Lovecraft Country, “Sundown”

lovecraft country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Baldwin won the debate resoundingly.

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

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

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

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

aunt jemima

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nostalgia for the Imaginary

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

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

***

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

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

hofer-nostalgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Isolated Thoughts: Donald Trump’s Inadvertent Juneteenth Truth

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

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

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

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

trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Isolated Thoughts: Of Bread and Patience

I have joined the ranks of those people who have turned to bread-baking during this time of self-isolation. Well, I joined their ranks a few weeks ago, but it was only yesterday that I baked a loaf of sourdough with which I was actually satisfied.

sourdough

I’ve baked a handful of other loaves, but because all of my attempts to create a sourdough starter from scratch failed, I resorted to a jar of yeast—otherwise an endangered species at all grocery stores these days—residing in my pantry. The bread was middling to good, with a handful of failures. And to be honest, with this one I still had to cheat a bit—when I saw individual packets of instant starter on a Sobeys shelf otherwise scoured clean of yeast, I grabbed a few. I fed the starter for a week (and continue to do so). And then, after finally learning what “autolyze” meant, I made this loaf.

And then, according to quarantine law, I proudly posted a picture of the loaf on Facebook.

Here’s the thing: I’ve actually long been interested in making sourdough from scratch, but have always been frustrated in my attempts to find a simple, step-by-step recipe; for basic bread, there are hundreds, but once you venture into the realm of sourdough, it’s as if you’re seeking entry into some sort of mystical society. What ingredient lists you can find are inevitably buried in lengthy discussions of wild yeast, finicky lists of the pros and cons of different flours, how best to “autolyze” your dough, how to properly feed and sustain your starter, and so forth. And by the time you get to the step-by-step instructions, they tend to break down the process into day-long increments, usually starting at nine in the morning and only culminating by early evening.

In other words: it requires patience.

I’ve been thinking a lot about patience, ever since my requisite fortnight of quarantine ended and I was able to make my first grocery shopping trip. The whole experience was bizarre, though it has since become commonplace: waiting in a fathom-spaced line outside the store because they limit the total number of shoppers inside; following the arrows that have been placed on the floor; keeping your distance from the person in front of you; waiting while the person in front of you—or the person in front of the two or three people in front of you—stares at the shelves in perplexity, looking for the product they need or trying to remember what it was, or (as is now not uncommon) trying to figure out a substitute for what isn’t currently stocked. Then at checkout, you wait in another carefully spaced line, and wait while the cashier disinfects their station and the conveyor belt before putting your purchases down.

It occurred to me then, and it’s something I have commented on to people since—especially to the cashiers and other shoppers when they apologize for how long they’re taking—that one benefit of this experience is it’s making us learn patience.

We see it on social media in the massive puzzles people are doing, or all the board games that have been dusted off, or the new crafting projects people have taken on—and, yes, in the ubiquitous baking of bread, which a busy day that takes you away from the home makes a more onerous task. Yes, part of all this has to do with finding ways to ameliorate boredom, but boredom and patience have key elements in common. After all, what is acute impatience if not an expression of boredom—with how long the stoplight is taking to change, with the person torturing the cashier over coupons, with the slow walkers hogging the sidewalk? We have, over the last few decades, become a culture that valorizes speed and efficiency and vilifies unproductiveness and lassitude. A common sentiment expressed in this period of enforced lassitude has been the anxiety over not using this time productively, as if being forced into inactivity makes one morally obliged to write that novel or screenplay, to learn a language, or finally get around to reading War and Peace or Middlemarch. I looked forward to my obligatory quarantine with the thought that I would write so damn much. Spoiler alert: didn’t happen. It took me three weeks of boredom and doing nothing before I wrote more than notes in my journal, and even then it has mostly been this blog—which as I commented in my post-before-last, is as much a coping mechanism as anything.

All of which isn’t to say that we aren’t impatient for this to all end and to get back to normal. But here’s the benefit of boredom, and the patience it necessitates: it allows us to conjure up new normals, which might have been unthinkable beforehand. It opens a mental space to recognize the fallacious elements of the very idea of “normal,” and that what we had before wasn’t an inevitable state of being. And, hopefully, it makes those of us privileged enough to be bored more understanding of those for whom “normal” was a shitshow, and to make common cause going forward.

