Category Archives: history

On Gremlins

I’ve been thinking a lot about gremlins these past few days.

Bugs Bunny and friend in “Falling Hare” (1943)

I’m teaching a graduate seminar on weird fiction this summer (full title: “Weird Fiction: Lovecraft, Race, and the Queer Uncanny”), and the first assignment is a piece of creative non-fiction describing your most terrifying fictional experience; whether in a book, film, or episode of television, what scared you so badly that it stayed with you for weeks or years? I’ve done this kind of assignment before in upper-level classes, and it has always worked well—especially considering that I post everyone’s pieces in the online course shell so they can be read by the entire class. That always leads to a good and interesting class discussion.

In the interests of fairness and by way of example, I’m also writing one. Which is where the gremlins come in.

No, not the 1984 movie. I couldn’t watch it, given that by the time it was released I’d already been traumatized by “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” And no, not the original Twilight Zone episode from 1963. If I’d watched that episode—which featured pre-Star Trek William Shatner gnawing the furniture as a nervous flyer who sees a gremlin that looks like a man in a monkey suit on the wing of the plane—it’s possible gremlins wouldn’t have come to haunt my imagination the way they did. The original episode is creepy, to be certain, but not particularly scary; the gremlin is too fluffy and Shatner too Shatner to really evoke terror.

The gremlin that made me terrified to sleep at night for several months was the one in the “Nightmare” segment of the 1983 film The Twilight Zone: The Movie.

The premise is very simple, and most likely familiar even to those who haven’t seen it (not least because it was parodied in a Simpsons Halloween episode): a man who is a nervous flyer to start with is on a plane during a storm. Looking out the window, he sees … something. At first, he thinks his eyes are playing tricks, but then he sees it again. And then again, and each time it becomes clearer that there is a person-shaped thing out there on the wing. Panicked, he calls for a flight attendant, shouting “There’s a man on the wing of this plane!” This, of course, is impossible, and it is obvious that the fight staff and his fellow passengers think him hysterical (it doesn’t help his case that the segment begins with a flight attendant talking to him through the bathroom door as he’s inside having a panic attack). After talking himself down, realizing it would be impossible for a man to be on the wing at this speed and altitude, He accepts a valium from the senior flight attendant, closes the window shade, and attempts to sleep.

Of course, after a fitful attempt, he can’t help himself, and he opens the shade … and sees the thing, clearly demonic in appearance now, inches away from his face on the other side of the window.

Yup. This bastard.

This was the precise moment it broke my brain and gave me nightmares for months.

Anyway, TL;DR: either through turbulence or the creature’s sabotage, the plane lurches violently. The man grabs a gun from the sky marshal and shoots at the creature through the window. The cabin decompresses and he’s sucked out halfway. He shoots at the creature again, which wags a clawed finger at him, and flies off into the night. The plane lands and the man is taken off in a straitjacket; meanwhile, the mechanics examining the plane’s engine find it torn to shreds, the metal bent and ripped and covered in deep rents that look like claw marks.

I don’t remember any of the rest of the movie, which had three other segments based on old Twilight Zone episodes. I just remember watching “Nightmare,” being terrified, and my father telling me, in reply to my shocked question, that the creature was a gremlin and that they sabotage airplanes.

Really, it’s amazing I ever willingly went back on a plane.

I’ve been thinking about that and remembering a lot of details about the summer of 1984, which is when this all happened, and trying to work through precisely why it scared me so profoundly. I’ll post that essay here when it’s written; but in the meantime, I’ve been going down the rabbit hole on gremlins and their origins as an element of modern folklore.

***

There’s surprisingly little written about gremlins, which is possibly a function of the twinned facts that, on one hand, they’re basically a sub-species of a vast array of pixies, fairies, goblins, imps, and other mischievous fey creatures from folklore and legend; and on the other hand, they have a recent and fairly specific point of origin. Gremlins emerge alongside aviation (something The Twilight Zone hews to and the movie Gremlins ignores). More specifically, gremlins are creatures of the RAF, and start appearing as an explanation for random malfunctions sometime in the 1920s, becoming a staple of flyers’ mythos by the outbreak of WWII.

