And In That Republic

And in that republic, they

built a machine,

a machine of a million names,

but one purpose,

cruelty.

Inflicting pain

was a virtue of nettles on bare skin,

leaving kindness’s soothing balm

treason.

It is why I stopped searching this world for guidance,

instead pilgriming to myself to find

the capitol of compassion.

 

But the old men raged.

Respect was a price they could not afford

and even if they paid their dues nothing would change,

they claimed.

So, we were told to accept the world they had birthed.

 

In aborted flooded canals we swam,

slow swarms watching as one by one we drowned.

How many could have been saved

in those days of historic possibility?

No one knows

and fewer venture to guess

the hypothesis being a hippopotamus

not sitting on caving chests

but swimming,

deadly swimming,

between our vulnerable bodies.

I etched markings along the wall

four marks

then a single slash through.

Four marks.

Slash.

Each friend and fellow who died became reduced to that singular tally.

 

And those city lights on the horizon,

like a municipal gathering of fallen stars,

promised endless

sleepless

shattering dialectics.

Dialogues with the past emerging,

ghosts ushering in futurescapes.

 

Ash to flame,

dust to diamond glory.

 

But no one told me the story

in full

and those dull distinctions matter.

So many points of light nothing more than traffic lights.

Yellow.

Pulsing.

Like wounded suns

struggling to breathe

telling interstellar cartographers,

“Slow down,

this is the town,”

but doing it in suggestive blaring neon verbs

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What is the United States of America?

 

“Has it been like this in the past or is this something new?” my friend Pádraig asked.

We were sitting in one of the coffee shops close to Purdue’s campus, and around us I could hear the familiar chatter one associates with a café that caters to college students, professors, and artsy town folks. For the past three years Podge and I have had a standing coffee date where we mostly discussed the field of history, and where we were in our respective research projects. But on that day intermixed with the chatter of planning the upcoming fall semester, I could hear the words “Virginia,” “Nazi,” and “Antifa” swirling about the tables as if it were an espresso machine mixing seemingly unrelated ingredients together in an uncomfortable froth.

It was the Wednesday following the white supremacist rally and neo-Nazi terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia. Several pro-democracy protesters were injured, one was dead. And Lafayette, Indiana, like much of the rest of the country, was discussing what it meant.

“Yes and no,” I answered. Three years earlier, Podge had immigrated to the US from Ireland. He was somewhat familiar with American history, but it was not his primary research focus.

I explained to Podge that such attacks and demonstrations of white supremacy were, in fact (and unfortunately), not unprecedented in US history.

As I explained the history of the US, framing it as a larger project of British imperialism that made use of (and in many ways created) white supremacy to justify the white English speaking people’s conquest of North America, I remembered back to the class I had just finished teaching for the summer. It was the first half of US history, and as I explained to Podge the long, sordid history of events like Bacon’s Rebellion, American slavery and apartheid, and the southern Confederacy, all the previous lectures I had just finished flashed through my mind.

Throughout the class I had encouraged my students to think of the first period of US history, roughly the 1600s to 1860s, as a period which provided a way for us in the present to understand how nations formed.

“What is nationalism?” I asked in several lectures. “It is an imagined community, a social and cultural space in history that gives rise to a sense of shared purpose, identity, and cause.”

(Benedict Anderson, obviously, had been the honorary theorist for the semester)

“But how does that shared identity and community work,” I asked in one lecture, “if the US is built on, and perpetuates, a system of white colonial settlerism?”

The easy answer would be to say that the US national project was unachievable, that any push for democracy or revolutionary change in the US context was impossible at best, a dream meant to dupe the naïve at its worse.

But, as I explained through the course, such a cynical reading of American history erased the very people who had been subjected to that colonial hierarchy, and who had fought, resisted, and rebelled against it. From the Enclosure Acts, to the forced removals of Indigenous Americans, to chattel slavery of Africans, peoples on multiple continents had been brutalized and resisted the broader rise of global capitalism in the Atlantic World. Rebellions, “Frontier” Wars, and uprisings were as much a part of the early history of the United States as was the history of upper class colonial rule. In so far as the US was a civilization dedicated to revolution, liberty, and democratic equality, it was such a society because of those who fought back and rejected the broader project of imperialism.

My major point for the course, therefore, was that at the very heart of American national identity sat a deadly contradiction, one that had never been fully addressed.

“Understand that,” I explained to the class, “and you will understand the rest of US history. We are a national community based on high ideals of equality, self-determination, and a democratic political ethos. But the US was also born out of white supremacy and imperialism, and that history is just as important as any democratic ideal.”

A revolutionary democracy and a colonial settler state. A dichotomy that generated historic conflict, and which framed US history. This understanding drew a bloody red line from Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676 to the “Unite the Right” fascist rally in Virginia in 2017.

Once I finished explaining it, how Richard Spencer and company misused history to falsely claim that whites had been “noble” explorers “taming” the “New” world, Podge sat for a moment quietly taking it in.

“So,” he said at last, thinking about his own home of Ireland, “it’s all the fucking British Empire’s fault.”

“God save the queen,” I replied dryly.

+++

Prior to the fascist terrorist attack in Virginia I had already planned on organizing my survey classes by asking a series of overarching questions that would hopefully lead to a broader understanding about past and present periods, and what had led to our current moment.

Modern World History, 1490-2000s would focus on the question “What is modernity?” and would use the class to get students to understand that the concept of “modernity” was in large part a socio-political ideology which argued for a certain trajectory of historical development.

The two other sections, History 151: US History Until 1877 and History 152: US History From 1877, would deal with the question “What is a nation?” and “What is democracy?” respectfully.

This pedagogical approach would steer my survey classes away from the typical slog of facts, figures, and dates most textbooks followed, and instead encourage the students to see history as a complex and everchanging conversation between the past and our own present period. But in order to do this I first needed to frame the classes as a conversation, and not a few weeks of me preaching an established set of information. Instead, for the conversation to take place, we would need to begin with a basic question, the first step in any process of learning via dialogue.

By understanding that modernity is a political ideology, students would be able to question the entire project of our current civilization, one that many in power want to convince them is a steady march toward unending, automatic, progress. Next, by asking what historically is the basis of a modern nation they would see how events that occurred in the past radiated into our own period, informing the very way we relate to one another on a cultural, social, political, and economic basis. And finally, after having seen that an ideology of modernity created an unquestioning faith in progress, and that this “progress” helped sustain the very white supremacist colonial project at the heart of US nationalism, students would be able to take a third class that completed the exercise by asking “What is democracy?” exactly, and as a result begin seeing that the social, political, and economic movements to win dignity, power, and security for people were a broader historical project to alter society and move beyond history’s longer shadow.

It remains to be seen how successful this approach will be, but the hope is that once I am working full time as a college instructor, students would be able to take all three of the survey courses and develop a broader set of historical skills and comprehension.

It is a set of skills that I think are vital for us in the present. After Podge and I finished our coffee and he headed out, I began reading for a project I was working on, and couldn’t help but overhear the two men behind me.

“I’ve been hearing a lot about Antifa,” the first guy said.

“Yep,” the other answered.

“I mean, look, I am against the Nazis, but Antifa just goes too far.”

“What? Why?” the second guy asked.

“Well, you know… they destroy property and stuff,” anti-Antifa guy answered.

“Fuck that shit,” the pro-Antifa guy responded. “That is neoliberal bullshit. Property? Who gives a fuck. Nazis are talking about genocide, literally murdering people, and society wants me to think some business’ profit is the most important thing to worry about? Antifa is fighting to try and stop these fascist pricks from getting more power. If the state did what it was supposed to do, then Antifa wouldn’t even need to exist.”

I went back to taking notes. Online and on campus the sentiments expressed by the two friends arguing over “Antifa” were nothing new. Antifa was literally just the “antifascist movement,” but it was typically meant to designate the more radical anarchist street groups who engaged in direct militant actions, such as physically fighting back against the fascists in places like Virginia. Antifa was getting more attention as their tactics to intimidate and stop Nazis gained more attention, and were credited by people like Cornel West with having saved lives.

The two friends continued to argue some more, mostly about what was most effective in stopping the spread of fascism, but instead of focusing on the anti-Antifa guy, I was genuinely curious about the pro-Antifa friend. Although perhaps not a majority, he was voicing something that I was finding to be a growing opinion.

Fascism is evil. Those who fight it should not be chastised, but thanked.

Again, it got back to what I hoped would be achieved by asking students to ask the broader question, “What is democracy?” By showing them that past actors had been forced to fight, sometimes with force, for basic rights they would hopefully see that US history wasn’t predetermined with the “good guys” being endorsed by society at large. Instead, activism in all periods had been met with some form of opposition, be it government, religion, or corporations. Therefore, activism then and now, was not about automatically being on “the right side of history” but instead it was a longer engagement with society to win major concessions to expand democracy, centering sovereignty and dignity in the individual, and not government power.

Democracy is therefore a way of life, and as such it is more than a political system to delineate power. It is, in simple terms, an ethical and moral outlook that imbues the people of a given community with automatic and inalienable rights. These rights are normative claims that position the individual as a being deserving of dignity. We afford these rights to one another not out of fear that someone may eventually try to harm us, or because humans are alienated individuals who must go it alone, but because as ethical actors we acknowledge that beings have a fundamental dignity to help guide and shape the community we share. In other words, democratic rights serve a dual purpose of empowering an individual and bolstering a democratic civilization.

Democracy, in other words, is not apolitical. It is not an arena where “anything goes,” and it sure as hell shouldn’t be a “marketplace of ideas” where popularity alone determines the validity of a principle. It is a socially constructed sphere where we engage in meaningful dialogue, decision making, and self-exploration so as to improve ourselves, our societies, and our collective knowledge.

One could not trust the weight of “modernity” to carry this forward, anymore than one could assume the relations of a modern nation would sooth over continuing issues of oppression. Only through conscious effort to expand the democratic sphere, pulling out of history’s death grip gravitational pull, could people in a particular period hope to better themselves and future generations.

As such, not all political views are compatible with democracy. Some are, in fact, anti-democratic. Authoritarianism is anti-democratic. Fascism is anti-democratic. Religiously based terrorism is anti-democratic.

Therefore, when people fight authoritarians, or fascists, or religious extremists especially in the cases where those ideologies have a historic legacy of hegemonic power, then the person in question is not “just as bad” because they fought. Fighting and resisting evil is not itself evil.