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Isolated Thoughts: Conspiracy Corner—The China Syndrome (no, not the movie)

Screen Shot 2020-05-06 at 11.22.38 AM

I learned a new term this morning as I listened to the most recent episode of “Pod Save the World,” one of the many excellent podcasts by Crooked Media. It is hosted by Tommy Vietor and Ben Rhodes, both of whom worked for Barack Obama’s foreign policy team, Vietor as the National Security Spokesman, Rhodes as Obama’s head foreign policy speechwriter (Rhodes’ memoir of his time in the Obama Administration, The World as it Is, is an excellent read). Speaking of recent reporting that Trump and his lackeys are pressuring intelligence officials to find evidence that COVID-19 was produced in the oft-mentioned infectious diseases lab in Wuhan, China, Vietor called this “conclusion shopping,” which describes an effort find—or, ultimately, manufacture—evidence that will support an already-assumed conclusion. They offered the example of, say, the conclusion being that Iraq must be invaded … or in this case, the conclusion that the novel coronavirus was entirely China’s fault, and quite probably not accidental.

One of the things I find particularly depressing about the present moment generally, and about this issue specifically, is that Trump et al are making absolutely no pretense about this: Trump needs an enemy he can berate and point to and tell his base they’re the reason your life sucks, and he does it with all the subtlety of a carnival barker because he knows that Fox News and the rest of the conservative noise machine will take up the refrain and that a rump of the American population—his MAGA-hat wearing base—will unquestioningly believe him over anyone whose job it is to know better. Conclusion-shopping is easier when your supporters will accept your conclusion unquestioningly, and be indifferent to whatever evidence you present, except as talking-points to be shouted. The Bush Administration at least attempted subterfuge, using the trauma of 9/11 to paper over the inconsistencies in the charge that Saddam Hussein was involved, and planting stories that were picked up by useful idiots like Judith Miller at the New York Times, creating a narrative that did not hold together if you looked closely, but which was convincing enough that a plurality of Democrats in Congress—including Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden—voted in favour of invading Iraq.

It didn’t take long for the subterfuge to be exposed, but by then the die was cast, and Bush and his people were singularly unapologetic. At the time I was fond of being ironically nostalgic for Watergate and Iran-Contra, in which Nixon and Reagan’s elaborate cover-ups at least hinted at a measure of shame. Never in a million years could I have imagined a presidential administration that would be more shameless than Bush et al … but here we are.

(Also, as an aside: as much as I appreciate the sentiment of George W. Bush’s recent paean to solidarity in the face of adversity, let’s not get nostalgic for a president whose deliberate, calculated mendacity not only precipitated a disastrous and unnecessary war, but whose tactics in doing so laid the groundwork for where we are now. By all means, enjoy the schadenfreude of Trump’s unhinged Twitter response to Bush’s anodyne call for unity, but don’t for a second let Bush off the hook for being at least partially responsible for where we are now).

The problem Trump has now in bashing an enemy is that it is difficult to fit his usual suspects—the media, the elites, the Establishment, immigrants—with the black hat, because not only does a virus not discriminate in who it infects, its effects are plainly visible and cannot be spun. Nor, for that matter, can the incoherent ramblings of his press briefings and his painfully obvious lack of empathy. Until now, red states have been spared the worst of the pandemic, but that is changing as governors like Brian Kemp of Georgia and Ron DeSantis of Florida charge onward to re-open their states well ahead of the advice of medical experts.

