Haven’t done one of these in a while and was thinking I need to get back into the habit of posting shorter things on a more regular basis, just to keep the pump primed her for the handful of people who actually read my blog (you few, you happy few).
Each of the items I’m mentioning here is worthy of a longer, deeper dive, and indeed I jotted notes in my journal to that end. But discretion being the better part of something or other, I acknowledged to myself that were I to attempt three ambitious posts I would almost certainly end up writing none, and the other more ambitious posts I have in the hopper would also probably fall by the wayside. So without further ado …
My dissertation is now old enough to vote, but it’s not gonna ‘cause it’s all RIGGED, man! I suddenly realized that this past Saturday was the eighteenth anniversary of my doctoral dissertation defense. That day remains one of my fondest memories of which I have little memory—the three hours of the defense itself is muddled in my mind because of the intellectual exhaustion that sets in after a certain point, which was then almost certainly compounded by the drinking that ensued.1
It is however a serendipitous bit of timing. My dissertation was titled “The Conspiratorial Imagination,” and was a study of conspiracy theory and paranoia as expressions of American postmodernity. This week we get into my fourth-year seminar on 21st century apocalypticism in earnest, and we’re diving into the novel Fight Club, the cultural earthquakes caused by 9/11, and the conspiracism endemic to both.
This class is a new iteration on a graduate class I taught in winter 2021; that class began mere days after the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, a concurrence that seemed uncannily appropriate. In one of my more inspired off-the-cuff classroom riffs, I drew a line between Jacob Chansley—aka the QAnon Shaman, aka the most bonkers and thus most indelible image to emerge from a day replete with bonkers and indelible images—and the 1990s-era “crisis of masculinity.” This putative crisis inspired some men, influenced by Robert Bly’s book Iron John (1990), to go on men’s retreats into the woods where they donned loincloths, painted their faces, banged drums, and otherwise attempted to get in touch with some sort of elemental, primal, “authentic” manhood that had been erased by a combination of apathy, an excess of civilization, feminism, and a culture in general that repressed or denigrated “traditional” masculinity.
Then as now, the first novel we did was Fight Club—then it was fortuitous, now it is deliberate. As much as I dislike the novel, it’s a little too apt to my topic not to cover.
That class I titled “The Specter of Catastrophe,” which referred to the post-9/11 shift in disaster narratives from the spectacle of apocalyptic destruction (e.g. the alien ships blowing up New York and L.A. in Independence Day) to a specter haunting the devasted and/or depopulated landscapes of The Road or The Walking Dead. The current version of the course is mostly unchanged, but my focus has shifted slightly. It is now titled “Hopeful Nihilism,” which is partly an inversion of Lauren Berlant’s conception of “cruel optimism,” and a way of characterizing the burn-it-all-down ethos of Trumpism: the inchoate rage at a system perceived as broken coupled with the vague sense that its destruction will bring about better circumstances.2
I was at a loss for what image to use for a course poster until it occurred to me to run an image of the QAnon Shaman through the Obama “Hope and Change” poster filter:
It seems appropriate to lean into the conspiracy theory dimension of these topics, especially considering …
Trump unequivocally embraces QAnon. Yup. At a rally in Ohio last week for Hillbilly Elegy author, Republican senate candidate, and shameless political panderer J.D. Vance, Trump delivered a somewhat more scripted speech than is his usual wont while portentous music played underneath his words and a clot of rallygoers saluted him with a gesture that looked as though a bunch of people sieg heiling were also saying “Over there!” That is, a bunch of people raised their arms at an angle with their index fingers pointed, which is apparently a salute that has been adopted by QAnon enthusiasts. The single raised finger is a reference to the Q slogan “Where we go one, we go all” (itself adopted, weirdly, from White Squall, Ridley Scott’s most forgettable film). The music playing beneath Trump’s speech is also, apparently, music specific to the QAnon movement, titled “WWG1WGA,” an acronym for the above slogan.
Trump has been flirting with QAnon for at least as long as journalists have been asking him about it. As with most things that fall into Trump’s orbit, it’s difficult to know whether he actually knows much about it, or whether he just automatically gloms onto it because the adoration of deranged people is impossible for him to resist (the true Q believers refer to Trump as their “God Emperor,” and you can be 100% certain he loves that). But he’s been coy about it—or as coy as someone as unsubtle as Trump can be, anyway—teasing it with his showman’s instincts, but never explicitly going all in with it.
Until now, that is. On Truth Social, his MAGA Twitter knockoff, he retweeted—sorry, “re-truthed”—a post featuring a stern and heroic-looking image of him overlaid with the words “the storm is coming.” For those less familiar with QAnon parlance, the “storm” is key to their mythology—referring to the long-deferred comeuppance for the Deep State and liberal elites (who are all, let’s not forget, human-trafficking pedophile cannibals) in which Trump will reveal his master plan by arresting all the malefactors and re-assuming his rightful place as President of the United States.3
To be clear, Trump isn’t openly accusing Biden and Hillary Clinton of being sex-trafficking pedophiles (yet), but it is notable that he’s now gone as far as he has. He is not a subtle thinker, to put it mildly, but he has a very canny instinct for running a con: he knows how to string his marks along, whether they be MAGA enthusiasts, Republican pols desperate to tap into his base’s enthusiasm, or deranged conspiracists like the Q people (there’s a Venn diagram for you!). Much of that entails not giving more away than you have to, so it’s interesting that he seems to be leaning into it now.
Part of me finds this new development vaguely hopeful, even as it presages worse to come in terms of possible violence and mayhem. The true believers will almost certainly be roused to action of one sort or another, but this also makes it more difficult for his apologists to ignore his worse excesses. It may all indicate that Trump is losing relevance: out of office, off Twitter, ensconced in his Florida retirement home, and subject to ever-escalating investigations over which he has no control, and with ambitious rivals like Florida governor Ron DeSantis (who stars in the third section of this post) smelling weakness, this might be him trying to regain traction. But part of the problem with being outrageous is that you need ever-larger displays of outrageousness to keep the focus on you, especially when others have learned your lessons and deploy them more deftly. And that brings us to …
The politics of cruelty. Though Terry Pratchett’s voluminous Discworld series of over forty novels articulates a sophisticated moral philosophy, one of its principal axioms is a simple premise. Though it is present throughout the novels, it is articulated most specifically by the curmudgeonly witch Granny Weatherwax: evil, she says, comes from treating people—oneself included—like objects. When the earnest young missionary with whom she’s speaking4 protests that surely there are worse crimes than that, she agrees, but points out that most such crimes start with treating people as objects.
Every so often I circle back around to wanting to write an article on the consonance between Pratchett’s philosophy and American pragmatism as defined by thinkers like John Dewey, Judith Shklar, and Richard Rorty. Granny Weatherwax’s assertion is of a piece with Shklar and Rorty’s premise that liberal thought proceeds from the understanding that cruelty is the worst thing we do. This premise informs much of Pratchett’s fiction, so it is perhaps unsurprising that I have taken enormous comfort in rereading his work at the various nadirs of the past several years.