The the Antifa, BLM, and left-wing socialists and liberals are not evil for fighting Nazis.

Decades of reducing historic understanding to shitty B-movies where John Wayne strutted around on camera talking about “fighting the bad guy” has produced a widespread ethical outlook that simultaneously celebrates violence when it is the US military blowing things up, while shrieking in terror when people organize and protest actual Nazis.

In fact, one could argue that the celebration of such American figures, like John Wayne, has not just produced a confused ethical outlook on violence, but has in fact created a cultural script that normalizes certain types of violence, even celebrating violence when it is violence in service to the broader imperial project of the United States. As we all know, the western portions of North America were not “settled” in any real sense of the word by English speaking colonists. Indigenous people had long lived in the multiple areas the US eventually claimed as territories. Yet even beyond this, the Spanish, French, and Latin Americans had a long standing presence in these areas, in some instances dating back centuries.

That history is still present in the very words we speak.

Los Vegas. Los Angeles. Baton Rogue. New Orleans. Santa Barbara.

All of this makes the present day cultural essentialists, freaking out about multiculturalism and multilingualism, all the more ridiculous.

The US discovered nothing, no matter how one looks at it, in its economic and geographic expansion. Instead, the “settling” of the West was really an incorporation of these areas into the East coast’s rising industrial corporate capitalism. In so doing, the US established a multicultural sprawling empire that had a bizarre relationship with violence as a political and economic tool.

Violence in the expansion West? This is typically treated in many mainstream understanding as just an unfortunate by product of a “clash of civilizations,” as unavoidable as a planet’s gravitational pull.

Violence used against foreign governments, such as the US’s use of violence in the Allied cause against German, Italian, and Japanese fascism? That is not only tolerated, but is in fact celebrated, with movies, monuments, and holidays dedicated to the organized violence the US deployed.

How, then, can the current inhabitants of a country like the United States, especially those who take part in celebrating and honoring certain expressions of violence, retreat in terror when they hear groups make the argument that white supremacists and fascists need to be forcibly opposed?

A movement, such as the fascist movement in modern America, is fundamentally anti-democratic. As such, if that movement were to ever gain widespread power (and take a hard long look at many elected officials to see how possible that is) then the very democracy we say we cherish would be destroyed.

To further illustrate how ridiculous saying fascists have democratic rights, imagine the following:

We do not debate whether or not Christians should be put to death, just as we do not have a dialogue over how many rights we are going to strip from heterosexuals, just as we do not have a friendly discussion over how many white people will be murdered after the next election. To entertain any of these ideas, especially in a political movement, would be met with alarm and terror. And that is the cognitive disconnect many white people have when they say “Nazis have a right to march and try and convince people in the public sphere.” It reeks of privilege, because for the white person there is no widespread danger that should the fascists succeed they would be harmed. Their nation, their imagined community can survive it. In fact, it was built on that very delusion.

In other words, it walks up to the question, “What is democracy?” and fails miserably to answer it.

Now, granted, even the white liberal and conservative would not be safe should fascism ever succeed. Fascism is never content with just a moderate amount of power, since as an authoritarian movement it believes in stripping the individual of any and all dignity (i.e destroying democracy). Only those with the savagery to will themselves to power via violence are to be respected. Compassion and tolerance are weaknesses to them, and that is the world the white moderate would permit to come into existence by tolerating fascists to first be normalized, and then gain power. It is why the pro-democracy movements have been so vital in US history, and it is why I hoped that by being able to answer the question “What is democracy?” historically, students would have a basis for a usable past to construct ethical and meaningful actions in their own lives once they left the classroom.

Perhaps that is far too naïve on my part, but it is what I hope nonetheless.

+++

The day after the fascist rally and white supremacist attacks in Virginia, Allison and I went to the vigil activists in Lafayette had planned. We met at Riehle Plaza with hundreds of other community members to protest and resist both what had happened in Virginia, and what was happening in the larger Trumplandia, USA.

To put it in perspective: It took months of planning for the American Nazis to get only 500 people to the University of Virginia. Yet, in less than 48 hours after their vile acts, over 700 counter marches sprung up around the country. This obviously does not equate to an automatic victory, but it shows that those committed to justice, equality, and democracy are not weak or few. We, as denizens of this moment, have the ability to change the world and move beyond the US’s long shadow of hate and oppression, be it a shadow cast by history, the current President, or a statue of a Confederate general.

Of course, current attitudes are not permanent, and over time this broad support could evaporate.

But this is a concern that is far from new. To me, the issue of opposing fascism is not some “new” issue that we are suddenly charged with undertaking. Instead, it speaks to a much longer history in the US of struggling to define exactly what “The United States of America” means as a civilization, a nation, and a historic political culture. Much of the work of what that antifascist movement looks like has been pioneered, both by previous generations of social movements, and even in more recent times with platforms and agendas put out by broader coalition of groups, like those associated with BLM.

In those platforms calls for transgender rights, global justice, reparations from governments which have benefited from theft and oppression of people of  color, and a broader multi-racial alliance against racism have been clearly articulated.

As one such site for the Movement for Black Lives (#M4BL) argues, “In response to the sustained and increasingly visible violence against Black communities in the U.S. and globally, a collective of more than 50 organizations representing thousands of Black people from across the country have come together with renewed energy and purpose to articulate a common vision and agenda. We are a collective that centers and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognize we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.”

The BLM group continues by contextualizing the fight to define and control what the US should be is a project with global implications.

“While this platform is focused on domestic policies, we know that patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism, and white supremacy know no borders. We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-Black racism, human-made climate change, war, and exploitation. We also stand with descendants of African people all over the world in an ongoing call and struggle for reparations for the historic and continuing harms of colonialism and slavery. We also recognize and honor the rights and struggle of our Indigenous family for land and self-determination.”

In other words, the fight against fascism and white supremacists is a fight with historic precedent. We will continually return to this point, where the very worst elements of the US are highlighted by fascists in the streets and white supremacy in the government, and the very best is demonstrated by the people’s of the US who push for greater democracy, greater inclusion, and sustained fights for social justice.

We are not a species doomed to repeat the past. We are just historic actors in a period of time that have inherited a society. These issues will eventually be resolved. The US will, eventually, cease as a civilization (that is the nature of historic change). I just hope that the better angels of the US prevail in that time.

As we met in Riehle Plaza for the antifascist rally, a few of the locals spoke about the importance of fighting fascism and racism on all fronts. One couple even framed their justification for fighting white supremacy by explaining in very broad terms how “whiteness” was something colonial elites created centuries ago to keep people apart and control the masses. It was far from a perfect retelling of US history, but it was essentially right. There, in the streets of a small town in Indiana everyday people were voicing a fairly radical critique of US history.

Again, one counter march does not win any victories, but it is a reminder to me that a united popular front against white supremacy is not only possible, but in fact already exists. We simply must figure out how to utilize it for ourselves and future people. Our efforts will go a long way in defining the US.

Walmart World Heritage Site

In the distant future, a Walmart in Cleveland, Ohio is a World Heritage Site. It is at an excavated and preserved location where people vacation and teachers march their students to see how their ancestors lived. A reenactor, blue vested and labeled “How Can I Help You?” greets the crowds like a jovial clown. They ask how tall people are as they shuffle into the museum, and when people answer they smack their head and feign ignorance.

“What did you say? I don’t know metric!”

People laugh and try to convert the distance they’ve traveled into “Standard.” The reenactor assists. “You can call me JANET!” they say, pointing to their identification badge. “I’m here to help!” ‘Janet’ then explains that although happiness and civility were required by all Walmart “team members” it was not always so simple. “Our ancestors had an elaborate, yet very subtle, way to communicate. Civility was the ideal, but often short tempers were the norm.”

To illustrate, another reenactor, labelled “BRAD,” walks up and Janet and Brad begin yelling about the price of an item. The crowd watches in wonder.

The tourists continue past Janet and Brad and see displays of ancient tools, television remotes and eBooks, as quaint and exotic as stone tools and wooden teeth. Maps are stretched across one of the renovated walls depicting the rise and fall of the commercial empires. The “Age of Walmart” is central, and shows its expansion from the American South to the entire globe, highlighting the problems and benefits it brought to various people in uneven quantities, before collapsing in on itself as the display explains, “empires are bound to do.”

Visitors also learn about the twenty-first century literary figures Danielle Steele (no relation to the twenty-third century political assassin), and James Patterson (relation to the twenty-fourth century space explorer). There is even an exhibit talking about the early “smart phones.” People coo and awe, blinking their eyes as they capturing pictures to upload to their virtual streams.

“Look everyone! We’re at the Walmart World Heritage Site!”

The thoughts form, are released to the world, and slip into the collective consciousness.

In one “aisle” a visitor brags about how they and their partner have traveled to over twenty different World Heritage Sites. “Now, this is a great place and everything, definitely a symbol of culture, but if you really want to see something go to the Starbucks in Atlanta. It’s one of the few left in the world and they actually let you stand in line to get something to drink!”

A family from Tokyo nod their heads in interest.

“I mean, just think of it,” they continue, “having to wait in line for something? It really made me think about how our ancestors had to live. Absolutely amazing.”

“Well,” one of the Tokyo visitors replies, “that really is something, but we just got back from the Chennai Memorial.”

The woman stops and nods her head gravely.

“They have it set up so these invisible wires will play the voices of those who died in the attacks. It’s really eerie. Kind of like walking through a garden of the dead. In fact, we saw them installing the new hologram feature when we were there. Soon you won’t just hear what the people said on their phones during the attacks, but also the images that were captured. It will be just like you were there.”

In the aisle next to them people look at the displays of things called “bar codes.”

“This was a consumer society,” Janet informs them. “People of the past consumed to live, to enjoy, and to stabilize some of the specific national economies. As such, our ancestors here in the American Midwest, specifically, devised elaborate and sophisticated rituals to ship, display, and purchase goods. Our world heritage site is a testament to that history!”

There is also an exhibit that displays the ancient sign of—

bathroom

Janet tries to explain.

People ask repeated questions.

Janet tries to explain some more.

No one is able to understand.

Further from Janet is another reenactor, this one though does not wear a blue vest, but instead has a dark hooded sweater. The material is soft to the touch, and the reenactor’s pants are made from the same material, only it is a faded red.