So Trump needs a new enemy, and has signaled that it will be China. I don’t for a moment want to be an apologist for Xi Jinping and his dictatorial regime, nor do I want to downplay the unavoidable fact that the regime’s reflexively secretive and oppressive tendencies exacerbated an outbreak that more an honest and transparent response would have, at very least, ameliorated. But then, criticism of Xi’s regime isn’t the ultimate point of Trump’s current conclusion-shopping; if it was, we might have a more nuanced discussion about authoritarian versus democratic responses to such a crisis. The ultimate point isn’t to place blame on a system of governance, but a non-white ethnicity—which is why you’re likely to see a confusion of conspiracy theories about the collective malevolence of a technocratic dictatorship conflated with racist depictions of backward, bat-eating Chinese peasantry. The fact that these two elements are obviously at odds hasn’t mattered, nor will it going forward. The narrative, such as it is, given Trump &co.’s utter shamelessness, is painfully predictable: China is America’s implacable enemy, and ruthless, so the virus was almost certainly created in this Wuhan lab and released to cause a debilitating global pandemic; also, Chinese people are culturally other, and have backward social practices (they eat bats! At “wet markets” no less, and doesn’t that just sound disgusting?); then, Joe Biden will be hammered in ad after ad, and Fox News piece after Fox News piece, for being “soft” on China, and Hunter Biden’s questionable financial dealings in China will be held up as evidence of his and his father’s corruption. Ad nauseum.

Of course, this all isn’t a prediction: it had already happened, it is still happening, and it will continue to happen, with the only difference being the volume as we go forward.

As with any conspiracy theory, none of this needs corroboration or even a logical through-line. Already there have been countless conservative op-eds and think pieces attacking liberal objections to this narrative, characterizing the response as mealy-mouthed political correctness and identity politics more concerned with ostensible racism than the hard facts on the ground. Why shouldn’t Mike Pompeo insist on calling it the “Wuhan virus”? That is where it originated, after all! China has been the epicenter of many outbreaks! You libtards are more worried about offending people than with solving problems! … and so on.

One of the key reasons for objecting to designating COVID-19 as a “Wuhan” or “Chinese” virus isn’t because it didn’t originate there—because of course it manifestly did—but because such characterizations are (a) counterproductive in the diplomatic realm, where China, like it or not, is a key player—especially now, with a feckless and incompetent U.S. president who has effectively abdicated America from its usual role in global crisis management—and (b) because those making the objection are doing so in recognition that the designation is, more often than not, being made in bad faith by individuals more interested in assigning blame than finding solutions. Did the virus originate in China? Yes. Does that implicate Chinese (and thus by extension in the white imagination, all Asian) people? Of course not. But that is what happens, as we have seen in the uptick of anti-Asian hate crimes perpetrated in the U.S. and elsewhere.

One of the ironies at work here is that a scenario in which a tech at the Wuhan lab got infected, or there was an error made in the disposal of hazardous waste, is entirely plausible. (Trust me when I say you do not want to, even casually, look up info on human error in research labs, not if you want to sleep well). Thus far, intelligence officials and medical investigators have said this was unlikely, that the outbreak probably did occur because of zoonotic transmission.  But if the outbreak did occur because of human error? Well, blame the error, and perhaps safety protocols. This is why medical research of this nature and pandemic prevention tends to be international in character—to have as many expert eyes on things as possible, something denuded by the Trump Administration’s firing of their representative in Beijing. The problem with Trump’s conclusion-shopping is that it is basically conspiracy-shopping—all he needs is the slightest hint that it may have been the lab’s fault for his enablers and supporters to go all in on the assumption that the virus was specifically manufactured as a bio-weapon.

And hey, did you hear? Joe Biden is in league with them.

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Isolated Thoughts: Taking Stock, Seven Weeks In

I had a bad day yesterday: I woke up to a low-grade anxiety attack and spent the better part of the day feeling sad, listless, and generally useless. Some time around 4pm the fog lifted, and I started to write, hammering out my previous post on The Last Ship and about half of another post on recent HBO programming.

This morning has been better, in spite of the fact that it’s miserably cold and pissing rain. Though in truth, I enjoy sitting in my home office on dismal, rainy days, pathetic fallacy be damned, so the rain wasn’t likely to depress me—and in fact, I just sort of shook my head at it, as if the universe was conspiring to put me in a funk. And then the words “murder hornets” popped into my head and I started to giggle uncontrollably at the sheer absurdity of it all. As I asked in a previous post: What’s next? It makes an odd sort of sense, however, that if the universe is conspiring to compound all of the absurdity of the recent weeks, its choices were limited after the President of the United States suggested drinking bleach and getting an ultraviolet enema might be a viable treatment for COVID-19. In order to truly up the ante, murder hornets were a logical choice.

