. “Well, try this,” I suggested. “When you go home, read some of his sentences out loud, and we’ll revisit this next class.” Sure enough, next class the student sheepishly admitted that , when reading Lovecraft’s sentences aloud, he could not get past how wordy and awkward and clunky so many of them are.

Lugubrious is the word I would use, and pretentious in the manner of someone who wants to demonstrate a large vocabulary without really knowing how. Take, for example, the opening sentence of At the Mountains of Madness: “I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why.” While not one of his more egregious constructions—I’ll get to one of those in a moment—it is typical of Lovecraft’s typically forced cadences. “I am forced into speech” is precisely the kind of phrasing that earns my students an “awk.” in the margins, indicating that, while not technically incorrect grammatically, is still quite awkward and should be rethought. “Regrettably, circumstances compel me to speak, “ or “I must, reluctantly, speak up,” would be improvements, but not great ones; better to start with the reason why the narrator is “forced,” with something like, “The refusal of my fellow scientists to listen to me has left my no choice but to speak up.” Again, not elegant, but clearer: “men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why” is a little confusing, as the “why” is too vague—and also, how often are we likely to follow someone’s advice when we don’t know why we should?

Perhaps this seems nitpicky, and it is, but such phrasing and sentence structure is pervasive throughout Lovecraft’s corpus. The opening sentence of Mountains is more or less inoffensive, but then the second paragraph gives us this behemoth:

In the end I rely on the judgment and standing of the few scientific leaders who have, on the one hand, insufficient independence of thought to weigh my data on its own hideously convincing merits or in the light of certain primordial and highly baffling myth-cycles, and on the other hand, sufficient influence to deter the exploring world in general from my rash and overambitious programme in the region of those mountains of madness.

Woof. I won’t parse all that—that would take too long, and I have other old gods to fry—but perhaps you get a sense of Lovecraft’s prose, and why readers with a low threshold for bad writing wouldn’t get more than a few sentences into his fiction before tossing it aside and writing Lovecraft off as merely a “pulp” writer.

Well, to be fair, he was a pulp writer, one of the many whose often lurid stories were published in cheap paperbacks and magazines; but out of that milieu came a handful of authors who gave us some persistent and enduring—albeit deeply problematic—characters and stories. Robert E. Howard created Conan the Barbarian, and with him a strain of proto-fantasy that resisted gentrification by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Edgar Rice Burroughs—whom Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) is reading at the start of Lovecraft Country—wrote all the John Carter of Mars novels, as well as numerous other SF works, but also created Tarzan. And though he was not in quite the same milieu, Englishman H. Rider Haggard invented the archaeological adventure story with novels like King Solomon’s Mines and She, without which we would not have Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider.

And then there’s Lovecraft, who despite his poor writing and shaky storytelling, profoundly influenced a generation of horror novelists and filmmakers. Unlike Howard and Burroughs, he did not have any memorable characters (unless you count the old god Cthulhu, but more on that below). What is so compelling about Lovecraft? His “mythos”—which imagined a malevolent universe populated by old gods and monsters that exist beyond the capacity of science and reason to comprehend them; much of his fiction is preoccupied with what happens when we mere mortals accidentally stumble into their ken. Spoiler alert: it never goes well for we mortals, who, if we’re lucky, are merely killed; the unlucky go mad, and the unluckiest somehow keep our minds but live with the crushing existential dread of knowing a cosmic truth that haunts us. Or as Lovecraft puts it at the start of “The Call of Cthulhu”:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

The “Cthulhu” in question is the old god that became central to Lovecraft’s mythos, to the point that it is now called the “Cthulhu Mythos.” It is a hideous, enormous tentacular horror that stalked the earth in its pre-pre-prehistorical days, but now lies slumbering beneath the earth. Its dreams infect the sensitive and give them visions of madness, or on occasion drive them actually mad. And, as chronicled in the story “The Call of Cthulhu,” sometimes tectonic events will drive his lair above the sea’s surface—at which point, eldritch hijinks ensue.

cthulhu

(If you want a rather hilarious rundown of Cthulhu &co.’s origin story, read Neil Gaiman’s “I, Cthulhu,” in which the old god in question recounts his tale in a fireside chat).

