Vaporwave’s Hall of Mirrors

by Derek Hopper

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 Telegraph writes 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.

Image of spoof album cover "Now That's What I Call Vaporwave"
The vaporwave “aesthetic” features ironic appropriation of ’90s pop culture tropes.

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”.

Cover art of Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1

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.

Cover art for Floral Shoppe by Macintosh Plus

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.

Donald Trump’s cameo in Home Alone 2 (1992)

Nostalgic seduction

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.

Eternal return

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?

Featured image by Flickr user thelastvoice (CC-BY-2.0)

Come On! Feel the #Resistance!

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.

Photograph of a protester holding a poster with a black-and-white image of actress Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia from Star Wars, with white text superimposed on red stripes "we are the resistance".
The 2017 Women’s March on Washington (Wikimedia Commons)

Featured image by Hillel Steinberg (BY-ND-2.0)

Trump & Hillbilly Heroin

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, The American 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 war combined. 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.)

Featured image: “Empty Pill Bottles” by Flickr user Chris Yarzab (CC-BY-2.0)

Mike Bartlett’s monarchist vision: A review of Charles III

If all conservatives are, in some sense, Anglophiles, then every snob and reactionary in all these former colonies will delight in the High Tory verse-drama King Charles III, written by the young playwright Mike Bartlett. As the name suggests, it is a speculative piece about the first months of the reign of the current Prince of Wales, with the first scene taking place just after Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. Because the main characters of the play are real, still-living people, one must overcome some amount of voyeuristic discomfort, but this is easily done, partly because the iambic pentameter helps to separate the characters from their real-life counterparts, and also because it quickly becomes clear that the William and Kate, or Charles, or Camilla of the play are fictional constructions—that Bartlett has taken considerable liberty with their personalities.

The play’s verse is purposely understated. At several points one has to consciously scan the lines because they are so conversational, for example “of course| whate|ver sub|ject you |would like.But this only serves to highlight by comparison important moments when the language becomes elevated, as in Charles’s first major speech:

My life has been a ling’ring for the throne:
Sometimes I do confess I ‘magined if
My mother hap’d to die before her time—
A helicopter crash, a rare disease
So at an early age I’d be in charge.

One cannot help but hear an echo of Shakespeare in this soliloquy with its dropped syllables. The Shakespearean echoes sometimes fall flat. Much like the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, the ghost of Princess Diana shows up a few times early in the play to tell Prince William that he will be “the greatest King we ever had.” (Cue eyeroll here.) This is a bit of far-fetched foreshadowing, and at the same time not strange enough to be effective; William is, after all, the heir apparent. Diana’s ghost only meaningfully appears just one other time (to Charles) and then is never heard from again.

The play also follows a more important but no less odious subplot (in prose, mercifully!) about Prince Harry’s love affair with a radical activist who urges him to give up his birthright. It’s not that we don’t want to care about their romance—indeed we do—it’s just that we are given very little reason to care. We are told repeatedly that Harry is in love, but we’re never shown it, and are left wondering why his “love for Jessica comes first.”

But these are minor quibbles. The power of the play is found in the way it essentially rehearses the half-millennium struggle between King and Parliament, showing how the Crown is a safeguard, rather than a hindrance, to freedom. Even Charles’ inauspicious name calls to mind the execution by Parliament of Charles I. When Charles III ascends the throne, there is a Labour government in place. The Prime Minister, Mr. Evans, secretly longs for a British Republic. After Charles refuses to give royal assent to a bill that would censor the free press, Evans brings a bill before the Commons that would completely curtail any remaining power of the Monarchy. As the bill is being debated, on the advice of Mr. Stevens, the  opposition leader, Charles dramatically enters the chamber, pounding the floor with his scepter, and in one of the best speeches of the play dissolves Parliament:

Unlike you all, I’m born and raised to rule
I do not choose, but like an Albion oak
I’m sown in British soil, and grown not for
Myself but reared with single purpose meant.
Whilst you have small constituency support
Which gusts and falls as does the wind
My cells and organs constitute this land
Devoted to entire populace
Of now, of then, and those still to come.