It has been interesting, day after day, to see how people are coping on social media and otherwise. My partner Stephanie has broken out her guitars after months of not playing, and ordered an electronic drum pad. She taught herself “Miracle Drug” by U2, and is, as I write, in the process of recording her tracks on her laptop. Online, I see all the baking and cooking people are doing; many people are posting pictures of daily pandemic life, sharing intimate or artistic portraits of what the lockdown has meant for them and their families; many others have taken up various seven- or ten-day challenges to post covers of books or albums that they love; they share affirmations about mental health; one of my friends has asked a question for the hive mind every day of the quarantine, from favourite colour to what person, living or dead, you’d most want to have lunch with.

Though few of these things are especially new to social media, their volume, frequency, and earnestness is. At least part of that, presumably, proceeds from the boredom of being cooped up; but there is also a profound expression of shared humanity in it all. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, perhaps, as it can also serve to remind us of all the people out there we cannot see in person; but there is also a comfort to is, an affirmation that we are not alone in the difficulty of weathering this crisis.

For my part, I’ve written more on this blog in the three weeks since I started this “Isolated Thoughts” series than I had in the year and a half preceding it. I don’t exactly garner much of a readership—my posts top out at about fifty views, according to my stats—but then that has never really been the point of my blogging. I write here to work through certain thoughts, to give them an airing; it is not unlike writing in a journal in that respect, except that the public nature of a blog and the knowledge that some people will read it forces me (hopefully) into somewhat more coherence than when I jot stuff in my Moleskine.

So we keep on. Keep posting pictures of your sourdough loaves, your pets, your favourite albums, your rants and fears and loves; talk about your good days and your bad, and I’ll keep posting my isolated thoughts. I have quoted my favourite W.H. Auden poem on this blog before, but there’s that one line that utters what is, for me, one of the most profound truths: “We must love one another or die.”

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Isolated Thoughts: Pandemic Viewing, Guilty Pleasure Edition—The Last Ship

Sometimes post-apocalyptic narratives begin with a slightly gimmicky hook, that tends to follow a formula: what if the end of the world came when [person/people] were [doing something] in [unique location]. Perhaps my favourite example of this is the BBC zombie apocalypse mini-series Dead Set, in which the survivors of the undead pandemic are the contestants on Big Brother—sealed in their closed set, they are initially oblivious to the carnage happening beyond their walls.

Now, I might have more to say about Dead Set in a future post, as I consider it one of the finest examples of the zombie genre, and it is an extremely smart and trenchant critique of celebrity culture. But that is not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to talk about a television series that is perhaps the most flagrantly jingoistic apologia for the American military I have ever seen, the most emotionally manipulative paean to honour and duty since A Few Good Men, and the most overt recruitment ad for the Navy since Top Gun: the series The Last Ship.

last-shipReader, I loved it. And I am very conflicted about that fact, given that it genuinely is little more than five seasons worth of U.S. Navy propaganda. Hence the designation “guilty pleasure” in my title, in spite of the fact that I have long believed one should not ever feel guilty about the reading and viewing in which you take pleasure.

(Unless it’s Twilight. Because seriously, fuck that shit).

To plug in the variables in my above formula, The Last Ship’s premise is that the end of the world in the form of a virulent strain of flu comes when the sailors and soldiers on the missile destroyer U.S.S. Nathan James are on a four-month radio-silence mission in the Arctic. Unbeknownst to the captain and crew, the scientists whom they’ve been transporting have been tasked with finding the “primordial strain” of a virus that is tearing through the Middle East. The mission the ship is on is little more than a cover for the scientists’ work. The captain and crew have no idea, because radio silence, that the United States has, in the four months since they put to sea, been savaged by the illness. They only realize that something is hinky when they’re attacked by Russians intent on kidnapping the lead doctor and taking her samples. What follows is a battle sequence that fetishizes the kind of high-tech violence a top-of-the-line missile destroyer can unleash, and which sets the tone for the way the series will unfold.