Lovecraft, a native New Englander, was deeply influenced by his home’s geography and its history. The vast majority of his fiction is based in, or connected to, a constellation of fictional small towns in Massachusetts—the principal one being Arkham, which houses Miskatonic University, with which many of his protagonists are affiliated. Beyond providing its geography, Lovecraft’s mythos is rooted in the region’s theocratic history: as has been discussed by a significant number of scholars, Lovecraft’s fiction is deeply influenced by the fire-and-brimstone Calvinism of New England’s Puritan settlers, in which humans are characterized as pitiful insects before God, whose only worth is to grovel before his greatness in the vain hope that he might grant salvation. The Cthulhu Mythos articulates this sort of Puritan self-abnegation, but without the hope of salvation—Lovecraft was a militant atheist, and took from the Puritan legacy mortals’ meaninglessness, without the hope.

Those unfamiliar with Lovecraft but steeped in the DC comics universe (though honestly I can’t imagine there are many of you in that particular Venn diagram) probably heard a bell go off at the name “Arkham.” Because, yes—the notorious Arkham Asylum of Batman and other Gotham-related tales is an overt reference to Lovecraft. The giant squid Ozymandias uses to destroy New York at the end of Watchmen is a nod to Cthulhu. The shape-shifting alien of The Thing is totally Lovecraftian. The xenomorph of the Alien franchise owes its existence to Lovecraft’s legacy. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is more indebted to Lovecraft than to Bram Stoker–its spinoff Angel perhaps even more so. As does, as I have written at some length, The Cabin in the Woods. And, well, I wouldn’t necessarily say Stephen King wouldn’t have a career without Lovecraft—but it would have been a very different career. To take just one example, It is probably the most Lovecraftian story there has been outside Lovecraft himself.

I could go on, but you probably get the point. Nobody will ever laud Lovecraft for his art, which is fair, but like a handful of his pulp compatriots, he has created compelling tropes that have lodged themselves in our collective imagination. But also like those of Burroughs and Howard and Haggard, they are deeply problematic. Conan the Barbarian is a veritable distillation of masculine characteristics that in the present moment we call toxic; H. Rider Haggard both traded on and furthered colonialist, racist representations of Africa and Africans as barbaric and hypersexualized; Burroughs did the same with Tarzan. In an early scene of “Sundown,” the first episode of Lovecraft Country, Atticus walks down a country road with an older Black woman after their bus had suffered a breakdown, and they were refused a ride in the pickup truck that came for them. When she asks him about the book he’s been reading, Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, Atticus describes the travails of its hero John Carter. “Wait,” she interrupts him. “He’s a Confederate officer?” “Ex-confederate,” Atticus corrects her, but she’s having none of it. “He fought for slavery,” she says. “You don’t get to put an ‘ex’ in front of that.”

It’s a brief exchange, but a sharp one, and part of the point of Lovecraft Country is to interrogate Lovecraft’s legacy and influence—for, as I mentioned at the start of this post, Lovecraft was a virulent racist, and that racism informed his writing. China Miéville puts it quite well in his introduction to the Modern Library edition of At the Mountains of Madness:

Lovecraft was notoriously not only an elitist and a reactionary, but a bilious and lifelong racist. His idiot and disgraceful pronouncements on racial themes range from pompous pseudoscience—“The Negro is fundamentally the biologically inferior of all White and even Mongolian races”—to monstrous endorsements—“[Hitler’s] vision is … romantic and immature … yet that cannot blind us to the honest rightness of the man’s basic urge … I know he’s a clown, but by God, I like the boy!” This was written before the Holocaust, but Hitler’s attitudes were no secret, and the terrible threat he represented was stressed by many. (Lovecraft’s letter was written some months after Hitler had become chancellor). So while Lovecraft is here not overtly supporting genocide, he is hardly off the hook.

As Miéville notes, one of the common defenses offered of Lovecraft’s racism and anti-Semitism is that, well, that was what things were like at that time. As one of my students said, “It was the 1920s and 30s. Everyone was racist then.” To which I responded, well, no. There were actively antiracist white people then, and there were racists, but then there were also RACISTS—the lower-case group being people who did not question the overt societal ethos of white supremacy, and thought that Hitler fellow perfectly dreadful, but did not otherwise give it much thought; and then the latter, which were the Lovecrafts of the world—people actively and vocally championing white supremacy and superiority, opining at length on the inferiority of darker-skinned peoples, who saw in Hitler a brave and honest truth-teller, and who—like Lovecraft—endorsed eugenics and phrenology. So, no … Lovecraft was not merely “of his time” where his racial animus was concerned; he was in the vanguard.

