Here at The Hipster Conservative, we are working on a series to see if there is an Anglican answer to the question of liberalism in society. Our own Rev. Crawley opened up the conversation with a delightful introductory essay. We will have more in the coming year, however reading through the Book of Homilies, there is a terrific microcosm of the Anglican doctrine of the market:
And therefore by this Commandment, we ought to have a time, as one day in a week, wherein we ought to rest, yea, from our lawful and needful works. For, like as it appeareth by this Commandment, that no man in the six days ought to be slothful or idle, but diligently to labor in that state wherein God hath set him, even so, God hath given express charge to all men, that upon the Sabbath day, which is now our Sunday, ‘they should cease from all weekly and workday labor; to the’ intent that, like as God himself wrought six days, and rested the seventh, and blessed and sanctified it, and consecrated it to quietness and rest from labor, even so God’s obedient people should use the Sunday holily, and rest from their common and daily business, and also give themselves wholly to heavenly exercises of God’s true religion and service…But, alas, all these notwithstanding, it is lamentable to see the wicked boldness of those that will be counted God’s people, who pass nothing at all of keeping and hallowing the Sunday. And these people are of two sorts. The one sort, if they have any business to do, though there be no extreme need, they must not spare for the Sunday ; they must ride and journey on the Sunday ; they must drive and carry on the Sunday ; they must row and ferry on the Sunday they must buy and sell on the Sunday ; they must keep markets and fairs on the Sunday : finally, they use all days alike ; workdays and holy days are all one.
I must admit I was a bit surprised to see a 16th-century functional endorsement of blue laws in the midst of what amounts to an anthology of Reformed sermons. Thanks to Max Weber and some Roman Catholic commentary, Protestantism often gets associated with unbridled free market capitalism. Looking back to the Anglican formularies, it seems that this common view is mistaken.
While largely a remnant of a by-gone era, there do remain some blue laws in the United States. The objection to them is a common one in our liberal world: Our liberty is being infringed and restrictions of said liberty are unjust. A good example of this rhetoric surrounding the debate over blue laws is found over at Reason‘s August 2017 piece on North Dakota’s blue laws. In their essay, blue laws are labeled “arcane,” “frivolous,” “insane,” and “creepy.” While never explicitly stated, the underlying reason for this characterization is shared by Branden Medenwald, chairman of North Dakota Open on Sundays, who they quote:
North Dakota doesn’t dictate to farmers when to farm, hospitals when to practice medicine, or restaurants when to feed people. We are simply asking that all businesses, not just a chosen few, be allowed that same freedom.
The teleological tensions here are hard to miss. If freedom is sacrosanct and is the primary goal of society, then any societal restrictions on that freedom are clearly outdated impediments to our well being.
However, these ostensible benefits are often fleeing and unrealized. The promised economic benefits of repealing blue laws are at best mixed. Balance this supposed GDP gain with the external costs as published in the May 2008 edition of The Quarterly Journal of Economics:
Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) on consumption of alcohol and illegal drugs, the economists found that repealing the blue laws did lead to an increase in drinking and drug use. What’s more, they found that individuals who had attended church and stopped after the blue laws were repealed showed the greatest increase in substance abuse, Gruber notes. Those effects have significant economic and social implications, the authors say.
Conservatives and in particular Christians will have to realize that the enthronement of the market and the functional worship of freedom in our society is completely at odds with our vision of human flourishing. Economist Lyman Stone, a Lutheran Christian and conservative, has a terrific piece on the legacy of the blue laws and their effect of sanctifying our time outside of work.
Which leaves us to the central question of this series: does Anglicanism specifically have anything to say on this subject? Looking through the Book of Homilies it seems that there is. Freedom is not the central or even primary good of human society. A truly humane vision of the common good is one where the market is kept in its rightful place and where the temporal and spiritual well being of humanity is kept in balance. The primary purpose of the market is not itself, or some abstract freedom but rather human flourishing, which must take into account our created and spiritual nature.
Currently, our political discussion is engrossed in liberalism. More specifically the conservative Anglosphere is embroiled in an argument about whether liberalism ought to be reformed, cast off or defended. We are told liberalism failed, that liberalism should be withdrawn from, and that to abandon liberalism is to commit civilizational suicide. Ronald Reagan is out, Carl Schmitt is in. To butcher a phrase from Rousseau, “Modern man is born liberal, yet everywhere is mired in illiberalism.”
In particular Christians in the West are debating on how to adapt to this post-liberal moment. We are inundated with the Benedict Option, Eastern Orthodox “Symphonia,” and, most visibly, Roman Catholic integralism. While The Hipster Conservative is a nonsectarian periodical, we do lean heavily towards Anglicanism. Thus, in the spirit of ecumenical contribution, we will be starting a series on whether there is a unique Anglican societal ideal and what it would look like. To begin this series, we have a terrific essay from the Rev Josiah Crawley, produced below.
In our coming post-liberal age, the starting point of any social thought likely will be that there are no neutral principles. Everyone approaches social problems with a theory, articulated or not. Cordiality and hospitality in such discussions are often possible and are desirable, but true neutrality is not. Our world is full at present of efforts to prop up the tottering idea that neutrality, procedure, legal process, and endless deliberation will gradually perfect mankind. The evidence to the contrary, however, shines through practically everywhere we look. With heartfelt apologies to Eric Voegelin (and more grudging ones to Gil Scott-Heron), the eschaton will not be immanentized.
Ignoring the culturally and spiritually moribund neo-liberal mainstream, there are plenty of worldviews on both Left and Right waiting to seduce us. From Jacobins to Jacobites, seemingly every alternative worldview has its representative online publications (by these very names, no less), blog ring, YouTube channels, and podcasts. Although interesting ideas can be found in many corners of this web, it can also get scary and ugly very quickly. To cut through it, something bold yet humane, fearless yet charitable is needed.
Mostly absent from the discourse is the normative Christian worldview of the English-speaking world for centuries: that of classical Anglicanism. Anglicans suffer from a lack of confidence and deep internal division today, even in contrast to other Christian Churches and communities. Few people who are not Anglican divines specifically trained in the classical tradition (or specialist historians) are familiar with it. Those who are familiar rarely have the time or inclination to attempt to apply Anglican social doctrine to wider political problems. They are rightly concerned with matters theological on the one hand, or pastoral on the other.
But Anglicanism’s deep connection to the polity of England and its colonies during its time as a (relative) champion of ordered liberty and human flourishing suggests that it has much to teach us if we put forth the effort to learn from it. As a preliminary, any serious effort at describing a classical Anglican society must be grounded in the conviction that the Christian faith offers the most complete, subtle, and profound understanding of who Man is. As Christians, we should strive to be hospitable and charitable in discourse. I would add that this hospitality is a duty to the extent such discussions may be productive and are conducted on all sides in a humane spirit. Beyond that point, we retain obligations of Christian charity, but we have no obligation to compromise on the tenets of the faith or in how it conceives of the human condition.
In 1939, T.S. Eliot presented a series of lectures which became his work “The Idea of a Christian Society.” Frustratingly, Eliot is hesitant to make pronouncements. He refuses, for instance, to opine on “the means by which Christian society might be brought about,” or to “make any plea for a ‘religious revival’ in a sense with which we are already familiar”, or even to make a Christian society “appear desirable.” Eliot gives tantalizing glimpses but leaves the reader deeply unsatisfied.
What is needed now is for a group of interested scholars, thinkers, and essayists to take up Eliot’s task, if not his hesitancy, and sketch confidently a picture of what a classically Anglican society might look like in the 21st century. This is an open-ended, long-term opus. The work to be done is daunting and crosses many fields. There are already efforts being made in this direction, by thinkers who may or may not have a conception of the project. As an amateur dabbler and not a professional scholar, I am hardly in a place to undertake much of it. At best, I can support and contribute once in a while.
We can also all pray, in the words of the Cranmerian collect:
DIRECT us, O Lord, in all our doings, with thy most gracious favour, and further us with thy continual help; that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in thee, we may glorify thy holy Name, and finally, by thy mercy, obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And when notice is given to the Minister, that a Prisoner is confined for some great or capital crime, he shall visit him; and when he cometh into the place where the Prisoner is, he shall say, kneeling down,
REMEMBER not, Lord, our iniquities, nor the iniquities our forefathers; neither take thou vengeance of our sins; spare us, good Lord, spare thy people, whom thou hast redeemed with thy most precious blood, and be not angry with us for ever. Answer. Spare us, good Lord.
-From the Book of Common Prayer, 1786 – THE VISITATION OF PRISONERS
Kim Kardashian had made headlines earlier this year as she is wont to do. However, it wasn’t for her garish style; it was for her meeting with President Trump over a subject she’s advocated – prison reform. Mrs. Kardashian West’s cause celebre does not seem to be some mayfly advocacy but a serious civic pursuit as she returned to the White House this month for further discussion. Some media outlets balked over the idea that a Kardashian could be taken seriously over an issue that for generations has had the most attuned political advocates and scholars stumped. But, amazingly enough, Kardashian is serious, as we all should be.