You get the idea.

To be clear, the Russian attack, and the subsequent revelation of the doctors’ true mission and the truth about the global pandemic unfolds in the first fifteen minutes of the first episode. Whatever the series’ flaws, economy in storytelling is not one of them, except for the requisite sequence that seems to happen in every episode when throbbing, sad music plays over a montage of (a) sailors mourning the death of a comrade, (b) the captain looking tormented by the difficult choices he has had to make, (c) stoic sailors and soldiers carrying on in their duties in spite of the difficulty/pain/trauma, or (d) quite often, all of the above. The captain is played by Eric Dane (aka McSteamy from Grey’s Anatomy), and his second-in-command by Adam Baldwin (aka Jayne from Firefly, aka Mr. Gamergate, aka another reason I’m conflicted about the series), and they are all about honour, naval tradition, and square-jawed stoicism in the face of adversity.

dane-baldwin

What’s interesting about The Last Ship in the broader context of pandemic/post-apocalyptic narratives is that it’s something of an outlier: the more common tendency is to depict societal institutions failing and collapsing when confronted with catastrophe. The brilliant pilot episode of The Walking Dead memorably depicts military barricades littered with corpses, and tanks and armoured vehicles sitting forlorn and empty, having proved useless in the face of the onslaught of the undead. World War Z shares in a very slight degree with The Last Ship a faith in military ingenuity, but that only happens after the U.S. Army fails spectacularly to stem the zombie tide, and is only efficacious when it learns to reinvent itself. The Last Ship, by contrast, presents the Navy as it is as the bulwark against chaos, not only in its aforementioned fetishization of advanced weaponry, but in its valorization of longstanding naval tradition. The very stubborn refusal to change or compromise is explicitly framed as a virtue, which, indeed, is in keeping with naval tradition more generally (in the U.S. military, the Navy tends to be the most conservative branch, resistant to change; by contrast, the Marines, who rely on the Navy for their budget and equipment, tend to be the most improvisational, as they traditionally have always had to do more with less).

Over its five seasons, The Last Ship indulges in increasingly more ludicrous plot arcs, but in its early stages comprises some pretty decent, taut storytelling (aside from the aforementioned portentous montages), and speaks to some of the issues I’ve raised in recent posts about narratives dealing with the aftermath of catastrophe and the rebuilding of society. The idea of America persists (because of course it does) in The Last Ship, but is at various points tenuous—the Nathan James returns home with a vaccine and a cure for the virus (because of course it does), but also has to contend with the breakdown of governance and the difficulty of re-establishing a republic after the descent into Hobbesian chaos. The series features the kind of regional fracturing I mentioned in my last post, with regional governors being initially amenable to a central government and the swearing-in of a president (á là Designated Survivor, the sole surviving member of the presidential line of succession is the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development), only to later become more obstreperous and unwilling to accept presidential authority, culminating in a conspiracy to (successfully) assassinate the president, and (unsuccessfully) eliminate the federal government and wall off the regional authorities from one another.

And what is the glue that finally holds the battered nation together? Duty and honour, as our naval heroes remind their army comrades—who have come under the command of the conspirators—what their oath to the Constitution entails.

I may have rolled my eyes a little at that part. But I was also enthusiastically eating my (figurative) popcorn.

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Isolated Thoughts: The End of America, or, Living the Dystopian Tropes

One of the attractions of teaching a pandemic fiction course in the Fall is that it will be interesting to teach speculative fiction that doesn’t really require much speculation, given what we’re living through in the present moment.

A fairly standard bit of furniture in dystopian fiction is the dissolution of the nation-state as we know it, with whatever country in which the story takes place still possessing vestigial elements of its old self, but otherwise re-shaped by war, political upheaval, environmental catastrophe, pandemic, or all of the above. In the most extreme cases, as with The Road by Cormac McCarthy, all has been erased (including identifiable landscapes) and survivors must negotiate the Hobbesian lawlessness as best they can. In Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, there is no nation, just an archipelago of self-governing settlements. This latter vision, as I mentioned in a previous post, is where The Walking Dead has arrived. I also wrote at length about how a key narrative and thematic element of Max Brooks’ World War Z was imagining how a certain idea of America might persist through an apocalyptic catastrophe.