Gremlins, indeed, almost became the subject of a Disney film: author Roald Dahl, who would go on to write Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach among innumerable other beloved children’s books, was an RAF pilot. His first book was titled The Gremlins, about a British Hawker Hurricane pilot named Gus who is first tormented by gremlins, but ultimately befriends them and convinces them to use their technical savvy to help the British war effort. In 1942, Dahl was invalided out of active service and sent to Washington, D.C. as an RAF attaché. The Gremlins brought the RAF mythos of airborne imps to America, and was popular enough that Disney optioned it as an animated feature. Though Disney ultimately did not make the movie, Dahl convinced them to publish it with the animators’ illustrations in 1943. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly delighted in reading it to her grandchildren.

There was also a Loony Toons short in 1943 featuring Bugs Bunny being bedevilled by a gremlin on a U.S. airbase.

Though Dahl would later claim to have coined the word “gremlin,” that is demonstrably false, as the term was in use from the 1920s and was featured in Pauline Gower’s 1938 novel The ATA: Women With Wings. The word’s etymology is difficult to determine, with some suggesting it comes from the Old English word gremian, “to vex,” which is also possibly related to gremmies, British English slang for goblin or imp. Another theory holds that the word is a conflation of goblin and Fremlin, the latter being a popular brand of beer widely available on British airbases in the mid-century—one can imagine tales of mischievous airborne creatures characterized as goblins seen after too many Fremlins.

One of the more interesting aspects of the gremlins mythos is how many flyers seemed genuinely convinced of the creatures’ existence. So common were tales of malfunction attributed to gremlins that U.S. aircrews stationed in England picked up on the lore and many of them, like their British counterparts, swore up and down they’d actually seen the little bastards working their mischief. Indeed, one of the only academic pieces of writing I’ve been able to find on gremlins is not the work of a folklorist, but a sociologist: in a 1944 edition of The Journal of Educational Sociology, Charles Massinger writes gravely about the fact that “a phase of thinking that had become prevalent in the Royal Air Force”—which is to say, gremlins—“had subsequently infected the psychology of the American airmen in the present war.” Massinger’s article expresses concern that otherwise rational people, thoroughly trained in advanced aviation, who necessarily possess a “breadth of … scientific knowledge relative to cause and effect of stress on the fighting machine” would be so irrational as to actually believe in the existence of “fantastic imps.”

Massinger suggests that it is the stress of combat that gives rise to such fantasies, which is not an unreasonable hypothesis—war zones are notoriously given to all sorts of fabulation. But he says that it is the stress and fear in the moment, in which split-second decisions and reactions that don’t allow for measured and reasoned thought, that short-circuits the sense of reality: “If pilots had sufficient time to think rationally about machine deficiencies under actual flying conditions,” he says, “it is doubtful whether the pixy conception would have crept into their psychology.” Leaden prose aside, this argument strikes me as precisely wrong. The mythology surrounding gremlins may have had its start in panicked moments of crisis while aloft, but it developed and deepened in moments of leisure—airmen relaxing between missions in the officers’ club or mess, probably over numerous bottles of Fremlins. It is indeed with just such a scene that we first learn of gremlins in Dahl’s story.

I do however think Massinger’s instinct isn’t wrong here, i.e. the idea that airmen respond to the stresses of combat and the frustrations of frequent baffling breakdowns with fantasy rather than reason. What he’s missing is the way in which mess-hall fabulation humanizes the experience; the rationality of science and technology in such situations, I would hazard, is not a comfort, no matter how long the flyers have for reflection. The mechanical dimension of air combat is the alienating factor, especially at a point in time when flight was not just new but evolving by leaps and bounds. Roald Dahl’s experience in this respect is instructive: he started the war flying Gloster Gladiator biplanes, which were badly obsolete even when they were first introduced in 1934. By the time he was invalided, he had graduated to Hawker Hurricanes, which in the early days of the war were among the most advanced fighters. By the time he was in the U.S. and Eleanor Roosevelt was reading his first book to her grandchildren, the Allied bombing campaign had already lost more planes than flew in total during the First World War, with the new planes coming off assembly lines not just matching the losses but growing the massive air fleets.