The most dispiriting episodes of what I assume we must needs call the Trump Era have all been those instances that have demonstrated the appetite for cruelty not as an occasional gambit or the collateral damage of a given policy shift, but as a new normal in which cruelty is business as usual. One of the most astute insights on this front was Adam Serwer’s Atlantic essay that observed the cruelty of Trumpism isn’t incidental: the cruelty is the point. This recent idiocy in which Ron DeSantis put asylum seekers fleeing Venezuela on a chartered flight to Martha’s Vineyard is just the most recent iteration of a political ethos more concerned with disruption and “owning the libs” than with any coherent ideological project. The whole exercise was an effort to expose the hypocrisy of affluent liberals, who were supposed to react with horror at having migrants suddenly in their midst. The people of the Vineyard did react with horror, but at DeSantis’ callous use of the refugees (who, as refugees, were in fact in the U.S. legally) as pawns in his political stunt. (The refugees were themselves welcomed and treated well, given food and shelter). Whatever one’s position on the current fraught state of immigration in the U.S., the basic, irreducible humanity of migrants—be they legal or illegal immigrants, refugees or asylum seekers—should always be the central factor in any consideration. Instead, we’re treated once again to the spectacle of a cruel man treating people as objects in the name of scoring points with a rump of the populace mobilized by Trump’s performative cruelty, all in the hope that he might one day take Trump’s place as their venerated leader. All of which tells us that the Trump Era is far from over.
1. There was, conveniently, a departmental function that afternoon at the Grad Club, a meet & greet for new graduate students, current ones, and faculty. One of the few vivid memories I have of that day is the newest hire—a young Shakespearean I had become good friends with—come scurrying over with a pen to edit my nametag, putting “Dr.” in front of my name.
2. I proposed an article on this subject for The Conversation apropos of the first anniversary of January 6th. It was published, but the editorial process was laborious and I was profoundly unsatisfied with the finished product … but still, might be worth a read.
3. Depending on who you talk to, the malefactors will either be subjected to humiliating show trials and imprisoned or summarily executed. Like all mythologies, there are variant versions, many of which have been necessitated by the fact that “the storm” has now been promised for six or seven years and has yet to occur.
4. The novel in which this exchange occurs is Carpe Jugulum (1998), the twenty-third Discworld novel; and the missionary in question is named Mightily Oats—which is the short version of his full name, “The Quite Reverend Mightily-Praiseworthy-Are-Ye-Who-Exalteth-Om Oats.” There’s a book to be written just about Sir Terry’s character names.
I’m thinking of writing a one-act play á là Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape that would feature progressive billionaire George Soros alone on stage in a small pool of light with only a stool and an iPhone for company. The play would mostly be him scrolling and muttering to himself in increasingly unhinged non-sequiturs, the gist of which we eventually glean is his existential angst at being the only progressive billionaire, which means he thus must shoulder all of the instinctive hatred for billionaires directed at him from right-wing media and politicians. “Mercer, Murdoch, Musk,” he mutters in what becomes a refrain, “Koch. Bezos. They share. They share. (he scrolls for a long moment, then looks out at the darkness in the direction of the audience) Soros. Alone.”
The play ends midway through the pandemic. Soros grows more and more excited as he reads conspiracy theorists’ attacks on Bill Gates accusing him of putting mind-control chips in the covid vaccine. Soros looks up from his phone with a look of fragile hope on his face as he whispers, “Is thereanother?”
All of which is by way of saying that I’m endlessly fascinated by the way in which George Soros has become the singular bogeyman of the alt-right and Steve Bannon’s cohort, of QAnon conspiracy theorists, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, current darling of the Tucker Carlson wing of the GOP (lots of overlaps in that Venn diagram, to be sure). When it comes to the question of billionaires, I’m generally in agreement Elizabeth Warren: that is, the existence of billionaires qua billionaires isn’t a problem; a proliferation of multi-billionaires existing concurrently with systemic poverty and hunger, widespread lack of access to health care, and the ongoing climate crisis is a moral obscenity. And while apologists might point to the Gates Foundation’s work to address some of these problems or the fact that Elon Musk has done more to move us toward electric vehicles than any group of people, well, kudos to them … but they remain a vanishingly small minority of the class.
More common is the Atlas Shrugged brand of libertarianism embraced by the likes of Charles Koch and his late brother David, which frames the making of obscene amounts of money as a form of virtue—and which tirelessly spends a huge amount of that money to ensure that it stays with the ultra-rich and furthers their ability to accumulate even more wealth. New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer wrote an excellent, exhaustive book titled Dark Money in 2017, which did a deep and detailed dive into the vast sums spent by right-wing billionaires in shoring up conservative politicians at all levels of government—from local school boards to congress and the White House—as well as funding climate disinformation campaigns, conservative think tanks like the Claremont Institute and anti-tax organizations like American for Prosperity, as well as a huge constellation of other right-wing causes.
If there was something even approaching numerical parity between progressive and conservative billionaires, each advancing their political interests like Olympian gods choosing sides in the Trojan War, that would be one thing (it wouldn’t resolve or really even ameliorate the structural problems of billionaires in an inequitable society, but it would definitely be a thing). But the fact of the matter is that the conservative vilification of Soros’ progressive agenda is profoundly disingenuous, for the simple reason that he’s all they’ve got to attack, while on their side they’ve got Rupert Murdoch, Peter Thiel, Charles Koch, Robert and Rebekah Mercer—who are collectively worth over $100B compared to Soros’ $8.6B—as well as a legionofothers who actively spend their money on conservative political causes.
Of course, there’s also Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest men who tends to voice liberal political opinions and is nominally in favour of higher taxes for the rich, but he’s largely left alone—for reasons I won’t speculate on for at least a few paragraphs—by the right-wing mediasphere.
There’s also the fact that, for all his mouthing of liberal platitudes, Buffett doesn’t do much to put his money where his mouth is, and has frequently been accused of hypocrisy by right and left alike. Indeed, even the most “liberal” of billionaires tend more to gesture at social progressivism while accumulating wealth through the most ruthless means available, espousing a libertarianism that puts free speech and legal weed in the same philosophical framework as industry deregulation and low taxes for the über-rich. Even Bill Gates, arguably the most socially conscious of the billionaire class, dismisses the policies of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders out of hand on the principle that individuals are better judges of how to spend their money than the government.
And if all billionaires—or really, just some of them—established their own versions of the Gates Foundation, he might have something approaching a point. But of course he and George Soros are the outliers, with most billionaires who engage in politics doing so with an eye to entrenching their wealth and facilitating the means to make more.
(If I’m being conspicuous in not mentioning Elon Musk, it’s because Musk is pretty much sui generis, falling into a category of his own devising that is somewhere between chaos muppet and Bond villain. If it weren’t for the fact that the man can tank the stock market with a tweet, it would be amusing to watch his new alt-right fanboys reconcile their love of Musk’s shitposting with the fact that he’s the godfather of the EV revolution).
So pity poor George Soros, the loneliest billionaire. As the sole progressive plutocrat who actually funds progressive causes, he gets the brunt of the paranoid right’s vitriol. Though if you find it puzzling as to the frequency and intensity of the attacks on a man with one sixteenth of Jeff Bezos’ wealth—which is still more money than any one person should be able to possess—you might want to take note of how often the name “Soros” is spoken in the same breath as “globalist.” Or to put it more plainly: it’s the anti-Semitism, stupid.
It occurs to me that the current state of the U.S. Supreme Court is like climate change … which is to say, it has been ongoing for several decades and visible to anyone willing to see it developing, but it has not prompted anything but the most tepid of responses. And now that we’re experiencing the judicial equivalent of massive flooding, it’s already too late.
(I can’t decide whether this analogy is ironic or appropriate, considering this court is likely to do everything in its power to curtail efforts to reverse climate change).
I remember reading Angels in America for the first time over twenty-five years ago, and coming on the scene in which the notorious lawyer and fixer Roy Cohn—now most famous for having been Donald Trump’s mentor in the 1970s—takes the closeted law clerk Joe Pitt out to dinner and introduces him to a Reagan Justice Department apparatchik who waxes poetic about how they’re seeding the federal bench with conservatives judges. “The Supreme Court will be block-solid Republican appointees,” he enthuses, “and the federal bench—Republican judges like land mines, everywhere, everywhere they turn … We’ll get our way on just about everything: abortion, defense, Central America, family values.”