In other cases where there is no catastrophe per se, the dissolution of the nation-state is often depicted as an inevitability proceeding from contemporary circumstances. This, indeed, is a favourite consideration in much cyberpunk, like William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash—in both cases, the stories take place (at least partially) in a political entity still known as the United States, but in which civic government has effectively been displaced by massive transnational corporations.

And then there is the figuration of the fracturing of a former civic entity into regions of distinct character and governance. America is a useful country for this particular futurism, considering the size and regional distinctiveness of the continental U.S., to say nothing of the fraught history of federalism and those several years in the nineteenth century when the country literally broke in two.

Richard K. Morgan’s novel Black Man envisions a future in which the U.S. has fractured into three political entities: the U.N. States, which is a loose transatlantic confederation of northeastern states, part of eastern Canada, and the U.K; the Rim States, which as the name suggests comprises the Pacific Rim, itself also a post-national confederation including part of British Columbia. And finally there is “the Republic,” the middle swath of the country that has laid claim to white Christian identity as the basis of America and which is essentially an economically depressed theocracy (to those in the other two regions, it is frequently identified by the derisive nickname “Jesusland”). The three regions all bear characteristic familiar to the present moment, with the Rim driven by technology and the sort of Randian faith in disruption that currently marks Silicon Valley; the U.N. States are identified by their cosmopolitanism and transnationalism, such that the priority isn’t national identity but economic alliances; and the Republic is revanchist, anti-science, and resentful of its economic backwardness while still viewing itself as the “authentic” America.

Since I first read the novel eleven years ago (I wrote about it at some length on my previous blog), Morgan’s future America has seemed more and more of an actual possibility. And lately it’s been on my mind an awful lot as I keep seeing maps like these in the news:

state groups

One of the central tensions in the United States since even before its founding has been the argument between having a strong central government versus a weaker one that would leave most of the governing up to the individual states. The original argument was embodied by Alexander Hamilton on one hand and Thomas Jefferson on the other, and today pretty much falls along the axis of Democrats and Republicans, with the former advocating for a larger government and the latter frequently quoting Ronald Reagan’s famous line that government isn’t the solution to the problem, government is the problem, and doing their best to reduce its size to  the point where, per Grover Norquist, it can be drowned in a bathtub.

Which is what makes what’s going on now kind of fascinating from the perspective of political history. On one hand, you have a Republican executive and Senate, in an effort to staunch the economic hemorrhaging caused by the coronavirus, spending like drunken sailors on shore leave—over twice as much money as Obama’s 2009 stimulus, which they howled about at the time. On the other hand, the utter incompetence of Donald J. Trump and all of the hacks he has running the show has meant that, at a time when one ideally wants a strong central government, we’re witnessing the effective abdication of federal power, ceding it to the states.

There’s a truism about Republicans, which is that they inveigh against big government when they are out of power, and when they are in power they cut budgets and funding and reduce the size of every governmental department except the Department of Defense. When the federal government then, not unpredictably, struggles to perform its basic functions, Republicans point to that as evidence of government’s innate incompetence.

Not that this sort of thing is limited to the U.S.—it’s been part of the Right’s basic playbook since the Reagan/Thatcher years, but the 21st century has escalated it by a magnitude with the antagonism to expertise and science and the elevation of, say, a horse breeder to the directorship of FEMA just in time for one of the most devasting hurricanes to ever strike the Gulf Coast. But Bush’s appointment of Michael “Heckuva job, Brownie!” Brown to FEMA was just a hint of things to come as the Tea Party stormed the halls of Congress in 2010 with people whose entire purpose was to bring government to a screeching halt. And then with Trump’s election, we have seen the elevation of the most spectacularly unqualified, semi-literate, narcissistic incompetent to the most powerful office in the world; and along with him he brought an army of hacks and enablers who haven’t the faintest idea of how to govern in the best of times. It’s not for nothing that the “adults in the room” at this point are all career bureaucrats, people like Dr. Anthony Fauci who have spent long and distinguished careers in public service—the very people Steve Bannon had in mind when he fulminated against “the Deep State” and avowed that his principal goal was “the deconstruction of the administrative state.”