“Yes, one of my ancestors was fairly active in this period,” the reenactor explains to a group of students. “They robbed— that’s stealing the money from people like Janet and Brad over there who worked for the commercial empires— several stores, just like this Walmart here, before being stopped by the law enforcement.” The reenactor continues, explaining that their dissertation, soon to be published by the prestigious McDonald’s Press, will argue these criminal figures where culturally necessary transgressions against the major commercial empires, so that the empires could foster a sense of fear and sympathy to legitimize their power over society.

The students listen in wonder, secretly thinking about how they would have fought the empires too if they had been alive in those ancient days.

“Although, my ancestor would not have necessarily robbed one of these stores,” the reenactor continues, gesturing toward the expansive warehouse market. “In fact, they targeted what were called ‘gas stations.’ Much smaller. Easier to manage. They took the money from nearly seven of those establishments before being caught by the government.” To illustrate further the reenactor puts on a mask from their pocket and pulls out a handheld weapon. The reenactor points it at Brad who is walking by and suddenly the weapon spits smoke as it screams to life.

The students recoil in morbid fascination, simultaneously enthralled yet horrified. Brad falls to the ground bleeding and screaming as the students blink their eyes rapidly.

Blink, blink, blink.

Click, click, click.

The entire scene unfolding for the world to witness.

“HELP!” Brad screams in pain. “HELP!”

“Where’s the mother fucking money!!!” the reenactor yells.

And then just as the violence unfolding in front of the crowd becomes too much, Janet intervenes, placing a stabilizer over Brad’s forehead, and the blood instantaneously reenters their body, the bullet holes evaporating one by one. The three stand, hold hands, and bow to the audience.

The crowd, by now not just the original students but also the family from Tokyo and the bragging frequent travelers, loves it. They have never seen anything quite like it before. One tourist adds to their visual upload, ‘Wow. I’ve seen reenactments before of battles at Gettysburg, and Okinawa, and Sydney, but nothing like this. The violence was so intimate.” Before posting the tourist adds a link to the reenactor’s ancestor, the one who robbed seven smaller “gas Walmarts,” and include archival footage of the ancestor’s court trial.

Towards the end of the day, before the site closes for the evening, Janet, Brad, and the reenactor tell the crowds that in just a few weeks they will be recreating an event called “Black Friday,” and that the tourists could, if they wanted, come and participate in the trampling of a Walmart team member. The audiences listen with fascination before returning to pushing the shopping carts around in frenzied circles, laughing as they nearly miss one another.

Finally, the families shuffle out to leave, stopping at a number of “fast food” recreations where they eat an authentic twenty-first century meal. They laugh at the grotesquely oversized drinks and bitterly salted fries. Children marvel at the hard plastic figurines that come with their food. Leaving, they see the final exhibit, a dedication to something called a “cart corral.” The sign openly admits historians don’t know why it was used, considering the store’s entrance was only a mere walk away. The sign concludes it is one of those many things lost to the sands of time.

 

 

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Cyber Pamphleteer: Imagined Stations, A Poem


 

They insert their hands in my mouth,

these passerby pedestrians in the in-between

electric places that simultaneously

exist but do not exist,

(much like a deceased living cat in a physics experiment),

and with errant fingers feel my tongue

reading my words like braille

chiseled on electric, hovering

boards of keys.

These strangers, bathed in

blue white light,

wade next to me

in pools of infinite connectivity.

 

And they like me,

and they share me,

and they give me plenitudes of hearts, thumbs, and

winking yellow faces,

never before seen in other realms

but the face of us now.

These are the coins

they flip casually into my digitally open

case, begging for money,

so as to receive art and wisdom.

 

Another cyber pamphleteer asks

if I think this is the end?

What, with our digital apocalypse

reigning down?

What about HUMAN CONNECTION!

He asks me, as we stand in those imagined stations,

What about THE COFFEE HOUSES!

What about THE PUBLIC SPHERE!

Where people used to,

supposedly it was supposed,

sit and

talk?

I reply that such a place had never existed,

or at least

did not exist in the existentialist crises

he now describes in

derision to the denizens of this digital

imaginative landscape.

 

 

No. We were still connected.

Children still laughed

Lovers still loved

Enemies…

 

Oh, you get the idea.

I turn back to my audience, the

busy people in busy businesses bustling by at

speeds that are achieved only via

advanced telephone technology stuff.

I’m not really sure how it works.

Like the newspaper

boys or pamphleteer

rabble rousers

of other centuries previous

who could not tell you the

first thing about Gutenberg

yet nonetheless screamed and yelled

at a world on fire with activity.

I am no different.

A direct descendant of writers who wrote

in a way that was never quite right

yelling, hollering, raising a ruckus

in places in-between there

and here

hoping to attract a small enough audience

to gain some noble notoriety.

An ideas salesman,

tacky clothed, going door to door,

into the minds of some stranger

knocking on their skull, and asking

if I could sit in their brains, beside

memories of loved ones,

and fears of untold horrible deeds.

 

Could, I? Trouble, them? Please?

 

And some did, momentarily,

allow my words to assimilate to their thoughts

changing them in chain link emails

with “!” points to get my “!” across.

 

A regular customer of my pamphlets

walks by in this digital place in-between

and I say hello,

and I see me

walking around in their heads

and quickly I begin to work.

I snip a part of my soul and graft

it onto a digital set

of information that begins

to bounce about in

electric excitement. HELLO!

My severed piece of soul says to me.

HELLO, I respond.

I stare at me and it stares back,

this marvelous technology of

writing inhabiting nothing

more than

free floating electricity.

WHAT NOW? My soul shard asks.

I explain. It is no longer me,

but a reflection of me.

Assuming it is not erased or

destroyed, as pamphlets often sometimes are, it will live on after I am dead.

WHOA… my soul shard says.

WHAT IF I AM ASKED QUESTIONS?

I tell it that I have tried to anticipate that,

but unfortunately it

will eventually be asked something

it cannot answer.

At which point it is to say,

politely of course,

WE DO NOT HAVE THE INFORMATION TO THAT.

They are a just a soul shard,

after all,

really only a verbally written hologram

of an organic being that will soon be dead.

They are a technology I have infused myself into.

DOES THAT MAKE SENSE? I ask.

YES, the soul shard responds, BUT ONLY BECAUSE YOU WROTE IT.

I reason their reason is reasonable,

and before the soul shard can share

another thought I hit “SEND”

and off it goes.

Living but dead,

a zombie cyborg.

And it burrows into the heads

of those passerby pedestrians

and I see it light up certain skulls,

like XMAS lights or NEON sale signs.

Some readers quickly throw the pamphlet away.

Others mull it over

for a moment and play with my soul.

A few tuck it away into the archives of their being.

Me, a member of their ontology,

adding a layer of new to their growing

archaeological phenomena

in our shared carbon conscious silicon existence.

 

 

 

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No History To Speak Of, No Place To Speak From

I often come across many authors and thinkers in my reading who argue writing their own history is an emancipatory practice. In other words, they believe that taking control of the narrative of their past is the first step in creating their own distinct identity, which allows for the development of a particular social and political philosophy.

I understand this argument. The violence of empires leaves us no other choice but to rip the pen from the hand of imperial historians and give it to the people who have been brutalized. Lions writing histories while telling the hunters to take a hike, and all that jazz. But for me, personally, I’ve never felt that way about my own personal history. In many ways, it terrifies me.

Why? Because, I suppose, I see writing down my own history as freezing the fluidity of who I am. Histories have a troubling tendency to become established tributaries to the present moment. Small streams to artificial lakes.

Who are we? We are the rapids in one time period coming to a rest. We are the foam of a particular waterfall easing back into the water. We are waves from someone else’s stone being skipped across the surface. We are change over time.

So, by hiding who our past selves are, by grounding ourselves in the present and in our future hopes, we don’t become the descendants of someone else, the sum at the end of a mysterious mathematician’s equation. We become the birthplace for a new era.

I am fully aware that this is a contradiction.

I’m a historian who feels more comfortable racing to the future than walking in the past. Is this just “white guilt”? Possibly. A good portion of my own collective history is one of being a direct descendant of colonists. Europeans, (some willing, many reluctant), were removed from one continent to work on another. I remember first reading about this history in graduate school. Historians like Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker challenged the older narratives I had been told. Many of my white ancestors had not come for “opportunity.” Instead, it was a longer history of forcing people out into the Atlantic World to create new profit for the newly emerging global capitalist system.

But, despite that, we were still colonists. We were the people who moved into areas, violently pushing others out of their homes and land.

+++

Growing up everyone, and I mean literally everyone, told people in my generation to get an education so we could transcend our socio-economic status.

We should be doctors, lawyers, educated elite people who didn’t have to work in the service industry, one of the last reliable ways of life in mountain towns and cornfield villages.

And some of us did just that. But the further we went with our education and the more we learned, the more we became alien to the very culture that produced us. Didn’t matter that Appalachia had produced its fair share of artists, thinkers, writers, teachers, and scientists (not to mention politically radical movements).

Ohio rural culture had swallowed the Kool-Aid. We were “hillbilly proud”! Our collective poverty not a social problem, but a feature that made us “more honest.” Apparently being on welfare, with poor health care, while white and with cows around you, made you some kind of “noble frontiersman.” Funny, since the same people who argued this thought being in the inner city, with darker skin, and the same socio-economic status, somehow made you a “social degenerate.” This was an attitude shared by both rural whites and many cultural elites. Better to be a “Son of the Earth.” It made you somehow more “honest and hardworking,” I guess.

Is it any wonder then that so many people from rural white communities end up feeling alienated from the very culture that produced them? When your entire education is predicated on the hope that you will “escape,” education and thoughtful expression cease to be the natural elements of that society, and instead become a rocket ship that is constantly struggling to break the gravitational pull of the past.

We create a situation that views a connection with the past as a failure, because conscious, educated understanding is supposed to leave that society once attained. It is the very foundation of the philosophy “get an education, and get out.”

Appalachians and small town Midwest denizens internalize this feeling, creating a popular cultural expression enslaved to the past, conservative in all respects.

+++

“Do you refer to Christian thought and belief as mythology in your classrooms?” I asked my friend Podge over coffee one day.

