Catastrophe as MacGuffin, or, Were the Zombies Trying to Warn Us About Trump This Whole Time?

As I mentioned in my last post, we’re currently watching The Stand, a mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s 1978 novel. Though both the novel and the series are quite graphic in their depictions of the weaponized superflu that wipes out most of the world—and quite clear on just how the pathogen escaped its experimental military facility—ultimately, the flu itself is ancillary to the substance of the story, which is about a showdown between the forces of good and those of evil.

As I enter the last two weeks of classes for the term and reflect back on the texts we’ve done in my graduate seminar on 21stC post-apocalyptic narratives, some of which have overlapped with my Utopias & Dystopias course, and the course I taught last term on pandemic fiction, I’m struck by how often it has been the case that the catastrophe precipitating these stories has been, more often than not, simply a device to clear the decks for what comes next. I really have no reason to be so struck by this fact, given that I titled my grad course “The Spectre of Catastrophe,” specifically because it focuses on narratives preoccupied less with the catastrophe itself than the aftermath. But it occurs to me that when the catastrophe—be it a viral outbreak, asteroid strike, alien invasion, or whatever—is the focus of the story, it’s usually because it will be resolved by the end. It is, in such instances, the focus of the action, not the setup for the action.

By contrast, many of the post-apocalyptic narratives I’ve been looking at this year often go out of their way to be vague about the nature of the precipitating catastrophe. Your average zombie apocalypse has little to say about what caused the dead to rise—few offer even as much exposition as 28 Days Later prologue, in which eco-terrorists storm a lab and inadvertently free monkeys who have been infected with the Rage virus, or the vague suggestion in Night of the Living Dead that zombies are the result of radiation from a satellite. Shaun of the Dead offers the most perfect parody of this tendency, when at the end, again safely ensconced on his couch, Shaun flips through channels on the TV reporting on the aftermath of the zombie plague and changes the channel before anyone can offer an explanation for how it happened.

Even the arguably bleakest post-apocalyptic narrative of the past twenty years—Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—deliberately frustrates readers keen to know how the world of the novel ended up a blasted wasteland. So too Emily St. John Mandel’s far more hopeful Station Eleven is conspicuously uninterested in the details of the “Georgia Flu” that devastates the world. The comparable pandemic in Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead is less significant for how it wipes out the world’s population than for the simple fact that it does, which allows for the rather intriguing vision of the afterlife on which the novel is premised. And even all of the gross, granular detail with which Stephen King endows “Captain Trips,” the superflu that wipes out 99.9% of America (and presumably the world, but that’s a speculation for a future post), is ultimately a bit of misdirection as the novel then settles into its aforementioned epic battle between Light and Dark.

In all of these examples, catastrophe plays the narrative role of what film nerds like me call a “MacGuffin,” a concept most associated with Alfred Hitchcock. A MacGuffin, Hitchcock said, is something the characters find important, but the audience doesn’t care about—something that precipitates the action, but is ultimately ancillary to it, like the Maltese falcon of The Maltese Falcon, a putatively priceless statuette that drives the plot, but which is never found; or, more specific to Hitchcock, the money Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals from her employer in Psycho, but which is less important than the fact that in fleeing her crime she ends up at the Bates Motel.

Catastrophe has become one of our more prevalent MacGuffins: how the world ends is more or less incidental to what comes afterward. There are of course exceptions to this rule; this post comes about in part from my notes for my grad class on Monday, in which we’re finishing Ling Ma’s novel Severance and starting Mandel’s Station Eleven. The latter, as I mention above, is exemplary of this tendency to use catastrophe as a plot device; Severance, by contrast, is far more interested in the particulars of the pandemic that collapses civilization, mainly because the particulars of the “Shen Fever” are tied closely to the novel’s themes of nostalgia and home. The infectiousness of the disease, in which people are reduced to mindless automatons repeating rituals from their former lives, is most prevalent among those given to nostalgia. Candace Chen, the novel’s protagonist, came to the U.S. at a young age when her parents immigrated from China; in the novel’s present, both of her parents have died, and she feels equally not at home in New York City and her home region of China, which she visits on business trips. Feeling generally rootless and untethered makes Candace ironically immune to the disease.

This thematic connection between the catastrophic pandemic and Candace’s situation—which in the novel is also more broadly representative of the millennial experience of late capitalism—makes the cause and particulars of the catastrophe central to the novel, in that both the characters and the audience care about it; this also makes Severance an instructive outlier in a burgeoning sub-genre full of catastrophic MacGuffins.

A large part of the reason for this relates to one of my overarching arguments about contemporary post-apocalyptic narratives, which is also one of the premises of my course: namely, that the preoccupation with the aftermath of catastrophe is indicative of a breakdown of faith and trust in government—not a new phenomenon by any means, but something that became supercharged by the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 failures in Iraq, the debacle of Hurricane Katrina, the increasing polarization of politics and culture, all culminating in the election of Donald Trump. Trump was an is a catastrophic figure, and while I mean that quite literally, it’s important to keep in mind that being symbolically catastrophic—i.e. being seen by his followers as a bomb that would demolish “the Establishment”—was a huge part of his appeal. To many people, Trump is an expression of what I’ve been terming “hopeful nihilism,” which is also an animating factor in many post-apocalyptic narratives. Hopeful nihilism is the flip side of what Lauren Berlant terms “cruel optimism,” a condition in which the object of your desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing; hopeful nihilism is the belief that burning down and destroying the present system clears the decks for a freer and more authentic existence in the wreckage.

Hence, the general lack of interest in the nature of the catastrophe in these stories: the important thing isn’t the why and how, but the simple fact of civilization’s end. The catastrophe is a MacGuffin; the important thing is what happens next, and how the characters negotiate the circumstances. It may be that in time that we see Trump in similar terms, which would actually go a long way towards explaining how a fatuous, preening New Yorker billionaire became the symbol of defiance for a rump of resolutely “anti-elitist” people; perhaps the particulars of the Trumpian catastrophe were less important than the fact of it. It is, I admit, a comforting thought, as it suggests a huge difficulty for those who want to step into Trump’s role going forward—especially if (and it’s a big if) the Biden Administration can take steps to re-establish people’s faith in government to help its people.

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A Few Things

What I’m Reading     I first heard of Heather McGhee two or three years ago when she was interviewed on one of the political podcasts I listen to. She was then the president of Demos, a progressive think-tank focused on race and economics and strategies to strengthen American democracy; I was immediately impressed by how clearly and articulately she broke down the inextricability of race and economic policy, and the ways in which Republicans have successfully sold the idea to white voters of government spending as a zero-sum game in which every dollar that goes to help Black people and minorities is a dollar taken from them—and that government programs that help non-wealthy whites  are somehow stealing from them to benefit inner-city Blacks. And hence, non-wealthy whites have become reliable Republican voters who vote against the own interests in election after election.

To be clear, this is not a new insight. President Lyndon B. Johnson himself, who signed the Civil Rights Act into being in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year, knew that he was alienating a significant portion of his own party. “Well, we’ve lost the South,” he is reported to have said on signing the civil rights legislation; he also famously acknowledged the principle on which Richard Nixon would successfully court southern white Democrats: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

What impressed me about McGhee was how clearly she laid out the historical narrative, as well as how convincingly she argued her central premise: that systemic racism hurts everyone, white people included. I don’t remember which podcast it was on which I originally heard her, but that’s become something of a moot point as since then she’s been on all the podcasts—especially lately since her book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together came out. Since that first podcast I heard, she resigned as Demos’ president and traveled the U.S., speaking to hundreds of experts, activists, historians, and ordinary people. The Sum of Us is the result, and it makes her original argument in an exhaustively detailed and forceful manner. It is an eminently readable book: personal without being subjective, wonky without losing itself in the weeds, and both rigorously historical while still relating straightforward stories that persuasively bring home the societal costs of systemic racism. The one example she shares in her interviews functions as the book’s central metaphor: starting in the 1920s, the U.S. invested heavily in public projects and infrastructure, one thing being the construction of public pools. During the Depression, Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) continued this trend, using such community investment to generate jobs. By the 1950s, towns and cities across the country boasted ever-larger and more lavish public pools, which became a point of pride for communities—pools large enough, in some cases, to admit thousands of swimmers.

But such pools were, of course, whites-only. With the advent of desegregation in the mid-late 50s, courts decreed that these public pools were legally obliged to admit Blacks. Town and city councils responded swiftly, voting to drain the pools and fill them in with dirt and seed them over with grass (in Georgia, the Parks and Recreation Department was simply eliminated, and was not resurrected for ten years). Affluent whites did not suffer: there was a concomitant boom in the construction of backyard pools and the establishment of private swimming clubs, which could effect de facto segregation by leaving membership decisions to the discretion of a governing board. But non-wealthy whites were suddenly left without a key option for summer recreation, all because their communities could not countenance sharing a publicly-funded pool with their Black citizens. In what is one of the pernicious elements of systemic racism, McGhee observes, many of the non-wealthy whites who could no longer bring their children to swim in one of these magnificent pools for free probably thought that this was a fair deal—better to go without than be obliged to share with people you’d been brought up to consider beneath you.

I am at present about halfway through The Sum of Us; look for a longer blog post when I’ve finished it. Meanwhile, I would suggest that this book should be required reading for our present moment.