There’s a major problem in America: there are simply too many people incarcerated and the sentences that are imposed are far too long. Not only that, but recidivism rates are extremely high. Statistics reveal an interesting trend in American crime though – it’s fallen sharply over the past quarter-century. That doesn’t seem to mesh well with the fact that America also has the highest rate of incarceration. Mass incarceration is often blamed on numerous factors, ranging from racial discrimination, prison-for-profit greed, the war on drugs, and stringent sentencing guidelines. Missing in this equation is the Christian concept of solidarity.
The Christian responsibility extends to the suffering, friendless, and the needy. The secularization of American government has shifted the burden to individuals rather than communal responsibility for crime, vice, and ultimately sin. Political problems are, at heart, moral problems. When responsibility shifts, it becomes easier to ignore the need for penance. A prison sentence is designed to punish a crime; its very nature is penal, but the penal aspects don’t emphasize acceptance of responsibility. No matter how long you imprison a man, there’s no guarantee he will repent for his actions. There are not many distinctions between crime and sin yet we are hesitant to compare the two. There are some courtrooms in this country that still display the Ten Commandments. It’s easy to mask sin with crime or find a scapegoat instead of bearing the responsibility for committing a crime. Criminals, those that are truly guilty, often blame their life of crime on other people, their upbringings, or unique circumstances to ignore the sin behind their actions.
But through the Christian model of bearing responsibility for one’s sins by asking for forgiveness and feeling the weight of being granted forgiveness by God, is the model and understanding to strive for. John Calvin wrote a beautiful commentary on Psalms 23: “David obtained pardon by his confession not because he merited it by the mere act of confessing, but because under the guidance of faith, he humbly implored it from the judge.” The forgiveness from God is powerful. It’s life-changing. It’s the ultimate rehabilitation of the soul. Conservatism is firstly about a transcendent moral order, one we cannot forget when crafting policy.
There’s a big problem with the path to redemption in our prison system though: there’s no possible way to change a man’s heart, and even more complicated, there’s no way to know a man’s heart. However, prison reform is ultimately empty without the emphasis on repentance; the system is self-serving and breeds the sort of violence and hatred it seeks to stifle. Before a defendant is sentenced in federal court, he is sometimes asked to submit a “Statement of Responsibility” to the judge’s chamber. In exchange for this, the defendant generally receives a downward departure from his sentencing guideline range. This in effect economizes repentance. So why is it so elusive that many prisoners end up in a perpetual cycle of being in and out of jail? Crimes committed without true contrition will never be redeemed. Jack Miller wrote in his book Repentance and the 20th Century Man that, “our tendency is to stress sin as human actions without taking sufficiently into account sin as a state of heart.” There is no length of time behind bars, nor any restitution large enough, to make neither offender nor victim whole. In the economy of crime, the system has chosen to turn a blind eye to the needed redemption of the individual who commits the crime in which he is being punished for. If we care more about pushing money into the penal aspects of the prison system over programs designed to prevent recidivism, the whole system contradicts itself. Ridiculously long prison sentences fail to deter recidivism – but education, including Christian education, is not only effective but less expensive and keeps our society safer.
There is progress. Earlier this year, the House Judiciary Committee advanced the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill focusing on rehabilitative programs aimed at ensuring prisoners are fit to reenter society. This move comes after a similar bill was introduced entitled, aptly, the “Prison Reform and Redemption Act.” Dissenters rejected this particular bill because it failed to address sentencing issues and only addressed the “back end issue” of rehabilitation in the prison system. Sentencing reform, especially dealing with minimum sentences, is desperately needed, but Congress cannot idly ignore those that were already sentenced and serving terms in prison under such guidelines. Redemption, therefore, cannot be complete without a “turning” of the offender and that is why the focus on rehabilitation is the most important change in penal institutions.
The First Step Act is indeed the first step but it also sends a message that prisoners’ futures and lives do have innate moral worth. The bill also introduces subsequent legislation which restores a chaplaincy program so that inmates could connect with churches and other congregations. That is the paramount shift needed to solidify true reform – encouraging the convicted to admit that they are in need of help and sinful and thereby equally in need of forgiveness and true redemption through contrition of heart. It’s up to Christians to care for these inmates by extending mercy and advancing our Gospel cause, through policy change.
That brings us to communal sin. If we do not “visit the prisoner” when they are sick and in prison as Jesus encouraged us to do, we will not be considered among the righteous.We must also visit the prisoner within ourselves by tending to and correcting our own sins. Although we aren’t incarcerated ourselves, we should seek to correct the evil we’re aware of. A trip to the local prison isn’t always necessary; it is necessary to love our neighbor as ourselves. Christian love comes from a place of rebuking error and then taking care to correct the offender so they may return, or turn for the first time, to the body of Christ. St. Francis of Assisi tells us, “We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen away, and to bring home those who have lost their way. Many who seem to us to be children of the Devil will still become Christ’s disciples.” It may be a broken system, but we should do all we can to ensure redemption is open to all.
In this unvirtuous age, we cannot expect the state to repair civic society. We must take action ourselves to solve this seemingly intractable problem. Order, good governance and basic Christian decency demand there must be another way. The state can provide first steps, but we will have to lead.
“Spaniards are those who cannot be anything else.”
— Antonio Cánovas del Castillo
(Spanish president for most of the XIX century)
In the aftermath of a failed separatist referendum in October, regional elections were held in Catalonia on the last week of December. After the ballots were fully counted, it is hard to say whether a majority of citizens favour independence or not. Recent polls suggest that most Catalans -including separatists- now disagree with a unilateral struggle for independence. Although the winning party in the aforementioned elections is against independence, in the coming weeks, a coalition of old and newly founded separatist parties, right and left, may be able to form another separatist Government, thanks, partly, to a regional electoral system which tends to favour the less populated — but more separatist — Catalan provinces over the big and cosmopolitan province of Barcelona.
Popular analysis of Catalan separatism gives too much weight to “ethnic” differences, the economic prospects of an independent Catalonia, and the (false) perception that the vast majority of Catalans want independence. These easy but short-sighted tropes obscure other, more important factors, such as the surprising absence of a healthy “unifying” nationalism in Spanish history, as the eminent historian of Spain, Stanley Payne, has observed.¹ Until very recently there has been a widespread view among Spaniards that there is very little in Spanish history to be proud of and not very much to look forward to in the future. Another important contributing factor is that the peculiarities of the democratization process which led to the 1978 Spanish Constitution provided those few nationalist parties which have had at least minimal success in regional and national elections in the last forty years, with broad powers to educate the younger generations in an ideology which was never more popular and radical than it is today. Thus, it is not so much that Catalan separatists are proud of being Catalan as it is that most people in Spain are in some way ashamed of being Spanish.
Justifications of Catalan separatism solely as a matter of economic interest for Catalonia, though relevant, are misleading and unfair in themselves, because economic interest is usually not the only reason why human beings form communities or stick together. The ethnic angle, too, is overblown. Catalan separatism is not racist. It has tried to win all citizens to its side, regardless of how ‘Catalan’ their pedigree may be. Having Catalan as your mother tongue or having Catalan ancestors is not so relevant anymore: in the eyes of the movement, you are a ‘good Catalan’ if you are willing to vote for an independent Catalonia. In today’s context, ethnic and cultural differences have given way to a much more powerful argument: money. “Spain is stealing from us” is the new mantra, just as “Europe is stealing from us” was the burden of Great Britain’s nationalist “Brexit” movement.
Yet Catalans would be wise to observe the lessons of Brexit. Soon after the Brexit ticket won the referendum, many Britons realised how distorted its argument was, and how uncertain is the future that lies ahead of them. Supporters of Brexit may have thought that leaving the EU was a really good move because, being geographically and historically a part of Europe, it should still be reasonably easy for Britain to go on trading with other European countries. They would have their cake and eat it too: being Europeans and not Europeans at the same time. They now realise that free trade has a price, which they are trying to calculate in Downing Street and negotiate in Brussels.
For Catalonia the question is therefore not how economically feasible it is to go without the economic support of the Spanish state. Rather, the real difficulty may be whether, after an extremely passionate separation in which Spaniards and the Spanish state have been blamed for everything that has ever gone wrong in Catalonia, the rest of Spain may or may not continue to be a friendly trading partner and the primary market for Catalan products and services, as it is now.
This is just one of the disasters that may come out of such an independence. Another negative side effect would be, for instance, the large amount of external public debt that Catalonia would have to assume as part of any independence deal with Spain — whose repayment is now only an obligation of the Spanish State. That debt, by the way, along with the public external debt of the Autonomous Region of Catalonia itself, would mostly have to be repaid in euros, yet without Catalonia having from then on the ability to borrow from EU banks, because after independence it would immediately have ceased to be a member of the EU.
As far as cultural differences are concerned, Catalans — or rather, the citizens of Catalonia, because this region has always been a magnet for immigrants from other parts of Spain — are indeed different, but they are as different from Andalusians as Andalusians are different from the Asturians in the North or from the Aragonese in the East. Spain is a very diverse nation. So are most other countries in Europe, not because Europe is no longer a “white” or “Christian” continent, but because of its long and complicated history.