Air travel has become so rote and banal today, and catastrophic airframe malfunctions so rare, that it is difficult to remember what must have been a vastly disorienting experience in WWII: ever-more sophisticated fighters and bombers that were nevertheless plagued by constant mechanical failures, machines of awesome destructive power that were also terribly vulnerable. Bomber crews suffered the highest rates of attrition in the war—about half of them were killed in action—while there was also the constant drumbeat of propaganda about the supposed indomitability of the Allied bombing wings.

When I teach my second-year course on American literature after 1945, I always start with the poetry of Randall Jarrell; specifically, we do a few of his war poems, as a means of emphasizing how the Second World War so profoundly transformed the world and the United States’ place in it, and the extent to which American popular culture became invested in mythologizing the war. Jarrell’s poetry is a disconcertingly ambivalent glimpse of the depersonalization and mechanization of the soldier by a war machine Hollywood has largely erased through such sentimental portrayals as The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan. “The Death of the Turret-Ball Gunner” is usually the first poem we do, and I can reliably spend an entire class on it despite its brevity. In its entirety:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

The final line is a gut-punch, but it’s the first two lines that establish one of Jarrell’s key themes with devastating economy. The speaker “falls” from the warmth and safety of the mother’s care, where he is loved as an individual, to the ownership of the State, where he is depersonalized and expendable—rendered inhuman even before the “black flak” (anti-aircraft fire) unincorporates his body. In the second line, the State is explicitly conflated with the weapon of war, the bomber, of which he has become a mechanism, and which functions as a monstrous womb: the parallel structure of the two lines aligns the “belly” of airplane with the “mother’s sleep.” The “wet fur,” freezing in the sub-zero temperatures of the high altitude, is literally the fur lining his bomber jacket, but also alludes to the lanugo, the coat of fur that fetuses develop and then shed while in the womb.

The bomber functions in Jarrell’s poetry as the exemplar of the Second World War’s inhuman scope and scale, built in vast numbers, visiting vast devastation on its targets—the last two of which were Hiroshima and Nagasaki—but which itself was terribly vulnerable and always in need of more bodies to fill out its crews. The machine itself was never scarce.

All of which might seem like a huge digression from a discussion of gremlins, but it’s really not: gremlins are identifiably kin to myth and folklore’s long history of mischievous “little people,” from pixies to the sidhe. That they emerge as a specific sub-species (sub-genre?) at the dawn of aviation—specifically, military aviation—is suggestive of a similar mythopoeic impulse when faced with the shock of the new. That some airmen become convinced of their existence as the war went on and the air war grew to unthinkable proportions is, I would suggest, pace Massinger, utterly unsurprising.

A Disneyfied gremlin.

SOURCES

Donald, Graeme. Sticklers, Sideburns, and Bikinis: The Military Origins of Everyday Words and Phrases. 2008.

Leach, Maria (ed). The Dictionary of Folklore. 1985.

Massinger, Charles. “The Gremlin Myth.” The Journal of Educational Sociology., Vol. 17 No. 6 (Feb. 1944). pp. 359-367.

Rose, Carol. Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia of the Little People. 1996.

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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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Fear Itself

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

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

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

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

And suffering? Well …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Isolated Thoughts: Donald Trump’s Inadvertent Juneteenth Truth

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

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

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

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

trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Revolutionary Thoughts

76 vs. 89

I had an odd thought yesterday morning, apropos of what I’m about to write about in this post, but I thought it was funny enough in the weird connection it makes to lead off with it.