We had been having a conversation about one of the textbooks used in one of the introduction classes at Purdue. He was angry because the text had referred to Christian belief as “Christian mythology.” It was a swipe at the validity of religion, in his opinion.

I disagreed, but understood where he was coming from. It is hard to climb in the head of textbook authors, but anyone who knows anything about the scholarship around textbooks knows that they are as much historical documents as the documents we use to inform the textbooks in the first place.

Referring to Christian belief as “mythology” could be, and probably should be, read within the broader historical context of the so-called “Culture Wars” of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, where cultural conservatives and social liberals duked it out for dominance in educational materials. In that context there was “scientific fact” and “cultural belief.” Science equaled “truth,” while cultural belief, that is mythology, was synonymous with “fantasy.”

Podge told me as much. “Wes, science with its belief in unending, continuous progress is as much a myth as any system of religious beliefs.”

I didn’t disagree, but I told him, I thought the real issue was with the scientific materialists corrupting the word “mythology.”

“Myths shouldn’t be synonymous with ‘fake,’” I said. “Myths are just cultural stories we, as societies, tell ourselves to organize our universe. It gives us meaning because it claims to know where we came from, and where we are going.”

It is why I personally do refer to Christian belief as “Christian mythology” in classrooms. But I do so while trying to make my students understand that mythology is not interchangeable with “lies.”

It is not an easy thing to accomplish. In order for people to fully understand that Christianity is as much a system of mythology as Greek religious thought, or Norse belief, they have to first understand that everything we think as humans is historically constituted. There is no system of thought that is either permanent or forever-true.

Sorry, Plato. There are no absolute forms. Just historically constructed variations of ideas dependent on a time period. What is true in one era is false in another. What is basic common sense in one era is utter gibberish in another.

But, this is hard to understand. Why? Because the system of thought we currently live under is a powerful ideology. That’s a byproduct of the hegemonic power of modernity.

“Science” is one way of understanding our place in the cosmos. It orders the world, is open to change, and spins off both beautiful and often terrifying human creations. But science is not the only way of understanding human existence. Furthermore, it only exists if a culture believes in conceptions of historic progress, materialist reality, and human ability to accurately measure and observe said reality. That supposed “truth” is actually a house of clouds shifting through time. It will not always be with us. It will eventually change to the point that the new system of thought that comes from it no longer resembles the previous. Science, as a system of belief, actually is fully capable of understanding this feature of its existence. Evolution, one of the major achievements in thought for science, demonstrates this aspect of our shared reality.

We continually change until we are no longer that thing we used to be.

“Mythology” (categorized as a previous society’s way of understanding) is another way we do this. Myths are the cultural stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, our ancestors, and our future generations. It gives us meaning because it connects us with a collective past and common future.

Hercules slays the Hydra. Pandora opens a box. Nudists eat forbidden fruit. Prophets speak to gods. Gods visit wrath on people.

All of these communicate, a universe where humans are just a part of the cosmos. Often, they are not the most powerful in the story. They have choices, to be sure, but that choice is not radically free. Choices lead to new situations, which creates new conditions, which influences future states.

This is the basic principle of historic social change. We are the products of people and forces before us, not just our ancestors, but also large cosmological forces. We don’t pick our past, and we are only able to select a limited set of options for the future. Furthermore, simply because we choose and push for a certain social ordering, does not mean we will actually achieve it.

So, we walk about this world as modern actors with ancient understandings. We are a collage of various time periods.

Lincoln sits in a temple modeled off of Zeus.

Washington is remembered with an obelisk.

The so-called “canon wars” continue to rage in vital ways. Who we collectively deem as our legitimate authors for our civilization determines not only how we talk about ourselves, but it informs how we literally build the intellectual stage for our possible future actions.

It is why that argument of people writing their own histories is so important. Who we deem ourselves to be, and who argues that self-identity is the future’s beliefs, an eventual present’s truth, a probable past’s mythology.

Myths are powerful and they are important. Those stories matter.

But even as I understand this, I find it difficult to write about the past, present, and future of the culture that produced me. Much of what I’ve been told in my life says that in order to produce something worthwhile I should not focus on the factors that created me. Instead, I should look to another’s ideals. Not an archaeologist’s pick and shovel, but an astronaut’s star charts and rocket fuel.

Get out, don’t come back, escape and make a better life for yourself.

This is only complicated by the twin irrational argument that to do the very thing my education was supposed to do is to become arrogant, a know-it-all, an alien in one’s own home world.

What is my collective mythology, then? What orders the subset of the culture I come from?

+++

A few weekends ago my partner and I went home for a weekend visit. As we pulled off the highway I looked out the window at the valley farms, and changing landscape. Buildings I had known as a young person were beginning to decay and fall in on themselves. They were like collapsing black holes dotting the Ohio valley’s landscape, yet instead of gravity, history pulled them toward their destructive centers. Lack of funds and ability to keep up these 19th century homes and barns determined their fate. It was a perfect symbol for what I had been thinking about. History served as a point of destruction, violently pulling the past together until it was destroyed by its own weight. History did not radiate outward.

We drove past several older buildings and before pulling into my partner’s parent’s home, we saw a new barn being built by an Amish family. It was a sign that human civilization in this area would continue, but that it would look different from what we had known.

Perhaps that is just a common state of affairs for all people. But as we crossed the final stream to pull into our destination I thought about how that stream eventually led to the largest artificial lake in the area.

Back in 1937 the federal government had entered the area and drastically changed the landscape. Taking the various swamps and floodplains of the Ohio valley region, the New Deal organizations had flooded close to 3,000 acres of land creating “Seneca Lake.” It was one of the permanent features of my childhood. Every day to get to school involved a half an hour drive around that lake on a school bus.  

The New Deal, one of this nation’s most celebrated ventures into social democracy, had radically altered the landscape of our homes. If you ask most people, especially the tourists who come during the summers, the lake is one of the most beautiful features of the landscape. But we ignore this history, just like we ignore the radical coal miners who fought wars against corporate capital. We ignore this history and instead opt to believe that our area is essentially conservative. Bodies for the masses needed by reactionary movements. Such collective aspirations make people like me unreadable to their home culture. We are placed on starships and told to fly as fast as we can, and then are slightly scorned for doing so.

We drive around the floodplains of social democracy and grasp at what mythological figures we are. What mythological figures we could be. I suppose it will be determined by those who have the wherewithal to write about it.

 

 

 

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The Waiting Room

tumblr_nhgbj964ow1tkbam3o1_1280

God waited for the end of the universe. God had begun existence lonely, and God would end it the same way. Scanning the universe once more, God was not surprised to find no sentient being left to talk with. At this late hour in the universe, everything had shrunk down to the size of a galaxy. Within the next few moments the entire universe would violently contract once more, this time to the size of a large solar system.

God tried once again to spread its awareness beyond the great mass collected on the horizon but could not. God had never been able to go beyond the universe. Even in the time of expansion, when the universe had raced across empty space, God had only been able to know what was on its side of existence.

Turning back to the sole remaining galaxy, God listened to the flowers that grew on a particular planet with no name. In an attempt to attract herbivores, the flowers had evolved a curious organ in the interior of their petals. When the wind blew through them they released a beautiful humming noise, bringing massive floating grazers who chomped the flowers with their mouths. The floating grazers loved the flower and stems, but found the roots to be bitter, and therefore spit the roots back out as they sailed above the planet’s orange-red fields. Scattered about, the roots began to regenerate into new flowers, and so the whole process was repeated.

Many times, God had taken the form of the floating grazers and sailed in their large herds, hunting the beautiful melodies.

But alas, in just a few moments the gentle grazers and delicate flowers would cease to exist. Suddenly the universe trembled again, more violent then it ever had before. God braced itself as all of existence began to contract.

+++

            God had not always gone without creatures to talk to. At the universe’s height, it had been teeming with life forms that not only talked, but sang, screeched, wailed, honked, exploded, and chirped.

That was not to mean that God was always successful in communicating with the other life forms in the universe, or that the conversations ever amounted to anything. Quite the contrary, most of the time the interaction resulted in disaster for the species in question.

One of the first species God tried to talk to was a fascinating species of intelligent, mobile rocks. The universe had been young in those days; God had been around for barely a trillion years, but it had grown bored from watching matter race away towards the horizon and seeing giant clouds of gas ignite and explode. So when God had finally discovered another sentient being, it had been overjoyed with excitement.

Manifesting before a particular piece of slate, God began the very first conversation in the universe.

“Hello,” God said.

Startled, the piece of slate looked up from its meal of alkaline metals.

“Who said that?”

“It’s me,” God answered, feeling very proud of itself. “What is your name?”

Of course, God already knew the answer to its question. Being God it could trace every single one of the creature’s atoms back to the creation of the universe. But God thought that showing off its long ability to see would be rude.

“They call me Grag,” the piece of slate answered.

This whole conversation thing is easy. God thought.

Looking more closely at God, Grag asked what it had been wanting to know its entire existence. “So the others were right? You do exist?”

“Uh…” God said. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“You are the All-Powerful Mountain, which sprang forth in the beginning to give life to all of us.”

“Oh,” God answered. “Well, not exactly. On your planet, the idea is popular that an All Powerful Mountain gave birth to your people, but that isn’t exactly what happened.”

“I knew it!” Grag shouted. “The Pinnacle Rocks have been lying to us all these years.”
“Well,” God said, “I think they are just honestly mistaken.”

“No,” Grag insisted. “They shattered a piece of quartz last season for denying the existence of the Mountain.”

“Yes,” God said uncomfortably. “I saw that. But you know, what’s done is done. You can’t go back and change it.”

“NO!” Grag yelled. “I will show the Pinnacle Rocks that they are mistaken. I will go to my people and tell them that you have blessed me with your truth. I will be your messenger, and I will- through your glory- spread the truth!”

With that, Grag turned away from God and began rolling away as fast as he could.

“Wait!” God shouted after him. “Come back! I only wanted to talk with you! Maybe we could discuss the weather or something else?”

But Grag would have no part of it. Every other member of the rock species that God spoke to reacted in the same way, until the entire race was at war with one another.

Horrified, God watched as the first intelligent species destroyed itself. Years after its first encounter God witnessed the final rock creature killing its last enemy. As it lay shattered before its base, God once again materialized on the planet.

“What have you done?” God asked.

“Oh, Crystalline Savior! The struggle is finally over, the non-believers have been vanquished. I am ready to reap my rewards.”