I remember reading that and thinking, wow, diabolical. And then every time I read a news item about the Federalist Society or the GOP’s SCOTUS-oriented machinations, I thought of that scene. When Mitch McConnell held the late Antonin Scalia’s seat hostage from Merrick Garland, I thought of that scene, and thought of it again through Neil Gorsuch’s hearings and the debacle of Brett Kavanagh, and of course once again when McConnell rushed Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination through in what ended up being the last days of the Trump Administration. By then, the full crisis of the American judiciary (my first inkling of which was from a play that first ran off-Broadway in 1992) was plain to see. The U.S. has been experiencing extreme judicial weather events for over a decade now; the leak of the Samuel Alito-authored decision repealing Roe v. Wade is like knowing not just that there’s a category 5 hurricane just below the horizon, but that such storms and worse are the new normal for the foreseeable future.
Recently it has not been uncommon, especially at moments of more acute racial discord, for people to post images on social media juxtaposing recent electoral maps with maps circa 1860. The red states east of the Mississippi River match almost precisely with the Confederacy; and though Biden’s win in Georgia in 2020 is a welcome disruption of that consonance, otherwise the geography or red v. blue has been increasingly entrenched since Nixon first embarked on The Southern Strategy and accelerated a shift that, sadly, was probably inevitable the moment Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
There has also been, especially since Trump’s election—and even more so since the January 6 insurrection—the prospect of a “new civil war” bandied about, from thinkpieces to more than a fewbooks. Most such speculations are careful to point out that any such conflict would necessarily be dramatically different from the actual U.S. Civil War—that the seemingly solid blocks of red and blue that replicate the territory of the Confederacy and the Union are deceptive; that however polarized U.S. politics have become, geographically speaking conservative and liberal factions are far more integrated than the maps allow. The divide is more urban/rural than north/south, with substantial blue enclaves in deep red states, like Austin in Texas, or big red swaths in rural California.
The pandemic shook the etch-a-sketch up somewhat, too, as urban professionals, forced to distance socially and work remotely, found the cheaper rents and real estate outside of their cities more amenable (whether the end of the pandemic reverses that out-migration remains to be seen). And when businesses decamp from states like California to states like Texas, they bring with them work forces that tend to be younger and more socially and politically progressive, muddying things further. (Let’s not forget that Florida governor Ron DeSantis’ current feud with Disney over the “Don’t Say Gay” bill was precipitated not by the company’s management, but by its workers, whose hue and cry over what they saw as an unconscionably tepid response prompted the CEO to, one assumes reluctantly, condemn the bill).
What I’m wondering today is: does the imminent repeal of Roe v. Wade herald a 21st century Great Migration? Except this time, instead of Black Americans fleeing the Jim Crow south, will it be liberals and progressives fleeing Republican states for Democratic ones? Possibly that seems like I’m overstating the case, but I think it will depend on just how far this SCOTUS will take the logic of Alito’s rationale, which is essentially predicated on the assertion that there is no right to privacy enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Numerous legal experts have weighed in on this speculation, running down a list of landmark Supreme Court cases that hinged at least in part on the premise of the right to privacy: legal contraception, the abolition of anti-sodomy laws, interracial marriage, the prohibition of forced sterilization, and same-sex marriage. Even a year or two ago I would have not worried overmuch about such cases being overturned, thinking it unlikely that any high court, however conservative its composition, would be so retrograde. But this court’s conservative majority has demonstrated a shocking unconcern for even the appearance of being measured and apolitical. They’ve pretty much made it obvious that anything and everything is on the table. That goes also for the current spate of legislating being done by Republican-dominated states: injunctions against teaching the history of slavery, the banning of books, the abolition of sex education, and of course the aforementioned “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida, which looks ready to be imitated in other red states. Should any challenges to these pieces of legislation make it to a SCOTUS hearing, how likely do we think it is that the current bench would quash them?
Which makes me wonder at what point being a liberal or progressive living in a blue city in a red state becomes untenable? What would that do to the U.S. polity? There would be a significant brain drain from red states; businesses would be obliged to follow when their pool of qualified workers dried up; urban centers in red states would wither; the current political polarization would in fact become geographical, as the states lost their last vestiges of philosophical diversity and became more and more autonomous, no longer subject to any federal law or statute they felt like challenging before a sympathetic Supreme Court.
That might indeed be a recipe for a “traditional” civil war.
I was interviewed recently by a student of mine for Memorial’s student newspaper on the topic of the importance of the humanities.1 I’m now wishing I’d read this Washington Post column by Jason Willick, titled “Putin has a huge advantage in the kind of nuclear weapon he would be most likely to use” prior. This paragraph in particular:
Russia has only a modest lead over the United States in long-range, strategic nuclear warheads regulated by the 2010 New Start treaty — 1,456 vs. 1,357 of the high-payload weapons. But when it comes to unregulated, shorter-range and lower-payload tactical nuclear weapons, according to a 2021 Congressional Research Service report, the United States has only 230, “with around 100 deployed with aircraft in Europe.” Russia has up to 2,000.
I’m not saying that having done a degree in English, philosophy, or history would automatically alert you to the absurdity of this framing;2 but there is a greater likelihood that one would, having studied such subjects, understand, respectively, its perversion of language, its moral and ethical failure, and its ignorance of historical context .
There have been a lot of commentators reaching for comparisons to the Cold War in the past week or so. Whatever the valence of such historical parallels, I think this is the first time I’ve read something that has resorted to Cold War logic. One of the benefits, rhetorically and imaginatively speaking, of the Soviet Union’s collapse was that we started again to think of nuclear weapons in singular terms—by which I mean, a reversion to the wise instinct that one nuclear warhead was one too many. I’m old enough to remember the nuclear anxiety that pervaded in the 1980s, the relief when that briefly vanished in the period spanning glasnost and the U.S.S.R.’s implosion, and then the more diffuse but still nagging anxiety attached to the prospect of bad actors trafficking “loose nukes.” 9/11 ramped up the paranoia about “suitcase bombs” whose relatively small yields would not have registered on cold warriors’ thermonuclear radar, but which served as a reminder of the irreducible violence—different from conventional munitions not in degree but in kind—of weaponized fission.
This understanding is what makes a nation like Iran developing the Bomb unthinkable. It is why nobody in their right mind shrugs off North Korea’s nuclear arsenal because it is minuscule.
And yet here we are, mere days after Vladimir Putin re-introduces the spectre of nuclear warfare—and not merely by inference!—talking about the “advantage” of numbers of nuclear weapons. When I read the passage quoted above, I had to pause and talk to the empty room in lieu of having the article’s author present for a vigorous lapel-shake. I want to ask him: what advantage, precisely, does a 2000 : 100 ratio of TACTICAL NUCLEAR WEAPONS grant you? Tactical nuclear weapons range from the tens of kilotons to the hundreds; to put that in perspective, the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was thirteen kilotons. So the United States’ paltry tactical nuclear capability currently in Europe, considered conservatively, has the capacity of one hundred Hiroshimas. But once those are used up, presumably in a back-and-forth with Russia, Putin can deliver 1900 more!
Of course, that there could ever be such an exchange—that the initial use of any nuclear weapon, no matter how relatively modest in yield, would not in itself be a world-changing event—is absurd on its face. The relative size of the arsenals would be instantly irrelevant. In the best case scenario, everything comes to a crashing halt as the world looks on in horror and heaps recriminations on the perpetrator. In the worst case scenario, sadly the more likely, the initial use of tactical nuclear weapons rapidly escalates to a large-scale exchange in weapons measured not in kilotons but megatons.