The cultural and ethnic argument has other limits, too. Denying that Catalonia is part of Spain because of the specific cultural identity of many of its inhabitants would mean that practically every region or territory in Europe could have similar aspirations. Even certain districts in Paris or Berlin, where “non-French” or “non-Germans” are an overwhelming majority, could sue for independence. The idea that Catalonia should become independent on the vote of a 51% separatist majority is actually anti-democratic, because democracy is the right to vote on those issues which concern you directly — and dividing Spain deeply concerns all Spaniards: Andalusians, Castilians, Basques … and Catalans, too.
Modern European nation-states were not necessarily formed from hundreds of small medieval kingdoms and fiefdoms out of cultural or ethnic similarities. In many cases, the dissimilarities outweighed the similarities — and often still do even at present. Economic, cultural and ethnic differences between northern and southern Italians are as evident today as they were one hundred and fifty years ago, when Massimo d’Azeglio announced that “we have made Italy; now we must make the Italians.” In this famous quip, Italy sounds as artificial as a nation as the Italians seem artificial as a people. Or take Germany. Today it is very common to hear, even from young Germans, that there is Germany and then there is Bavaria: two really different countries — and this on top of the blatant economic and cultural differences that still exist between Ossies and Wessies. Every German I have asked about this has told me that they grew up thinking it to be perfectly normal that there were actually two Germanies — East and West — not just one, forcibly divided by Cold War politics.
In Europe there were also many territories occupied, at the same time, by populations of diverse ethnic backgrounds. In fact, in certain parts of Europe it was the rule, rather than the exception, that members of many nationalities lived together. In the aftermath of WWI and after the Russian, Austrian, and Ottoman empires were dissolved, a new and “fairer” political order was envisaged for Europe by Woodrow Wilson and others, in which the new borders were to be drawn along “ethnic” lines. However, this was obviously impossible, and the rearrangement of borders gave rise to massive displacements of those who had lived for ages in places they were no longer allowed to call home. In Romania there could be no Hungarian speaking population, and in Hungary there could be no Romanians. This was crazy, but it could also happen in the case of Catalonia, where there are millions who not only are not separatists but whose roots lie in some other parts of Spain. By the way, thousands of Catalans live in other parts of Spain, too. Independence would likely not be the end of a process but the beginning of very difficult times. Furthermore, for extreme separatists, “Catalonia” comprises many other provinces, both in Spain and in France, so their struggle will not have ended, even if the succeed in establishing a Catalan state.
If modern European nation-states were not formed on ethnic or cultural lines, what brought them together? Despite Europe’s jumble of many ethnic groups, languages and religions, several kinds of events and unifying movements gave birth, in the course of centuries, to the countries we find today on every any school map. One strong factor was the prestige and power of the central rulers and institutions which were at the forefront of each unifying movement. Unification sometimes happened because these rulers forced the idea of the nation onto others, and sometimes simply because power is tremendously attractive (e.g. Bismarck in Germany or Garibaldi in Italy). Even if the inhabitants of a territory have little in common, they will see themselves as one single people if they admire their apt or powerful leaders and look forward to a shared and prosperous future. On the other hand, even when people those same inhabitants have been cohabiting for centuries, some will definitely want to split up if they are ashamed of their rulers or ashamed of what they are or of what others tell them they are as a nation. German shame after WWII probably made it easier for them to swallow the humiliation of being permanently divided and occupied.
On the eve of 1789, France was incredibly diverse too, from a linguistic point of view. Nevertheless, soon enough, as revolutionaries began to violently impose their new egalitarian ideals, the existing regional languages and manifold patois stood in their way, and they suppressed them to a large extent. As Spain’s empire began to collapse, smothered by bureaucracy and lack of ideas, France commenced its ascent as the new intellectually challenging and militarily defiant centre of contemporary Europe. Everything that was worth saying had to be said in French. Even Russian aristocrats learned French before they learned Russian. Thus the centrally-imposed French language became an instrument of national unification and empire.
Compared to France, Spain may have had less to offer in terms of an exciting and admirable political project for the last few centuries, so it comes as no surprise that those with a credible excuse are trying to jump ship. Spain may have been the modern world’s first global empire, but that mirage faded quickly and is today remembered with horror and disgust. It is commonplace to link genocide and the Spanish conquistadors, even though native peoples were killed with as much dexterity by settlers of any other European empire. Again, it is a liberal dogma that the epitome of religious fanaticism is the Spanish Inquisition, although the Spanish subcontinent itself suffered no wars of religion, and Protestant repression was equally cruel and intense in other parts of Europe.
Yet today our past is loathed and our present is that of a third-rate country, with very little democratic experience, politicians who would sell their own mothers for a seat in parliament, and an international reputation for laziness and sunny beaches. The 2008 economic crisis hit us doubly hard because we had our own additional real estate bubble, and the prevailing sensation is that the Spanish economy, steered in turns by socialists and the conservatives since the eighties, has very weak foundations. For many, there is also the feeling that our relatively peaceful transition to democracy served only to replace authoritarian autocrats with elected ones whose only real job is to get re-elected. The new and radical young left consider that the democratic transition was actually a shameful betrayal of those who had suffered under fascism.
I can truly understand why a young man in Catalonia, repeatedly told at school and on TV that he is not Spanish and that his future is bright in the impending Republic of Catalonia, would enthusiastically embrace the fight for freedom. A beautifully-painted utopian future is much more attractive than our sordid past or squalid present.
Fighting to achieve something new is incredibly more appealing than struggling just to keep something you already have. There is a limit to how much makeup you can put on the past, but the future can be the most beautiful runway model, provided it has a good public relations team.
Separatists are increasingly labelling non-separatists “traitors,” so calling yourself Spanish in Catalonia is today harder than ever. To possess and balance several identities and loyalties may be troublesome but at some point in history it has also been common to consider incompatible being at the same time English and Catholic, Spanish and Protestant, or American and Communist. You are either one of us or you are against us.
In addition to all that, the Spanish central government has for a long time been an absentee father in Catalonia. Because the Spanish constitution is one of the most decentralized in Europe in its distribution of powers, so culture and education policies have been in the hands of moderate or extreme nationalists for the last forty years. Those who wished to watch TV in the Catalan language have daily been shelled with open messages that Catalonia and Spain were as different as chalk and cheese. Many of those who attended public schools in Catalonia have grown up thinking that Spanish was just an indoor language, something to speak in private, with family and friends, a tolerated foreign parlance and nothing more. The Spanish Government hardly ever raised its voice against this state of affairs because protesting for “not being Spanish enough” sounds “francoist,” and because Catalan nationalists have been so successful at the polls over the decades that they have held the key to the Spanish presidency on several occasions for both Socialist and Conservative parties, who were therefore never too hard on their temporary political allies.
Ultimately, any rational discussion on the merits and hazards of independence may be useless because, as long as the future is the future, we can always believe that it will be better than our present, or at least blame others if our expectations turn out to be false.
¹ Stanley Payne, The Franco Regime, 1987, pp. 8–9.
Our cultural moment is inundated with 90s nostalgia. Not too long ago our political choices were restricted to a Clinton or a Bush. Our current chief executive is functionally a living answer to the hypothetical question, “What if Ross Perot was from Queens and had won?” Jumanjiis in theaters again. Friends is back in the news and, bizarrely enough, Mariah Carey is still a popular recording artist.
Keeping in vogue with this trend, is the Two Minute Hate devoted to smoking. Even as the number of American adults who smoke continues to precipitously decline, we are told to remain vigilant for Emmanuel Goldstein Phillip Morris. Remember kids: Loose Smokes, Kills Folks. The FDA plots new ways to end smoking as we know it and public health experts warn us about Reefer Vape Madness. Monthly we are treated to new calls to “do something” about smoking. As Casey Chalk of The American Conservative slyly notes, if Anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable American prejudice, then anti-smoking is a close second.
To be clear, there is a clear public health imperative to decrease or at least discourage mass inhalation of tobacco smoke (curiously enough marijuana, the toke of choice for bright young things who work at places like Vox or Slate, has yet to be culturally proscribed in a similar manner). Regularly inhaling tobacco smoke could very well kill you. Since 1999, virtually everyone knows this. My own grandfather died largely due to his inelastic tobacco habit and as a child I was regularly told of horror stories about how genuinely awful lung cancer is. Again, no one is disputing this.
Yet despite this, I would like to venture a modest, if only slightly ironic, defense of tobacco use. I think a reasonable vindication can be made on three grounds (note to Big Tobacco: we have yet to receive your payoff. Please deliver the money in non-sequential $10s and $20s). First, the long march against smoking stigmatizes yet another social and communal ritual, something we are desperately short on in today’s society. Second, the occasional use of tobacco really isn’t that dangerous. Third, in our over-sanitized, bureaucratic age, smoking serves as a necessary form of revolt.