“Reward!?” God asked. “Why would I give you a reward? You just murdered one of the last of your kind.”

“But it is written that once the non-believers are destroyed, you will come back and take all that are faithful, polish them, and set them in the heavens to shine down for eternity.”

Following his gaze God looked up at the stars.

“Don’t you get it?” God asked. “There is no eternity with me. Once you die the material you are made of moves to a different state in the universe. That’s all that happens.

“How can I take you anywhere but here? You couldn’t survive on any of the other planets but this one. Where do you want me to take you? A nebula? What would you stand on? Or a frozen moon? Without an atmosphere of helium you would suffocate.”

God finished speaking and sat down in frustration.

“If you are not here to reward me, then what shall we do?”

“Well,” God said looking up in hope, “maybe we could just talk?”

The last rock creature looked at God for a moment and then started to laugh.

“I see, you are not the true God, but are instead the Dark Ravines messenger sent to test my resolve. Very good trickster, but you will not fool me. I will remain dedicated to the Crystalline Savior until he rewards me my thirty blue pebbles and immortality.”

With that, God vanished from the planet, never to return.

+++

            God gazed at the universe once more. The violent contracting had ceased for the moment but it was only a matter of time before it started again. The next time would probably be the last.

The cosmos had been concentrated on the rim of existence, but as it had shrunk, there was now not enough room. Bits of planets and rocks hurtled through burning stars. Comets and balls of gas, previously separated by light years, were side by side. Black holes, no longer isolated in space, were violently sucking everything towards them.

Materializing on one of the few intact planets, God looked up at the sky in wonder. God had chosen a female Ipswitch to inhabit, mostly because their sense of sight had been unparalleled in the universe. Training her seven eyes on the heavens she watched as millions of objects whizzed by.

Materializing on the surface of an oncoming black hole, God chose the form of a male Spobler, mostly because their sense of sound was exhilarating. Every noise the giant ears picked up created an explosion of color in God’s temporary brain.

Slam, crimson; Crash, yellow; Boom; violet!

Staring at the black hole, her Ipswitch eyes spotted the Spobler.

Straining his Spobler ears, he heard the planet begin to break apart.

Then God appeared between the two forms of itself as a Zezir. Their species were fascinating. They took the noises and sights of the universe and turned them into elaborate interstellar dances. At the species height, they had been one of the most populous in the universe, dancing in the void of worlds. God had often wondered who they danced for, since God and passing comets were the only beings whoever saw them.

Awesome images of destruction danced in her Ipswitch eyes. Terrifying sounds lit up all hemispheres of his Spobler brain. Their Zezir plasma limbs twisted, listening and corkscrewing in ways that communicated the slow loss of space in an infinite loop.

And then it was over. The forms were destroyed and God was returned to its formless self.

God thought about creating a pair of lungs so it could sigh a breath of despair, or a pair of eyes to sob, but decided against it. Nothing would change its feeling of hopelessness.

God was going through one of the most terrifying experiences a life form could witness and had no one to comfort it.

But this had been the story of God all along. No form was ever able to fully understand God. Even the ones that did not destroy themselves were unable to satisfy God’s desire for camaraderie.

But as everything was being destroyed, God could not help but want someone to talk with. And not only talk, but also listen and understand what God was going through.

Although God had done so many times before, each time proving to be unsatisfying, God decided to give it one more try. Concentrating all of its power, God duplicated itself.

“Hello,” God said to God.

“Hello,” answered God.

“This is absolutely terrifying,” God observed.

“Tell me about it.”

“I would, but you already know everything I’m going to say.”

“Right.”

Both of them said nothing for a few moments and awkwardly watched a star go supernova in an area the size of small moon.

“So,” God said finally breaking the silence. “Do you really think that we will cease to exist when the universe is done contracting?”

“I do,” God answered. “Or at least we will cease to exist in our present forms. I can’t fathom that we will be able to survive in that small of a space.”

“Terrifying,” God said.

“Tell me about it,” God replied.

“I would but you… well you know.”

“Right.”

Again, the two became silent.

“You know what we need,” God finally said.

“What?”

“We need a Centapadial.”

“Funny, I was just thinking that.”

“I know,” God answered.

+++

The Centapadials had been one of the few creatures in the universe that had not destroyed themselves once God spoke to them. Long, slender, and delicate the Centapadials had possessed elongated brains that made them extremely intelligent. For millions of years they crawled about their planet living peaceful lives. They never evolved appendages that could manipulate their environments, so they never invented cities. And since they never invented cities, they never needed to have governments to organize them. And since they never invented governments, they never needed weapons to gain more power for those governments.

They were just a highly intelligent creature that enjoyed exploring their world and talking with one another.

God had spent many centuries on the Centapadial’s world, crawling with them, and having discussions. Eventually, though, the Centapadials had died out. A fungus on their world had evolved a deadly spore that infected the Centapadials brains, and slowly rotted them from the inside out. Watching them perish by the millions, God eventually offered its help. The few remaining Centapadials had listened to God’s offer, and after some consideration decided against accepting the divine intervention.

“You have been an interesting acquaintance,” one of the Centapadials said as they slowly died. “But our time in the cosmos is done. Everything must come to an end at some time.”

“But, you have been one of the best companions that I have ever met.”

“Unfortunately, my dear acquaintance, you have no companions. You are one of a kind, and just as it is our nature to exist, then disappear, it is your nature to continue existing alone.”

With that the Centapadial slumped over, and succumbed to the fungus raging through their body.

Unable to watch such magnificent creatures continue to suffer God left the world. Eons later God gave into temptation and tried to create new Centapadials, but eventually their sound reasoning always arrived at the same conclusion: they should not be in the universe anymore and God should accept God’s fate.

+++

During these final moments of the universe however, God did not care. It simply wanted someone to talk to in the hopes of calming the rising panic.

“Okay,” God said. “You concentrate on creating a solid place for it to crawl. I’ll make a breathable atmosphere.”

“Alright,” God said once they had finished. “Now you protect it from any other objects.”

“Already done,” God replied. Both watched as an entire asteroid belt bounced off the protective barrier they had created.

“Good, keep that up and I will make the Centapadial.”

Concentrating God created the Centapadial. Bursting into existence the new companion began to crawl back and forth on its planetary aquarium.

“Hello,” God said. “How are you?”

“I…I don’t know,” the Centapadial answered. “I was just created for artificial conversation. How should I be? Since you created me, you would have a better understanding of that than me.”

“See,” God said to God. “Nothing like the clarity of a Centapadial’s thoughts.”

Ignoring itself, God answered the Centapadial.

“You should probably be terrified.”

“Oh. And why is that?”

“Because the universe and everything in it is about to be destroyed.”

“Will it be painful?”

“Most likely, yes.” Both Gods answered.

“I see. Well then to answer your original question, I am terrified.”

All three creatures sat quietly for a few moments. Finally one of the Gods spoke.

“This really isn’t all that comforting.”

“I didn’t think it would be,” God replied.

“Sorry,” the Centapadial answered. “Is there any way I can help?”

“Not really.” Both Gods answered.

“Well then what should we do?”

“We’ll just have to wait,” the Gods echoed.

“Will waiting help ease our fear?”

“Actually,” God said as God began to think, “there was one creature I remember who could make waiting for something very monotonous.” Looking at the other God, God asked, “Do you remember the humans?”

“Yes, of course I do.”

“And do you remember their waiting rooms?”

“Yes.”

“Well, let’s create a waiting room and a human to go along with it. I always marveled how humans took horrible situations at their hospitals and made them bearable by waiting in boring rooms.”

“Do we have anything to lose?” The Centapadial asked.

“Not really,” both of the Gods answered.

“Then we should give it a try.”

“Clear Centapadial thinking,” God said to itself. “Nothing like it in the universe.”

“Okay,” God said. “Here it goes.”

Just as God was about to create the waiting room and the human, the universe shuddered so violently that God felt space and time begin to tear.

“Help!” The Centapadial shouted, but it was too late. The force of the universe tore the safe habitat to bits and thrust both Gods closer together.

“Oh no,” God said to itself.

All around them matter had ceased to retain any meaningful form. Mass became energy only to condense back into mass. Light radiated and ricocheted to and fro in terrible bursts of heat.

“I don’t think there is enough room for the both of us,” God said.

“I agree.”

And with that the two Gods became one once again.

Alone, God began to panic.

Make it stop! God thought as the universe pushed in even tighter. Please!

For the first time in its existence God wished there were a higher being in the universe, one that could hear its prayers. But nothing came.

Staring at the center of the universe, feeling the walls of existence closing in, God tried to push existence back. Nothing happened.

The most terrifying thought racing through God’s mind was not that it was about to die, that at least would have an ending, but that the whole thing was just getting ready to start all over.

It didn’t take a Centapadial’s rationality to figure out that God had once came into the cosmos ignorant of everything in existence, and that this beginning had probably been prefaced with a similar destruction of the universe. If it had happened once, it had happened before that, and before that, and before that. An eternity of being born, existing, violently dying, only to repeat the whole process again.

God wanted out. It couldn’t contemplate spending another eternity watching other creatures live, love, laugh, and die. God was horrified at the prospect of being stuck in a never-ending story, a continuous loop.

Can anyone hear me! God thought with all of its might. Can anyone help me!

            In response, the universe gave its final shudder.

NO! God thought.

+++

In one single moment, all of existence occupied a space no larger than a speck of dust. It had done this countless times before, and would do it countless times again.

Just as the whole of existence was beginning to feel comfortable in its tight quarters something awoke. With a tiny nudge, God sent the entire universe into a violent explosion. Racing along at the front of the spreading wave, God marveled at what it was seeing. In all directions, it watched as the universe expanded and disappeared into space and time.

Fascinating, God thought.

Silent for over a thousand years, God watched a beautiful nebula take form and light up with explosions. Gliding through the universe it saw stars spark and begin to burn, planets violently slam into one another, only to reform at a later date. After roughly a trillion years God began to feel lonely.

Curiously, it began to look for someone in which to speak.