(That being said, I get a bit squirrelly in making this distinction, because part of the cognitive dissonance of our present moment has proceeded from the tacit assumption that only all-caps racism is truly pernicious, or for that matter is the only real racism—that if you’re not hurling the N-word at Black people, or burning crosses, or otherwise behaving like every southern sheriff in every Hollywood movie about racism, then the charge is unfair. And when we’ve come to associate the terms “racism” and “racist” with those extreme behaviours, it makes it difficult for white people to make an honest reckoning with systemic racism and our complicity in it).

Lovecraft is thus an interesting figure to consider in our present moment of racial and historical reckoning, when such literal edifices as statues and monuments memorializing figures and events associated with slavery and institutional racism are being brought down. It’s easy enough to endorse the removal of Confederate monuments; it gets more complicated when the legacies and histories of the people memorialized are themselves more complicated. Does the authoring of the Declaration of Independence give slave-owning Thomas Jefferson a pass? Does Winston Churchill’s leadership during WWII outweigh his lethal policies in India?

Lovecraft had his own moment of statuary removal several years ago. Since 1975, the World Fantasy Award—along with such SF/F awards as the Hugo and Nebula— has been one of the most prestigious honours in the world of genre fiction. The very first awards were bestowed at the World Fantasy Convention, held in 1975 in HP Lovecraft’s home city of Providence, Rhode Island. In Lovecraft’s honour, the statuette was a stylized, elongated bust of his face—and so it remained for the next four decades.

As SF/F has become less and less the near-exclusive territory of white male authors, and grown to include more diverse writership and readership, the predictable backlashes have occurred—not least of which being the campaign by the so-called “Sad Puppies,” who were up in arms that the Hugo Awards were too woke and were eschewing “real” SF/F in favour of novels and stories written by social justice warriors. (If you want to read my rant about it at the time, click here). This was also the time of Gamergate, and—well, I don’t want to rehash that bit of asshattery, so of you’re unfamiliar, Google it. In this same time frame, there was a lot of pressure to retire the Lovecraft statuette. Authors of colour who had been awarded the “Howard,” as it is called (H.P. stands for Howard Philips) pointed out what a tainted honour it was to be lauded for their work with the visage of a man who considered them less than human.

And so the Howard was retired, and a new trophy was created, with all of the predictable hue and cry from those who, anticipating the protests about Confederate statues, called the retirement of the Howard an erasure of history—and an erasure of Lovecraft’s work.

world-fantasy-award

Myself, I prefer the new trophy, and I reject the suggestion that the change is an erasure of any kind. It strikes me that what gets lost in the polarized debate about monuments and legacies and who we should memorialize is the overwhelming value of the debate itself. At the end of the day, whether or not the statue comes down, or whether or not a literary trophy gets a makeover, is at least a little bit beside the point: what I find encouraging in these moments is that arguments that have largely been had on the fringes have become more central. Do I think statues of Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill should be torn down? Actually, no—I do not. But I do think their histories and legacies need closer interrogation, and the tacit hagiography that attaches to them needs dispelling.

The same goes for those authors whose works resonate still today. Those influences are still powerful. But how we choose to be influenced, or how we critically approach the nature of that influence, is something else entirely. I’m seeing a lot of that in my current research with how fantasy as a genre is transforming what was, in its origins, a deeply conservative, reactionary, and religious sensibility, into a far more secular, humanist, and progressive one.

Not least of which are novels like Lovecraft Country, and its current adaptation on HBO.

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Nostalgia for the Imaginary

So, given that we seem to be opening up—I’ve eaten at restaurants three times in the past two weeks, and after five months of isolation, each time felt like a revelation—I’ll be taking my blog out of “Isolated Thoughts” mode. Hopefully I won’t need to return to it.

I mean, it’s not a big deal, it’s just a way of titling my posts. But I won’t pretend it isn’t a relief, and touch wood hoping I didn’t just jinx it.