What I’m Watching     I wrote in my last post about how much I’m enjoying rewatching Battlestar Galactica, but as Stephanie and I took a hiatus from that show to binge The Mandalorian, so again we’re taking a hiatus to watch The Stand­—the recent mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s mammoth 1978 novel in which 99.9% of the world is wiped out by a weaponized superflu nicknamed “Captain Trips,” and the remaining people of the U.S. gather in two opposing communities. On one side are the forces of good, who have been drawn to Boulder, Colorado by dreams of a 108 year old Black woman named Mother Abigail. On the other are those drawn by promises of power, licentiousness, and revenge by the evil Randall Flagg, a denim-clad and cowboy-boot shod demon in human form, who establishes his new society in (of course) Las Vegas.

As I’ve discussed a few times on this blog, last term I taught a fourth year class on pandemic fiction; I did not include The Stand, in spite of the fact that it’s one of the few actual pandemic novels written prior to the 21st century, mainly because it is way too long (almost 1500 pages) to shoehorn into a semester-long course. Given its significance to the topic, however, I did record a short lecture in which I ran down the key themes and plot points (which you can watch here if you’re so inclined). But one of the things I found interesting in retrospect—I first read The Stand in high school, and then read it again when King published the unexpurgated version in 1990—after doing all the preparatory reading for my course, was how King transformed a story about a biological catastrophe into a Manichaean light v. dark, G v. E, cosmic battle royale with Mother Abigail as God’s surrogate and Randall Flagg as Satan’s proxy. While the novel meditated at length on the nature of civilization and how one pragmatically goes about rebuilding after the apocalypse—with 1500 pages, how could it not?—it is obvious that it’s the metaphysical war that most interested King.

We’re slightly more than halfway through the new adaptation, and quite enjoying it. It was quite badly reviewed; and while I can agree with some of the complaints, it has been on the whole well-adapted to the screen, and (mostly) well-cast. Alexander Skarsgard is at his menacing best as Randall Flagg, James Marsden is all wry southern charm as Texan Stu Redman, Greg Kinnear plays the professorial Glen Bateman with the right balance of pomposity and insight; Whoopi Goldberg basically plays Mother Abigail as a devoutly Christian Guinan with a head of white dreadlocks; my favourite however is Brad William Henke, who plays the mentally disabled Tom Cullen with a guileless, earnest simplicity that avoids stereotypes (those who watch Justified will recognize Henke from season two as Coover Bennett, a similarly mentally delayed character whose disability manifests instead in sociopathic violence).

There is much that is left out, and much that could have been done better, but on the whole it is a pretty satisfying adaptation of an intriguing but flawed novel (“intriguing but flawed” is how I’d characterize most of King’s oeuvre, but I suppose that is to be expected when you churn out an average of two brick-sized novels a year). If you like The Stand, or are just amenable to Stephen King more generally, I’d recommend this series.

What I’m Writing     I recently dusted off an article-in-progress that had been mouldering for a year or two, on zombie apocalypse and celebrity; in a fit of energy I finished it and submitted it to a journal. I now have another that I’m looking to finish, on Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and nostalgia. Given that I’ll be doing that novel in both of my classes over the next two weeks, it seems an ideal time to return to it. Given that it is also about apocalypse, though of the non-zombie variety—and indeed about a civilization-ending pandemic—I’ve been trying to rewrite my introduction to put it in the context of the past year. It’s been slow going, not least because finding the right balance between the personal and the objective can be tricky when your aim is to submit it to a scholarly journal. But the overarching argument—that Mandel’s post-apocalyptic world in which the main characters are actors and musicians travelling between settlements to perform Shakespeare and classical music comprises a nostalgic desire to return to a pre-postmodern humanism—is, I think, a strong one. I just have to fill out a core section in which I discuss humanism in a more granular way.

(This process will also be useful, as it will give me a lot of lecture material).

On a related subject, I’ve also been working on a new essay on Terry Pratchett and Discworld. I have an article on Pratchett and his campaign for assisted dying coming out soon in a new collection; I’m trying to carry that momentum forward on a handful of Sir Terry essays, but the one I’ve been focusing on is a reading the Discworld novels in the context of the philosophy of American Pragmatism and what I’ve been calling the “magical humanism” exhibited in a lot of contemporary fantasy.

As much as I love Sir Terry’s writing, I find it difficult to write about it in a scholarly manner, for the basic reason that I find it difficult to find a focus and not end up running off madly in all directions. The essay I wrote for the collection, which came in way past deadline, needed to be cut from nine thousand words to six thousand (one of the essay’s blind reviewers said something to the effect of “this is obviously a piece of work gesturing to a much larger theory of Pratchett’s fiction,” which was at once both gratifying and true). Part of the problem is the iterative nature of the Discworld’s world-building: each  of the forty-one novels is a standalone narrative, and with each new installment, Sir Terry modified and refined aspects of that world, but also returned to the same themes and preoccupations in such a way that it is close to impossible to discuss the political and philosophical preoccupations of a given novel without being obliged to reference a dozen others.

This isn’t the most conducive thing for my intellectual temperament, which at the best of times is digressive and inclined to run down whatever rabbit holes I find, until I realize that, several paragraphs of writing on, I’ve found myself discussing an entirely different topic. (Presumably, devoted readers of this blog will have noticed this). That being said, however, it is a pleasure to lose myself in this topic … not least because I increasingly see Sir Terry’s humanism as a necessary antidote to our present toxic political moment.

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What’s Making Me Happy

Revisiting Battlestar Galactica     When I noticed that BSG was available to stream on Amazon, I mentioned the fact in passing to Stephanie, who said she’d never watched it. I was surprised, but also delighted, as it gave me an excuse to rewatch the series and introduce it to her.

It is such a good series, and it has far more in common with other such contemporary SF on television as Firefly or The Expanse than it does with its original, hokey 70s series that was derivative enough of Star Wars (its original title was to be Saga of a Star World) that George Lucas attempted to sue. The 2004 reboot maintained the original’s premise of a weathered battleship leading a ragtag fleet of humans who had survived a genocidal attack by the robotic race of Cylons in a search for the mythic planet Earth. It also kept the aesthetics of the battlestar and the Viper fighters, and the names of the main characters—Commander William Adama, his son and chief Viper pilot, Lee “Apollo” Adama, his second-in-command Colonel Tigh, hotshot pilot Starbuck, the treacherous Gaius Baltar, and so on.

But aside from maintaining such continuities, the new version is darker, grittier, and abjures the campy quality of the original (something that, to be fair, tended to mark a lot of 70s-era SF, Star Wars included). The new version is also more diverse with respect to race and gender, with the always-brilliant Edward James Olmos in the role of Commander Adama, a crew that seems more or less to have gender parity, and the crucial role of firebrand Starbuck played by Katee Sackhoff.

This last change did not sit well with the original Starbuck, played by Dirk Benedict, whom you may also remember as “Faceman” Peck from The A-Team (though you could be forgiven if you don’t remember him from anything else). Benedict seems to have gone the route of other 80s actors of limited fame who re-emerge as conservative culture warriors. Benedict penned a blog post titled “Lt. Starbuck … Lost in Castration” some time around 2008, in which he excoriates the new version for feminizing the cigar-smoking, roguish lothario he played, and for otherwise being the embodiment of a world in which “40 years of feminism have taken their toll,” and the “war against masculinity has been won.”

Starbuck then and now.

If you think you can stomach it, you should really read the post in its entirety, as it reads like a parody of butthurt masculinity; I remember reading it about twelve years ago and wondering at its ludicrousness, but in re-reading it today, it appears as prescient anticipation of the squalid online worlds of “men’s rights advocates,” incel culture, and Jordan Peterson acolytes. To give just one of the more egregious examples from the piece:

Women are from Venus. Men are from Mars. Hamlet does not scan as Hamletta. Nor does Hans Solo as Hans Sally. Faceman is not the same as Facewoman. Nor does a Stardoe a Starbuck make. Men hand out cigars. Women hand out babies. And thus the world for thousands of years has gone round.

(For the record, I cut and pasted this from his post, and only just now realized that Harrison Ford’s iconic character was German).

Benedict’s little temper tantrum is exemplary of both the kind of white male fan-rage that enveloped The Last Jedi and inspired the “Sad Puppies’” campaign against the Hugo Awards, but also the pathetic whine of a mediocre actor seeing one of the television properties that gave him his brief bout of fame being done better—and seeing a version of Lt. Starbuck played by an actor with greater depth and talent than him, though it’s fairly obvious that the fact that she’s a woman is what prompted his rage.

Watership Down     Yesterday in my Utopias & Dystopias class we started Richard Adams’ Watership Down, which I’ve been looking forward to all semester. I first read the novel when I was in high school, and I loved it enough that it almost erased the traumatic memory of seeing the animated 1978 film adaptation in the theatre. For those who haven’t read Watership Down, it’s a story about a bunch of wild rabbits trying to find a new home. Lest that make you think it is thus a cutesy story about bunnies, remember that rabbits are basically prey animals for just about every conceivable predator, and so the odyssey to find a new and safe home is beset with terror at every turn. The 1978 film cranked this up to eleven, positively glorying in the blood and violence and death, and doing so in that creepy 70s-style animation that always leaves me feeling weirded out. A friend’s father took us to see it, probably on the same misapprehension that many adults had, that this would be a cute story about bunnies.