At the rate we’re going, he may get his wish. I have read a number of think-pieces that have speculated that the current state of affairs, in which state governors have entered into loose regional coalitions to manage their pandemic responses, essentially giving up on any meaningful assistance from the White House, might ironically end up being a spectacular vindication of Thomas Jefferson’s vision of federalism. Alexander Hamilton’s legacy, by contrast, will have to be satisfied with Broadway box office returns and a raft of Tony awards: Donald Trump is precisely the corrupt and incompetent man of low manners he argued that the Electoral College would guard against.

That didn’t really work out so well. And it might be that Trump’s own most indelible legacy will be the fracturing of America into regional coalitions that will be resistant to kowtowing to the federal government in the future. Though I somehow doubt Thomas Jefferson would feel particularly edified to have his philosophy of governance realized by a subliterate cretin.

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Isolated Thoughts: (Un)Acceptable Losses

If you were looking for a useful summary of where American fiscal priorities lie, you could do worse than the recent flyovers performed by the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds.

On April 28, the two elite fighter wings did routines over New York City, Newark, Trenton, and Philadelphia. They started at noon with NYC, and finished with Philadelphia just after 2pm. The entire point of the exercise was to pay tribute to healthcare workers, first responders, and other essential workers putting themselves in danger of infection.

This completely unnecessary display was monumentally idiotic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that it would either be lost on people practicing self-isolation, or, worse—as predictably happened—it would lead people to flout social distancing guidelines in order to go out and see the show.

NYers

New Yorkers out watching the flyover show.

I get that it is important to find ways to keep people’s morale up in this difficult time, especially those who put themselves at risk. And while I’m sure healthcare workers appreciate the daily rounds of applause from New Yorkers, I’m doubly sure they’d appreciate more the resources and the funds necessary for doing their jobs safely and effectively. Being called “hero” isn’t a sufficient substitute for proper PPE, or, in the case of food service and grocery workers, a living wage.

The Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels took just over two hours to perform their shows. The Blue Angels are F/A-18 jets, the Thunderbirds F-16s; both classes of aircraft burn $25,000 worth of fuel in an hour, which multiplied over twelve jets over two hours comes to a price tag of $600,000. All for a tribute that people obeying the rules couldn’t watch.

If we take the calculation a step further: the fly-away cost of an F/A-18 Superhornet is $70M. The Thunderbirds’ F-16s are a much better deal at $19M apiece, but that still makes for over half a billion dollars worth of hardware flying in formation, paying tribute to people who almost certainly wish that kind of money would be spent on ventilators, or going to ameliorate the hospital bills of the uninsured, or supplementing the income of those stocking shelves and delivering food.

The other day featured a whole bunch of headlines in my news feed announcing that the total number of deaths in the U.S. due to COVID-19 had exceeded the number of American deaths in Vietnam. And a traitorous, sneering voice in my mind I can never quite root out snarked, “Well, at least the Vietnam War was good for the economy.” I’m not proud of having that thought, but it seems germane here: for a nation that tends to cry “socialism!” when Democrats try to increase funding for food stamps or talk about universal health care, there is a broad and blithe acceptance on both sides of the aisle for mind-numbing military budgets, and I find it baffling that nobody seems outraged at the expense of sending two aviation teams into the skies above the tri-state area as a tribute to people dealing with significant equipment shortages.

Meanwhile, we have been treated on almost a daily basis to another example of priorities as Fox News and right-wing astroturf groups beat the drum for ending the lockdown.

To be certain, there is a serious and important discussion to be had about the deleterious effects that quarantining has had on people’s mental health, and the fact that the shuttering of the economy is hurting many, many people in ways both physical and psychological. Too often, however, that point is being made in bad faith as an argument to “re-open the economy.” If you’re going to point to the erosion of people’s mental health, then you also need to address how we improve treatment and access to resources going forward in ways that move beyond simply getting back to work.