***

The article I’m currently working on is all about The Lord of the Rings, nostalgia, and the ways in which Tolkien imbues various conceptions of “home” with magic. To that end, I’ve been reading a lot of theory about nostalgia as a concept—not something new to me, but I’ve been finding a lot of cool stuff—and thinking as I go about how our own notions and thoughts about “home” inform us, especially in this moment of dislocation and uncertainty. “Home” during a period of self-quarantine and lockdown takes on a weightier significance, both when we are separated from family, and when we are contained with family. I am fortunate that I consider the house I live in with my partner home—but I also miss my family in Ontario, and there is a sense in which my parents’ house will always also be home. The other day my partner Stephanie’s mom visited us for the first time since the pandemic struck, and, because of the fact that St. John’s has loosened restrictions, we went for lunch on a brilliant summer day downtown. I have been many times now to Steph’s family’s house in Clarenville, and it is also now a home to me.

Home, ideally, is where we feel safe and secure. So it is perhaps not surprising that “nostalgia” literally means homesickness: the term was coined in 1688 by a Swiss physician named Johannes Hofer in his medical dissertation, in which he sought to diagnose puzzling illnesses experienced by Swiss people abroad. Reading his account today, it is easy to see that what he is talking about are the physical manifestations of depression and anxiety; what clued Hofer into his patients’ malaises was the fact that when they were told they were being sent home to Switzerland, they almost immediately recovered.

hofer-nostalgia

And so Hofer coined a term, a combination of the Greek word nostos (νόστος), meaning homecoming, and algos (άλγος), meaning longing. Or as Milan Kundera put it, “The Greek word for ‘return’ is nostos. Algos means ‘suffering.’ So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.” In the final episode of the first season of Mad Men, Don Draper gets this translation totally wrong in literal terms, but pretty much hits the nail on the head in spiritual terms:

“It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” Don Draper’s voice grows rough with emotion as he uses his own family pictures to make his pitch, inadvertently introducing his own emotional ambivalence about his recent separation from his wife. That much may be specific to him, but in terms of advertising, he is—as usual—intuitively shrewd, given that nostalgia’s “ache” isn’t necessarily tied to specific moments or events.

Nostalgia, indeed, can be collective and cultural. And it can be for things that never happened. I said as much in an earlier draft of the article on which I’m working, in a section I discarded, but which works well enough here:

Whenever I have the occasion to teach fantasy—or for that matter, to talk about fantasy in relation to whatever else might comprise the focus of a given class—I always make the assertion that fantasy is, or at least largely has been, an inherently nostalgic genre. In this, I suggest, it shares a sensibility with post-apocalyptic narratives that return survivors to a premodern existence in which moral choices tend to be more starkly delineated. The erasure of the confusions of modernity (or postmodernity, as the case may be) and the return to a more putatively authentic state of being is not substantively different from fantasy’s imagining of alternate, usually neo-medieval realities (the most crucial difference, it should go without saying, is the absence of magic from your average post-apocalyptic story). Usually when I make this assertion in my classes, the students nod along, either accepting my argument without question, or (more likely) not really paying attention. Every so often, however, I am fortunate enough to have a student who raises their hand to protest, “Wait, how can we be nostalgic for something that never happened?” And then we’re off to the races.

My instinctive, snarky response to the question is to say “Ask a Trump voter,” and press the class to speculate on just what moment or phase of American history the Trump campaign was alluding to with the slogan “Make America Great Again.”

I’ll come back to MAGA, but I do want to cite a section of Johannes Hofer’s treatise on nostalgia that resonated rather jarringly. I’m quoting it directly, but have put it into bullet points for clarity’s sake. When listing the ways one might see “the diagnostic signs which indicate an imminent nostalgia,” Hofer enumerates of possible sufferers that:

  • they frequently wander about sad
  •  they scorn foreign manners
  •  they are seized by a distaste of strange conversations
  •  they incline by nature to melancholy
  •  they bear jokes or the slightest injuries or other petty inconveniences in the most unhealthy frame of mind
  •  they frequently make a show of the delights of the Fatherland and prefer them to all foreign things

While some of these “symptoms” are indicative of straightforward depression, the nativism Hofer hints at—the scorn of “foreign manners,” the distaste of “strange conversations”—is certainly symptomatic of the MAGA crowd. Also, the description of thin-skinned humourlessness so entirely describes Trump that it’s a little eerie. And I have to say, it is—perhaps serendipitously—disturbing that the nationalist jingoism suggested by the final indicator refers to the home country as the “Fatherland”–perhaps not a bad reminder that the fascist movements of the 20th century were themselves nostalgic in nature.