Not so much.

Yikes.

The novel doesn’t lack for the terror and fear, but at least it doesn’t have the graphic dimension of the film … and it is also quite impressive in its world-building, giving the rabbits their own mythology and folklore. In fact, their origin story is precisely about how their creator made them prey animals in punishment for out-breeding all the other animals, but also gave them cunning and powerful hind legs that let them outrun their predators.  Adams walks an interesting line between straightforward anthropomorphising á là Disney animals, and emphasizing the limitations rabbits would have (even these versions of rabbits with language and lore) in making mental connections or simple counting; there is, however, a necessary amount of anthropomorphizing, and the rabbits all have subtle and nuanced characters.

When I asked my students what they thought of the novel, the consensus was that they did not expect the story they encountered, but that they liked it and found it compelling. (Which was a relief—I’m always leery of teaching a text I love for the first time, as it is often very disheartening when a balance of students express dislike or, worse, indifference).

But why is a novel about rabbits on a Utopias & Dystopias course? Well, because it embodies both kinds of story—it is about the rabbits leaving a home that the oracular character Fiver says is in danger (it is ultimately, we learn later, destroyed in the process of humans building new houses), and seeking out a place where they can live in peace and utopian safety. But the journey is markedly dystopian, as they must venture out into a hostile world populated by the thousand animals that want to eat them, but also by antagonistic rabbits who end up being the bigger threat (in this way, as I have blogged before, and as I suggested to my class, Watership Down is sort of like a zombie apocalypse narrative).

Also, I just love the novel, and sometimes that’s sufficient excuse to put it on a course.

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In Which I Mark the One-Year Anniversary of the Pandemic With Some Thoughts on Monarchy

I did not watch Oprah Winfrey’s much-hyped interview of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle for much the same reason I did not watch the two most recent royal weddings: I didn’t care. Especially at this point in time, between marking a year of pandemic and the ongoing reverberations of the Trump presidency, the travails of Harry and Meghan—even inasmuch as I sympathize with them against the Royal Family—don’t really do much to excite my imagination or interest.

On the other hand, the fallout from the interview, coupled with related issues and events, has piqued my interest indeed. That people will be instinctively partisan for one party or the other is about as unsurprising as learning that some people in “the Firm” fretted about whether or not Meghan’s first child would be dark-complexioned. Racism in the Royal Family? Get away! But of course, this particular charge was picked up by right-wing pundits as further evidence of “cancel culture” at work, and we’ve been treated to the bizarre spectacle of self-described red-blooded American patriots rushing to the defense of HRM Queen Elizabeth II.1

Someone might want to remind them just what those boys at Lexington and Concord died for. Or perhaps tell them to watch Hamilton.

Notably, the one person emerging not just unscathed but burnished from the interview was the Queen herself—both Harry and Meghan were careful to say that none of the difficulties they’ve experienced emanated from her, and that she has indeed been the one person who is blameless (some reports have read between the lines and extrapolated that the Queen was prescient enough to have given Harry funds to see him through being cut off financially).

Leaving aside for the moment the possibility, or possibly even the likelihood, that this is entirely true, this sympathy is reflective of a broader reluctance to be critical of Elizabeth II. Even the 2006 film The Queen, starring Helen Mirren in the title role, which was all about the Palace’s cold and inept response to the shocking death of Diana, ended up painting a vaguely sympathetic portrait (though to be fair, that has a lot to do with the virtuosity of Helen Mirren). And The Crown (created and written by Peter Morgan, who wrote The Queen), which is largely unsparing of all the other royals and their courtiers, generally depicts Elizabeth as a victim of circumstance who spends her life doing her level best to do her royal duty and constrained by this very sense of duty from being a more compassionate and loving human.

The Queen is a person whom, I would argue, people tend to see through a nostalgic lens: nostalgia, in this case, for a form of stiff-upper-lip, keep-calm-and-carry-on Britishness memorialized in every WWII film ever—something seen as lost in the present day, along with Britannia’s status in the world. As we have seen in much of the pro-Brexit rhetoric, these two losses are not perceived as unrelated; and seeing Queen Elizabeth as the cornerstone of an ever-more-fractured Royal Family is a comforting anchor, but one that grows more tenuous as she ages.

There’s an episode in season four of The Crown that articulates this sensibility. In it, Elizabeth, having grown concerned that her children might not appreciate the scale and scope of the duties they’ve inherited, meets with each of them in turn and is perturbed by their feckless selfishness. Charles is in the process of destroying his marriage to Diana; Andrew is reckless in his passions; Anne is consumed by resentment and anger; and Edward is at once isolated by his royal status at school and indulgent in his royal privilege. Though her disappointment in her spawn is never put into words, it is obvious (Olivia Coleman can convey more with her facial expressions than I can in ten thousand words), and The Crown effectively indicts the younger generation of royals as unworthy of their status, and definitely unworthy of the throne.

This, I think, is where we’re at right now with Harry and Meghan’s interview. I’ve joked on occasion that “shocked but not surprised” should be the title of the definitive history of the Trump presidency, but it might also function as a general sentiment for this particular epoch. It is difficult, precisely, to put one’s finger on the substance of the outrage over Meghan’s revelations, aside from an instinctive royalist animus directed at anyone with the temerity to criticize the monarchy. This is why, perhaps, some (<cough> <cough> PIERS MORGAN <cough>) have simply chosen to call bullshit on Meghan Markle’s story of mental health issues and suicidal ideation;2 but it was the charge of racism that seems to have becomes the most ubiquitous bee in a whole lot of bonnets. Shocking, yes; surprising, no. The entire British colonial enterprise was predicated on the premise of white English supremacy, and royalty of all different nationalities has always been assiduous in policing their bloodlines. Prior to the divorce of Charles and Diana amid revelations of his relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles, the greatest scandal the British monarchy had weathered was the abdication of Edward VIII so he could marry his American divorcée paramour, Wallis Simpson. Meghan Markle, it has been noted by many, ticks two of those scandalous boxes insofar as she is American and a divorcée.

She is also, to use postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha’s phrasing, “not white/not quite.” Which is to say, she is biracial, and as such will never thus be qualified to be a royal in a stubborn subsection of the British cultural imagination.

Wallis Simpson and the man who might have been king.

The fascination many people have with the British Royal Family—especially among those who aren’t British—has always baffled me more than a little. But on honest reflection, I suppose I shouldn’t be baffled. In spite of the fact that hereditary monarchy is an objectively terrible form of governance, it is also one of the most durable throughout history. Human beings, it seems, are suckers for dynastic power, in spite of the illogic of its premise; as the late great Christopher Hitchens wryly observed, being the eldest son of a dentist does not somehow confer upon you the capacity to be a dentist. And yet down through the centuries, people have accepted that the eldest son (and occasionally daughter) of the current monarch had the right to assume the most important job in the nation on that monarch’s passing.

Of course, “right” and “ability” don’t always intersect, and there have been good, bad, and indifferent kings and queens down through history (of course, being democratically elected is no guarantee of governing ability, but at least the people have the option of cancelling your contract every few years). For every Henry V there’s a Richard III, and we’re equally fascinated by both, while mediocre kings and queens who preside over periods of relative peace don’t tend to get the dramatic treatment.

Indeed, on even just a brief reflection, it’s kind of amazing at just how pervasive the trope of monarchy is in literature and popular culture more broadly. It is unsurprising that Shakespeare, for example, would have made kings and queens the subject of many of his plays—that was, after all, the world in which he lived—but the persistence of hereditary monarchy in the 20th century cultural imagination is quite remarkable. It’s pretty much a staple of fantasy, as the very title of Game of Thrones attests; but where George R.R. Martin’s saga and its televisual adaptation are largely (but sadly not ultimately)3 rooted in a critique of the divine right of kings and the concept of the “chosen one,” the lion’s share of the genre rests in precisely the comfort bestowed by the idea that there is a true king out there perfectly suited to rule justly and peaceably.

More pervasive and pernicious than Shakespearean or Tolkienesque kings and queens, however, is the Disney princess-industrial complex. Granted, the fairy-tale story of the lowly and put-upon girl finding her liberatory prince pre-dates Walt Disney’s animated empire by centuries, but I think we can all agree that Disney has at once expanded, amplified, and sanded down the sharp edges of the princesses’ folkloric origins—all while inculcating in millions of children the twinned conceptions of royalistic destiny and the heteronormative gender roles associated with hereditary nobility (to be fair to Disney, it has done better with such recent excursions as Brave and Frozen—possibly the best endorsement of the latter’s progressiveness is the fact that Jordan Peterson loathes it). It’s telling that Disney’s most prominent branding image isn’t Mickey Mouse, but the Disney castle,4 a confection of airy spires and towers that any medievalist would tell you defeats the purpose of having a castle to start with. Even your more inept horde of barbarians would have little difficulty storming those paper-thin defenses, but then it’s not the bulwarks and baileys that are important, but the towers … the towers, built to entrap fair maidens until their rescuing princes can slip the lock or scale the wall.