It is refreshing that Bartlett does not feel constrained to write in an overly colloquial idiom, as do some contemporary poets who write in meter. This, surely, is not everyday speech, even for a king, and that is precisely from where much of the pleasure is derived. The play’s exalted language is much like the majesty of the Crown itself. Charles’ words bring to mind Edmund Burke’s insistence, against the French revolutionaries and their British sympathizers, that legitimate authority is hereditary. Parliamentarians come and go, but the monarch transcends time and space. He rules, not just over a “small constituency,” and with the same authority with which every sovereign from Alfred to Elizabeth II has reigned, and that authority is unavoidably divine. In this speech, one is almost tempted to hear an echo of Louis the Fourteenth’s absolutist maxim—L’estat c’est moi—but here Charles argues that the British monarchy is not a despotism; the King is the servant of all his people after the model of Christ. And we see his protection of his people in his refusal to sign the censorship bill, a bill that would, no doubt, benefit the king’s person. Or, as Mr. Stevens puts it, there never would be

“A Nazi party making British laws
Because the reigning monarch then would stand
His ground and being Head of State refuse
To sign.”

One can imagine any number of despotic laws being passed by any parliament. It is the king who provides stability.

The irony of Charles’ self-understanding is that he is perfectly willing to be a modern king. He believes in democracy and only asks Mr. Evans that the House debate the bill again, implying he would sign if it came to him a second time. But the ambitious Prime Minister takes this opportunity to affect the monarchy’s demise. However, Parliament, having been dissolved, cannot vote to strip away the King’s power. Charles, no doubt, would have been content to have a quiet reign, to be, as he says near the play’s tragic end, an old man who “potters round/ And talks to plants and chuckles to himself.” But this is not possible. Because Charles was heir to the throne for over sixty years,his sense of duty is too strong to neglect;it is this sense of duty, over a comparatively small issue, which brings him down.

The play ends in something of an anticlimax. Britain is nearing civil war, the stock market has crashed, and there are daily riots in the streets. (The stage directions have an assaulted monarchist protester dressed, appropriately, all in tweed.) Just as tensions are at their zenith, the tanks parked outside Buckingham Palace simply drive away. It’s as if Bartlett, having written this far, did not know how he was going to end it. Granted, William and Kate’s treachery was fairly heavily foreshadowed, but they affect it in a banal family ultimatum, which, from what we now know about Charles, we are unwilling to believe he’ll accept. And yet he does. He abdicates the throne, choosing personal relationships over what he’d so powerfully argued was his sacred duty.

Perhaps this ending, unsatisfying as it is, is appropriate. In the final act,  Charles III loses its Shakespearean echo and becomes a distinctly modern artifact. Charles could not go down like Henry VI or Richard III, not in the 21st century, and we are reminded of Eliot’s famous prognosis of the modern condition: “This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Featured image “HRH The Prince of Wales” by Tom Wood, photograph by Flickr user thelostgallery (CC BY 2.0)

How to Sneer

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a way to win an argument without actually having to make an argument? Arguments, after all, require a lot of work. They demand facts and logic. And to really argue well—in the style of Socrates or Aquinas, for instance—requires treating one’s interlocutor with charity.

Sneering, by comparison, is easy. There’s no need for carefully constructed syllogisms or verifiable facts. And a properly-wielded sneer can be more powerful than a sound argument. Rather than just silencing an opponent, it sends them whimpering for the nearest exit.

For practical lessons on sneering, look no further than a recent Baffler article by Jessa Crispin, entitled “Maiden America.” The target of Crispin’s sneering is evangelical “purity culture” in general, and “purity balls” in particular—those father/daughter events intended to celebrate and encourage sexual abstinence before marriage.

Crispin clearly disapproves of purity balls, and she wants you to disapprove of them too. Take a moment to see how she does it. You’ll learn the fine art of sneering in 4 easy lessons.

Lesson #1: Lean in to your disgust

To excel at this first lesson, you may find it helpful to emulate a schoolyard bully. Mock anything that seems strange. For example, note how Crispin describes a typical purity ball. “It’s hard to say which is stranger, that grown men have primped themselves up for a middle-school dance or that each couple is father and daughter, here to make ardent sexual declarations to one another.”