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But again, priorities: I couldn’t help but notice that the vast majority of complaints the anti-lockdown protesters in Michigan and elsewhere were making betrayed their privilege: “I want a haircut!” read one sign, and someone else complained that he wasn’t able to buy grass seed for his lawn. Other people complained about the stupidity of the rule that prevented them from traveling to their second in-state property. I will agree that this last provision seems odd, but then again, if your biggest problem is getting to your second house, you’re not suffering all that much. I might have had more sympathy with the protests if the general sense expressed was “I need to get back to work!”, but what was being said was more along the lines of “I need OTHER people to get back to work!”—to cut hair, sell grass seed, and so forth.

What lives are valued? The way in which the “need” to re-open the economy has been framed has largely been a question of what comprises acceptable losses. The earliest voices making this case characterized it in terms of patriotic sacrifice. Texas’ Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, appearing on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, declared that grandparents should be willing to die from the virus if need be, if it means getting the economy humming again. He said to Carlson, “No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all Americans love for your children and grandchildren?’ And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.” Another voice joining the chorus was none other than Glenn Beck, who said on his radio show—or possibly podcast, I’m not sure of his platform—that at fifty-six years old, he was right on the edge of the “danger zone,” but that he was willing to put himself at risk to help jump-start the economy. “I would rather have my children stay home and all of us who are over 50 go in and keep this economy going and working,” he declared. “Even if we all get sick, I’d rather die than kill the country, because it’s not the economy that’s dying, it’s the country.”

Very noble sentiments, to be sure, or they would be if the first wasn’t coming from a politician with a gold-plated health plan and the latter from a man whose actual job entails yelling into a microphone in his home studio—not exactly an occupation that puts you at a high risk of infection. Both of them have the option of working from home; like the people protesting in Michigan about haircuts and grass seed, it’s not their right to work that animates their rhetoric so much as their perceived right to have other people work for their benefit. “Re-opening” the economy will not put the affluent at risk, but the workers.

As a popular meme that has made the rounds lately says, with mock disingenuity, “It’s almost as if it’s the workers who create value. Huh. Someone should write a book about that.”

But all that is at least partly beside the point I want to make. The very idea that it is acceptable to sacrifice the elderly and the infirm in the name of economic stability isn’t just pernicious and cruel, it’s also wildly inconsistent with past conservative hysterias. Glenn Beck might opine that the elderly are expendable in the name of the greater good now, but ten years ago he was one of the people screaming bloody murder at the fiction that the Affordable Care Act would necessitate “death panels” to rule on who would receive health care and who would not. Remember that fun time? It was all scare-tactic bullshit of course, but the premise was that expanding health coverage would lead to a shortage of available care, which would have to be rationed by cruel government factotums—the aforementioned death panels—based on who was a worthwhile subject, and who was a lost cause. In this case, there was no suggestion that the elderly and infirm sacrifice themselves for universal health care, but rather that they would be brutally culled by lefty ideologues. Or as Beck pithily put it on his bananapants Fox show, “Night night, Granny!”

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All of this is by way of making the obvious point that what qualifies as “acceptable losses” tends to conform to one’s priorities. In the name of universal health care? Stalinism! In the name of a stable stock market? Not just acceptable, but indeed noble and patriotic! (Of course, this contrast is itself a fallacy, as the prospective holocaust of the elderly under Obamacare was always already a fiction invented by Republicans).  Remember when Dick Cheney defended the egregious rollbacks of civil liberties in the Patriot Act, saying that even one single death due to terrorism was too many?

Mind you, as I pointed out in a recent post, one of the Bush Administration’s strategy’s for defeating the terrorists was to keep shopping. The nostalgia for the volunteerism and sacrifice of the Greatest Generation in Max Brooks’ World War Z is more and more attractive … not least because in Brooks’ imagined future, all jet fighters are mothballed because they consume too much fuel and are too expensive to use. Just a thought for the present moment.

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