I have to imagine that a large part of the obsession over royal weddings proceeds from precisely this happy-ending narrative on which the Mouse has built its house: the sumptuous spectacle of excess and adulation that evokes, time and again, Cinderella’s arrival at the ball. The disruption of this mythos is at once discomforting and titillating: Diana’s 1995 interview presaged Harry and Meghan’s with its revelations of constraint and isolation, and the active antagonism of both the Royal Family and its functionaries toward any sort of behaviour that might reflect badly upon it—even if that behaviour simply entailed seeking help for mental health issues. There have been many think-pieces breaking down which elements of The Crown are fact and which are fiction, but it is at this point fairly well established wisdom that being born a Windsor—or marrying into the family—is no picnic. And while Meghan’s claim that she never Googled Harry or his family strains credulity, I think it’s probably safe to say that no matter how much research one does, the realities of royal life almost certainly beggar the imagination.

Also, The Crown was only in its second season when Meghan married Harry.

I confess that, aside from the very first episode, I did not watch the first three seasons of The Crown, the principal reason being that I couldn’t get my girlfriend Stephanie into the show. While I may be more or less indifferent to the British monarchy, Stephanie is actively hostile5 to it. Born in South Africa, she and her family came to Canada when she was fourteen; having imbibed an antipathy to her birth nation’s colonizer that is far more diffuse in Canada, she gritted her teeth through the part of her citizenship oath in which she had to declare loyalty to the Queen. Her love of Gillian Anderson (Stephanie is, among her other endearing qualities, the biggest X-Files fan I’ve ever met) overcame her antipathy, however, for season four, and so we gleefully watched the erstwhile Agent Scully transformed into the Iron Lady spar with Olivia Colman’s Queen Elizabeth (we’re also pretty sympatico on our love of Olivia Colman). With each episode, we reliably said (a) Olivia, for the love of Marmite, don’t make us sympathetic with the Queen!; (b) Gillian, please don’t make us feel sympathy for/vague attraction to Margaret Thatcher!; and, (c) Holy crap, Emma Corrin looks so much like Lady Di!

It will be interesting to see The Crown catch up with the present moment. But I also have to wonder if some commentators are right when they say that the Harry and Meghan split from the Firm signals the end of the British monarchy? To my mind, by all rights it should: it’s long past time this vestige of colonial hubris went into that good night. We’ve got enough anti-democratic energy to deal with in the present moment without also concerning ourselves with a desiccated monarchy. When Queen Elizabeth dies, with her dies the WWII generation. The Second World War transformed the world in countless ways, one of them being that it spelled the end of the British Empire and the diminution of Great Britain’s influence in the world. Brexit is, among other things, a reactionary response to this uncomfortable reality, and a vain, desperate attempt to reassert Britannia’s greatness. Across the pond, fellow nativists in the U.S.  have latched onto Meghan Markle’s accusations of racism to make common cause with the monarchy. Not, perhaps, because they’ve forgotten the lessons of 1776, but most likely because they never learned them to start with.

NOTES

1. Perhaps the stupidest defense came from Fox and Friends’ co-host Brian Kilmeade, who opined that the fact that British Commonwealth countries are “75% Black and minority” demonstrated that the Royal Family could not possibly be racist. Leaving aside the pernicious history of colonialism and the kind of white paternalism epitomized by the Rudyard Kipling poem “White Man’s Burden,” can we perhaps agree that Kilmeade’s juxtaposition of “75%” and “minority” sort of gives the game away?

2. I’ve always felt that Piers Morgan was the result of a lab experiment in which a group of scientists got together to create the most perfect distillation of an asshole. Even if we grant his premise that Meghan Markle is, in fact, a status-seeking social climber who has basically Yoko Ono’ed Prince Harry out of the Royal Family, his constant ad hominem attacks on her say more about his own inadequacies than hers. And for the record, I do not grant his premise: to borrow his own turn of phrase, I wouldn’t believe Piers Morgan if he was reading a weather report.

3. We may never know how George R.R. Martin means to end his saga—at the rate he’s going, he’ll be writing into his 90s, and I don’t like his actuarial odds—but we do know how the series ended. The last-minute transformation of Daenerys into a tyrant who needed to be killed could conceivably have been handled better if the showrunners had allowed for two or three more episodes to bring us there; but the aftermath was also comparably rushed, and Sam Tarly’s democratic suggestion for egalitarian Westrosi governance was laughed off without any consideration. I will maintain to my dying day that GRRM effectively transformed fantasy, but also that he was too much in thrall to its core tropes to wander too far from their monarchical logic.

4. I recently bought a Disney+ streaming subscription in order to watch The Mandalorian. While writing this post, I remembered that Hamilton’s sole authorized video recording is Disney property. So of course I immediately clicked over to Disney+ to watch parts of it, and was treated to the irony of a play about the American revolutionary war to overthrow monarchical tyranny prefaced by Disney’s graphic of its castle adorned with celebratory fireworks.

5. When I read this paragraph to Stephanie, she liked all of it but objected to my use of the word “hostile.” “I don’t actually hate the Royal Family,” she said. “I don’t wish them harm. I just find the entire idea pointless and antiquated, and it embodies some of the worst aspects of British history.” So: she’s not hostile to the Royal Family, but I’m at a loss to find a better word, especially considering the invective she hurls at England during the World Cup.

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What’s Making Me Happy

Scrolling back through my posts since 2021 began, I’m struck by the general bleakness of a lot of what I’ve been writing about … which not unsurprising, given that much of it has had to do with American politics, and I’ve been writing as we approach the one-year anniversary of the COVID pandemic, with the prospect of it persisting as late as the autumn.

I’m not one for such practices as daily affirmations, but sometimes it’s helpful to remind oneself about what is making you happy. One of my favourite podcasts is NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour; once a week they have a segment titled “what’s making us happy this week,” in which the hosts share, well, what’s making them happy that week—what books or film or TV or other things that give them delight.

Well, I’m stealing the idea. I’ve already done so on occasion when I teach—I will ask my students every so often what’s making them happy—though I’m usually treated to silence punctuated now and then with an enthusiastic endorsement of something. But I’m now bringing it to my blog. Don’t expect it to be weekly, though.

So what’s making me happy right now?

Stephanie on the Guitar and Sir Terry Pratchett     Since posting my QAnon piece this morning, I’ve been working away on an article that I’ve had stewing on my brain’s back burner for a long time: I’m titling it “The Pragmatic Pratchett,” and it argues that the political and moral philosophy that Sir Terry developed over his forty-one Discworld novels (and his other fiction and non-fiction) is a form of “magical humanism” that squares up quite nicely with the American school of Pragmatism á là John Dewey, Richard Rorty, and Judith Shklar. We’re currently on midterm break here, so I’m trying to pound out one thousand words and day and have something approaching a rough draft by the time classes resume in a week. I hit 1400 words today, and will continue work on it after dinner.

Meanwhile, as I write in my office, Stephanie is in the next room doing something musical. One of her hobbies is to record songs and post videos of herself playing to YouTube. Lately, she’s been getting into the project of making backing tracks for people to play guitar over. But today she’s broken out the guitar again, and so as I write about Sir Terry, I can hear her playing. It’s quite lovely—it’s almost like being serenaded.

I love watching her get absorbed in whatever project she’s working on. It is a form of self-care, a mental respite from her job as a full-time nurse. She is a perfectionist when it comes to her musical projects, and will spend hours plugged into her laptop and various musical doodads (I am, it should go without saying, musically illiterate). I like to joke that she’s obsessive and I’m compulsive, and that together we make up a complete neurosis.

The Mandalorian     I finally caved and subscribed to Disney Plus. Stephanie and I binged the two extant seasons of The Mandalorian over the course of a week, watching the season two finale last Wednesday. Since then I have been rewatching some of my favourite scenes on my laptop, as well as watching the various fan reaction videos.

Jon Favreau just gets it—he gets the texture of the Star Wars universe, he gets the aspects of it that make for good stories (and eschews those that don’t), and somehow he made a legion of viewers fall in love with a goddamn muppet.

I loved the Ewoks when I first watched Return of the Jedi—but then again, when I first watched Jedi, I was eleven years old. The cloying cute little teddy bears of Endor have not aged well, so when I first heard the name “Baby Yoda” and saw the images, I was skeptical—another merchandising opportunity, I thought, at the expense of good storytelling. Well, I don’t mind admitting how wrong I was—Baby Yoda, aka Grogu, was impossibly cute, but somehow not cloyingly so. And the relationship between “the kid” and Din Djarin was quite beautifully done—a testament to Pedro Pascal’s acting chops, considering that we see his face all of three times over sixteen episodes.

(Fun fact: if you binge The Mandalorian not long after binging Schitt’s Creek, as Stephanie and I did, it is nearly impossible not to shout—in one’s best Moira Rose voice—“the Bébé!” every time Baby Yoda shows his face).