The abuse use of language is key here. These grown men didn’t just get dressed for the event. They “primped” themselves. And while it isn’t strange for children to be in the company of their parents, Crispin finds a way to make it sound disgusting. They are couples, making ardent sexual declarations to one another. Eww.

Lesson #2: Pathologize disagreement

The targets of your sneering aren’t just wrong. They are suffering from a disorder. For example: “Purity balls are the ritual high feasts . . . in which a whole nation of dads, including our presidents, obsess over the ins and outs of their daughters’ sexual organs.”

Did you catch that? They aren’t just concerned. They’re “obsessed.” There’s something deeply wrong with them. The phrase, “daughters’ sexual organs” is a nice touch. Sure, it’s baseless, but it further insinuates that these dads’ interest in their daughters is incestuous. And Crispin surely deserves bonus points for the lewdly suggestive “ins and outs.”

Get the hang of lesson #2 by practicing on unsuspecting townspeople:

  • Farmers are obsessed with the sex lives of barnyard animals.
  • Teachers are weirdly fixated on other people’s children.
  • Hospice nurses have some sort of fetish for the frail bodies of the dying.

Lesson #3: Confidence!

Now that you’ve decimated your targets with mockery and accusations of psychological disorder, it’s time to throw some facts at them. Unlike in traditional debate, these facts needn’t be true—but they just need to be delivered with a heavy dose of confidence. Otherwise, onlookers might suspect that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Again, Crispin provides a perfect example: “The idea of sexual purity was a relatively late addition to Christian doctrine.”

Just take a moment to admire that sentence. Imagine what confidence it must take, not just to say such a thing, but to print it in a national magazine! Crispin is on a roll!

Keep in mind that the people she’s writing about are Christians, whose religion is concerned with sexual purity. There’s a pretty good chance they’ll know that 1 Corinthians says to “flee from sexual immorality,” and that the “body is not meant for sexual immorality.” Or that Hebrews says to “let the marriage bed be undefiled.” Or that Jesus warned against even looking at a woman lustfully. Or that Galatians condemns sexual immorality, impurity, and sensuality. Or that Colossians says to put sexual immorality to death. Or that 1 Thessalonians says to “abstain from sexual immorality.” Or that Proverbs says that “he who commits adultery lacks sense.” Or that Ephesians says that “sexual immorality and all impurity” shouldn’t even be named among Christians. Or that committing adultery violates one of the ten commandments. Or that maybe (just maybe) they’ve skimmed the book of Hosea.

Lesson #4: Logical sequences are for dopes

Sneering can help free you from outmoded forms of discourse. (Tip: the word “outmoded” is a valuable tool. It implies that being out of fashion is the same thing as being discredited.)

Crispin give us a solid example of what it looks like to embrace the non-sequitur. After making the outrageous claim that, “sexual purity was a relatively late addition to Christian doctrine,” she substantiates it by saying, “not even priests needed to be celibate until the twelfth century.”

See how that works? Sexual purity didn’t exist until the 12th century because until then priests were allowed to marry. True, the first thing is only tangentially related to the second thing. And if she had checked Wikipedia, she would have learned that clerical celibacy was firmly in place several centuries earlier. But since her targets are still reeling from being called incestuous child molesters, they are unlikely to notice.

So, next time you want to criticize something without the effort of making an argument, try sneering at it. It may prove difficult at first, but take heart. Over time your conscience will atrophy, and these once-outrageous methods will become settled habit.

Featured image: “Father Daughter Dance” by Elizabeth Pfaff (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Conservatives Should Bemoan Trump’s Election

Some of my conservative friends who did not support Donald Trump are nevertheless inclined to gloat over the misery his election has caused among liberals. This tweet from James Matthew Wilson typifies the reaction I’ve been hearing:

I don’t mean to pick on Wilson, much of whose work I admire. He’s only one of many conservatives having a good time crowing over the defeat of liberalism.