Any attempt to euphemize or elide the singular horror of nuclear weapons needs to be met, at the very least, with the mocking spectre of Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), the trigger-happy Air Force general from Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece of black comedy Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964): when the President (Peter Sellers) responds to Turgidon’s exhortation to follow through on an unplanned nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, “You’re talking about mass murder, General, not war!” Turgidson says, “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed! But I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops! Uh, depending on the breaks.”
It’s distressing, especially in the present moment, to come across in one of the United States’ major newspapers such an ostensibly reasonable and rational discussion of an invention that is everything but reasonable and rational. Martin Amis’ essay “Thinkability,” the introduction to his 1987 collection of short stories about nuclear weapons and nuclear war, Einstein’s Monsters, addresses precisely the fallacy of trying to make the unthinkable thinkable, and the ways in which the attempt invariably tortures the language used:
It is gratifying in a way that all military-industrial writing about nuclear “options” should be instantly denatured by the nature of the weapons it describes, as if language itself were refusing to cooperate with such notions. (In this sense language is a lot more fastidious than reality, which has doggedly accepted the antireality of the nuclear age.) In the can-do world of nuclear “conflict management,” we hear talk of retaliating first; in this world, deaths in the lower tens of millions are called acceptable; in this world, hostile, provocative, destabilizing nuclear weapons are aimed at nuclear weapons (counterforce), while peaceful, defensive, security-conscious nuclear weapons (there they languish, adorably pouting) are aimed at cities (countervalue). In this world, opponents of the current reality are known as cranks. “Deceptive basing modes,” “dense pack groupings,” “baseline terminal defense,” “the Football” (i.e., the Button), acronyms like BAMBI, SAINTS, PALS, and AWDREY (Atomic Weapons Detection, Recognition, and Estimation of Yield), “the Jedi concept” (near-lightspeed plasma weapons), “Star Wars” itself: these locutions take you out onto the sports field—or back to the nursery.
Reading Amis’ essay anew is a good reminder of the absurd rhetorical lengths the national security apparatus went to (and presumably still does in a more limited fashion) to make the use—and indeed, the very existence—of nuclear weapons seem reasonable.
They are not reasonable. Frighteningly, it doesn’t seem as though Vladimir Putin is reasonable at this moment in time either. But it’s not his numerical advantage in tactical nukes that makes me lose sleep—it’s that he might consider using even one, of any size.
1. When I started writing this post with precisely this sentence, I then proceeded to digress into a discussion of the interview and the difficulty of abstracting from the forty-five minute interview a sentence of two that best sums up the value of an education in the humanities. I went on for about three paragraphs, realized I was writing a different blog post, and opened a new Word document to start over. Look forward to a post in the near future in which I go on at length about the humanities.
2. Any argument for the humanities rooted in the idea that it invariably fosters empathy and morality needs to remember the Ivy League pedigrees of “the best and brightest” of John F. Kennedy and then Lyndon B. Johnson’s cabinets, whose intellectual arrogance—emerging from educations at Harvard, Yale, et al that would have requirements to read the Great Books—precipitated and then escalated the United States’ war in Vietnam.
Happy new year, everyone. Did you all have a good New Year’s Eve? Stephanie and I celebrated by ordering pizza and watching Don’t Look Up on Netflix—a film that is at once simultaneously so hilarious and so depressing that I found myself wondering whether watching it on the last day of 2021 was a terrible idea or entirely appropriate … though I suppose it could be both.
I hate New Year’s Eve as a night of celebration, and I always have—even when I was younger and more disposed to party like it’s 1999. A good friend of mine had the perfect summary of why NYE is so terrible. There are two days a year, he said, when you feel the most societal pressure to enjoy yourself: your birthday and NYE. Provided you have friends and/or family who love you, birthdays are great fun because they’re all about you. On New Year’s Eve, by contrast, it’s everybody’s birthday. Which is possibly why the more excessive the celebrations, the more they smack of desperation.
Normally I would have prepared a nice meal as a reluctant nod to mark the day, but I just got back from my parents’ place in Ontario five days ago, which means I’ve been quarantining. Which also means I can’t leave the house until tomorrow and buy groceries, and while we don’t lack for the basics, there isn’t much with which to make anything more then, well, the basics.
So, pizza. Which, given my antipathy to this particular holiday, seemed even more appropriate than anything requiring effort on my part. It might have to become the new custom.
I’ve been seeing a lot of 2021-related memes on social media, most of which involved (1) WTF? And (2) warnings not to jinx the coming year with high expectations, which we did at the start of 2021. But when you think about it, we’ve been exiting the year with a snarl and a backward-facing middle finger since … well, 2016, haven’t we? Which makes many of us want to blame Donald Trump for this series of successively sucky years, but if we haven’t yet collectively understood that he’s not the architect of our societal woes, just the bellwether, then things are gonna keep sliding downhill.
I mean … they probably will anyway, but the big reason for 2021’s unreasonably high expectations was the tacit assumption that with Trump out of office, things would inevitably get better.
And for a time, it looked like they were! And then … well, I was about to say that reality reasserted itself, but that wasn’t the biggest problem with this past year, was it? It would be more accurate to say that unreality reasserted itself. The Big Lie, anti-vaxxers, the hysteria over “critical race theory” and other bogus culture war non-issues, January 6 trutherism, and of course the ongoing state of climate-change denial. Reality has never been the problem, except insofar as accessing it without having to run a gauntlet of disinformation is now more or less impossible.
This profound sense of frustration and disconnect is why Don’t Look Up has landed so hard on its viewers. I laughed throughout the film, because it’s hard not to—it is comedy, based in the wilful obliviousness and ignorance of people so self-interested, so elementally selfish, that they are congenitally incapable of recognizing the very idea of a collective good. Many times through the film, I found myself thinking, “Wow, this is unsubtle.” But then … so is Tucker Carlson. So is QAnon. So is Donald J. Trump, and so are his legions of enablers and imitators. We live, sad to say, in profoundly unsubtle times.
Or as Stephanie put it midway through the movie, “It’s really depressing when there’s no daylight between satire and the thing it’s satirizing.”
We interrupt your regularly scheduled deep dive into postmodernism for a brief diversion into the latest anti-woke tempest in a teacup.
CORRECTION: when I started writing this post, I meant it as a “brief diversion.” It has grown in the writing and become decidedly non-brief. One might even call it very long. My apologies.
The Tolkien Society was founded in 1969 with J.R.R. Tolkien himself as its president; like most scholarly societies, it has hosted annual conferences at which people present papers exploring aspects of Tolkien’s and related works, and generally mingle to share their passion and enthusiasm for the subject. And like most of these such conferences, each year tends to have a different theme—looking over the society’s web page listing past conferences, we see such previous themes as “21st Century Receptions of Tolkien,” “Adapting Tolkien,” “Tolkien the Pagan?”, “Life, Death, and Immortality,” “Tolkien’s Landscapes,” and so on … you get the idea.
This year’s conference, to be hosted online on July 3-4, is on “Tolkien and Diversity.”
If this blog post was a podcast, I would here insert a sudden needle-scratch sound effect to indicate the sudden, sputtering outrage of all the anti-woke culture warriors who, fresh from their jeremiads about Dr. Seuss and perorations about critical race theory, are now charging that the woke Left has come for Tolkien because these SJWs will not rest until they have destroyed everything that is great and good about white Western civilization. Because, you know, a two-day conference in which people discuss issues of race, gender, and sexuality with regards to Tolkien’s work will destroy The Lord of the Rings.