But to come back to my discarded passage—I decided against using this section in its original form—I have a shorter, more succinct edit that I still may cut—in part because it’s a bit glib, and it’s probably not the best form in an essay on J.R.R. Tolkien to snark at Donald Trump (though I’m also working on an article about Game of Thrones and The Wire, and I think such snark would be fair game there). That being said, one of the key points I always raise when discussing nostalgia is that it always necessarily entails a certain amount of fabulation: even when remembering a specific happy time or event, nostalgia sands down the edges, embellishes the pleasure, and elides any incidental unpleasantness. So, you remember a summer spent at a cottage in your youth as sunny and idyllic, but your memory leaves out the rainy days, the mosquitoes, and your rage when your little brother cheated at Monopoly. Or as Dylan Moran puts it:

(To be fair, I think I would actively repress memories of Japanese fighting spiders).

In and of itself, unconsciously burnishing happy memories is harmless, except for when your longing for happier days impedes your capacity for happiness in the present, or sabotages your ability to imagine a better future.

And what if you’re nostalgic not for a specific memory, but for something that never happened?

That brings us back to my student’s question: fantasy’s nostalgia isn’t for an actual Narnia or Middle-Earth, but rather a set of qualities evoked by the magical, neo-medieval setting—not least of which is a desire for (post)modernity’s erasure and a return to a simpler, cleaner, less confused world. And when I say “cleaner,” I mean less morally or ethically complex—in which there’s usually an unequivocal evil to be combatted, and a hero destined to do the combatting—but it’s worth thinking about how the larger portion of fantasy fiction does not, despite the usual medieval setting, tend to dwell on, or really even acknowledge the filth and unhygienic reality of a world without sanitation, nor the disease endemic to such contexts.

As it happens, there’s a word for this kind of nostalgia: “anemoia,” which the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows defines as “nostalgia for a time you’ve never known.” (To be clear: not an actual dictionary, but a “fictionary,” developed by writer John Koenig, that features words he coins to fill a lexical gap. It’s actually quite brilliant). And I cannot think of anything more anemoiac than the MAGA desire to return the United States to an imagined past. Though it’s a vanishingly rare thing to use the words “Trump” and “brilliant” in the same sentence, “Make America Great Again” is a genuinely brilliant—and genuinely pernicious—slogan, precisely because it evokes nostalgia for an imaginary past. Its elemental power is grievance, dissatisfaction with the present moment combined with an instinctive belief in America’s greatness; hence, if one is unhappy or disaffected now, it must be because that greatness has been eroded. So there is a powerful but vague sense of decline, but never during any of his campaigning before or after winning the presidency did Trump ever clarify when in American history the U.S. was great. We can infer from his putative concern for blue-collar workers and his preoccupation with factories and coal mines that he’s pointing to the 1950s and 60s, when a working-class job could support a family, but again, he’s never specific—and given the racial animus that stokes much of his rhetoric, one has to imagine that for some of his supporters it’s the 1850s that comes to mind.

But if, for the sake of argument, we assume that it is in fact the 1950s to which MAGA refers, we cannot escape the fact that this vision of America’s history is imaginary. I’d make the obvious point that this was a period of prosperity that solely benefited white men, while marginalizing Blacks and women, and criminalizing LGBTQ people, but it’s not as though that isn’t one of its principal selling points for Trump’s base. There’s also the inconvenient fact that the kind of jobs Trump promised to bring back were only possible then because of strong private sector unions. And then, of course, there’s the even more inconvenient fact that America’s mid-century prosperity was more or less sui generis, an ephemeral economic phase made possible by the fact that the U.S., unlike the rest of the world, emerged from WWII with its manufacturing base intact, and no global economic competition. But let me make you all nostalgic by letting someone else explain this particular historical reality:

Of course, even Trump has been cognizant of the fact that after one term in office, “Make America Great Again” is going to wear thin, hence the shift to the infinitely lamer “Keep America Great.” Unfortunately for him (and, well, everybody), now that his incomparable incompetence in the face of a pandemic and the largest protest movement since the 60s has turned the U.S. into a genuine dumpster fire, we haven’t heard that slogan in a while. Instead, the strategy now seems to be pointing to the current chaos and saying that this is what America will look like under a Biden presidency, and hoping people don’t recognize that this is the reality of the Trump presidency.