Smoking As Ritual
Humanity has a deep need for ritual. We use them to cope with difficulties, bond with our fellow humans and add meaning to our lives. As liberal modernity fosters anticulture, we will place more reliance on the few remaining rituals left to us. Those of us who do not abstain can all think of conversations had, acquaintances made and encounters created purely due to the shared ritual of lighting up. Could these connections had been made while jogging or knitting? Almost certainly not. To speak only for myself, some of my most treasured friendships were often fostered, in part, due to taking time out to lit a cigarette, cigar or pipe. Unlike my wife I am not introverted and striking up new friendships, without some medium of shared association, can be difficult. Even after years of attending a lovely parish, the sharing of the peace remains my own personal hell. To paraphrase Sir Roger Scruton, “Properly used, tobacco is a stimulus to conversation, a solvent of awkwardness and a reminder that life is a blessing, and other people, too.” Should regular, daily smoking be discouraged and outright addiction be curbed? Certainly. Need we purge our ritual life of every waft of tobacco smoke? Absolutely not.
Take A Deep Puff & Relax
“But,” you may say. “No ritual is worth the risk of spreading lung cancer to millions of people.” This leads me to my second point. While the medical danger of tobacco addiction is known to all, the dangers of truly occasional tobacco use, or the potential secondhand smoke thereof, is overstated to an absurd degree. Now it is true that if you search for health studies on “light smoking” you will be told the following, “While the available literature is not large, it indicates that light and intermittent smoking pose substantial risks; the adverse health outcomes parallel dangers observed among daily smoking.” However even these studies admit that the definition of a “light smoker” is either utterly vague to the point of nebulousness or is defined as those who smoke roughly 10 cigarettes a day. I don’t know a soul who would define smoking a half of a pack of cigarettes daily as “light smoking.” It would even be a stretch to extend the definition of “non-daily smokers” to include those who smoke, on average, 3.4 cigarettes daily.
A better proxy for measuring truly occasional or social use of tobacco would be studies of cigar use. In 2015, the FDA’s review of 22 epidemiological studies on cigars found that “the data indicates that consumption of up to two cigars per day, while not completely safe, is neither associated with significantly increased risks for death from all causes, nor smoking-related cancers.” Even now we are finding that the Cassandras warning us of the systemic cancer risk of secondhand smoke were largely wrong. It’s time to cool it on the faux-medical hysteria. No one is saying it soothes your T-zone but it probably is not a Grim Reaper for the occasional user.
Smoking As Rebellion
It is true that one could latch onto the fine print that reminds us that there remains some small risk of occasional tobacco use or secondhand smoke, which brings me to my third point. Smoking can sometimes serve as a useful rebellion against constantly encroaching Nannyism and its insufferable advocates. In our modern liberal age, while we liberate ourselves from all social convention and custom, we have invited the State to fill this inevitable void. Seemingly everywhere we turn there is some well-meaning government agency, backed by the latest panel of white coated experts further regulating any and all social interactions they can get their latex-gloved hands on. After a while one begins to be tempted by the sentiments of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon:
To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated at, regulated, docketed, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, weighed, censored, ordered about, by men who have neither the right, nor the knowledge, nor the virtue. . . . To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under the pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and, to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, outraged, dishonored.
While conservatives cannot fully embrace Proudhon’s naïve anarchism, they can empathize. The growth of the modern regulatory state has, as Birzer points out, created a “cult of power” that must have “one group, one community, one nation in which all personhood is lost, as the individual is stripped of his relations and made a naked individual equal to other naked individuals held together only by Leviathan, the resulting monster.” Every day there is yet another call from self-appointed experts to ban fireworks, ban cars, ban guns, ban playground games, ban walking home, ban Uber, ban fat, ban sugar, ban chocolate, ban sodas, ban booze(!) and, yes, ban best friends. Creating the New Man in Year Zero is brisk business. While this is not a call to ignore all expert advice, nor to cook oneself up a hearty helping of Tide pods and wash it down with a nice draught of raw sewage, it is a call to metaphorically blow cigar smoke in the bespectacled, lightly bearded faces of these smug would-be nannies. While conservatives have been naturally averse to rebellion since 1688, in our liberal age, a little social rebellion now and then can only be a good thing.
This is not an altar call to smoke. Addiction is clearly unvirtuous and unhealthy. I sincerely wish I had gotten to know my paternal grandfather and I encourage the efforts of all my friends to quit their nicotine addiction. But often, too, the opposite of a mistake is the opposite mistake. So the next time you buy tobacco to feed your once-in-a-blue-moon habit, don’t allow yourself to be shamed. If anything, you’re serving a virtuous function. In the words of the otherwise loathsome Pete Campbell, “You’re a man.* Smoke your cigarette.”
*Lest you be offended, here at TheHipster Conservative, as good originalists, we use “man” in the original Old Anglo-Saxon sense of ‘an adult human person.’
“In traditional morality, what Weiner did, engage in immoral and squalid behavior, should result in permanent shame and instant removal from any position of honor. . . . The national reaction to Anthony Weiner, the clamor that he get out of the House now, to which the Democratic Party is yielding, testifies to the enduring moral health of the nation.
“. . . It is the moral convictions of the candidate that make this an interesting race for all Americans. For [Judge Roy] Moore is a social conservative of a species that is almost extinct in Washington. . . . Early Christians accepted martyrdom rather than obey laws of the Caesars and burn incense to the gods of Rome. . . . Christianity and the moral truths it has taught for 2,000 years have been deposed from the pre-eminent position they held until after World War II, and are now rejected as a source of law. They have been replaced by the tenets of a secular humanism that is the prevailing orthodoxy of our new cultural, social and intellectual elites.
“If elected, Judge Moore, one imagines, will not be rendering respectfully unto the new Caesar.”
Last summer my hometown, Madrid, was the center of the world in terms of gay pride. Every few years a city is chosen to host the main international LGBT event and it was our turn. What really surprised me this time is that some Spanish newspapers, which have been at the forefront of the gay rights struggle for decades and which do not hesitate to publish lists of dangerous homophobes, openly reported about some Spanish public hospitals having decided to stockpile vast amounts of anti-HIV pills as a precaution; about many shopkeepers and bar tenders in downtown Madrid who simply chose to shut down early, because the whole city had turned into a massive binge drinking party; or criticising our leftist mayor for having announced that there would be no fines for excess of noise, given the occasion. Even more surprisingly, a lengthy article in the liberal El Mundo informed about gay pubs where women and transvestites were not allowed and about the increasing number of “homophobic” homosexuals, who just cannot stand the aesthetics and eccentricities of gay pride parades and even reject the movement against homophobia, altogether. Perhaps it is no longer taboo to discuss certain things. In this emerging spirit of freedom, that is what I would like to do here.
Growing up way too straight
I grew up in a definitely homophobic environment, where the slang and obscene terms used to refer to homosexuals were actually synonyms for “coward” and “cowardice” in a more brutal way than the English word “sissy.” In fact, after a stint in the army, I realized how interchangeable the expressions “being a real man” and “being a real sex machine” were, to many of my peers, in practically every locker room conversation I witnessed. I wonder if any gay people indulge in the same kind of dirty talk, but it seems that some strongly reject just being assimilated to supposedly unmanly “fairies” or “queers”.
To be perfectly honest, if such a thing as gay aesthetics exists, I do not dislike it any more than I dislike Duchamp. Nevertheless, though I do not reject homosexuals nor judge homosexual inclinations, I do reject acts of homosexual sex. But I do not think I deserve to be numbered among the dangerous homophobes, because practices such as anal sex or mutual masturbation are in no way the patrimony of the LGBT community.
Rejecting homophobia and homosexual sex
Someone may reply that not rejecting inclinations should inevitably lead to accepting the acts which logically proceed from those inclinations. I do not buy that. Having an inclination does not say anything about the inclination itself, nor about what it is to which you are inclined. Persons and inclinations are not to be judged. Actions are. Inclinations are not morally right or wrong in themselves, and when we refer to a certain inclination as a negativity, we actually mean that whoever has that inclination experiences more difficulties behaving in a certain way than someone without it. Just that. There are selfish people and selfless people, but the existence of more or less selfish individuals is hardly to be taken into account in a discussion of the appealing character of generosity. Rather, it makes the virtue that much more sublime when you encounter it. The fact that you have an inclination to have sex with a man — or with a woman — or to have sex in an “unconventional” way, does not make these inclinations good or bad, nor does it say anything about the corresponding sexual acts. I am fed up with these movies where somebody says “that is not who I am” or “we have forgotten who we really are.” As if being a third generation member of the Gambino Family meant that being a mobster is good — or bad. Being Sicilian does not make you a “made man,” being Arab does not make you a Muslim, and being homosexual does not imply that you practice sodomy. If anything it is our actions which define who we are, not the other way around. “Stupid is as stupid does,” Forrest Gump’s mum used to say.
Furthermore, there have always been homosexuals who have not practiced anal sex because they thought it was wrong, and there have always been heterosexual individuals who have practiced anal sex with other men, for whatever reason: because there were not any women available in their prison cell or because they were so bored that they wanted to try something new, exciting and forbidden. You are not supposed to have anal sex just for being homosexual anymore than you are supposed to have “vaginal” sex, just because you are heterosexual. Celibacy has been a perfectly honorable option in various cultures, throughout history.