If that all sounds snarky and hyperbolic, well, I’ll cheerfully concede to the snark, but I’m not overstating the reaction. Survey the Twitter threads on the subject, and you’ll see the phrase “Tolkien spinning in his grave”1 an awful lot, as well as the frequent charge—made with varying degrees of profanity and varying familiarity with grammar—that all of these people who want to talk about race or sexual identity in Tolkien are doing it because they hate Tolkien and seek to destroy this great author and his legacy. Well, you might protest, that’s just Twitter, which is an unmitigated cesspool; and while you wouldn’t be wrong about Twitter, these reactions exist on a continuum with more prominent conservative outrage. The default setting for these reactions is the conviction that people engaging with such “woke” discourse as critical race theory, or queer studies, or feminism for that matter, do so destructively—that their aim is to take something wholesome and good and tear it down, whether that be Western civilization or your favourite genre fiction.
I shouldn’t have to argue that this Tolkien conference, with its grand total of sixteen presenters, isn’t about to do irreparable damage to Tolkien’s standing or his legacy. Nor would reading some or all of the papers ruin LotR or The Hobbit for you. The idea that it might—that this is some form of desecration that indelibly sullies the Great Man’s work—is frankly bizarre. It is, however, a kind of thinking that has come to infect both fandom and politics. Six years ago I wrote a blog post about the Hugo awards and the conservative insurgency calling itself the “Sad Puppies,” who were attempting the hijack the nominating process to exclude authors and works they believed to be “message fiction” (“woke” not yet having entered the lexicon at that point), i.e. SF/F more preoccupied with social justice and identity politics than with good old fashioned space opera and fur-clad barbarians. If I may be so gauche as to quote myself, I argued then what I’m arguing now:
… namely, that the introduction of new voices and new perspectives, some of which you find not to your taste, entails the wholesale destruction of what you love, whether it be gaming or SF/F. Anita Sarkeesian produced a handful of video essays critiquing the representation of women in video games. As such critiques go, they were pretty mild—mainly just taking images from a slew of games and letting them speak for themselves. Given the vitriol with which her videos were met, you’d be forgiven for thinking she’d advocated dictatorial censorship of the gaming industry, incarceration of the game creators, and fines to be levied on those who played them. But of course she didn’t—she just suggested that we be aware of the often unsubtle misogyny of many video games, that perhaps this was something that should be curtailed in the future, and further that the gaming industry would do well to produce more games that female gamers—an ever-growing demographic—would find amenable.
This is the same kind of thinking that had people wailing that the all-women reboot of Ghostbusters somehow retroactively ruined their childhoods, or that The Last Jedi was a thermonuclear bomb detonated at the heart of all of Star Wars.2 It’s the logic that leads people to sign a petition to remake the final season of Game of Thrones with different writers, as if such a thing were even remotely feasible.
By contrast, while I loved Peter Jackson’s LotR trilogy, I thought that his adaptation The Hobbit was an unmitigated trio of shit sandwiches—not least because it displayed precisely none of the respect Jackson had previously shown for the source material. And yet, aside from inevitable bitching about how terrible the films were, when I teach The Hobbit in my first-year class this autumn, I do not expect to be hobbled by the trauma of having seen a work I love treated so terribly. The Hobbit will remain The Hobbit—and nothing Peter Jackson can do on screen or an overeager grad student can do at a conference will change that.
Conservatives love to harp on about the entitled Left and “snowflake” culture, but the current culture war pearl-clutching—when it isn’t merely performative posturing by Republicans looking to gin up their base (though also when it is that)—comprises the very kind of entitlement they ascribe to the people they’re vilifying. When the Sad Puppies try to crowd out authors of colour and queer voices at the Hugos; when Gamergaters attack female gamers; when a Twitter mob drives Leslie Jones off social media in retaliation for her role in the “female” Ghostbusters; when Anita Sarkeesian has to cancel an invited talk due to bomb threats; or when an innocuous conference on diversity in Tolkien—no different from the dozens that have been held on “queering Shakespeare” or masculine fragility in Moby Dick—excites the ire of those declaring that such an abomination somehow desecrates Tolkien’s legacy, what is being articulated is an innate sense of ownership. This is mine, the reactionaries are saying. How dare you trespass on my territory. The zero-sum sensibility is one in which any change, any new voice, any new perspective that is not consonant with the way things have always been, is perceived as a loss. Anything challenging the mythos built up around an idea—be it the acknowledgement of systemic racism in America’s history or misogynist subtext in the Narnia Chronicles—is a betrayal of that mythos.
But we should also talk more specifically about the conference itself, as well as the counter-conference quickly thrown together by “The Society of Tolkien,” a group formed specifically in defiance of the incursion of “wokeness” into Tolkien studies.3
Ideally, I want to put this in perspective, and make clear why those people losing their shit really need to do a deep knee bend and take a fucking breath.
To be completely honest, this entire kerfuffle over “woke” Tolkien might have never showed up on my radar had I not been tagged in a general invitation to join my friend Craig and his partner Dani’s weekly online “office hours.” Craig and Dani are both professors in Philadelphia; they host discussions about a variety of topics, mostly dealing with American conservatism and anti-racism, and they focused this particular discussion on the backlash against the Tolkien and Diversity conference. Among those joining were members of the Tolkien Society, including some people presenting at the upcoming conference.
It was a lovely discussion, and since then I’ve been inducted into the Alliance of Arda—which is to say, I requested to join the Facebook group, and been accepted. There has been, as you could well imagine, a lot of discussion about the “Tolkien and Diversity” conference, particularly in regards to the backlash against it. This blog post came together in part because of my participation in those discussions.
And before I go further, I just need to make something clear: these lovely people who are enthusiastically participating in this conference are not resentful SJWs looking to take Tolkien down a peg or five. They are not haters. They do not want to cancel Tolkien. These are people who love Tolkien and his works. They would be as distressed as their detractors if Tolkien went out of print or was eliminated from curricula.
But they are looking to expand the ways in which we read and understand Tolkien, and in a zero-sum perspective … well, see above.
The original call for papers (CFP) for the conference is prefaced as follows:
While interest in the topic of diversity has steadily grown within Tolkien research, it is now receiving more critical attention than ever before. Spurred by recent interpretations of Tolkien’s creations and the cast list of the upcoming Amazon show The Lord of the Rings, it is crucial we discuss the theme of diversity in relation to Tolkien. How do adaptations of Tolkien’s works (from film and art to music) open a discourse on diversity within Tolkien’s works and his place within modern society? Beyond his secondary-world, diversity further encompasses Tolkien’s readership and how his texts exist within the primary world. Who is reading Tolkien? How is he understood around the globe? How may these new readings enrich current perspectives on Tolkien?
For those unfamiliar with academic conferences, this is pretty standard stuff, and is followed by a non-exhaustive list of possible topics participants might pursue:
Representation in Tolkien’s works (race, gender, sexuality, disability, class, religion, age etc.)
Tolkien’s approach to colonialism and post-colonialism
Adaptations of Tolkien’s works
Diversity and representation in Tolkien academia and readership
Identity within Tolkien’s works
Alterity in Tolkien’s works
Again, this is pretty standard fare for a CFP. Nor is it at all outlandish in terms of the topics being suggested. Speaking as both a professional academic and someone who first read Tolkien thirty-seven years ago, I can think of a half-dozen ways into each of those suggestions without really breaking a sweat.
But of course, the CFP was only the amuse bouche for the backlash. The real meal was made of the paper titles. Here’s a sample:
“Gondor in Transition: A Brief Introduction to Transgender Realities in The Lord of the Rings”
“The Problem of Pain: Portraying Physical Disability in the Fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien”
“The Problematic Perimeters of Elrond Half-elven and Ronald English-Catholic”
“Pardoning Saruman?: The Queer in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings”
“Queer Atheists, Agnostics, and Animists, Oh, My!”