The musicals Hamilton and Rent don’t have very much in common besides being huge Broadway hits and featuring generally attractive, youthful casts. But they do both focus on ensembles of people who fancy themselves revolutionaries: in the first case, the ardent young men who become the United States’ founding fathers; in the second, a ragtag group of bohemian would-be artists who rebel against the suffocating strictures of mainstream culture. The title song of Rent signals their first act of resistance upon receiving an eviction notice. The song agonizes over how they’re “gonna pay last year’s rent,” but by the end resolves:

When they act tough—you call their bluff
We’re not gonna pay
We’re not gonna pay
We’re not gonna pay
Last year’s rent
This year’s rent
Next year’s rent
Rent rent rent rent rent
We’re not gonna pay rent

Whenever I think of Rent or hear its music, it always puts me in mind of the late great David Rakoff’s eviscerating critique of the musical (which you can listen to here), in which he points out that none of the play’s would-be artists seem ever to want to do the work of being artists. But his key bone of contention is: “Well … why won’t you pay your rent?” At the very end of his essay, he recounts, of his agonistic 20s:

There were days when it hardly seemed worth it to live in a horrible part of town just so that I could go daily to a stupid, soul-crushing, low-paying job, especially since, as deeply as I yearned to be creative, for years and years I was too scared to even try. So I did nothing. But here’s something that I did do. I paid my fucking rent.

It occurs to me, perhaps uncharitably, that the Revolutionary War part of Hamilton is basically the founding fathers chanting “We’re not gonna pay rent!—albeit with better songs and a somewhat more nuanced rationale for why they’re not gonna pay rent than their bohemian counterparts.

***

I had this weird thought after reading a column by Bret Stephens, one of the New York Times representative conservatives, titled “Robespierre’s America.” Happily, the TL;DR is in the subtitle: “We need to reclaim the spirit of 1776, not the certitudes of 1789.”

If you’re at all familiar with Stephens’ columns, you probably know what’s coming: an invective against the woke sanctimony of the politically correct left, compared unfavourably with the reason and rationality of the Enlightenment principles on which the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were based. He enumerates a series of excesses—starting with his own victimization at the hands of a Twitter mob for calling Reza Aslan stupid—mostly recounted in the abstract, referring to professors afraid to offend students and publishers dropping books at the first whiff of controversy, comparing the ideological rigidity of the woke left to that of the Jacobins:

“Armed with the ‘truth,’ Jacobins could brand any individuals who dared to disagree with them traitors or fanatics,” historian Susan Dunn wrote of the French Revolution. “Any distinction between their own political adversaries and the people’s ‘enemies’ was obliterated.”

Leaving aside the egregious comparison of Twitter warriors with people who literally decapitated thousands, let’s address the implicit comparison Stephens makes between the American Revolution and the French—implicit, because he never explains what he means by the “spirit of 1776.” One assumes he’s citing the tacit understanding of America’s founding as rooted in and emerging from Enlightenment principles of reason, rationality, and spirited public debate—the very understanding, indeed, that made it possible for Lin-Manuel Miranda to write compelling rap battles about the creation of a national bank and the wisdom of carrying a national debt. Certainly, that’s the implied contrast with the ideological fanaticism of Robespierre and his murderous Jacobin thugs.

Normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t bother me overmuch—I find Bret Stephens’ columns annoying, but predictable and forgettable—but given that yesterday was the Fourth of July, I found myself in a headspace to think about 1776 and the American Revolution, so to me the most glaring aspect of “Robespierre’s America” is the way it so perfectly recapitulates—albeit implicitly—certain fallacies not just about the American Revolution, but revolutions generally.

I tend to be leery of revolutions, given that history teaches us that, the more extreme they are, the more they tend to turn into versions of their own worst selves. Hence, the French Revolution devolves into the Terror; the Russian Revolution turns into Stalinism. The fact that the American Revolution did not transform into something equally pernicious has been cited as evidence of American Exceptionalism, which is at least partially true; but I would argue that the principal reason the American Revolution had a relatively placid aftermath (yes, a lot of Loyalists were persecuted, often egregiously, but that hardly compares to 1790s Paris) is that nothing really changed. The radicalism of 1776 wasn’t that of material effect, but of promise—not what actually changed on the ground, but what could possibly change in the future.