Homosexuality is not about love … necessarily
But — you cannot foresee who you are going to fall in love with! Being homosexual is about love! No, being homosexual is not about love. Being human is about love. Looking back, I have truly loved many more men than women in my life. That does not make me a homosexual, nor does it provide any information about my sex life. A lustful character in a García Márquez novel, who had never had sex outside a brothel, cannot be said to have loved a single day in his life.
Being human is about love, and love can manifest itself in manifold ways. As someone once said: no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Love can be evidenced by listening, by smiling, by working, by risking one’s life dragging a wounded comrade out of a trench, and by the agonizing pangs of giving birth even without anesthesia. In all these actions we make use of our body to show love, to “make love.” It could not be otherwise because humans, being material beings, cannot do anything — physically or spiritually — without their bodies. It just happens that, for whatever reason, the act of genital penetration and sexual unity is so plastic, so evident, that “making love” has become a synonym for having sex. Still, anybody who is fond of Hollywood’s classics remembers that, not so long ago, “making love” to someone did not necessarily mean “banging” them.
Cameron Díaz was right when, right before crashing her car in Vanilla Sky, she confessed to Tom Cruise: “When you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise, whether you do or not.” Genital intercourse is a human act which has, in itself, several purposes and meanings. If it is deprived of any of them, it loses all or part of its humanity. Sexual intercourse calls for freedom, love, pleasure and openness to life, in order to be entirely human, perfect in its humanity. The sexual acts of no other creature on earth comply with these four conditions. Sexual intercourse can be the product of a rational choice or of a simple animal instinct, as in an involuntary erection. Sexual intercourse can be a way to demonstrate love or sheer selfishness, as in a drunken Friday night random encounter. It can be a way to achieve consensual pleasure or to inflict pain, as in an act of rape. It can be a way to establish a family or to prevent one, as in contraception.
I can understand that homosexual practices can be the means to obtain pleasure and manifest sincere love, but they are by nature closed to the creation of new life, and that makes them less than human, no matter how harsh this sounds. It came as no surprise that Rowan Williams, before becoming the most prominent figure in the Anglican Communion, wrote that a Church which had embraced contraception — as his Church had — could not reject homosexuality nor homosexual relations. In my view, the best reason — not the only one — why fornication is wrong is that it is optimal for a child to be born into a full-fledged family. Any orphan knows that. But if sex can be artificially closed to life, I would like someone to explain to me why criticizing fornication (or homosexuality) is something other than a prudish and empty kind of criticism.
Why is it wrong? I’m not hurting anyone
For someone like me, not raised in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, it is still relatively shocking to hear the Benthamite mantra “I am not hurting anyone” as a justification for any kind of consensual sex or for any of those acts or conducts which are always falsely believed to start and end in the agent who performs such behavior, allegedly without consequences for the rest of the world. Individual actions always have consequences for the community. The community is now simply the entire world. Furthermore, pleasure and pain, as synonyms for good and bad are just not acceptable, because the history of mankind is the history of those men and women who have sacrificed their well-being and undergone privation and pain for the well-being of others — as well as the history of those who have not, and whose names are remembered with disgust, if at all.
The fact that a gay couple may truly love each other does not force me to approve of gay sex in the name of love. Actually, the increasing acceptance of homosexuality and homosexual acts has greatly devalued friendship as a man-to-man form of love. So much so that, nowadays, the only way to explain why Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson live together in a new soap opera, without being college roommates, is by hinting at the possibility that they are actually a gay couple, or by making jokes about that possibility. Yet when Robert De Niro says “I love you, Nick” to Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter, as as Walken’s character puts a gun to his own head, we know we are watching a great story about friendship, not Brokeback Mountain.
There is to my mind no love more passionate than the love of a mother for her child, and the best way in cinema to show an audience how twisted and mean a woman on screen is, is by implying that she is sexually attracted to her son, as with Meryl Streep’s character in The Manchurian Candidate. Would it be all right for a mother to have sex with her child if they use protection, so as to avoid a genetically harmed baby? Sexual attraction is not bad in itself, but it does not justify anything.
Discrimination is about discrimination, not about sex
Accepting homosexual acts as a way to stop discrimination and violence against homosexuals is not acceptable, either. It would be like doing away with the principle of separation between Church and State, in order to stop Islamophobic attacks. Manifesting your opposition to homosexual acts does not make you remotely responsible for homophobic violence, in the same way that opposing Marxists or Marxism does not make you a Nazi. The fact that I resist fornication does not mean that I hate heterosexual couples and the fact that I resist masturbation does not mean that I hate myself.
Homosexuality is about identity, some people say, and identity is today’s magic word, like class, party, king and country were magic words in the past, too. Law and society as a whole should revolve around our innate or chosen identity, they say. By the way, it seems that the gay rights movement has not yet decided on a libertarian strategy (i.e. gays ‘choose’ to be what they are), or on a “natural law” strategy (i.e. gays are always ‘born that way’).
Well, I do not buy the identity story, either. There are plenty of key elements in our identity which we do not choose. We do not choose to exist, although some intone the sophism that if we have the right-to-live we also have the right-not-to-live. We do not choose our parents, nor our ethnic group, not even our linguistic group, nor the place where we are born, which will determine much of our life. Our identity has many legal repercussions, and the law is aware of that. We do not choose our name but the law regulates the use of that name, as well as the very scarce possibilities to change it, which usually hinge around the name by which those around us know us, not around the name by which we would like others to know us.
Our identity, our full identity, including our gender, has an impact on society and the law responds to that impact. Law does not regulate our name to give us the pleasure of “being who we really are.” We can have that pleasure without the law. There are laws on names because it is tremendously useful for the community to be able to identify its members with a word, or with a couple of words and the corresponding legal obligations ensue. To pretend that law and society should adapt themselves to a hedonistic view of identity and not the other way around is to ignore what law and society are.
A family is a family and a koala is a koala
Families existed millions of years before states and state law were born. States did not suddenly decide to legislate on marriage because they somehow realized how good it was for two people to mate. Consensual mating is devoid of any significance, in the eyes of the law. Legislation on marriage arouse out of the relevance of marriage for society, not for the individual, and a large part of that relevance is the fact that marriages naturally led to families and families — not couples — are the basic social and economic unit. If procreation was not involved in marriage, the law would have never paid any attention to marriage, as it has never paid any attention to friendship. If two friends establish a business partnership, the law may decide to regulate partnerships, never friendship. If marriage, as an institution, did not lead to children, family law would not exist, only contract law. Regulating gay couples is just one more step in the recent tendency of legislative bodies to make laws that are simply pointless gestures, fodder for potential voters, but which do not serve any social need, whatsoever.
The fight for gay marriage is, nevertheless, not just about identity. Gay marriage is not about two men or two women who have made a life love commitment and want law and society to acknowledge their ‘identity’ as a loving couple. Gay marriage is not about satisfying a need to be together because, when gay marriage became the spearhead of the gay rights movement, most gay couples already lived their lives unmolested — at least in the West — and millions of young heterosexual couples had simply refused to believe that marriage was something needed, let alone desirable, in order to have legitimate sexual pleasure or in order to be able to move in with your boyfriend without making a scandal or just in order to be happy. In fact, many people had already realized that it was much harder to terminate a tenancy agreement than a marriage covenant. Is that really the kind of relationship that the gay community was willing to fight for?
The “free love movement” allegedly started as a battle to remove silly conventionalisms which prevented people from truly loving each other. It has ended by simply declaring that consent between those who engage in sexual intercourse is the only needed or tolerable ethical rule. That is why, if you have sex with an eighteen year old, you may be called a hero. If you have sex with a seventeen year old, you may be called a monster. Love is absolutely absent from the equation. Free love has become free sex and selfishness is not a vice nor a virtue, anymore. It is a cult.
The gay marriage struggle is actually about giving visibility to the gay movement and taking advantage of the little prestige that marriage still has, maybe because of insipid romantic comedies which end with a corny wedding cake and make millions in the box office. Gay marriage is about the idea that the only way to stop homophobic aggression and discrimination is by making everybody accept — at least, in public — that homosexuality and homosexual acts are perfectly OK, as if the decriminalization of adultery would have taken place any sooner, had lawmakers been forced to declare that adultery or polygamy were basic human rights. Nevertheless, the truth is that the decriminalization of adultery (where it was a criminal offense) had nothing to do with preventing discrimination or violence against adulterous men, or against farmers in Utah.
The age of feelings
Some of the abovementioned opinions (yes, they are only opinions) may be hard to swallow but this is because we live in “the age of feelings” as Robert P. George brilliantly puts it. Something is true if I feel it is true and, it is only true with respect to myself. As Machado, the great poet of Castile, wrote: “Your truth? No, the truth. And come with me to search for it. You can keep yours.”
Sex as a human right has been given a proper, decent sounding name: reproductive rights; but it must be taken into account that the contemporary notion of individual rights is just that of a sphere of power, whose only limit is the power of others. Rights are no longer the legally protected capacity to pursue a goal which is deemed to be good and socially relevant, in accordance with a given set of values. Sadly, sex is just one such sphere of power, nowadays.