Ironically, if (when, please be when) Biden wins in November, part of what will carry him to the White House is nostalgia for Obama’s presidency.

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Isolated Thoughts: Donald Trump’s Inadvertent Juneteenth Truth

Hello again. It’s been some time since last I posted. Then again, this is by no means the longest hiatus this blog has had. I’ve been noodling around with a post about the wall I hit in early May, and the anxiety and depression the lockdown induced for the remainder of the month. I may or may not post that … in the present moment, however, it seems more than a little self-centered.

Since the murder of George Floyd and the massive protests that have swept not just the U.S. but the world, I’ve been trying to work through my thoughts as a white man of enormous privilege, and my relationship to these events, and how best I can respond and be an ally. The best response I think sympathetic white people can have is simple: listen; read; listen more; put your resources where they’re best used, like donating to organizations that help Black causes; keep listening; shut up; and when you’re not shutting up, talk amongst ourselves to foment anti-racist attitudes and actions. The onus at this point in time should not be on making Black, Indigenous, and people of colour do the emotional work of explaining to us yet again the realities of systemic racism and white supremacy.

To that end, I’ve been working on a handful of posts addressing issues arising from the turmoil of the protests, and I’m aiming them at my white friends. Not exclusively, mind you—I’m just writing with a white audience in mind, and if anyone wants to step in and tell me where I’m fucking up? Please. By all means.

Anyway, I do have a tendency to ramble, so here’s the TL;DR: we’re learning about the elisions of Black history of late, and we, as white people, would do well to grasp that if we actually want to help in the process of dismantling white supremacy.

trump

Though Donald Trump’s ignorance is boundless, and there are countless ways in which he demonstrates it, I think my favourite is when he cites a widely-known fact and then proceeds to make it painfully obvious that he had just learned it moments before. Case in point: that time he mentioned that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, following up that observation by saying “Not many people know that, but it’s true.” Which made me wonder at the time how he’d managed to go through life, and indeed the nominating process for the Republican Party, never having heard it referred to as “the party of Lincoln.” (I like to imagine his shock at hearing that the president who freed the slaves and defeated the Confederacy wasn’t just a Republican, but was indeed one of the founders of the party; in Trump’s mayfly-like brain I have to think he just assumed anyone who was anti-slavery and anti-confederacy was a politically correct SJW and therefore a Democrat).

There are numerous other such instances, many of which were the inevitable by-product of his daily COVID-19 press briefings, where he demonstrated his ignorance not just of basic medicine but common sense, such as when he asked why they just weren’t using flu vaccines to combat coronavirus, or of course whether drinking disinfectant or getting a UV enema would be an effective treatment.

Most recently (as of this writing, that is—in the time it takes me to rattle out this post, he’s almost certainly exhibited his ignorance in dozens of ways), he took credit for making Juneteenth “famous.” In an interview, he said, “I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous. It’s actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it.”

I cannot begin to enumerate the ways in which having Donald J. Trump take credit for one of the most important dates in the Black American calendar is infuriating—and I say that as a white guy. I cannot begin to imagine how such an enormity lands in the Black community, though I suspect that there are possibly more long-suffering sighs than shouts of rage. I could be wrong, of course, but ignorance of Black history among white Americans (and white people generally) is a long-standing issue keenly felt by African Americans; and if there is an uncomfortable truth buried in Trump’s self-aggrandizement, it’s this: he’s not exactly wrong. He has made Juneteenth famous, albeit inadvertently, and through an act of offensive scheduling I suspect was deliberate. Not by Trump, of course, who, it turns out, had to be told why people were outraged he’d scheduled a rally on June 19th by a Black Secret Service agent in his detail.