And the casting. Jeebus, the casting. I got the sense as I watched that Jon Favreau would just call up friends and say “Hey, I’m doing this Star Wars thing, you want in?” Such a great ensemble of actors. There is something exquisite about hearing Werner Herzog say, “I hear you are ze best in ze parzec.” There is something equally exquisite in seeing Giancarlo Esposito bring all of his equable Gus Fring menace to the role of Moff Gideon. Ming-Na Wen as a deadly assassin? Yes please. Timothy Olyphant playing a variation on Seth Bullock and Raylen Givens as the marshal of a mining town on Tatooine? Gods, yes. Bill Burr as an irascible mercenary thief? Natalia Tena, aka Nymphadora Tonks, as a hissing, blade throwing alien? Richard Ayoade as the voice of a priggish but deadly droid? Taika Waititi, who also directed a few episodes, as a droid programmed to care for Baby Yoda? Jason Sudeikas and Adam Palley bantering as a pair of inept stormtroopers? Also: considering that we interrupted our viewing of Battlestar Galactica (Stephanie had never seen it, so I felt it my moral obligation to introduce her to it) to watch The Mandalorian, Katee Sackhoff’s appearance as fellow Mandalorian Bo Katan felt particularly apropos.

But one of my favourite cameos also relates to the way Jon Favreau is building out the post-Return of the Jedi universe, in which the New Republic must now actually govern. It’s a new normal in which the X-wing pilots are no longer the heroic flyboys and -girls of the movies, but are essentially cops on a beat, who give Mando grief for his ship’s broken transponder in the same way an exasperated traffic cop might give you a pass on a broken taillight. In a later episode of season two, a dumpy, balding X-wing pilot suggests to Cara Dune that she should take on the role of Marshal in her town, now that the former Empire was more or less expunged. “Wait,” I said as we watched, “isn’t that the father from Kim’s Convenience?” And indeed it was—Korean-Canadian actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (who according to his iMDB page, “Is a member of the Star Wars costuming group The 501st Legion”).

It was the clipboard in the pilot’s hand that made it art.

Pie-Making     … or, as I like to pronounce it, “PAH!” Given that I’m not a desserts person, the vast majority of my pies are savoury. I’ve made it something of a custom, when I make a roast chicken, to make stock from the carcass the next day and use the meat coming off to the bone to make stew, which then goes to making chicken pot pie. I have also done the same with leftover roast beef.

I recently decided I wanted to learn to make traditional British pork pies—specifically, the classic Melton Mowbray pie, which is basically just a whole lot of finely (or coarsely) chopped cuts of pork, cooked in a narrow but tall pie crust. I ordered a dedicated pie tin online, along with a book of savoury pie recipes. My first attempt was tasty, but I did not make it with the traditional aspic that is part of the recipe—a glaring omission, as a handful of people on Facebook observed. To be fair, I’d looked at a bunch of recipes, some of which called for the use of powdered gelatin, while the more involved recipes would have had me boiling pork bones. Given that my access to pork bones in St. John’s is limited, I’d bought the gelatin … and then decided to do a trial run without, just to see about getting the taste right.

I want to try again and do it properly—there’s a small butcher shop just around the corner, and I was planning on popping in there to ask about the whole pork bones thing. But then we had a outbreak of new COVID cases in Newfoundland that put us back into level five lockdown … so there’s no popping into the local butcher’s for a while, anyway.

Meanwhile, I ordered more pie tins—4” across like the original one, but half the height. Which makes for an ideal single-serving pie. Last night I made prime rib for dinner. As I write, four beef and mushroom pies are in the oven. When the lockdown lifts, I’ll return to my project of perfecting the Melton Mowbray pie; until then, I’ll work with the classics.

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The Reality of QAnon

I was reading an article about QAnon in Politico yesterday. This, as anyone who has read this blog over the past few months knows, is hardly unusual for me. What struck me about this article, however—“When QAnon Invades American Homes” by Anastasiia Carrier, which is all about people who have lost family members to the Q-cult—was a more profound sense of how this patently absurd conspiracy theory is genuinely infectious, indoctrinating people to the point where their closest loved ones have to decide whether to abandon them. The article tells the story of Emily and her husband Peter (not their real names); forced by the pandemic to work from home, Peter started going down the rabbit hole of QAnon message boards and YouTube videos. Emily was vaguely aware of QAnon, but it was only this past October that, slowly realizing the hold it had on her husband’s imagination, she sat down and watched a handful of videos he’d been talking about: “That was when she learned that her husband had been consumed by a complex and false conspiracy theory that accuses ‘deep state elites’ of running a secret pedophile ring. By then, it was too late to pull him out.”

Emily’s husband, whom she loved dearly and who she described as having previously been a compassionate and attentive man, had become a stranger to her, treating her with anger and disdain—sometimes in front of their children—when she pushed back on his newfound bigotry and the assertion that such people as Tom Hanks were pedophiles. “I was told that I buried my head in the sand and couldn’t see the ‘real’ problems,” she says.

Eventually, Emily found her way to a Redditt forum called “QAnonCasualties,” in which people like her who have had loved ones become obsessed with the absurd conspiracy theory share their experiences and console one another. Her relief at finding a space to share her grief was mitigated by just how many others like her there were:

Emily is just one of thousands who have found their way to r/QAnonCasualties. Started in 2019 by a Reddit user whose mother was a part of the “Qult,” the subreddit has ballooned in popularity over the past year,growing from less than a thousand followers in February 2020 to more than 133,000 in February 2021. The group’s followers more than doubled in the weeks following the Capitol riot alone. And as QAnon continues to spread—about 30 percent of Republicans have favorable views about the conspiracy theory, according to a January poll by YouGov—so does the forum’s reach.

Such numbers are shocking, not least because the basic elements of the QAnon conspiracy are so objectively absurd. It is, indeed, all too easy to dismiss QAnon: while it has become increasingly baroque in all its moving parts, its most basic premise is that Donald Trump has been working surreptitiously to foil a monstrous cabal that includes the Deep State, prominent Democrats (especially the Obamas and the Clintons) and the Hollywood elite, all of whom are accused of being pedophiles who sex-traffic children and drink their blood for the purpose of prolonging their lives. Some day soon (March is now the new forecast, apparently, after many disappointments) Trump will emerge to declare martial law and bring such malefactors as Hillary Clinton and Tom Hanks to justice. This much-anticipated event is referred to as “The Storm.”

Conspiracy theory and conspiracism is nothing new, especially not in American culture, a point made quite thoroughly in Richard Hofstadter’s landmark 1965 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Like so much else in the age of social media, QAnon is not different in kind but in degree—it is a massive amplification of tendencies that have been around for centuries. That amplification is not merely one of size and scope, but also of its adherents’ devotion. As detailed in the Politico article, QAnon is very much a cult, and like most cults it features a leader in whom the cultists invest all of their hopes and adoration—Donald Trump. Indeed, if there is one aspect in which QAnon differs from most conspiracy theories, it is in its figuration of a saviour figure leading the fight against the malevolent conspirators.

What is also remarkable about QAnon is how it functions as an all-encompassing sort of “key to all mythologies” for the conspiracism-inclined, welcoming any and all other extant conspiracies: 9/11 trutherism, anti-vax rhetoric, the old chestnut about lizard people, anti-Semitic and white supremacist fantasies about malevolent globalists, paranoia about world government, “the Great Replacement,” and of course the more recent assertion that Biden’s election was the result of election fraud on a massive scale. The alacrity with which QAnon incorporates such disparate threads keeps me coming back around to Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which now comes to seem prophetic—not least because, like all good prophecies, it deals entirely with things that have already happened.

The novel is about a trio of young, overeducated and underemployed graduate students, who find themselves working at a scam publishing house. The publisher’s business model is to lavish praise on submitted manuscripts—which find their way there because they’ve been rejected by all respectable publishers for being ludicrous, awful, or clinically insane—and then charge the starry-eyed authors an exorbitant sum to publish their books (with the assurance that their inevitable massive success will soon earn their investment back). They then only print a fraction of the run promised while pocketing the extra cash.

As you might imagine, the manuscript submissions they receive are largely the work of execrable novelists and crackpots—many of whom in the latter category are conspiracy theorists determined to share with the public their earth-shattering exposés of the Templars, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Elders of Zion, or a host of other shadowy cabals responsible for anything and everything that happens in the world. Our trio of disaffected intellectuals—Belbo, Casaubon, and Diotallevi—are predictably disdainful of these authors, referring to them as the “Diabolicals.” For their own entertainment, they create a narrative-building computer program into which they input the plots outlined in these manuscripts, building them into a massive, overarching conspiracy theory they simply call The Plan.

TL;DR: the Diabolicals catch wind of The Plan, and conclude that these too-clever-by-half smartarses actually hold the key to the secrets they’ve been seeking all this time. Determined to know the “truth” of The Plan, they pursue our heroes, whose lives are now in danger.

Or to put it another way: our heroes create a conspiracy theory so compelling that all those who “want to believe” essentially give it substance through their belief.

In this respect, Foucault’s Pendulum tells a story in six hundred pages that Jorge Luis Borges told in less than fifteen. In Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, the narrator stumbles across a secret project begun by an eccentric American millionaire to exhaustively imagine a planet—“Tlön”—over forty volumes of an encyclopedia, because “he wanted to demonstrate to this nonexistent God that mortal man was capable of conceiving a world.” When the encyclopedia makes it out into the world, people are so captivated by the planet of Tlön that they allow it to infect their minds and displace reality:

Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a semblance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly planet?