 

 

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Flesh Inaugurate

wes-painting
Painting by Wes Bishop

The other day I was riding in the car with my friend and colleague Angela Potter, and we began discussing how popular views of health, genetics, and modern material reality shaped everyday thinking and belief. We had just come from giving papers on a panel together at the Indiana Association of Historians. The topic? The public sphere, both as a tool of historical analysis and popular phrase in everyday speech. Angie’s paper had been an exploration of how sex education had been represented (and often misrepresented) in school texts. My paper had been on the intellectuals of World War One in the US, and how their debates could provide a better understanding of what the public sphere actually was in a democracy.

The panel’s Q and A had quickly turned to one of the questions that had been discussed at length in the keynote and other conference panels— were we living in a “post truth” era?

Our answer— No. Absolutely, not. Or more to the point, there never had been a “truth” era to begin with. Instead, the public sphere had always been a loose collection of ideas, cultural biases, and socio-political beliefs. Its why, we argued, sex and human anatomy could be portrayed in the public sphere’s print so bizarrely mangled.

Calling for a return to a period of agreement was ahistorical, and furthermore, ignored dangerous aspects of how many western democratic public spheres developed at the expense of the most marginalized in society.

Angie and I began talking about how some of the questions had wondered if basic physical reality could serve as the foundation of a “truth” era in politics. Surely, one questioner had pondered, we could all agree at least that there was a physical reality?

No, our panel said. Such an agreement would not do much good.

As we went over the questions again, Angie and I began discussing how even a physical reality led to differing views on the self, society, and our place in the cosmos. Specifically, we began discussing genetics, heredity, and how that shaped the individual. We both agreed genetics in many ways served as the modern embodiment of magical curses.

Why do some diseases and disorders persist? DNA. Like a curse on a family it passes itself on to generation after generation. The things we fear may happen, the fear of our fate in other words, resides in our cells. It flows in our blood. It is fate, working on our lives from some unknown realm.

+++

My grandfather died with his brain riddled with Alzheimer’s.

Throughout his life he had been a child miner in WV during the Depression, a veteran of the Korean War, and a longtime advocate for labor unions. But he was more than these things. In many ways these facts, although they shaped him profoundly, were historical markers on his physical body. On his own volition he also had a deep thirst for knowledge. Abstract thinking. Scholarly knowledge about the world and his surroundings.

I will never forget how when I began taking geometry in school he lit up with excitement when I brought my homework to his house for a visit.

“Euclid!” He said in excitement. He then took my book and began to page through it with eagerness. Stopping over a few equations, he read them like they were magic spells with some innate power. Then he turned to me and began going on about how he had read a book on Euclid recently, why Euclid and his field was so important, and how lucky I was to be studying it.

That was how excited my grandfather could become with knowledge. To him it was a magical realm where reality was transformed by ideas. It could transfer you anywhere, instantaneously.

It was why it was so hard to watch him slowly die as a genetic disease systematically dismantled his mind. It was a sad irony that as I was able to talk to him more deeply about ideas and issues in academics and politics he was losing his ability to do so. The last time I saw him (outside of a hospital) he just stared at me with uncertainty, not sure who I was or why I was at his home.

There was little hope then that he would know who Euclid was.

+++

My partner Allison and I had our DNA tested a few years ago. We did this mostly as people interested by thinkers like Henry Louis Gates Jr. who had popularized the practice as a way to connect with history.

Ultimately, we found some fascinating information about our backgrounds. For instance, I share a bizarrely high amount of genetic material and markers that relates me to Neanderthal people. Hence my lovely pronounced eyebrow ridge, which makes me look perpetually angry unless I walk around with my eyebrows raised as if surprised by some unseen force.

But besides this, the testing center also calculated the probability of certain health risks. They did this solely on looking at genetic material, figuring statistics, and providing a rough estimate. It was as close to palm reading one could get in a science lab.

Opening my profile I was taken to a red ominous page that demanded I absolve the testing center from any legal action once I learned what awaited me on the other side. Pandora’s Box with a lawyer present.

I clicked “yes” and continued. There, like a grim wizard, was the ghost of my grandfather passing along the curse. 95-99℅ likelihood of developing dementia. My brain would almost certainly continue forging new synaptic pathways until it strangled itself. Like a garden given over to a vicious strain of weeds.

I don’t regret having my DNA mapped, but I certainly take Angie’s observation about curses and science to heart. It both terrifies me, and saddens me to think that others will most likely have to watch that process of mental degradation happen to me. As someone who enjoys reading, debating, and writing about ideas I can’t help but picture my grandfather staring at me blankly. A man who once got so excited by a high school textbook that he sat with his grandson to do equations, he was no longer even able to recognize what room he was in.

What does this belief in physical reality get us? To be sure it is a base line most modern people prescribe to, but outside of that does this common core of thinking predict how people will react to the knowledge of their more than likely fate?

No. Not really. For that we have to look to personal philosophies, religious and spiritual outlooks, and past experiences.

I am still young, so I can treat this reading of the divining stones in my blood as an afterthought. No doubt it will take on pressing urgency the older I get, when death becomes more of a put-off meeting in a planner than some rumored far-off land.

But I don’t want to be defined by my death, any more than I want to be defined by a potential disorder. My grandfather loved Euclid. He rose through one of the most incredible periods of US history to raise a family, and his grandson now has the luxury to study not just Euclid but entire universes of past societies. We are not solely our history, just as we are not a singular event, like our death.

There is little use in running from, or raging at fate (although it is perfectly fine, and sometimes quite healthy, to do so). Curses and science have never cared too much about human desire.

Where do we place our politics then? Is it in the project of creating a commensurable public where politics spring forth from a basic belief in the material world? Such a state is not unimportant, but it is hardly the most important. Although scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson have argued that such a state would potentially save us, I think it does a great disservice to the myriad and beautifully diverse ways humans have developed to thrive in the material world.

I obviously would gladly take any treatment that cures me of a disease like dementia, but if I have learned anything from literature it is that those who become consumed by their curse are truly the ones who are destroyed. The evil magic wins in total, because the curse touches and destroys all aspects of that person’s life. We see it in those who run, those who try to cheat it, and those who sacrifice their very being to try and get out.

We stand in this physical world, supposedly the stage that gives us all meaning. But the next step, the next word, and the next thought determines who we are. It differentiates us. It divides us as beings who must operate in the world imperfectly. That is where our politics start. Not at the base of physical reality, but in the articulation of aspiration.

The interior of my skull continues to buzz at a million miles a minute. It is the seat of my very being, my tether to the physical world. But it is not the only thing I am. We inaugurate our flesh, and in the process must liberate our souls.

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Where We Build Our Rebellions: Review of ‘Rogue One’ and the Political Ethics of Star Wars

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By now most have seen Disney’s latest installment of Star Wars. The first of the “standalone” films, Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance learns of the evil Empire’s plot to build a planetary destroying weapon, how they discover there is a fatal flaw in the designs of said weapon, how they plot to steal its plans, and how they ultimately give hope to the fledgling rebels.

The movie has been widely praised by critics who were excited to see a film in the franchise which focused on the “little guys” who actually fought the rebellion, sacrificed their lives, and made it possible for the semi-aristocratic Skywalker family to decide the fate of the whole galaxy.

Also, the moral ambiguity of the rebels fascinated critics and viewers alike. These “heroes” were the children of imperial collaborators who assisted in the creation of the Death Star. They were terrorists who lived on the outskirts of civilization and tortured would-be informants. Deserters from the empire who had done horrible things in the name of duty. These “heroes” shot unarmed civilians to save themselves, and continue the mission. For a story whose universe is premised on the idea that there is an evil, dark side, and a good, light side to morality, these rebelling freedom fighters were a much deeper shade of gray.

“Let me ask you,” a colleague asked over coffee after seeing the film, “how do you feel about the rebellion now?”

We were discussing the best way to teach the Atlantic World Revolutions in introductory history survey courses, and were toying with the idea of using the example of Rogue One as a reference to show students that dividing the “good” revolutions (like the American), and the “bad” revolutions (like the Haitian and French) was a false dichotomy.

“I want my students to understand that revolutions, and rebellions are often built on violence and contradictions,” I said. Continuing, I explained, “Obviously, not always, but certainly there is a frequency there. I want them to understand this, because after the Atlantic World we go over Cuba, China, South Africa, Vietnam, etc. in the 20th century, and I always hear the same line, ‘Why did those revolutions have to be so violent?’”

We both agreed that this was no fault of any student.

Instead, it reflected larger political and cultural attitudes. In 2010 we saw such a cultural bias with the televangelist Pat Robertson arguing Haiti’s revolution was based on Satanic worship, and therefore, the country could expect eternal hardship. Like earthquakes. Because apparently that is what the devil does after sponsoring rebels God has abandoned to slavery and colonialism. Go figure.

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Likewise, in 2012 former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum argued that the French Revolution was “bad” because it produced tyranny, not liberty. This was opposed to the American Revolution, he reasoned, which was supposedly orderly, neat, controlled, and grounded in good capitalist principles, like ownership of property. Revolution, minus all that messy revolt part.

Of course these attitudes are ahistorical and uninformed. Comparing Voodoo to Satan worship and then blaming it for earthquakes is a Christian centric view of culture, not to mention a major contradiction to things like, you know, geology. Likewise, the countless Loyalists in the British colonies would have loved to hear how “violence,” “loss of property,” and “terror” did not exist in the Revolutionary War. Maybe it would have made their fleeing to Canada more enjoyable.

The revolutions of the Atlantic World in the 18th and 19th centuries, just like the revolutions in other parts of the world in the 20th, were violent events. They represented a rupture in ordered society, and came about precisely to create new social orderings. I am always hesitant to jump on board with my fellow historians of American history who argue the American revolution was “more conservative” and therefore “less violent,” because for many that simply was not the case. The westward expansion the Revolutionary War allowed was hardly “peaceful,” and therefore the American revolution, like many other major revolts, led to an extended period of uneasiness, instability, and prolonged violence.

And we, as Americans, generally honor this violent revolt in our culture. I believe this is an important distinction to make to students. Americans, for all our claims to be shocked and appalled by violence, have a bizarre way of celebrating it. Which always leads me to argue with students that “violence” isn’t really the issue many have with Mao, or Castro, or Ho Chi Minh. The issue is the political ideology they espoused, and how it fit into larger schemes of US international power. In other words, we care less about the violence, and more about how that violence challenges national interests.