“Stars Less Strange: An Analysis of Fanfiction and Representation within the Tolkien Fan Community”
None of these seem at all beyond the pale to me, but then again I’m a professor and have presented numerous conference papers at numerous conferences, and these kind of titles are pretty standard. I can see where a Lord of the Rings enthusiast who never subjected themselves to grad school might think these titles absurd. True fact: academic paper titles are easily mocked, no matter what discipline, as they always employ a specialized language that tends to be opaque to those not versed in it.4
Case in point: I’m reasonably convinced that when former Globe and Mail contrarian and plagiarist Margaret Wente was at a loss for what aspect of liberal thought she would cherry-pick to vilify, she would comb the list of projects granted fellowships or scholarships by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), and select the most arcane and convoluted project titles receiving taxpayer dollars and write one of her “And THIS is the state of academia today!” columns.
Emblematic of the Wente treatment was an article in the National Review by Bradley J. Birzer, a history professor and author of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth (2002). Writing about the upcoming Tolkien Society conference, he says,
While I have yet to read the papers and know only the titles for reference—some of which are so obscure and obtuse that I remain in a state of some confusion let’s, for a moment, consider “Pardoning Saruman? The Queer in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.” In what way is Saruman, an incarnate Maia angel, sent by the Valar to do good in Middle-earth (Saruman really fails at this), queer? Is he in love with himself? True, with his immense ego, he might very well have been. Is he in love with Orthanc? Perhaps, but there is nothing in the text to support this. Is he in love with Radagast the Brown? No, he considers him a fool. Is he in love with Gandalf the Grey? No, he’s jealous of Gandalf and had been from their first arrival in Middle-earth. Is he in love with his bred Orcs? Wow, this would be twisted. Is he in love with Wormtongue? If so, nothing will come of it, for the lecherous Wormtongue has a leering and creepy gaze only for Eowyn. And, so, I remain baffled by all of this. Nothing about a queer Saruman seems to make sense.
Let’s begin with his admission that he hasn’t read any of the conference papers—which is fair, considering that, as I write this post, the conference is several days away—which means that if any of the presenters are at all like me, they’re just starting to write the papers now. But … do you really want to dive in so deeply based solely on a title? There was a story frequently told of a professor I knew at Western University, my alma mater: in answer to a question he’d asked, a student raised his hand, and said, “Well, I haven’t read the book yet, but …” and then went on confidently for several minutes while the professor nodded along. When the student stopped talking, the professor paused, and said, “Yeah. Read the book.”
Birzen’s choose-your-own-adventure speculation on what the paper might be about is no doubt entertaining to his readers who think, like him, that the whole concept of a queer Saruman is absurd, full stop. But here’s the thing: you don’t know. You don’t know what the paper is going to argue. You don’t even know if, despite the fact that he’s the only named character in the title, the paper has anything to say about Saruman’s queerness. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that considering someone a fool or being jealous of them doesn’t obviate the possibility of sexual desire for them, or the idea that demi-gods are somehow asexual (the Greeks would have something to say about that), perhaps consider that the paper isn’t about specific characters being queer? The pre-colon title, after all, is “Pardoning Saruman.” If you handed me this title in some sort of conference-paper-writing reality TV show, in which I have a few hours to write an essay conforming to the title, my approach would actually be to talk about the mercy both Gandalf and Frodo show Saruman, as something subverting a masculinist approach to punitive practices. Queerness, after all, isn’t merely about sex, but about a constellation of world-views at odds with heteronormativity; that Birzen reduces it to a question of who Saruman wants to fuck reflects the impoverishment of his argument.
But who knows. Will the paper be good? Perhaps, though that actually doesn’t matter much. Academic conferences are not about presenting perfect, ironclad arguments; the best papers are imperfect and lacking, because those are the ones that excite the most discussion. Conference papers tend to be works in progress, embryonic ideas that the presenters throw out into the world to test their viability. At its best, academia is an ongoing argument, always trying out new and weird ideas. Some fall flat; some flourish.
At its worst, academia becomes staid and resistant to change. Which brings me to the “Society of Tolkien” and its counter-conference. Their CFP reads as follows: “When J.R.R. Tolkien created Middle-earth, he filled it with characters, themes, and dangers that leapt from the pages to intrigue, excite, and give hope to his readers. In these sessions, we’ll explore these concepts to celebrate all that makes his works stand the test of time and what we should take from them today.” Or, to translate: no theme at all. Suggested topics include:
Analysis of characters, situations, and linguistics in the books
Military doctrine and tactics portrayed in the books or movies
Themes, lessons, and allegories drawn from or used by Tolkien
Works influenced by Tolkien’s writing
Works which influenced Tolkien’s writing
So, in other words: stuff we’ve seen before numerous times. But what is slightly more interesting is the supplemental list of topics that will not be considered for the conference:
Concepts not included in Tolkien’s writing
The Black Speech of Mordor
Speaking as someone who has attended numerous academic conferences, I can attest to the fact that “general foolishness” is always welcome to break up the monotony. As to “concepts not included in Tolkien’s writing,” that’s a pretty difficult territory to police. As one of my new Tolkien friends points out, the word “queer” appears in both The Hobbit and LotR multiple times—not, perhaps, meant in the way we mean it today, but still—where precisely does one draw the line?
I’m particularly intrigued by the prohibition against “The Black Speech of Mordor.” Because … why? Are they concerned, as were the attendees at the Council of Elrond when Gandalf spoke the rhyme on the One Ring in the language of Mordor, that the very sound of the language is corrupting? Do the people of the “Society of Tolkien” want to prohibit any presentation that might end up being sympathetic to Sauron? Or are they, as I joked in Arda’s comment section, worried that a paper about “Black Speech” could be a Trojan horse sneaking in critical race theory to the conference?
I said it as a joke, but I’m by no means convinced that that was not the reasoning behind the prohibition.
When I was enrolling for my fourth year of undergraduate study, I saw a course in the calendar on Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I signed up unhesitatingly: it was, as I joked at the time, the one course at the university where I could probably walk into the final exam without ever having been to class and still get an A. I did however have a little bit of anxiety: I had first read LotR when I was twelve, and reread it several times through my teenage years. I did not reread it for the first three and a half years of my undergrad, so inundated was I by all the new texts and authors and ideas that saturated my days. I was concerned, on returning to this novel that had taught me so profoundly how literature can have affect—how it can transform you on a seemingly molecular level—that I might now find LotR deficient or less than it was. Since starting my English degree, I’d had that transformative experience again numerous times: Annie Dillard and Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez and George Eliot, Yeats and Eliot and Adrienne Rich, Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende, Tom Stoppard and Bertholt Brecht and Ibsen, Woolf and Joyce and Faulkner, to say nothing of a raft of literary theory and criticism from Plato and Aristotle to Derrida and De Man. How would Tolkien measure up? And how, having taken classes on postcolonial literature and women’s literature, would I react to Tolkien’s more problematic depictions of race and gender?
Here’s the thing: I needn’t have worried. Yes, all the problematic stuff was there, but so was the deeper complexity of Tolkien’s world-building, the nuanced friendship of Sam and Frodo, the insoluble problem of Smeagol/Gollum, as well as Tolkien’s bravura descriptive prose that I appreciated in a way I could not when I was a callow teenager. There was also my greater appreciation of Tolkien the person. My professor posed a question to the class: why do you think Tolkien—scholar and translator of Norse and Teutonic sagas featuring such indomitable warriors as Beowulf—why did he, when he wrote his great epic, make diminutive halflings his heroes? Heroes who, she continued, proved doughtier than such Teutonic-adjacent heroes as Boromir?
Could it be, she suggested, that he was annoyed by the deployment of Norse and Teutonic myth by a certain 1930s dictator to bolster the fiction of a master race?