Borges’ allegory is not less troubling for being heavy-handed; neither is Eco’s (whose debt to Borges is writ large in all his fiction). QAnon might be a cult, but it is a cult that needs no suave and persuasive recruiters who target vulnerable new acolytes—that work is done by the algorithms of social media, and the ease with which reality yields in our current cultural and political environment. In Foucault’s Pendulum, the character of Casaubon outlines the basic rules for constructing a conspiracy theory:

Rule One: Concepts are connected by analogy. There is no way to decide at once whether an analogy is good or bad, because to some degree everything is connected to something else. For example, potato crosses with apple, because both are vegetable and round in shape …
Rule Two says that if tout se tient in the end, then the connecting works … So it’s right.
Rule Three: the connections must not be original. They must have been made before, and the more often the better, by others. Only then do the crossings seem true, because they are Obvious.

Tout se tient—“everything fits.” Or, as Thomas Pynchon phrased it in Gravity’s Rainbow (aka the Ulysses of conspiracy novels), “paranoia … is the leading edge of the awareness that everything is connected.” Paranoia lends itself, ironically, to inclusivity; almost anything can function as evidence for the truth of one’s paranoid projections. One of the most striking examples of this was detailed by Michael Kelly in a New Yorker article from 1995, titled “The Road to Paranoia,” in which he profiled the Militia of Montana (MOM), one of the many anti-government paramilitary groups that proliferated in the 1990s. The militia’s bible was what they called “the Blue Book,” which purported to contain the proof of the U.S. government’s ultimate plot to disenfranchise American citizens, take their guns, and accede to world government under the U.N. As Kelly observed, however, the Blue Book was in fact

an ordinary three-ring binder to which [MOM] is always busily adding what [they] regard as further evidence of conspiracy, so that it bulges like an eccentric lawyer’s briefcase with scraps of this and that, from here and there, which purport to show that the globalists’ scheme to subvert American sovereignty and American citizens to vassalage is in its final hours.

Exhibits in “The Blue Book” ranged from newspaper clippings to UN development reports (in which the conspirators openly discuss world government), photographs of the notorious black helicopters, and an illustrated map of the US taken from the back of a 1993 Kix cereal box. MOM’s leaders declared that the division of the states shown in this last item—eleven regions, such as the mountain region, the coasts, the Heartland, etc.—was “a representation of the New World Order plan for dividing the United States into regional departments after the invaders emerge to take over the country.”

The Militia of Montana’s Blue Book is as apt a metaphor for QAnon’s all-encompassing umbrella of conspiracism as any, though it’s probably safe to say that the sheer volume of connections it makes probably wouldn’t fit in a single binder—as some industrious chart-makers have shown us.

 The most troubling aspect of the Borges/Eco allegory is the prospect of how easy it would be for QAnon to become reality. I don’t mean that somehow the power of its adherents’ belief could literally transform the Obamas and Clintons into pedophiles—hopefully that’s obvious—but how it could become the accepted reality under certain circumstances. The ubiquity of QAnon followers taking part in the Capitol assault should give us pause, almost as much as the assault itself should. The numbers cited in the Politico article most likely reflect a spectrum ranging from passionate believers to people who don’t necessarily buy into the Q myth, but who wouldn’t be surprised to find out it is true; one doesn’t have to imagine a violent coup to overthrow the Biden Administration, but a 2024 election in which Trump cruises back to power with a supine Justice Department infested with Q-cultists, who begin legal proceedings against all of Q’s villains. The unrest that would greet such a scenario would be met by armed Trumpists who spent the previous four years nursing their sense of grievance and hatreds, and martial law could be invoked … at which point the show trials of the Deep Staters, the pedophile Democrats, and Hollywood elite could proceed. Reality would yield.

I want to be clear that I don’t think this is a likely scenario. It is, indeed, a highly unlikely scenario. But in a nation where thirty percent of Republicans find amenable the idea that Hillary Clinton drinks the blood of children, it is not unimaginable.

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R.I.P. (Rot In Perdition)

Rush Limbaugh has died at the age of 70. And as far as I’m concerned, the custom of not speaking ill of the dead is rendered moot when the dead person in question spent the better part of his adult life speaking ill of the living. To repurpose Christopher Hitchens’ words on the occasion of Jerry Falwell’s death: if you’d given Rush Limbaugh a moral enema, he could have been buried in a matchbox.

I am not sad he is gone. I am sad that his legacy flourishes.

A year ago, when Donald Trump broke with tradition to award Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the State of the Union Address, I thought to myself “That would be like Obama giving that honour to …” And I realized I could not finish the sentence because I could not think of a prominent liberal or progressive person who would fit the analogy. Oh, I quite quickly had a huge laundry-list of examples of people who would be sure to infuriate Republicans and send Sean Hannity et al in paroxysms of bile-flavoured spittle, but nobody who quite played a comparable role on the left to Limbaugh.

The first name that leapt to mind is Michael Moore, and that might be about as close as we come: Moore is, after all, a left-wing provocateur who doesn’t mind erring on the side of embellishment and untruth in the name of stirring an uncritical and emotional response. But even then, when Michael Moore dies, he will do so having built more than he tore down—indeed, his legacy will be having been a tireless advocate for the less privileged. At his best, he spoke on behalf of the voiceless, whether they were out-of-work auto workers in Roger & Me or people bereaved or literally wounded by gun violence in Bowling for Columbine. At his worst, he took cheap shots; at his best, he made powerful arguments for positive social and political change.

I cycled through the list in my head. Bill Ayers? Angela Davis? Noam Chomsky? Tom Morello? The problem was, the more radical the choice, the less likely they were to (a) accept the award, and (b) be chosen in the first place. Most of the time, honorees are relatively uncontroversial figures, and largely non-partisan. Trump’s decision to award Limbaugh was at once typical of his compulsive determination to reward people who lavish praise on him, but also a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that the semantic equivalent of bile is now the standard form of discourse on the Right.

And in no case would any of the names in my head function as a proper analogy to Limbaugh: we can argue over whether the criminal actions of Angela Davis or Bill Ayers were justified or not, or whether the good work they’ve done later in life obviates it, but they’re people who have exhibited passion for their causes born of love for the people they represent. Since he first went on air shortly after Reagan revoked the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, Rush Limbaugh’s entire schtick has been incessant attack—attacking liberals, feminists, people of colour, LGBTQ people, Democrats, insufficiently conservative Republicans, the disabled—the list goes on—largely in the name of inciting rage and fear among his almost exclusively white audience, and dehumanizing those he targets.

If Limbaugh, even with his enormous audience, had proved to be an outlier, it wouldn’t be worth noting his passing. But of course he wasn’t an outlier, or at least not for long: he tapped into a seemingly bottomless well of resentment and created a template for a model of rage-based conservatism that Roger Ailes would soon employ when he launched Fox News in 1996. It’s entirely likely that Newt Gingrich would have led his 1994 insurgency to a successful conclusion without Limbaugh on the airwaves, but it would be disingenuous to suggest Limbaugh had no influence.

So I guess in a perverse sense, he has built something: he built the foundation on which American conservatism went from the self-described ideology of ideas to the ideology of owning the libs. I have to assume that when he received his surprise Presidential Medal of Freedom, he was suffused with pride at being granted an honour from a president who probably would not be president without Limbaugh’s media business model having become the default setting for the Right.

At least he lived long enough to see Trump voted out of office and impeached for a second time.

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The Sound of Mitch’s Hypocrisy

It has now long seemed that the idea of hypocrisy as something for which politicians should feel shame is a quaint and charming a relic of an imagined past. Certainly, the crass and vulgar mendacity of Trump and Trumpism has been a wall of overwhelming sound, drowning out hypocrisy’s reedy voice. It has been an environment in which Mitch McConnell has thrived—having perfected the art of po-faced hypocrisy in the Obama years, he has matched the amplifications of the Trump presidency with ever-more overt displays with seeming impunity.

And yet, he might have finally crossed a bridge too far with his handling of the Senate impeachment trial. It’s been as interesting as it has been infuriating to watch McConnell try to navigate the post-election waters, especially after January 6th. As has frequently been said of him, Mitch McConnell’s only ideological allegiance is to himself, his own power, and maintaining Republican control of the Senate. With this last element gone with the election of Raphael Warnock and David Ossoff in Georgia—largely because of Trump’s compulsive self-dealing—and with donors fleeing the G.O.P. after the Capitol assault, Mitch’s political calculus became more delicate. How to woo back the big money without infuriating Trump’s voters? How to placate the MAGA base without seeming to endorse the insurrection? He’s done so by being as cagey as possible—letting his aides leak to the press that he was open to the idea of impeaching Trump; harrumphing very occasionally about the unseemliness of the Capitol violence; then, after the House’s impeachment vote, refusing to start the Senate’s trial until after Biden’s inauguration; letting it be known he was encouraging his caucus to vote their conscience; then voting against the constitutionality of the trial (twice); and finally, voting to exonerate Trump on the tenuous excuse that you can’t impeach an ex-president, even though it was specifically his actions that did not allow for the trial while Trump was still in office.

But what might make things more difficult for Mitch going forward is that, after voting not guilty, he then denounced Trump in no uncertain terms, calling the former president’s actions a “disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty” and further that Trump was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.” The attack on the Capitol “was a foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories, and reckless hyperbole which the defeated president kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth.” There’s no equivocation here: Mitch denounced the President’s actions, and then his inaction on the day, as criminal and criminally negligent … after voting against conviction, because ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ constitution, whaddaya gonna do?