But I can’t join in on the fun. At least these liberals have the good sense to feel their own pain, as John Lennon advised, unlike those conservatives who blithely look past their own ruin to engage in schadenfreude. I imagine them laughing at the damage done to properties along the riverbank as the swollen waters rush the raft they are riding toward the falls.

Conservatives have greater reason to weep than liberals. Progressivism will come back from this defeat stronger than before. The sense that Bernie Sanders might have fared better against Trump than Hillary Clinton did is going to strengthen the left wing of the Democratic Party. Look for Elizabeth Warren to assume a leadership role in the years ahead. Michael Moore senses an opportunity.

Conservatism, on the other hand, has been crushed. We will not see a revival of conservatism as a factor in real politics during my lifetime. All that will remain is what Albert Jay Nock used to call “a remnant,” irrelevant to the national political dialogue.  There will be no political party to which it can attach itself. The man who has commandeered the Republican Party and captured the election is as far from being a conservative as a man can get.

What do I mean by a “conservative”? Andrew J. Bacevich’s definition will do nicely for me:

  • a commitment to individual liberty, tempered by the conviction that genuine freedom entails more than simply an absence of restraint;
  • a belief in limited government, fiscal responsibility, and the rule of law;
  • veneration for our cultural inheritance combined with a sense of stewardship for Creation;
  • a reluctance to discard or tamper with traditional social arrangements;
  • respect for the market as the generator of wealth combined with a wariness of the market’s corrosive impact on humane values;
  • a deep suspicion of utopian promises, rooted in an appreciation of the sinfulness of man and the recalcitrance of history.

Does that sound to anyone like a description of Donald Trump? Would it not be easier to fit that definition to, say, Jimmy Carter than to our new Republican President?

Conservatives are the ones who should bemoan the election of such an anti-conservative man. A tear or two, a sad sigh, at least would be evidence that they are still alive, having suffered a devastating loss. Anyone for whom “the permanent things” matter should thank God that those things are permanent. They’ll have to be around for a long time before they receive any notice in the public forum again.

Featured image by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Top 7 Books to Read through the Trumpenreich

I’ll spare you my election hot takery. Frankly I don’t really think anyone has a good grasp on the particulars of how this happened, where it happened and why. We probably need to wait a few weeks to see how it shook out once we have the full story. From there we can distill and discuss.

Nonetheless it doesn’t take an oracle to realize this is a massive upset. For many across the political spectrum; mainstream Democrats, hardline progressives and conservatives of many stripes, it was a confusing result. Alarming even. In particular for young conservatives who will bear the brunt of the legacy of this moment, we are stuck wondering, “Where do we go from here?”

I don’t rightly know, but I do know there’s some reading that can help elucidate how we got here and how we can help rebuild the cause of prudence, virtue and tradition. So in true millennial style, here’s my listicle:

The Top 7 Conservative Books to Read through the Trumpenreich

7. Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam.

Cover of Bowling Alone by Robert PutnamYou must read this book if you want to understand some of the root causes of our modern political dysfunction. Putnam records the increased decline in institutional trust, civic decline and social capital in America. Trump v. Clinton does not happen in a country with a healthy civic culture. A Trump victory does not happen in a country with strong, trusting communities. Social scientists quibble over Putnam’s proposed causes and solutions, but it is a critical diagnosis if we are to move forward.

6. Coming Apart by Charles Murray.

Cover of Coming Apart by Charles MurrayMurray writes on a similar theme: There is something rotten in the state of Denmark. While Putnam speaks to Denmark as a whole, Murray hones in on specific provinces. It’s not necessarily that America writ large that is dysfunctional, it’s downscale whites. In particular he convincingly lays how out how the biggest cultural chasm in America is between white Americans. Since 1960 outcomes for white working class Americans has stagnated or declined. The reverse holds true for middle and upper class white Americans. More poignantly, white Americans of different classes live in totally different worlds. One tribe is educated, the other is not. One goes to church, one shows up for holidays, if that. One stays married, the other doesn’t bother or divorces. One succeeds, the other fails. Meanwhile the successful ones disdain or totally ignore their hapless kin. These are harsh generalizations and other conservatives have contested his casual prognosis, but facts remain facts even if they are uncomfortable. America’s core cultural/ethnic grouping is coming apart at the seams.

5. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.

Cover of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. VanceStop what you are doing and read this author’s interview by Rod Dreher. The social science of Murray and Putnam, backed up by footnotes and copious numbers, can only penetrate the mind so far. Vance brings it home with a haunting, complicated and uplifting personal narrative about rural white poverty in the Greater Appalachia. If you want an up close look at the hardcore Trump voter, look no further. What’s novel is Vance accomplishes this without the saccharine, tokenizing nonsense that much of the right’s commentariat indulges themselves in. The same people that crow as loud as the day is long about the broken culture behind Hispanic and black poverty work themselves into a triggered fit of self pitying rage when the same is pointed out about poor, rural white communities. Are you a liberal trying to find some way to connect with Trump voters but can’t find the heart? Read this book. Are you a conservative with some nostalgic, rose-tinted view of “real America?” Read this book.

4. After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre.

Cover of After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyreMacIntyre’s book is totally different from the first three I just suggested. But this Scottish Thomist speaks to the cultural and moral moment we find ourselves in.  To sum it up: liberal modernity ain’t all it’s cracked up to be and the current way we talk about moral and political ethics leaves the “modern man” woefully unfulfilled. To wit, “In the dominant liberal view, government is to be neutral as between rival conceptions of human good yet in fact what liberalism promotes is a kind of institutional order that is inimical to the construction and sustaining the types of communal relationship required for the best kind of human life. The moment we find ourselves in is largely due to the absence of virtue in our civic life.

3. The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk.

Cover of The Conservative Mind by Russell KirkWhither goest thou, Conservatism? Part of the reason why Conservatism, Inc. is in such a crisis is because of how intellectually shallow it really is. It’s a comically tragic attempt to keep Reaganism (itself an occasional, unique adaption to the late Cold War) alive, like an ideological Weekend At Bernie’s. Trump tore through conservative pieties mainly because modern establishment conservatism had all the roots of a day old leaf shoot. If you’re a conservative and you’re looking for something more (that also isn’t the hodgepodge of national greatness populist horse manure that Trumpism aspires to), this is a great introduction to the depth and breadth of the wider Anglo-American intellectual tradition. Also, on a side note, it’s bizarre to me how many liberal friends of mine pontificate on conservatism and yet have never even heard of this book.

2. The Quest for Community by Robert Nisbet.

Want to truly make America great again? Want to make sure another Trump doesn’t come across the political horizon? Read this book and follow its advice. Radically reject the atomization of society that breeds demagoguery, statCover of The Quest for Community by Robert Nisbetism and civic corruption. Join one of Burke’s little platoons of society. Talk to your neighbors. Do the hard, necessary work of building your local community. Alarmed communities produce elections like this one. Peter Hitchens put it like this, “This is a frightened society. Many people live in a constant level of fear. There is a general decay of social obligation. There is a sense you don’t intervene. I think the answer is the reestablishment of the free and ordered society we so recently had.” Voting isn’t the answer, nor is your signaling on social media. The best activism you can actually engage in is helping build a robust local community.

1. The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher.

Cover of The Benedict Option by Rod DreherThis is more geared toward orthodox Christians (small or large “O” depending on your preference). We need to face facts. The Religious Right is dead. If it wasn’t dead before, it has finally given up the ghost by hitching its wagon to a venalvice peddlinghedonisticgroping serial adulterer who brags about how he doesn’t need God’s forgiveness. But even if Trump had never happened, the writing was on the wall. Christians are going to have to fess up to the reality that we live in an increasingly post-Christian culture. Named about St. Benedict, who helped build strong Christian communities which weathered the fall of Rome, Rod Dreher lays out a strategy for how Christianity can survive in the modern West and enrich our communities in the process.


Regrettably we live in interesting times. America escaped a very bad candidate and in return got one that is arguably worse. In the meantime Americans are divided, scared and angry at each other. These books aren’t magic recipes but they are good starts (also we will all need something to do while sitting around in between our morning and evening Public Displays of Praise for our Dear Leader). No one is going to rebuild public trust for us. We will have to do it ourselves.