She then read to us Tolkien’s response to a Berlin publishing house interested in publishing a German translation of The Hobbit, but wanted confirmation of Tolkien’s Aryan bona fides before proceeding. Tolkien’s response remains one of the most professorial go fuck yourselves I’ve ever encountered:
Thank you for your letter. I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.
Your enquiry is doubtless made in order to comply with the laws of your own country, but that this should be held to apply to the subjects of another state would be improper, even if it had (as it has not) any bearing whatsoever on the merits of my work or its sustainability for publication, of which you appear to have satisfied yourselves without reference to my Abstammung [ancestry].
All of which is by way of saying: Tolkien was a product of his nation and his era. He was a complex person, and would almost certainly blanch at the Tolkien Society’s current roster of conference papers.
But then, he’d probably blanch at many of the ones in years past too.
1. Anyone even halfway familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien would tell you that he most likely started spinning in his grave the moment he was interred and hasn’t paused much since. Some authors are generally indifferent to people’s interpretations of their work and are happy to let fans, academics, and adaptors have their own ideas; others retain a proprietary sense of their work, and will respond to negative reviews or interpretations they think miss the mark of what had been intended, as well as being antagonistic to the idea of someone else adapting their work to stage or screen. Tolkien was quite firmly in the latter category, often engaging in lengthy correspondence with fans in which he corrects their understanding of The Lord of the Rings with his own, especially with regards to allegorical or symbolic readings (with few exceptions, Tolkien adamantly maintained that there was no symbolism or allegory in LotR, and no correspondence to contemporary world-historical events). He was also quite bearish on the idea of adapting The Lord of the Rings to film, even though there was an American project in the works in 1958; in his letters, Tolkien communicates his antipathy quite clearly. One can only imagine what he would have thought of the allusions to Middle-Earth in the music of Rush and Led Zepplin, or Ralph Bakshi’s vaguely hallucinogenic animated film (much beloved by the guardians of “classic” SF/F). Whether he would have appreciated Peter Jackson’s LotR trilogy is less certain, though the dilatory and overstuffed debacle of The Hobbit was surely responsible for seismic events in the vicinity of Tolkien’s grave. Compared to Radagast the Brown’s rabbit sled, King Thranduil’s war moose, Legolas constantly defying the laws of physics, and the dwarves’ battle with Smaug inside the Lonely Mountain (I could go on), a paper titled “’Something Mighty Queer’: Destabilizing Cishetero Amatonormativity in the Works of Tolkien” is small beer.
2. That there is so much hate levied against The Last Jedi, while Revenge of the Sith apparently gets a pass, baffles me.
3. As one commenter observed, the fact that some people split off to form “The Society of Tolkien” is such pure Monty Python that it truly puts the absurdity of all this into context.
4. And it is by no means limited to academia. On the day I wrote this post, I also drove my partner Stephanie, who is a talented guitarist, out to Reed Music in Mount Pearl so she could purchase a Fender Telecaster. Unlike Steph, I am utterly unmusical. As we drove, I idly asked her what the difference was between a Telecaster and a Stratocaster. She then proceeded, very animatedly, to descend into guitarist-speak for the next ten minutes. After a certain point, she looked at me and said, “You didn’t understand any of that, did you?” To which I replied, “No, about ten seconds in, you started to sound like the adults in Charlie Brown specials.” But as I write this, she’s in the next room playing “Sultans of Swing” on her new guitar, and, really, that’s a language I speak just fine.
… and I don’t particularly mean that as a compliment.
Literally minutes before he is stabbed to death by a posse of conspiring senators, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar declares himself to be the lone unshakeable, unmoving, stalwart man among his flip-flopping compatriots. He makes this claim as he arrogantly dismisses the petition of Metellus Cimber, who pleads for the reversal of his brother’s banishment. Cimber’s fellow conspirators echo his plea, prostrating themselves before Caesar, who finally declares in disgust,
I could be well moved if I were as you. If I could pray to move, prayers would move me. But I am constant as the northern star, Of whose true-fixed and resting quality There is no fellow in the firmament. The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks. They are all fire and every one doth shine, But there’s but one in all doth hold his place. So in the world. ‘Tis furnished well with men, And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive, Yet in the number I do know but one That unassailable holds on his rank, Unshaked of motion. And that I am he.
Caesar mistakes the senators’ begging for weakness, not grasping that they are importuning him as a ploy to get close enough to stab him until it is too late.
Fear not, I’m not comparing Liz Cheney to Julius Caesar. I suppose you could argue that Cheney’s current anti-Trump stance is akin to Caesar’s sanctimonious declaration if you wanted to suggest that it’s more performative than principled. To be clear, I’m not making that argument—not because I don’t see it’s possible merits, but because I really don’t care.
I come not to praise Liz Cheney, whose political beliefs I find vile; nor do I come to bury her. The latter I’ll leave to her erstwhile comrades, and I confess I will watch the proceedings with a big metaphorical bowl of popcorn in my lap, for I will be a gratified observer no matter what the outcome. If the Trumpists succeed in burying her, well, I’m not about to mourn a torture apologist whose politics have always perfectly aligned with those of her father. If she soldiers on and continues to embarrass Trump’s sycophants by telling the truth, that also works for me.
Either way, I’m not about to offer encomiums for Cheney’s courage. I do think it’s admirable that she’s sticking to her guns, but as Adam Serwer recently pointed out in The Atlantic, “the [GOP’s] rejection of the rule of law is also an extension of a political logic that Cheney herself has cultivated for years.” During Obama’s tenure, she frequently went on Fox News to accuse the president of being sympathetic to jihadists, and just as frequently opined that American Muslims were a national security threat. During her run for a Wyoming Senate seat in 2014, she threw her lesbian sister Mary under the bus with her loud opposition to same-sex marriage, a point on which she stands to the right of her father. And, not to repeat myself, but she remains an enthusiastic advocate of torture. To say nothing of the fact that, up until the January 6th assault on the Capitol, was a reliable purveyor of the Trump agenda, celebrated then by such current critics as Steve Scalise and Matt Gaetz.
Serwer notes that the Cheney’s “political logic”—the logic of the War on Terror—is consonant with that of Trumpism not so much in policy as in spirit: the premise that there’s them and us, and that “The Enemy has no rights, and anyone who imagines otherwise, let alone seeks to uphold them, is also The Enemy.” In the Bush years, this meant the Manichaean opposition between America and Terrorism, and that any ameliorating sentiment about, say, the inequities of American foreign policy, meant you were With the Terrorists. In the present moment, the Enemy of the Trumpists is everyone who isn’t wholly on board with Trump. The ongoing promulgation of the Big Lie—that Biden didn’t actually win the election—is a variation of the theme of “the Enemy has no rights,” which is to say, that anyone who does not vote for Trump or his people is an illegitimate voter. Serwer writes:
This is the logic of the War on Terror, and also the logic of the party of Trump. As George W. Bush famously put it, “You are either with us or with the terrorists.” You are Real Americans or The Enemy. And if you are The Enemy, you have no rights. As Spencer Ackerman writes in his forthcoming book, Reign of Terror, the politics of endless war inevitably gives way to this authoritarian logic. Cheney now finds herself on the wrong side of a line she spent much of her political career enforcing.
All of which is by way of saying: Liz Cheney has made her bed. The fact that she’s chosen the hill of democracy to die on is a good thing, but this brings us back to my Julius Caesar allusion. The frustration being expressed by her Republican detractors, especially House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, is at least partially rational: she’s supposed to be a party leader, and in so vocally rejecting the party line, she’s not doing her actual job. She is being as constant as the Northern Star here, and those of us addicted to following American politics are being treated to a slow-motion assassination on the Senate (well, actually the House) floor.