Pleasure may now be the only objective of our lives and sex seems to be one of the most attractive kinds of pleasure. Nevertheless, let us be honest. Lust is like addiction to heroin. The first shot is just amazing but, although the pleasurable vertigo of that primordial burst, which only lasts for a few seconds, does not cease to decrease, the memories of that original “trip” stay stuck in the back of our minds, while our body consumes itself and our capacity to love withers, choked by desire first and by boredom, later. We know that something is wrong but we actually get annoyed at those good friends who eventually tell us that it is just not worth it, man, just not worth it.
It’s kind of hard to remember what life was like before the world wide web. We work on it, communicate on it, socialise on it, and shop on it. Just like the computer on the USS Enterprise, it’s indispensable to us and practically omniscient. The existence of Wikipedia alone means that anyone in the world with a 3G phone carries around in their pocket the closest thing we have to the collected sum of human knowledge. If we suddenly “lost” the web, our world would be changed unimaginably, for it involves itself in almost every aspect of our lives. Yet just 25 years ago most people had never heard of the internet. As recently as 1994 there were fewer than 3,000 websites. By 2014 that number had exploded to one billion—a 33 million percent increase in just twenty years.
According to research carried out by MIT’s Matthew Gray, just 623 websites existed at the end of 1993. Rewind another six months to the middle of 1993—back to the internet palaeozoic, when Jurassic Park was in theaters—and you find a mere 130 websites online. So the web is relatively new, yet just old enough to have witnessed a generation grow up with it.
Our gilded age
The 1990s were good years for the United States. The economy grew at an average of 4% per year between 1992 and 1999. The New York Times reported in 2015 that an average of 1.7 million jobs a year were added to the workforce, versus around 850,000 a year during the 21st century so far, and that “the unemployment rate dropped from nearly 8 percent in 1992 to 4 percent—that is, effectively zero—at the end of the decade”. The country had a federal budget surplus and saw a 41% decline in the murder rate and an end to the HIV/AIDS nightmare we had endured throughout the 1980s. Furthermore, the Soviet Union had just collapsed. This meant the US was the sole superpower in a world rapidly thawing out after the decades-long Cold War.
Arriving amid all of this economic and political prosperity was Microsoft’s Windows 95 operating system, launched in the August of its eponymous year. James Titcomb of the Telegraphwrites that the OS was “a technological breakthrough” and “an unprecedented cultural phenomenon”. Its release seemed to come at just the right time. Home PCs were becoming more affordable and Windows 95 was followed a week after its release by Internet Explorer 1.0. PC sales boomed.
A person who was 15 years old in 1995 and listened nightly to their modem connect to the web would have been in their thirties by the early 2010s, when vaporwave first appeared.
Dreams of the ’90s
Vice has described vaporwave as “chillwave for Marxists”, “post-elevator music”, and “corporate smooth jazz Windows 95 pop”. They ask readers to “imagine taking bits of 80s Muzak, late-night infomercials, smooth jazz, and that tinny tune receptionists play when they put you on hold, then chopping that up, pitching it down, and scrambling it to the point where you’ve got saxophone goo dripping out of a cheap plastic valve”. In an article entitled “Soundtrack to Austerity”, Stylus said vaporwave was “a micro-genre of electronic music that draws on the corporate sonic ephemera of the 80s and 90s—such as lift muzak, ad soundtracks, ‘hold’ music and cocktail jazz—to satirise the emptiness of a hyper-capitalist society”. Vaporwave, then, is a genre of music. But it is also an aesthetic. On the rare occasions when vaporwave records are given a physical release it’s on cassette tape, with artwork that normally contains some combination of the following themes: classical sculpture, 1990s web imagery, tropical landscapes, surrealism, low-poly computer renderings, “glitch art”, VHS recordings, and Japanese text.
The highest ranked—and oldest—vaporwave album on the music site rateyourmusic.com is Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 (2010). (This makes vaporwave highly unusual in having peaked for many people as a genre upon its very first release). On the opening track the familiar strains of 1982’s “Toto” by Africa are slowed down and chopped and screwed, and listening to the record one can imagine window shopping in a Florida mall during the mid-90s while on Vicodin. Many of its other warped samples will be instantly recognisable to anyone who lived through the decade. The album’s cover is a collage of 16-bit imagery referencing the 1992 Sega Mega Drive video game Ecco the Dolphin, which was described by one Vice writer in an essay about the game as “the scariest I’ve ever played”.
Ecco the Dolphin was a bestseller and had a significant effect on a subculture of American kids. Daniel Lopatin (the artist behind Eccojams) was ten years old when it was released. Entering one’s teen years is always a formative period but for Lopatin it happened to coincide with the period relevant to our discussion; the last American “golden age”. Other tracks sampled on the album, such as “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty and “The Lady in Red” by Chris de Burgh, were part of the easy-listening soundtrack to this gilded era, the pre-9/11 world. And so, aside from the economic prosperity and optimism for the coming internet age that characterised the 1990s, nostalgia for a more geopolitically innocent time should also be considered as a factor in the emergence of vaporwave.
If Eccojams was the first vaporwave record, then 2011’s フローラルの専門店 (Floral Shoppe) by Macintosh Plus is its defining one. Macintosh Plus is the single-serving nom de guerre of a Portland, Oregon-based graphic artist and producer, Ramona Andra Xavier, also known as Vektroid. It is Xavier who is most responsible for vaporwave as people understand it today. Esquire wrote that previous albums may “have pointed the way, but Floral Shoppe is the lodestone that embodies all the most salient elements of vaporwave”.
The cover of Floral Shoppe features most of the tropes that would become essential elements of the vaporwave aesthetic: lurid colours, a Roman bust to the fore, rendered landscapes, a garish pink and orange photo of a city skyline, and song titles in Japanese. The music itself met with some serious acclaim. Sputnikmusic gave it a perfect 5.0 score, saying that “it could well be the future’s first masterpiece”. The standout number on the album and perhaps vaporwave’s defining track is “リサフランク420 //現代のコンピュー”. It features a Diana Ross song, “It’s Your Move”, slowed down to something that sounds like a prozac daydream. Adam Downer’s review of Floral Shoppe for Sputnik discussed the obscurity of the samples used, “as though it was the internet spitting back what we’ve been feeding into it”. Here was mainstream acknowledgement that internet culture was being recycled and presented to us in new forms.
Certain elements of the vaporwave aesthetic are present for obvious reasons. If vaporwave is nostalgia for the technology and cultural aesthetics of 1980s and 1990s then the frequent Windows imagery makes perfect sense. We can assume, given the immense growth in home computer sales during the mid- to late-90s, that for many vaporwave artists Windows was not just the first operating system they used but also perpetually and nostalgically emblematic of a rapidly “computerising” world. It was aptly named too, since it was their window out onto this fascinating new thing called the internet.
During the development phase of Windows 95, Microsoft executives commissioned Brian Eno to develop a piece of music to play when the operating system started up. Eno said that they wanted “’a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional’, this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said ‘and it must be 3.25 seconds long’”. The end result is one of the most iconic sounds in nineties cyberculture. A number of vaporwave artists have used Windows samples in their music, but perhaps the most notable example is Blank Banshee’s “B:/ Start Up” from 2012. If you want to arouse nostalgia in your listener then sampling a sound people heard every day for years during a boom-time is a stroke of genius.
The vaporwave fascination with classical statuary is less easily understood, but one Reddit user gave a reasonable explanation as to its presence: “Statues are a big part of the vaporwave aesthetic because they are materially perfect (or supposed to be) but spiritually inert, empty. If you see [Michelangelo’s] David as an aesthetic ideal of what a man should look like, fearsome, chiseled (pun intended), very handsome, etc., it kind of makes you feel inadequate in the same way a lot of popular media does (buy this to be better-looking, etc.). It can be seen perhaps as a critique on capitalism that we are presented with beautiful bodies that force us to consume, and classical statues seem to evoke this same kind of ‘perfect human’ idea”.
Is vaporwave political?
This analysis makes certain assumptions about the philosophy underlying vaporwave, specifically that it is anti-capitalist. Certainly this is a common view among commentators. Esquire said the genre was born of a “cynicism about capitalism”. Another outlet described it as “a dystopian critique of capitalism”, and a leading figure in vaporwave believes “it’s anticapitalist and antiglobalist”. A 2012 article by the musicologist Danny Harper went even further, suggesting a link with Marxism; “The name ‘vaporwave’ is reminiscent of a famous passage from Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, ‘all that is solid melts into air’, referring to the constant change society is subjected to under bourgeois capitalism”. It is hard to tell if these are fair and accurate summations or simply the projections of a liberal milieu whose job is to find sociological meaning in the latest fad.