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The more I thought about teaching the revolutions, the more I realized Star Wars, and not just Rogue One, really did help us understand that. There is a kind of false belief that Star Wars in general is Star Trek, only dumbed down. Whereas the intrepid crew of the Starship Enterprise permits a complicated, and extended story of how the liberal public sphere operates (each new voyage producing new cultures that go through a cycle of conflict, understanding, and resolution), Star Wars automatically resorts to violence to accomplish its goals. This is partly an aspect of the storyline. Star Trek is about diplomacy and exploration, Star Wars is more about a generations long militaristic period for political control over the galaxy.

But this difference does not mean Star Wars is simplistic in its views of morality. Sure, there is the “light” and “dark” side, but even in the first three films (New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi) we are repeatedly told that morality is subjective.

In explaining himself to Luke, Obi Wan Kenobi tells him “truth” is predicated on one’s “point of view.” This seems like a lame attempt for Kenobi’s to cover for lying about trying to kill Anakin, but there is more going on. There is good and evil in the universe. Make no mistake. Furthermore, the behavior one exhibits can be generated by personal fear, anger, and pain. All of these things lead to further negativity, and ultimately destruction.

What Obi Wan, Yoda, and the other Jedi try to live by is an understanding that everyone can have a justification for what they do. That is why the “dark side” is so dangerous. It doesn’t pull up to people and advertise its evilness. It wriggles its way into people’s thinking. It latches onto legitimate, healthy desires. It corrupts from the inside out. This is the real danger of the Sith. From their point of view they are being “truthful.” Palpatine, Anakin, Dooku, and the other phantom menaces to the Jedi’s order want power, but the things they want to do— bring order to political chaos, save the people they love, end the hypocritical Jedi— are all predicated on a kind of absolute moral relativism.

When Palpatine talks to Anakin he tries to convince him that the Jedi just offer a competing view of the force. Broaden one’s mind, accept that there is no real good or bad, just different points of view, and everything will work out fine. What happens is the Sith take this to its logical conclusion. If there is no “good” or “evil,” if the light side and dark side are just two sides to the same coin, take your pick, then why not embrace the power of the dark side? All that Jedi stuff is just holding one back. It’s hypocritical, Palpatine argues, but more importantly it prevents one from fully realizing one’s unchecked desires.

The Jedi, and those who fight against the forces of tyranny, also understand that there are multiple views to morality and ethics, hence understanding that truth is based on “certain point of view,” but instead of taking this understanding and completely abandoning any pretense for ethics, the Jedi attempt to live with that ambiguity, do good, and practice as much as possible a life of selfless compassionate service to others.

Their strength, in other words, is not based on moral rigidness or absolutism. Instead, it is based on a complex understanding. There are multiple points of view, but there is still right and wrong. The point is not to abandon this contradiction, but to work through it, acknowledging that all have the capacity for good and evil.

We see this in how the political behaviors of particular characters play out in the prequel films Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith. Although critics roundly criticize these films, they are fascinating pop culture references to corruption in politics, problems in representative democracy, and how parliamentary procedures and bureaucracy strangle the work of democratic societies.

From the beginning, we see the Old Republic’s Senate as a hopelessly obsolete and dysfunctional system of government. Economic entities, like the Trade Federation, are treated as voting members (corporations are people, anyone?). Furthermore, the profits of these interstellar corporations can be put above the concern of actual people. That is why in the opening of Phantom Menace we see the Senate send two Jedi to “negotiate” (read: strong-arm) the Federation into lifting a legal blockade of Naboo. This leads to all kinds of shenanigans, with eventually the leadership of the planet escaping and petitioning the Senate to do something to help.

But our first experience with the Senate is troubling. Not just because it is a hopeless maze of bureaucracy, but because this is supposedly the seat of democratic government. Princesses, queens, princes, and aristocratic lords and ladies make up the voting members of the Senate.

Furthermore, we learn how the Jedi operate. They roam the galaxy searching for force sensitive children to be taken away from their homes and inducted into a religious and military institute. There they will learn how to use their abilities to kill, manipulate, and force inhabitants of the galaxy into doing what the aristocratic Senate says must be done.

This arrangement between the Jedi and the Senate is never an easy one. Yoda and Mace Windu repeatedly complain and question the effectiveness of the Senate. Not because of its corruption or feudal flavor, but because they take too long to deliberate, they are ambitious, and worse, they are not force sensitive Jedi. They have more faith in their religion, and their private religious institute, than they do the very government they are supposed to be protecting.

Obi Wan, too, complains frequently that one cannot, as an absolute rule, trust politicians.

“And don’t forget, she’s a politician,” he tells Anakin when discussing their old friend Padme, “they’re not to be trusted.”

Continuing, Obi Wan criticizes Palpatine and the entire economics of the government, “It’s been my experience that Senators are only focused on pleasing those who fund their campaigns… and they are more than willing to forget the niceties of democracy to get those funds…Palpatine’s a politician. I’ve observed that he is very clever at following the passions and prejudices of the Senators.”

How noble, then, are the Jedi? Is there not a horrible flaw in their supposedly serene existence as they give weapons to abducted children and tell them to fight for a corrupt government?

Some could argue this, and in the films the Sith do. The Jedi’s are weak hypocrites, afraid of their own power. The Sith have transcended this state of being, embracing the concept that truth is predicated on a certain point of view, and therefore their might makes them right.

Palpatine:  Remember back to your early teachings. “All who gain power are afraid to lose it.” Even the Jedi.
Anakin Skywalker: The Jedi use their power for good.
Palpatine: Good is a point of view, Anakin. The Sith and the Jedi are similar in almost every way, including their quest for greater power.
Anakin Skywalker: The Sith rely on their passion for their strength. They think inward, only about themselves.
Palpatine: And the Jedi don’t?

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Mumia Abu-Jamal in the anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements has an essay titled “Star Wars and the American Imagination.” In it he argues that the historic significance of George Lucas’s original films was that it permitted defeated Americans reeling from Vietnam to reimagine themselves as the rebels.

“America, the Empire, didn’t like its role (at least among its young). It wanted to reimagine itself as it wanted to be, as it had claimed to be in its infancy against a cruel and despotic king in the late eighteenth century.

“It reshaped itself into the rebels, not the imperial overlords.”

“It shaped itself as oppressed, fighting for freedom.”

Abu-Jamal is correct. We see this clearly in Rogue One.

Travelling to Jedha City, Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor become involved in a street firefight, with tanks being destroyed with IEDs and rocket propelled bombs. The entire scene looks like something out of the Hurt Locker, and it is here we see Abu-Jamal’s thesis in full force.

Reeling from the imperial wars in the Middle East, the American audience gets to reimagine itself as the oppressed. Erso even wears a scarf that is strikingly similar to a hijab.

It is a fascinating, and shows that for all the hand wringing of moderate Americans about violence, that our mainstream culture has the ability to champion violence, but only when we can imagine “ourselves” as the perpetrators of that violence, justified in our own perceived oppression.

Others, if they are led by someone opposed to US interests, is too violent.

Enter again the Santorum argument about our revolutions being orderly and neat.

All of this would seem to imply that the biggest takeaway from Star Wars and our current politics is that Americans are hypocrites. We, and especially white, upper middle class America, are part-time pacifists. Decrying violence when it is Baltimore in flames, but cheering as necessary the bombing of Baghdad.

There is no denying that many Americans have a fast and loose relationship with conceptualizing violence. But, I argue, there is a deeper lesson to be had from the Star Wars films.

Specifically, it comes from the moral ambiguity many of its characters, especially in Rogue One, operate under. Watching them all in order (and yes, as a nerd I have done this) you see a universe filled with people charged with trying to figure out correct ethical action. Rogue One was precisely so interesting because it embraced that aspect of the story. These were no angels. They were traitors to their government and violent freedom fighting terrorists.

But this moral ambiguity, or I should say, these questionable actions and behaviors the characters engage in did not mean that they were free to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. They attempted to live by some overarching sense of right and wrong. The difficulty of moral behavior was not an excuse to abandon the project. Violence and killing people were bad, but… and here the complications arose.

Was it really wrong to kill servicemen in the Empire, if those same servicemen were going to fly the Death Star around, pulling up to planets, and reign down death and destruction? Was it wrong to kill one to save many? At the end of the film Princess Leia blasts off into space having left the rebels who sacrificed so much to die, just so the rebellion could continue. Was this ethical?

There is no simple answers to these questions, and that is the point. Rebellions against tyrannical governments do not produce angels and saints, despite our efforts to whitewash our own into respectable portraits on money.

Rebellions, resistances, and revolutions produce political actors. It creates people struggling for a certain social state. We can never say the ends justify the means, but the ends are extremely important. It is what separates us from rebels trying to restore democracy, and emperors gleefully building weapons to commit mass genocide.

Political change, in other words, produces moral ambiguity and multiple perspectives, while maintaining a basic dichotomy of good and evil.

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Not just in the context of the Atlantic Revolutions are these lessons pertinent, which is why (aside from being a good film), I think Rogue One has resonated with so many, and angered others like the neo-fascist “Alt-Right.” The neo-fascist movement has attempted to capitalize on much of the language of the New Left, specifically this idea of cultural relativism and cultural identity. Yet, even though we can say there are multiple points of view, we can discern that there is a major difference between black nationalism and white supremacy. Not only are the methods different (no small distinction), but the very stated goal is different. The New Left’s cultural ideas were and are based on a commitment to the liberation of oppressed people. The white supremacists not only embrace said oppression, they demand they be in charge of it. Rebels and empires.

This is the easy lesson to gain for many leftists, but the more complicated one, and the one many are so unwilling to accept, is the moral ambiguity and conflicting nature of government and society. For all of its faults the Old Republic was not the Galactic Empire. Maddening bureaucracy, corruption, and endless argument and dispute was not the same as totalitarian rulers who destroyed entire planets. There is a difference here, and it is one the 21st century should take seriously. We have simultaneously created political offices with huge amounts of power in our governments while also creating large arsenals of weapons capable of planetary holocaust. How we govern (and hopefully, eventually, dismantle) said systems is a very important question. Merely saying the various political figures, political ideologies, and political parties are “all the same” because they are all produced by the same society is almost Sith like in its embrace of relativity. If we cannot discern between the stated goals of one entity and another, then we forfeit both wisdom, and our ability to be conscious political actors.

It leads us to a very dangerous political nihilism where there is no real hope of change, because the political process and its actors are all viewed as the same.