But it is that constancy that is most telling in this moment. Cheney is anchored in her father’s neoconservative convictions, and in that respect, she’s something of a relic—an echo of the Bush years. As Serwer notes, however, while common wisdom says Trump effectively swept aside the Bush-Cheney legacy in his rise to be the presidential candidate, his candidacy and then presidency only deepened the bellicosity of Bush’s Us v. Them ethos, in which They are always already illegitimate. It’s just now that the Them is anyone opposed to Trump.
In the present moment, I think it’s useful to think of Liz Cheney as an unmoving point in the Republican firmament: to remember that her politics are as toxic and cruel as her father’s, and that there is little to no daylight between them. The fact that she is almost certainly going to lose both her leadership position and lose a primary in the next election to a Trump loyalist, is not a sign that she has changed. No: she is as constant as the Northern Star, and the Trump-addled GOP has moved around her. She is not become more virtuous; her party has just become so very much more debased.
There is a moment early in the film The Death of Stalin in which, as the titular dictator lays dying, the circle of Soviet officials just beneath Stalin (Khrushchev, Beria, Malenkov) panic at the prospect of finding a reputable doctor to treat him. Why? Because a few years earlier, Stalin, in a fit of characteristic paranoia, had become convinced that doctors were conspiring against him, and he had many of them arrested, tortured, and killed.
I thought of this cinematic moment—the very definition of gallows humour—while reading an article by Peter Wehner in The Atlantic observing that part of the appeal of QAnon (the number of whose adherents have, counter-intuitively perhaps, inflated since Biden’s election) is precisely because of its many disparate components. “I’m not saying I believe everything about Q,” the article quotes one Q follower as saying. “I’m not saying that the JFK-Jr.-is-alive stuff is real, but the deep-state pedophile ring is real.”
As [Sarah Longwell, publisher of The Bulwark] explained it to me, Trump supporters already believed that a “deep state”—an alleged secret network of nonelected government officials, a kind of hidden government within the legitimately elected government—has been working against Trump since before he was elected. “That’s already baked into the narrative,” she said. So it’s relatively easy for them to make the jump from believing that the deep state was behind the “Russia hoax” to thinking that in 2016 Hillary Clinton was involved in a child-sex-trafficking ring operating out of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant.
If you’ll recall, the “Deep State” bogeyman was central to Steve Bannon’s rhetoric during his tenure early in the Trump Administration, alongside his antipathy to globalism. The two, indeed, were in his figuration allied to the point of being inextricable, which is also one of the key premises underlying the QAnon conspiracy. And throughout the Trump Administration, especially during his two impeachments and the Mueller investigation, the spectre of the Deep State was constantly blamed as the shadowy, malevolent force behind any and all attempts to bring down Donald Trump (and was, of course, behind the putative fraud that handed Joe Biden the election).
Now, precisely why this article made me think of this moment in The Death of Stalin is a product of my own weird stream of consciousness, so bear with me: while I’ve always found Bannon & co.’s conspiracist depiction of the Deep State more than a little absurd, so too I’ve had to shake my head whenever any of Trump’s detractors and critics declare that there’s no such thing as a Deep State.
Because of course there’s a deep state, just one that doesn’t merit ominous capitalization. It also doesn’t merit the name “deep state,” but let’s just stick with that now for the sake of argument. All we’re really talking about here is the vast and complex bureaucracy that sustains any sizable human endeavour—universities to corporations to government. And when we’re talking about the government of a country as large as the United States, that bureaucracy is massive. The U.S. government employs over two million people, the vast majority of them civil servants working innocuous jobs that make the country run. Without them, nothing would ever get done.
Probably the best piece of advice I ever received as a university student was in my very first year of undergrad; a T.A. told me to never ask a professor about anything like degree requirements or course-drop deadlines, or, really, anything to do with the administrative dimension of being a student. Ask the departmental secretaries, he said. In fact, he added, do your best to cultivate their respect and affection. Never talk down to them or treat them as the help. They may not have a cluster of letters after their name or grade your papers, but they make the university run.
I’d like to think that I’m not the kind of person who would ever be the kind of asshole to berate secretaries or support staff, but I took my T.A.’s advice to heart, and went out of my way to be friendly and express gratitude, to be apologetic when I brought them a problem. It wasn’t long before I was greeted with smiles whenever I had paperwork that needed processing, and I never had any issues getting into courses (by contrast, in my thirty years in academia from undergrad to grad student to professor, I have seen many people—students and faculty—suffer indignities of mysterious provenance because they were condescending or disrespectful to support staff).
The point here is that, for all the negative connotations that attach to bureaucracy, it is an engine necessary for any institution or nation to run. Can it become bloated and sclerotic? Of course, though in my experience that tends to happen when one expands the ranks of upper management. But when Steve Bannon declared, in the early days of the Trump Administration, that his aim was “the deconstruction of the administrative state,” I felt a keen sense of cognitive dissonance in that statement—for the simple reason that there is no such thing as a non-administrative state.
Which brings us back, albeit circuitously, to The Death of Stalin. There is no greater example of a sclerotic and constipated bureaucracy than that of the former Soviet Union, a point not infrequently made in libertarian and anti-statist arguments for small government. But I think the question that rarely gets raised when addressing dysfunctional bureaucracy—at least in the abstract—is why is it dysfunctional? There are probably any number of reasons why that question doesn’t come up, but I have to imagine that a big one is because we’ve been conditioned to think of bureaucracy as inevitably dysfunctional—a sense reinforced by every negative encounter experienced when renewing a driver’s license, waiting on hold with your bank, filing taxes, dealing with governmental red tape, or figuring out what prescriptions are covered by your employee health plan. But a second question we should ask when having such negative experiences is: are they negative because of an excess of bureaucracy, or too little? The inability of Stalin’s minions to find a competent doctor is a profound metaphor for what happens when we strip out the redundancies in a given system—in this case, the state-sponsored murder of thousands of doctors because of a dictator’s paranoia, such that one is left with (at best) mediocre medical professionals too terrified of state retribution to be dispassionately clinical, which is of course what one needs from a doctor.
I’m not a student of the history of the U.S.S.R., so I have no idea if anyone has written about whether the ineptitude of the Soviet bureaucracy was a legacy of Stalinist terror and subsequent Party orthodoxy, in which actually competent people were marginalized, violently or otherwise; I have to assume there’s probably a lot of literature on the topic (certainly, Masha Gessen’s critical review of the HBO series Chernobyl has something to say on the subject). But there’s something of an irony in the fact that Republican administrations since that of Ronald Reagan have created their own versions of The Death of Stalin’s doctor problem through their evisceration of government. Reagan famously said that the nine most frightening words were “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” and since then conservative governments—in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere—have worked hard to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter With Kansas? (2004) has chronicled this tendency, in which Republican distrust of government tends to translate into the rampant gutting of social services, governmental agencies from the Post Office to the various cabinet departments, which then dramatically denudes the government’s ability to do anything. All of the failures that then inevitably occur are held up as proof of the basic premise of government’s inability to get anything right (and that therefore its basic services should be outsourced to the private sector).
In my brief moments of hope I wonder if perhaps the Trump Administration’s explicit practice of putting hacks and incompetent loyalists in key positions (such as Jared Kushner’s bizarrely massive portfolio) made this longstanding Republican exercise too glaring to ignore or excuse. Certainly, the contrast between Trump’s band of lickspittles and Biden’s army of sober professionals is about the most glaring difference we’ve seen between administrations, ever. What I hope we’re seeing, at any rate, is the reconstruction of the administrative state.
And it’s worth noting that Dr. Anthony Fauci has been resurrected from Trump’s symbolic purge of the doctors.
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.
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.