In a Reddit AMA, Daniel Lopatin was asked who his favourite philosophers are. He mentioned modern names such as Manuel DeLanda, Bruno Latour and Alexander Galloway. Among the canonical thinkers he listed—Kant, Heidegger, Leibniz, and Deleuze—Marx was notable by his absence, and one of them, Martin Heidegger, is a controversial figure whose affiliation with Nazism has long affected if not tarnished his reputation. A New York Times article from 2009 posed the question “Does a Nazi Deserve a Place Among Philosophers?” Emmanuel Faye, author of Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy (2005), argues that “fascist and racist ideas are so woven into the fabric of Heidegger’s theories that they no longer deserve to be called philosophy”. Combine Lopatin’s interest in Heidegger with his public rejection of any political readings into his music—a common trait of politically right-leaning artists—and suddenly the assumption that vaporwave’s appropriation of capitalist imagery is merely ironic is not so tenable. It should go without saying that none of this means Lopatin is a Nazi or even necessarily right-wing. But it does mean there is a degree of ideological diversity present in the movement, and this perhaps sheds some light on certain recent developments in vaporwave.
The plague of frogs
In January 2017 Vice published an article on “far-right appropriation” of electronic music. This claim is interesting in itself as it presupposes that leftism is the a priori, factory-setting political position inherent in all electronic music, and that rightist political expression in the genre is a deviation from an assumed universal norm. The essay documents the rise of “Trumpwave” and “Fashwave”, two vaporwave offshoots that incorporate elements from across the right-wing spectrum, ranging from Donald Trump to actual fascist and even Nazi aesthetics and slogans. The piece reported that “leading vaporwave producers were gathering in Montreal for an emergency summit to discuss ‘creeping fascism’ in the scene”, a meeting that happened in early 2016. (Surely this is one of the most unusual sentences ever to appear in journalism.) One vaporwave artist said he loved making music, “but if Neo Nazis keep using my tracks in their propaganda videos, I might have to stop releasing more albums. I don’t want to help enable their hatred. Music should be about bringing people together, not about establishing a 4th Reich under God Emperor Trump, Lord of the Americas, or whatever the fuck it is that fascists are trying to do”. One fashwave video—“Galactic Lebensraum” by C Y B E R N ∆ Z I—features a Hitler bust, classical columns, ferns, and the usual garish colours that make up the vaporwave palette.
But there is a deep irony at work in the rejection by the vaporwave “establishment” of far-right entryism. Ramona Xavier (of Floral Shoppe fame) is on record as saying “I always assumed it was transparent through my work that I leaned left”. But the thing that made vaporwave possible in the first place was easy access to the cultural detritus of the ‘80s and ‘90s. When Xavier was producing the abstruse social commentary of Floral Shoppe in 2012, filled as it was with samples taken without permission, there had to be an understanding that cyberanarchy works both ways.
In American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis’s pitch black, searing commentary on the empty materialism of Wall Street brokers in the 1980s, Donald Trump is namechecked multiple times. Patrick Bateman idolises Donald Trump, who in 1991 (when the novel was written) was just a celebrity real estate mogul—albeit the kind of celebrity real estate mogul who appears as a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show. Trump was something of a pop culture phenomenon in the 1980s and early 1990s, with cameos in several movies and TV shows including Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. CNN found in a review of thousands of hip-hop lyrics that Trump was mentioned 318 times between 1989 and 2016. For decades the world viewed Trump as the reification of American Dream economics. His positive association with this rose-tinted era in American history almost certainly contributed to his election and also assured him a place in the early days of the vaporwave aesthetic, though whether that is still the case is debatable. So when something like “Trumpwave” comes along (Xurious’s “Hail Victory” featuring samples of Trump telling a rapturous crowd that they’ll “get bored of winning” best exemplifies the subgenre), nobody can be surprised that some people don’t “get the joke” about vaporwave, that they don’t realise its embrace of capitalist imagery, ‘80s/’90s culture, and soulless corporate ephemera is just ironic, hipster posturing.
Bryan Bierman at the Philly Voice has written about the idea of nostalgia as drug. Regarding its role in vaporwave he says, “unlike regular nostalgia for things you remember experiencing, the young age of many vaporwave artists means that many of them weren’t even alive or cognizant enough to see any of their vaunted late ’80s/early ’90s relics in action. It’s a peculiar sense of nostalgia, a sort of imagined memory, pieced together with fragments of the aftermath”. This, he believes, is significant. “This sort of pick-and-choose revisionism can snowball into a false past utopia that for a lot of younger people, then becomes the truth”.
We see something similar in the resurgence of vinyl as a medium. Rudy Van Gelder, the American recording engineer who is considered one of the most important in jazz history, said that he was “glad to see the LP go. As far as I’m concerned, good riddance. It was a constant battle to try to make that music sound the way it should. It was never any good. And if people don’t like what they hear in digital, blame the engineer”. The Conversation’s Lee Barron believes “the revival of vinyl could be similarly motivated by mere nostalgia for the antithesis of digital streaming: large and fragile discs in cardboard sleeves that manifest a distinctly un-digital crackle when played on the similarly redundant technology of the record player”. None of this is meant to deny vinyl’s merits, but it illustrates the power of nostalgia, and substantiates Bierman’s assertion that it clouds reality. Bierman says that “young artists are imbued with an ingrained nostalgia for the same capitalist images they’re disgusted by”. The implication is that mass confusion is at work; that the vaporwave generation is both fascinated and repelled by the nihilism of techno-capitalism.
The art of vaporwave has now gone viral. In an event reminiscent of the 1962 symposium in New York which announced pop art to the world, the A-side B-side gallery in Hackney, London launched “Vaporwave.exe” in December 2016. Hanging on the walls of the gallery were prints of exactly what you would expect at a vaporwave exhibition: classical statues, lots of pink and teal, skulls, bottles of Fiji mineral water, tropical scenes and Nintendo screenshots. There were also obsolete home electronics, ferns, VHS tapes, and most interesting of all, actual canvases of Pepe the Frog that were painstakingly painted by hand—Pepe being an anthropomorphic cartoon frog that debuted in 2005’s “Boy’s Club” cartoons. Since 2005 the cartoon has spread through online communities such as 4chan, 8chan and Reddit, and been embraced by the “alt-right” to the point where the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) added it to their database of hate symbols. However, the curator of Vaporwave.exe, Marvin Watkins, refuses to analyse the movement too deeply. “I don’t really subscribe to the political connotations of vaporwave. I understand for some it reflects an anti-capitalist movement, but personally I just enjoy the aesthetics”.
Watkins is not the only one who appreciates vaporwave on a superficial level. When Barbadian pop singer Rihanna performed on Saturday Night Live in November 2012 with seapunk visuals as a backdrop, it caused outrage among the niche online community that made up the scene. Seapunk is (or was) a precursor to vaporwave and characterised by “computer screens with ’90s 16-bit aquatic video game GIFs, mops of turquoise Manic Panic dye jobs, and retro-futuristic 3D collage art featuring floating dolphins and chrome-metallic geometric shapes”; a “rave-in-Atlantis”. New York rapper Azealia Banks was next to incorporate seapunk/vaporwave, this time in her video for the November 2012 track “Atlantis”. That month saw a spike in Google searches for both vaporwave and seapunk, though it is the latter that has faded away and the former that has gone from strength to strength, despite repeated declarations of its demise.
The claim that ‘vaporwave is dead’ has long been a running joke among insiders. As early as 2013 and perhaps even 2012 (just a year after Floral Shoppe was released) people have been attributing death to something that continues to flourish in multiple cybercultural contexts. In 2015 Motherboard announced that “Tumblr and MTV Killed the Neon Anti-Corporate Aesthetic of Vaporwave”. Supposedly this happened in June 2015 when, quite independently of one another, these outlets rebranded themselves by “turning vaporwave”. Perhaps for the purists vaporwave really has died. It is admittedly hard to see how the “critique of capitalism” exegesis stands up when corporate behemoths and fascists see something they like in your aesthetic and successfully appropriate it. But art often begins as cage-rattling political statement and ends up neutered by its own popularity. Consider that Igor Stravinsky, Elvis Presley, and the Sex Pistols, who once outraged people, now reside in the tastefully-lit glass cases of the Museum of Western Culture.
I have attempted to address the idea that vaporwave is both a product and a producer of culture simultaneously. I have looked at how several of vaporwave’s aesthetic components were appropriated from the cyberculture of the late ‘80s and ‘90s: primitive web design, Windows 95, Apple Macintosh computers, AOL-era visuals, low-poly computer renderings, strange neon grids, “glitch art” and VHS fuzz. The ubiquitous Japanese text acts as a kind of Saidist techno-orientalism, enigmatically representative of an era when the Japanese were thought to be on the verge of “taking over”, until their economic bubble burst in the early-90s. e have also examined how vaporwave became aproducer of cyberculture, not only in its midwifing of “fashwave”, but also in its ability to reach the very pinnacles of popular culture, shaping artists and corporations alike in its image. We’ve even now seen the opening of the world’s first ever “vaporwave mall” in Miami.
Jordan Pearson in his Motherboard piece noted that “MTV may have just dragged [vaporwave] over the precipice. And this is where the genre’s holy boundary is crossed. This is where the cynical impulse that animated vaporwave and its associated Tumblr-based aesthetics is co-opted and erased on both sides—where its source material originates, and where it lives”.
Erased on both sides. Think about that.