Perhaps Mitch has just gotten too inured to his own habitual hypocrisy that he did not account for the relative silence of Donald Trump since his Twitter ban. We’ve spent five years being deafened by Trump’s bellows; Mitch’s latest, monumental hypocrisy was like someone carrying on speaking at the top of their voice when the room suddenly falls silent. Perhaps he’s counting on Americans’ short memories, but if the Democrats don’t hang this around his neck and the necks of the Republican Party from now until November 2022, they’re feckless idiots (sadly, never discount the Democrats’ capacity for fecklessness). Midterm elections traditionally go badly for the party in power, but the 2022 Senate map isn’t a good one for the G.O.P. If a handful of senators lose primaries to MAGA extremists, and if Joe Biden is successful in containing the virus and jump-starting the economy, the usual electoral math might not matter so much.

I have to imagine that Mitch has seen himself between a rock and a hard place these past few weeks: acquit Trump on a party-line vote and suffer at the polls in 2022; let more senators vote to convict, and suffer primary challenges. But those were not his only options. What if he had actively lobbied behind the scenes to convict Trump? What if he had brought in enough of his people to make the conviction not just a 2/3 vote, but overwhelming? Yes, that would have incited Trump’s ire and led to a lot of primary challenges, but at the same time there’s safety in numbers. A large-scale rebuke to Trump would have sucked up a lot of his oxygen, and it would have had the effect of isolating the Trumpiest of the Senate: Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Rand Paul, Ron Johnson, Lindsey Graham, all of whose political capital becomes tenuous in the absence of a Republican Party that continues to be supine to Trump. And the threat of primary losses diminishes along with Trump’s own status.

What’s more, such a bold shift would almost certainly have brought the Senate back to the Republicans in 2022. While I don’t be any means discount a resurgence in Trumpism in the near and medium-term future, we are at present seeing a slow but steady erosion of his support … a general disenchantment as Americans re-acclimate to boring but competent governance, while the impeachment managers laid out in damning and irrefutable terms Trump’s incitement to violence and subsequent dereliction of duty. Trump’s aides have suggested that he has been lying low during the impeachment trial and will start barnstorming the country any day now, seeking revenge on republican disloyalty. But so too have all the ongoing and potential lawsuits and indictments  been in a holding pattern, in some cases waiting to gauge political fallout. Not only do Mitch McConnell’s own damning words give the green light for many such cases, but he has also probably encouraged those who suffered injury or lost loved ones on January 6th to launch their own lawsuits against the ex-president.

One can only imagine what that possible feeding frenzy would look like if he had been convicted.

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Fascism By Any Other Name

A good friend of mine is fond of saying that Nazis make the best villains. Why? Because you don’t need to expend any exposition on why they are villainous. (This is, he continues, a lesson Stephen Spielberg learned early in his career).

I have had many occasions in the past few years to reflect that we have been ill-served by American popular culture on this front. The post-WWII figuration of Hitler and the Nazis as Absolute Evil across all media was of course understandable, but it has served to drain all nuance from the historical record—not the least of which was the fact that a not-insignificant portion of the American populace in the 1930s thought fascism an entirely reasonable system of governance, and many were actively supportive of Hitler’s regime.

But America’s entry into the war served to suppress such sentiments, and the images that emerged from the Nazi death camps effectively silenced them (it is telling that, even today, actual neo-Nazis dance a bizarre two-step in which they feel obliged to deny that the Holocaust actually happened, while hinting that it would have been a good idea).

Half a century’s worth of movies, television, media, and politics, have unfortunately denatured and decontextualized fascism. It’s an insult that has become too cheaply used, so much so that when Donald Trump’s candidacy and then presidency exhibited fascistic rhetoric and then policies, it was easy for naysayers to scoff—to invoke Godwin’s Law, or otherwise accuse those crying fascism of histrionics.

But in the aftermath of the January 6th assault on the Capitol, and the revelations that have emerged since, the label becomes more and more apposite. And the current schism in the G.O.P. that has Liz Cheney and Marjorie Taylor Greene as its points of inflection is instructive in this respect when you consider the nature of their respective offenses.

On one hand, you have Greene: a QAnon-subscribing conspiracist who has said such mass shootings as Sandy Hook and Parkland were staged; to that end, has harassed—on camera—Parkland survivor David Hogg; tacitly endorsed the execution of Nancy Pelosi; has claimed that no airplane struck the Pentagon on 9/11; has made numerous anti-Semitic comments, not least among them is the now-notorious claim that California wildfires were started by a space laser controlled by the Rothschilds. You’d think that when we arrive at the Jewish space laser stage of delusion, there might be more consensus among her peers that she is categorically unfit for office—or at the very least, unfit to sit on committees and draft legislation. I suppose there’s an argument to be made that if people are going to vote for her, there’s little to be done about that; but does anyone want someone who denies school shootings sitting on the House education committee?

On the other hand, there is Liz Cheney, daughter of Dick Cheney, and very much cut from her father’s ideological cloth. And while someone like myself might find everything about her politics reprehensible, it cannot be denied that she is at least tethered enough to reality to have seen the January 6th assault on the Capitol for what it was: a violent uprising against a free and fair election incited by the sitting president. She and nine of her peers in the Republican House Caucus had courage enough of their convictions to vote to impeach Donald Trump.

Both Greene and Cheney faced sanction and censure this week. The pressure to punish Greene came largely from outside the G.O.P. as Democrats railed against her lunacy, at once genuinely outraged, but also astute enough to see that tarring the Republicans with the QAnon brush would be politically advantageous. A number of Republicans also made that calculation, and denounced Greene’s public comments as “loony” and unacceptable. But when the House Republican Caucus had their first meeting this week, about half of them gave her a standing ovation when she stood to speak.

The movement to discipline Cheney, by contrast, emerged from within her own party, in retaliation for her impeachment vote. She isn’t the only one: other Republicans in and out of office have received backlash for not supporting Trump, often from Republican state parties. Former Arizona senator Jeff Flake, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, and Cindy McCain were all censured by the Arizona G.O.P. Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger, who also voted to impeach Trump, was similarly censured by Republican officials in his district. Ditto South Carolina Representative Tom Rice.

Neither Greene nor Cheney, conversely, ended up being punished by their own party (Greene was stripped of her committee assignments by the Democratic majority). House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy ultimately decided not to censure Greene, even as he condemned her words. And a secret ballot passed comfortably in Cheney’s favour (145-61-1).

That Cheney’s position as the #3 House Republican was saved by a secret ballot speaks volumes, as it confirms a general, if empirically unconfirmed, wisdom—that a critical mass of Republicans want to be rid of Trump and Trumpism, but are mostly afraid of saying so out loud. One wonders what the vote on Cheney would have looked like if it hadn’t been secret; how many of those who voted to keep her in her position would have balked in fear of retribution from the Trump base?

And herein lies the rub: those in opposition to Marjorie Taylor Greene are opposed to the idea that someone so divorced from reality should wield anything resembling political power. Those supporting Greene are of a piece with those attacking Liz Cheney et al—their larger preoccupation is their slavish devotion to Donald Trump. Greene’s adherence to QAnon is merely the most extreme manifestation of this devotion: putting aside the distractions of blood-quaffing Satanist Democrat and Hollywood pedophiles such as depicted in Q’s fevered imagination, the core of the QAnon belief system is the conviction that Donald Trump—the “god emperor,” as he’s characterized—is the saviour who will bring all of these truths to light and all of those malefactors to justice. Whether or not Greene’s tepid apologies for her Q-influenced words and behaviour were sincere, she continues to make her slavish devotion to Trump clear. Whether or not Greene’s fellow travelers who want to punish Cheney, Kinzinger, Rice, and the rest, buy into her delusions is immaterial—the point is that their devotion is not to the United States of America, but to Donald Trump.

And that is the difference: however much Liz Cheney might be a vehicle carrying forward her father’s pernicious politics, she has at least made it clear that her first loyalty is to her nation. As have all the others attacked by the MAGA mob. And if we’re going to seriously consider what fascism is, and what fascism means, this is the starting point: the conflation of nationalism not with nation, but with a strongman leader.

Let’s have a moment of review: what are the hallmarks of fascism? First and foremost is a nativist—and populist—ethno-nationalism. Second is a cult of personality attached to a strongman who doesn’t represent the idea of the nation so much as embody it—he becomes conflated with his followers’ national identity. Third is that it is invariably a “he,” because fascism is emphatically patriarchal and masculinist. Fourth is a necessary and pervasive mendacity, in which the lies of the leader supplant reality. In what is possibly the most-quoted passage of political philosophy over the past few years, Hannah Arendt writes in The Origins of Totalitarianism that “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie, the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie, the standards of thought) no longer exist,” and further that “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.” Let’s remember that it was on January 22, 2017—a mere two days into Donald Trump’s tenure—that Kellyanne Conway entered “alternative facts” into the Trumpist lexicon.