This is not to dismiss legitimate criticisms, or differences, but to reinforce the basic idea that hope, that is hope that things can change either gradually or rapidly, is where we build our revolutions.

The state of hope is founded on a belief that real change can occur. Therefore hope, true hope, is grounded in practicality. It understands historic limitations, but more importantly it understands history. It grounds itself in the knowledge that what currently exists will not, cannot, always exist. Yet, although change is inevitable positive change, or more specifically the change you want, only happens via direct participation of the people who want it. In this way hope inspires direct action. It is where we build our rebellions, our movements, our conscious calls for change. It is where we become historic actors moving through time, not as fabled legendary heroes, but as flawed, contradictory beings.

 

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Ideology in Politics

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Painting by Wes Bishop.

 

On November 8, 2016 the United States did the unthinkable. On that day the US political system elected as the next president a billionaire real-estate mogul, and former reality TV star, whose major television claim-to-fame was a series dedicated to firing “disappointing” workers.

How did this happen?

No doubt this very question will preoccupy political historians for the remainder of time the US is a subject of study. Countless interpretations, analytical lenses, and pieces have already emerged crediting, or blaming, certain aspects of politics, economics, and culture for the rise of Trump.

Not all of these interpretations are of equal worth, however.

One explanation, particularly popular with moderate to liberal thinkers, is the idea that Trump’s rise can be credited to a “Post-Truth” culture. Yet, this interpretation, besides being false and ahistorical, does nothing to actually explain the rise of Trump, and in many ways obscures the real problems of our current political situation.

“Post-Truth” is a concept in political culture that describes a supposed lack of interest in facts and policies, and instead relies on emotional thought to inform political positions. Debate surrounds the “true” meaning of the term and its exact origins, but many attribute the term to the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich. In a 1992 essay for The Nation, Tesich decried the state of American political culture by arguing that the country had given up on finding out what was true, and was instead content with accepting false narratives that conveniently fit within preconceived notions. Tracing a line of development from Watergate to the Iran-Contra Scandal, Tesich wrote—

We are rapidly becoming prototypes of a people that totalitarian monsters could only drool about in their dreams. All the dictators up to now have had to work hard at suppressing the truth. We, by our actions, are saying that this is no longer necessary, that we have acquired a spiritual mechanism that can denude truth of any significance. In a very fundamental way we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.

The allusion Tesich made was not hard to understand. In George Orwell’s famous novel 1984, readers were shown a world where government officials worked hard to rearrange reality daily. Yet, instead of doing it willingly, people had to be prodded, and then threatened by the state to rewrite what they knew to be the truth so that they were not challenging governmental power.

As Orwell writes in one scene—

“You are a slow learner, Winston.”
“How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”
“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”

Orwell explained further by calling this mind washing “doublethink.”

“Doublethink,” he explained, “means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

In this way, war was peace, freedom was slavery, and ignorance strength.

In this way, Donald Trump is both sadistic billionaire boss, firing people for entertainment, as well as a champion of the working class. He is the defender of American Christian values, as well as a rich playboy who doesn’t play by the rules of polite society. He is a man who can stand in front of the world, brag that he has enough power to walk out onto the street, shoot someone in cold blood and get away with it, and still be described as caring about democracy, truth, and making a nation-state great (again).

This disconnect, this ability of his supporters and media outlets to jump wildly between diametrically opposed positions, makes it seem as if Tesich was correct. We are living in a post truth blighted hellscape. A barren place where facts are bombed out shells of buildings. Something appeared to live here at one time, we think, but no more. All that is left is a crumbling sense of the familiar.

As appealing as this argument is, it is a dangerous analytical lens to take for several different reasons.

First, it feeds into a false idea that Trump won the majority of Americans. In other words, by saying that Trump’s parade of lies won the day by convincing people to commit a societal mass lobotomy, we are giving the false impression that most American voters chose him.

That is simply not the case. Less than 25% of the electorate chose Trump. Also, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received close to 3 million more votes than Mr. Trump.

Democracy did not give us President-elect Trump. An outdated electoral system from early American history did. We need to remember this and repeat it often, because “the people” are going to be increasingly blamed for whatever nightmare awaits us post January 20th.

So, if we are going to blame the rise of Trump on anything, and we accept these basic facts, then we cannot blame his ascendancy on a failure of the masses ability to think.

Yet, to be fair, there was a significant number of people who did vote for Trump, and that number is telling in and of itself. So why? Why did so many people vote for Trump? And more specifically, why do so many people continue to vote based on seemingly irrational criteria like homophobia, climate change denial, and blatant racism?

By now the charges are well known. False consciousness! Obviously, that is it. There are “real” factors in politics, like economics, and then there are the “false” ones, like culture, religion, and social identities. Furthermore, the great intelligentsia of the internet says, if we just jettisoned this identity and post truth nonsense, and focused on “the basics” then we would be alright. After all, these wishy-washy feelings driving politics today just divides people.

This line of reasoning continues by arguing that for a left/liberal alliance to move forward we need to jettison this focus on identity, subjective opinion, and instead focus on the “facts” of our material existence.

Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, has recently argued as much in a New York Times piece saying, “the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life…When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — ‘diversity issues.’”

Lilla received no shortage of criticism for his arguments, and rightfully so. This disparaging of identity politics speaks to a larger issue the American progressive movement, and liberalism in general contain. The idea that politics focusing on “economics” (that is the shape of social democratic programs and the level of benefits worker’s receive from capital) automatically leads to a total liberation of people is bunk.

Again, we can see this in actual historical analysis. Despite a post- World War II boom in the US economy, that did in fact grow a “middle class,” the US did not see an automatic expansion of liberties for marginalized people. That is why there was a Civil Rights Movement, the feminist movement, Gay Liberation, and Black Power. These would be today decried by economic progressives as useless “identity politics.” And that is the great lie that many “economic focused” liberals don’t want people to realize. Identity politics, at least those practiced by the left, are the continuation of civil rights, and it is often these movements that have made the most headway in the past decades in liberating people from various oppressive systems.

“But wait!” Critics could charge. “Why this collapsing of criticism of identity politics and post truth thought? Surely, there is a difference between acknowledging the need of continued civil rights movements and denouncing outright reactionary propaganda?”

To this question the answer is simple: no. The connection between decrying identity politics and the criticism of post truth politics is much closer than we naturally assume.

At the heart of the criticism of post truth politics is the idea that there is a singular reality which we must all agree upon, and that deviation from that singular truth produces demagogue monsters. Only when we have a singular sphere of communicative exchange, a wholly integrated and standardized public sphere, will democracy work. Or so the denouncers of “post truth” argue. As such, any view which radically challenges the way in which we see the world, in which we question the way political knowledge is gained, is suspect.

Avenues of communication that feed into this fracturing of the public sphere are therefore not just distracting, but are in fact dangerous to democracy.

Granted, there is a difference between a diverse media landscape, and just outright lies propagated to purposefully mislead people. But that is hardly new. Several of the pamphleteers in the Colonial Period, Yellow Journalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, networks like FOX all traded in purposefully manipulating information for political purposes. In other words, there is no “post truth” period to American politics because there was never a time when emotions, lies, and propaganda did not factor heavily into popular ideas.

This realization directly challenges communication and media scholars like Neil Postman who argued in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death that a decline in the public sphere happened at the time of mass media’s rise. Postman’s reasoning was that TV was an inherently irrational mode of communication due to its reliance on entertainment. “Americans no longer talk to each other,” Postman wrote, “they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”

Printed word Postman argued contained an almost inalienable nature that forced people to be rational. However, this argument completely breaks down when we realize the internet, in large part, relies heavily on print.

Therefore, the argument contained against the internet in “post truth” outlooks is strikingly similar to that found in Postman and other critics of television. Democracy is impossible, they tell us, because we have created a technology that appeals to human emotion, instead of human intellect.

All of this, Postman, Post Truth, etc. is exactly what it purports to be against— baseless arguments that are poorly researched, sloppily reasoned, and reluctant to study politics as a historic process of human endeavor.

The primary issue with the post truth thesis is the belief politics is primarily an arena where truth is generated, that is it is a sphere of exchange where mass agreement is reached. This is typical in liberal thought, because it completely ignores the way in which ideology informs political action.

Politics is less about truth, and is much more a reflection of ideology. It is not so much an arena for agreement, and is instead a venue where ideals are expressed and action to change society taken.

Therefore, when Trump and his surrogates argue that “millions of people voted illegally” they are less concerned about the actual validity of that claim, and are instead expressing a political ideology of voter suppression. Instead of debating the validity of this issue, treating it as a position worthy of respect, we should instead oppose it outright. In much the same way that the Nazi Party of Germany argued that Jewish people secretly controlled the world economy, and had orchestrated Germany’s defeat, this outlook was unconcerned with “truth” and was instead a rallying point for a particular political ideal, namely a nation-state based on ethnic nationalism.

But that begs the question— Couldn’t a simple engagement, strong and continued, with these ideologies defeat them?

This is the plea of liberalism. It is based on a belief that a certain form of rationality is universal, and that through debate and education any person’s mind can be changed. But this outlook, in fact the very promise of modern American liberalism, is flawed. Instead of taking fascism, racism, and authoritarianism as serious challenges to democratic society, liberalism in the American state hopes to bury it via a complex system of checks and balances, and in civil society change it through an assimilation process that debates and modifies it.

But the only way this is possible is if we assume the ideologies of fascism and racism are not serious positions, but just confused potential liberals. The fascists just need patience, and eventually they will be convinced.

This is political arrogance, and it assumes democracy exists in a perpetual state that will never, can never, be overturned.

Trump is dangerous. His political movement, his allies, and those who enable him are a threat to not only present diversity, but the very future of free people. Democracy, as a way of life which embraces diversity, cannot tolerate ideologies that see diversity as perversions. Frustrated and decentralized by liberal democratic republics, like the one in the US, eventually fall prey to these forces through sheer chance. We saw this with Trump in 2016.

Whether or not this is merely a temporary setback to the left in America, or is the harbinger for a longer more repressive period remains to be seen. Yet, what can be said with certainty is that only through treating fascism of the “Alt-Right,” and the racism of Trump as an ideology which challenges democracy will we be able have any chance for success.

It is time we acknowledge this fractured nature of political ideology, and in doing so consciously choose ideologies that are dedicated to human liberation, instead of social oppression.

 

 

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