By now, many of those who had been previously unaware of the significance of the date have been schooled, but I’ll leave it to Amber Ruffin to deliver a succinct explanation:

I’ve known the significance of Juneteenth for a long time, but the way in which I learned it was mortifying enough to deserve a retelling. I can even point to the year in which I was enlightened on this point: 1999, the year in which Ralph Ellison’s second novel, Juneteenth, was published posthumously to a certain amount of controversy. Ellison was the author of the 1952 novel Invisible Man, a landmark work of African-American literature, and, in my professional opinion (and not an outlier opinion, by any means), one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. It remained the only novel Ellison wrote in his lifetime (he died in 1994). When Juneteenth was published, there was controversy over whether or not Ellison had wanted that—which of course, excited a lot of debate among academic types. I was in the second year of my PhD, and first heard about Juneteenth from an American Lit prof at Western. We discussed the ethics of such posthumous publication over pints at the Grad Club, and I said in passing, “Weird title, though.” At which the professor cocked his head, and proceeded to gently explain the significance of the word.

As I say, it was mortifying. But not quite as mortifying as the fact that it was only many years later, as an actual tenured professor of American literature, that I learned about the Tulsa race massacre of 1921.

The galling offense of Trump’s planned June 19th rally is compounded by the fact that it will be held in Tulsa, Oklahoma—not today, as originally planned, but tomorrow, out of “respect” for Juneteenth—the site of the single worst episode of anti-Black racial violence in American history. Tulsa had a lively and prosperous Black community. Part of the Greenwood district of Tulsa was known colloquially as “Black Wall Street,” as it boasted a significant number of prosperous Black-owned businesses And over the course of two days in 1921,  whites, led by members of the KKK, descended on Greenwood with guns, clubs, and bombs, beating and shooting people, and burning Black homes and businesses. They even employed airplanes to strafe and bomb the residents and buildings from the sky. The putative reason for the violence was the same as that for so many lynchings in American history: a young Black man was accused of assaulting a white woman, and was taken into custody. When some members of the Black community converged on the courthouse in order to prevent the young man from meeting such a fate, they were met by a white mob. Shots were fired, and the city descended into an orgy of violence against Greenwood, Black Wall Street, and its inhabitants.

For a more thorough recounting of the brutal and tragic events of those two days, read Brent Staples’ piece in the New York Times.

The Tulsa Massacre, as so many such events have, fell down the memory hole of history. Indeed, it was actively erased: it wasn’t until the 1990s that a thorough accounting of the massacre was made, and even then it has largely remained a lacuna in mainstream retellings of American history. So when Donald Trump takes credit for making Juneteenth famous, he may as well also claim to have reminded white Americans about a forgotten episode of American history. The specific scheduling of this rally in Tulsa, I am certain, was lost on Trump, but I cannot believe it was accidental: Trump is an historical ignoramus, but there are those on his staff (I’m looking at you, Stephen Miller) with knowledge enough and malevolence aplenty to have been deliberate in this insult. As Adam Serwer said in what I think is the most insightful evaluation of the Trump Administration’s motivations, “The Cruelty is the Point.”

It is a point of profound embarrassment to me that it was only relatively recently that I learned of the Tulsa Massacre. I might well be admitting professional malpractice: as someone who frequently teaches African-American literature, I invariably deliver several lectures evert year in which I offer historical context about the realities of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the history of lynching, and the myriad other brutalities and indignities visited on Black America so that my students might have an inkling of context when they read Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Audre Lorde, Colson Whitehead, James Baldwin, or any of the other brilliant Black authors whom I have had the privilege of teaching. And yet it was only about two or three years ago when I read the novel Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff (ironically, a white author) that I first really learned about Tulsa. More recently, the HBO series Watchmen—based upon Alan Moore’s landmark 1985 graphic novel—made the Tulsa Massacre a core event of its reworking of the source material, indeed making it the first scene of the series (be warned: this is actually somewhat difficult to watch):

My ultimate point here is that Trump has accidentally given us a gift: whatever malevolent intent lurks behind the scheduling of his rally on Juneteenth in Tulsa, we should refocus the energy of the outrage that evokes into introspection: realizing that these historical elisions are emblematic of the much larger issue of race in America, and quite possibly using that as a retort whenever someone bleats about the removal of Confederate monuments as “erasing history”—to point out that all such monuments were already erasures of history, given that they were erected with the express purpose of (literally) whitewashing the twin legacies of slavery and the Civil War.

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