Part of the problem people have had with the “fascist” label these past four or five years is because of how we’ve represented it to ourselves, which is to say, it has become synonymous with the Third Reich (and to a lesser extent with Mussolini’s Italy)—that is, with an established dictatorship. The writers and thinkers who have most consistently labelled Trumpism as fascistic have been those who recognize that fascism is more a method and style than specific ideology—that it is in fact something of a moving target, and if we think of it in static terms, we’re certain to miss the warning signs. Several months before Trump’s election, Adam Gopnik wrote an article in the New Yorker that alarmed me at the time, and remains, for me, one of the most astute (and prescient) comments the propriety of applying the fascist label to Trump and Trumpism:

[T]o call [Trump] a fascist of some variety is simply to use a historical label that fits. The arguments about whether he meets every point in some static fascism matrix show a misunderstanding of what that ideology involves. It is the essence of fascism to have no single fixed form—an attenuated form of nationalism in its basic nature, it naturally takes on the colors and practices of each nation it infects. In Italy, it is bombastic and neoclassical in form; in Spain, Catholic and religious; in Germany, violent and romantic. It took forms still crazier and more feverishly sinister, if one can imagine, in Romania, whereas under Oswald Mosley, in England, its manner was predictably paternalistic and aristocratic. It is no surprise that the American face of fascism would take on the forms of celebrity television and the casino greeter’s come-on, since that is as much our symbolic scene as nostalgic re-creations of Roman splendors once were Italy’s.

As I’ve observed in a handful of previous posts, it is difficult to delineate precisely what Trump’s followers—whether the MAGA hordes or his acolytes in elected office—actually want, vis à vis policy, aside from immigration restrictions. They, like Trump, are defined less by their ideas than by their enemies. People at Trump rallies and at the Capitol assault, when asked, speak in angrily vague terms about freedom, and when pressed, express their conviction that somehow Biden et al will take their freedom away; but really, the gist of their actual goals seems basically to be “more Trump.” The mob attacking the Capitol sported many flags—a good number of American flags, some Confederate flags and others bearing white-supremacist symbols, but the greatest number were Trump flags of one form or another. Images such as the one below should be exhibit A at the impeachment trial.

Further, Trump’s devotees in Congress have signalled that their highest loyalty is to him. Marjorie Taylor Greene wore a mask with the words “Trump Won” on the floor of Congress, and said that whenever Trump reveals his “plan,” she’ll be on board. Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a frat paddle in human form (h/t to Crooked Media for that lovely description), recently said on Steve Bannon’s podcast,

I would leave my House seat, I would leave my home, I would do anything I had to do to ensure that the greatest president in my lifetime—one of the greatest presidents our country has ever had, maybe the greatest president our country has ever had—got a full-throated defense that wasn’t crouched down, that wasn’t in fear of losing some moderate Republican senator but that was worthy of the fight that he gave to the great people of this country for four years.

Gaetz, let us not forget, also travelled to Wyoming—in the winter, in case we question his fervor—to speak at a rally condemning Liz Cheney.

Such slavish devotion to a buffoon such as Trump is baffling, but authoritarians are clownish figures more often than not—and absurdity is invariably a component of fascist tendencies, not least because it requires belief in the outlandish. The idea of Jewish space lasers is risible, but then so too were the Nazis’ laundry-list of supposed Jewish offences. Taken out of context, the contradictory suggestion that international Jewry is responsible for both Communism and the predations of the big banks is similarly absurd; taken in context, it is sinister and pernicious.

About the best thing that can be said of the past five years is that they’ve been … educational. Comfortable myths and assumptions have been shattered, and we’ve been given a crash course in what is law and what is convention. Hopefully one of the most valuable lessons going forward will be a clearer and more nuanced understanding of fascism, and, more importantly, how it stalks the always-fungible borders of democracy, looking for weaknesses. This will be an important lesson to keep in mind when we remember that the Hitler’s Beer Hall Pustch of 1923 was a failed coup that was roundly mocked.

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A Few Things

The Phantasm of Bipartisanship     I really hope that, going forward, President Biden and the Democrats point out the fact that “unity” is not something to be solely accomplished in the well of Congress. I just finished reading Obama’s memoir, and the sections where he details his administration’s attempts to get Republicans—any Republicans—to sign onto any of his early pieces of legislation should be required reading for every congressional Democrat, everyone in Biden’s administration, and, most importantly, every single centrist pundit currently warning Biden not to abandon bipartisanship so soon into his tenure. Obama acknowledges in hindsight that he was naïve, not grasping the depths of bad faith of the Republicans and their willingness to let a nation suffer in the name of political expediency. I’m cautiously optimistic—and so far, my optimism looks like it might be borne out—that Biden will make good-faith gestures toward bipartisanship, but isn’t about to be played like he and his former boss were twelve years ago.

Every time the Republicans, and their media mouthpieces, wail that Biden’s rhetoric of unity was a lie, Democrats should point out that the majority of the nation is on board with the Biden platform—that a plurality of Republican voters want more stimulus rather than less, want larger checks and not smaller, want a bolder roll-out of vaccinations—which can only happen with a significant federal investment—and want a $15 minimum wage. Democrats should also point out that, while the might resort to budget reconciliation to pass the $1.9T bill to sidestep a filibuster, there’s nothing stopping a handful of Republican senators from voting for it. And they should also point to the fact that a significant number of Republican governors and mayors want the relief funds.

They should say: We’re being bipartisan. We’re doing what the country wants. The fact that you, Senate Republicans, don’t want it, is an issue you should perhaps take up with your constituents.

That Whole Gamestop Thing     Trump may be out of office, sulking at Mar-a-Lago while he plots to retain his grip on the Republican party, but we’ll be dealing with Trumpism and the aftershocks of his reign for a long time to come. And I’m not even talking about Marjorie Taylor Greene (though I would be surprised not to see a blog post dedicated to her in the future). No, I mean the tendency during the past four years to have certain things one might have considered law shown to be mere convention, or things we would have assumed to be illegal to be common practice.

I was as schadenfreudistically delighted as anyone to hear and read the laments of hedge fund billionaires about the army of Redditors hoisting their stock-shorting arses by their own petard. At first, the saga had the quality of a virtual storming of the Bastille: humble citizen traders, in numbers large enough to inflict damage, playing the tricks of the ancien regime against them. As Jon Stewart tweeted, “The Redditors aren’t cheating, they’re joining a party Wall Street insiders have been enjoying for years.”

But as Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic, “Waging war against Big Finance by becoming a day trader is like waging war against the casino industry by becoming a gambling addict.” Sure, there’s the chance you might win big betting on double zero at roulette, but you’re still playing by house rules—and the house always wins. Thompson adds, “trying to punish the rich by buying and selling stocks all day doesn’t make any sense. We’ve seen over and over and over that most day traders lose money; they routinely get smoked by bigger players.” Indeed, “while some Redditors made millions recently, the largest holders of GameStop stock, like the giant asset manager BlackRock, made billions.”

More to my point, Stephanie remarked a day after Gamestop became big news, “I’ve learned more about how the stock market works in the last twenty-four hours than in my entire life until now.” I concurred, and I added my incredulous observation that all of this—the shorting of stocks, the revolt of the Redditors—was perfectly legal. To again cite Obama’s memoir (which, not to belabour a point, is an excellent read), he commented on how much grief he and his justice department received in the aftermath of the financial meltdown when none of the major Wall Street players responsible for it were arrested and tried. Though it was a politically unpalatable answer, Obama dryly acknowledged, the sad fact of the matter is no one went to jail because none of what had caused the meltdown was technically illegal.

This is where I’m at with this whole Gamestop thing. While I’m happy to stick it to billionaires in the short term, the problem is the financial system itself writ large. The strategy of shorting stocks, as well as the dozens of other perfectly legal games traders play of which I am currently ignorant, is reflective of a morally bankrupt system. It makes me think of the moment towards the end of the film The Big Short—in which a handful of small players predict the 2008 collapse and make enormous amounts of money off it—when Brad Pitt’s character rebukes his fellows for being exultant. This is people’s lives, he remonstrates. Their homes. Their savings. Their retirements. You might be able to justify gaming a corrupt system, but corrupt systems impact real people.

The End of The Expanse     Well, not the end. Not yet—there will be one more season before it rides into the sunset, but today the final episode of season five airs. I haven’t yet watched it, as I’m saving it for this evening; but I look forward to it with the combination of anticipation and sadness that always accompanies the final instalment of something you’ve been enjoying.

The Expanse is a show that has gotten steadily better with each season—because with its growing viewership, it has garnered bigger effects budgets, because the writers have settled into a groove, and because the actors have made the characters come into their own.

I will likely have something more expansive to write about it (see what I did there?) at some point in the future—possibly when I have binge-watched the entire season over again—but for now I will be content to note that this season has been the best so far … a remarkable fact considering that the four core characters, the crew of the Rocinante, who have grown from a crew of mutually suspicious misfits into a genuine family, spent this season separated, each of their storylines having taken them on distant and perilous tracks. Some viewers voiced concern early in the season—how could The Expanse pack the emotional punch of previous seasons when Holden, Naomi, Amos, and Alex were scattered across the solar system?

I was not overly concerned (not least because I’ve read and enjoyed the novel Nemesis Games, on which this season was based), but still quite impressed at how well this cast, whose chemistry has been the basis of the show thus far, still shine in their separate (but linked) narratives.

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