For all intents and purposes, there were no upheavals in American life after the Declaration of Independence (well, aside from the war itself), by which I mean that the people in charge stayed in charge, and the power structures of the new United States were not appreciably different from the power structures of the Colonies. The King was not beheaded; the King was not even dethroned. George III basically had his status as absentee landlord revoked.

Hence my thought about Hamilton and Rent: the Boston Tea Party was basically a defiant gesture saying “We’re not gonna pay rent! Rent rent rent rent rent!”, as was the conflict that followed, and that defiant gesture is celebrated today as it was then. But after turfing the Brits, you bloody well better believe you’re paying your rent to the new owners.

By contrast, the French Revolution was about the radical overthrow of extant power, power so rooted in history, religion, and tradition that it went by the name of the ancien regime. And because of the weight of that history, it took decades to stabilize, something exacerbated by the fact that the rest of Europe was undergoing similar political upheavals. Is it any wonder that, mere years after guillotining the king, France had an Emperor?

(All of this is very broad strokes and probably has my historian friends pulling their hair out.)

As I said above, the true radicalism of 1776 wasn’t about the founding fathers’ present moment, but about the future—about what the principles of the Constitution and Bill of Rights could and can do when they become uncomfortably unavoidable. I’d argue that the true American Revolution—which is to say, the truly revolutionary moment in American history—wasn’t 1776 and the aftermath, but the Civil War. The confederates might have been the rebels, but Lincoln was the revolutionary, insofar as that the abolition of slavery overturned a foundational basis of American society. No such upending occurred in 1776, and the principle of revolutions turning into their worst selves has been painfully present in the U.S. since Andrew Johnson reversed all of the provisions made for newly freed slaves during Reconstruction, and white people in the South embarked on a sustained campaign of terror against them.

(To say nothing of everything that has happened since then, which I can’t do justice to here. If you haven’t already, read Ta-Nehisi Coates landmark essay “The Case for Reparations”).

Stephens’ opposition of “the spirit of 1776” to “the certitudes of 1789” completely glosses the material circumstances of both. The Revolutionary era of America comprises one of the most astounding argumentative ferments of history, with the debates over democracy, individual rights, proper governance, the best ways to defy and prevent tyranny, and myriad other considerations, taking place in taverns, drawing-rooms, the streets, and, most importantly, in print, with pamphlets and newspapers flying back and forth in paper fusillades. It was a period that evinced precisely the kind of civic engagement to which we should aspire, but always with one crucial caveat in mind: it was the provenance of what we today call privilege, and it has largely remained so ever since. The irony of Stephens’ longing for the “spirit of 1776” as inspired by having been savaged on Twitter, is that had the spirit of that era been as inclusive in practice as it was in principle, we might not be experiencing quite the same polarization today. Stephens’ Twitter Jacobins aren’t analogous to Robespierre, but to the citizens who stormed the Bastille: people finding a voice, voice which had previously been denied to them, through newly available means.

Speaking of revolutions that turn into their worst selves: the tech and digital revolution, specifically the rise of the internet, was heralded by many in the early-mid 1990s as a utopian shift in human connection and collective knowledge; quarter of a century later, we can see clearly how, even where some aspects of that dream have been realized, the benefits are ambivalent at best. But one key element of digital culture is that it has eroded the prominence of traditional gatekeepers of public discourse in print and visual media, allowing for a host of other platforms online or in social media. These platforms give voice to people who long went unheard, and it should not come as a huge shock that a lot of these voices are angry. It is difficult to try and make the case for “the spirit of 1776” to groups of people for whom, historically, that place within spirited public debate was never an option.

I have to believe, however, that that particular spirit isn’t dead, and if the Bret Stephens of the world would pay closer attention to the nuanced and thoughtful arguments unfolding both in “legacy” media and the new, insurgent spaces (and less attention to Twitter), they might be less convinced that there’s a tumbrel waiting for them. Of course, that’s likely a futile suggestion: more likely, it is precisely the growing presence of previously marginalized voices that threatens them and gives rise to the spectre of a guillotine with their name on it.

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