The ancient experience of time was very different from our own modern, linear understanding. For the Greeks, Etruscans, Aztecs, Iranians, Hindus, and even for backward-looking modern prophets like the poet W.B. Yeats, time was not perceived as something flowing uniformly and indefinitely, but rather as a cycle, in which every period had its own meaning and specific value in relation to all others, as well as its own uniqueness and purpose. When confronted with a cultural phenomenon like vaporwave, we must ask the question: is it even possible to destroy something that breathes life elsewhere? Or is culture like time as the ancients understood it: cyclical, a series of eternities, both product and producer simultaneously?
The princess from the movie you like stares defiantly at me from a bumper sticker on the back of your laptop screen. The princess tells me that you (“we”) “are the resistance.” The sticker is affixed so that onlookers will see it right-side-up, not so that you can enjoy it when the clamshell screen is closed (which would make it upside down.) You are presently staring at your other, handheld, device and so I assume that the laptop is most valued for what’s on the outside than whatever’s going on inside of it, which surely is two or three half finished scripts and seven tabs open to various articles and things that you’ve read about a third of.
The sticker refers to three recent events. The first event is that you just saw the latest sequel to the movie you like. The one with the princess.
The second is that a loudmouth demagogue has been elevated to the highest office in the world, beating out a shrill career politician of remarkably poor character. Just another year, I know, but the demagogue may also be an honest-to-God psychotic this time and the shrill one of poor character was a woman, so we must pay attention. Her defeat (because it was a her) must be avenged. Not politically of course, but symbolically, which to you is pretty much the same thing. The shrill one was not defeated, you see—she, like the heroine from the film you like, is now a princess of the rebellion against an evil overlord. In reality, she is in her home office gulping a third Chardonnay, which is making it hard to focus on her ghostwriter’s questions but is helping to get her through another dismal Chappaqua afternoon.
The third event is that the actress who played the princess recently died of heart failure on an airplane. She had been in poor health for some time after a lifelong bout with chronic despair, brought on by a truly hellish upbringing by some of the worst parents the world has ever seen, combined with the misfortune of being a troubled and exceptionally comely girl handed a great deal of fame and money at a young age at the apex of the Sexual Revolution.
None of these events have anything whatsoever to do with another, but they all add up to great feeling, and feeling has carried this god-damned century. The feeling tells you the defeated candidate has something to do with the dead actress. It tells you that the one was defeated unfairly and the other died nobly. It tells you the movie you like has something to do with reality and so you are not wasting your time or brain cells entertaining yourself with it.
Hope. Change. #Resist. These meaningless phonemes are vessels of feeling. They bottle it up and carry it away to Neverland where fairies can fly if you just believe. In those heady days of 2008, a freshman senator photoshopped to look like Che was all that was needed to heal the human heart. But it was only ever style and kerning and two can play at that game. Today, a cartoon frog with a red hat sits on the throne.
In Dante’s Inferno, those damned for adultery are blown about by a great wind, just as their lusts blew them about in life. Just as we have cast the shackles off of our sexuality, once chained in place by morals and manners, now have we have liberated our politics from the chains of good sense, and lo and behold, it got results! Electoral results for a madman! Activism without action!
Raw feeling moves people. Perhaps “we are the #resistance” stickers on laptops are the seeds of some future movement that will carry the day again. I cannot predict who will be on top next. But I am sure of one thing: we cannot continue to emblazon our political discourse with empty icons and vague mottoes without losing our political system as we know it. Our Constitution was written with words—very few of them, but carefully chosen, and these images are no substitute. When the two major political parties abandon the use of carefully chosen words and replace them with images dredged from pop culture and the bowels of the internet, they have abandoned ideas in favor of raw emotion. This is a catastrophe, and one despairs of meaningful engagement or debate.
The victorious party will be the one that best channels the passions of its constituents. Man may be the only creature capable of reason, but that does not mean he has ever made much use of it, especially in these strange latter days that misfortune has decreed we must make sense of. Feeling Wins.
Donald Trump’s presidency has had a rocky start, but at least, the narrative goes, he is delivering for his supporters. Matthew Continetti over at the Washington Free Beacon sure seems to think so. Mr. Continetti assures us that he’s making sure his supporters “win” either by canceling TPP, ramping up immigration crackdowns, or bringing back jobs, though he functionally admits that last one is basically going off gut feeling rather than any hard data.
While one can quibble over whether or not making trade more difficult or spiting Mexican laborers really helps his core supporters, a major issue that Continetti ignores is the fact that President Trump’s FDA nominee is morally complicit in the deaths of thousands of Americans, disproportionately the sort of folks who voted for Trump in the first place.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb is a physician who worked for the Food & Drug Administration during the second Bush administration. He also is a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Unlike some other appointees, Dr. Gottlieb will almost certainly sail through his confirmation hearings in the U.S. Senate.
But the fact that Dr. Gottlieb has been nominated and will be confirmed is nothing short of a national scandal, and one that remains totally uncovered by the conservative media outlets, whether they are generally critical or supportive of the president. At the date of this writing, I could find nothing about this at National Review, TheAmerican Conservative, The Weekly Standard, The Daily Caller,Breitbart, or Mr. Continetti’s Washington Free Beacon. Typing in “Gottlieb opioids” either produces generic results about opioids or literally nothing at all. By contrast, if you search for “white working class” you get endless scrolling with hundreds of articles to choose from.
This lack of reporting is disgraceful because we are in the middle of a drug overdose crisis of epidemic proportions. Drug overdoses are now deadlier than car crashes and firearm homicides. As of 2015 they are now deadlier than HIV/AIDS was in the 1990s. Prescription opioids such as OxyContin, Percocet and the like, are responsible for 63% of these deaths. Over 560,000 Americans have died of drug overdoses from 1999 to 2015, with another 50,000 in 2016 alone. To put this into context this is the roughly the number of Americans killed in action in both World Wars. The agony of Owens’ war poetry could be equally descriptive of either a young man dying in France or a middle-aged woman ebbing away with a handful of pills in Corbin, Kentucky.
How do Trump’s supporters figure into this disaster? The opioid crisis has not hit all sectors of America equally. It is most harshly felt in places like Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio, and especially among white, working class Americans. Prescription opioid abuse is so common it’s been nicknamed “hillbilly heroin.” One former West Virginia addict, Sam Cox, remembers opioids as “…straight from the devil. The devil comes to steal your soul. That’s his job. The drug is [a] demon.”
And while this demon is sharpening his scythe for those addicted to it, hillbilly heroin fuels a wider spree of crime and violence across Appalachia and the Rust Belt. Car wrecks, petty theft, aggravated assault, domestic violence, murder and racketeering. In some Appalachian towns, sheriffs are now estimating that in some places as much as 80% of crimes are related in some way to opioids. The chain of events is simple. Pharmaceutical companies produce opioids en masse. The narcotics find their way onto the illegal market either through theft or by pumping fake prescriptions through pill mills. It’s gotten so brazen that criminals literally bus hillbilly heroin from Florida to West Virginia by the truckload. The “OxyContin Express” fuels Appalachian organized crime the same way liquor smuggling used to finance the Mafia.
The old folk song “O Death” asks, “What is this that I can’t see | with ice cold hands takin’ hold of me?” No worries, sir. That’s just a legal prescription The Weekly Standard assures me is “safe and effective” as well as a “home run.”
So how does Dr. Gottlieb fit into all this? A new investigation from the Intercept found that Gottlieb is deep in the pockets of the opioid industry. Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals paid Gottlieb over $22,000 for one speech alone in 2016. That’s more than double the average annual income in Jackson County, Kentucky. And Mallinckrodt is infamous for willfully ignoring obvious red flags and pumping over half a billion prescriptions from Florida in a four-year period. Pollyannaishly assuming each prescription was just 10 pills, that’s more than enough generic Oxy to kill every man, woman and child in Appalachia several times over.
Gottlieb has also done paid speaking gigs for the Healthcare Distributors Alliance, a trade conglomerate for companies like Cardinal Health. Cardinal Health made its bones in the Oxy game by pouring over 780 million opioid pills into West Virginia alone from its Florida warehouse (seeing a connection here?). They were so irresponsible they got on the DEA’s radar and lost their license to distribute. Gottlieb’s response? He condemned the move and said the DEA shouldn’t have the right to regulate the opioid market. “Cardinal isn’t a Colombian drug ring,” he whined. “Its CEO isn’t Pablo Escobar.”
That’s certainly an interesting comparison. While Gottlieb gets paid more than the average annual Appalachian income from public speaking alone, his friends over at Cardinal and Mallinckrodt flood Appalachia with hillbilly heroin. They rake in billions. Over 600,000 Americans have died. By contrast, fewer people have died in the Colombian civil war and the Mexican drug warcombined. While he and his pals may not be Pablo Escobar, they are functional drug pushers who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the levers of American medical policy.
Conservatives should ask ourselves; Will Gottlieb’s tenure really promote order and tranquility? Can a defender of hillbilly heroin really promote the dignity of the person and the common good?
(Similarly, will Trump really deliver for his voters? I don’t know. Maybe. Those left alive, anyway.)