I’ll leave you with my favorite quotation from President Abraham Lincoln (who is criminally under-appreciated among conservatives today):

We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Get reading, kids.

Featured image: “Daily News, India” by Bo Nielsen (BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Stalin vs. Hitler

There’s a school of thought (if it can be called that) which insists that voters tomorrow have only two real choices: to support the Republican candidate against the Democratic candidate, or vice versa.

The problem, of course, is that for many people, neither one is a desirable candidate. Both are objectionable on multiple levels and have the potential to cause great harm in various ways. Whether they would do any good is questionable.

The leaders of the free world faced a similar dilemma in the last century. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were two great predatory powers intent on swallowing up  smaller European states. But from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s perspective in 1941, it seemed necessary to make common cause with Soviet Marshal Joseph Stalin in order to defeat Adolf Hitler. And Churchill ultimately succeeded in convincing the United States under President Franklin D. Roosevelt to do the same.

It was not known until shortly after Hitler’s defeat, that Hitler and Stalin had agreed in the secret 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Accord not to oppose one another in war, and to divide Poland and other eastern European states between themselves. This agreement only became void in June of 1941, when Hitler launched a surprise invasion of Russia. Churchill had actually secretly warned Stalin in April that Germany was preparing an invasion, but Stalin, trusting the secret pact and probably giving Hitler too much credit for rational strategy, had ignored the forwarded intelligence.

It should go without saying that Donald Trump is no Hitler, and of course Hillary Clinton is no Stalin. Trump at the moment passes for a right-wing demagogue, just as Hitler is often mistaken for one, while Clinton passes for a tribune of the Left — although more consistent minds on both the right and the left recognize that these designations are not particularly accurate. Nevertheless, the left is being asked to swallow their disagreements with Clinton in order to defeat Trump, and the right is expected to throw in their lot with Trump in order to defeat Clinton.

Hindsight is clear. We can now see that Stalin played the West like a fiddle until 1946, gaining aid and concessions from Churchill and Roosevelt which enabled him to bring eastern Europe under Soviet tyranny. We can play the historical ‘what if’ game and imagine a scenario in which Communism and Nazism exhaust one another in mutual warfare until both totalitarian regimes totter and fall, clearing the way for the return of free nations and traditional governments. Instead, the latter part of the 20th century was overshadowed by Communism. We are also now aware of the Communist infiltration within Roosevelt’s circle, particularly at the State Department (Alger Hiss, who was deeply involved in shaping the Yalta accords, and a number of others).

But even without this knowledge, or even without full knowledge of Stalin’s own geopolitical predations and genocide, shouldn’t Churchill and Roosevelt have been able to recognize that Stalin was not the avuncular ally they depicted him? Shouldn’t they have already known enough of the treachery of Bolshevism to reject its alliance?

We now know that Communism, aided greatly by Stalin’s regime, killed more people than died in the Holocaust and the Second World War put together. Stalin is responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of his own people, and a strong postwar Russia contributed greatly to the formation of Communist regimes in China and east Asia which killed over 60 million people.

Don’t get me wrong. Neither Trump nor Clinton is anything like Hitler or Stalin. But although fortunately the stakes are much lower, the moral duty remains not to lend aid or support to unscrupulous, untrustworthy leaders.

We do not yet know what will happen under a Clinton or Trump presidency, or what unknown secrets will be revealed in the next four years. For instance, we do not presently have documentation of a secret cabal between the two candidates, although some have speculated that Trump is in some way a Democratic spoiler in the Republican party. If this were the case, he’s certainly given them a closer race than they expected. But there is enough on the part of both candidates to show them unfit to lead. We need not resort to conspiracy theories to see how either Clinton or Trump is likely to do ill in the presidential office. Why strengthen their power by making strategic alliances that will be all to their benefit and do very little for us?

Now you may happen to support Trump or Clinton because you agree with their politics and admire them as people. If so, God help you. However, if you believe as I do that both candidates are morally unfit to lead the nation, why lend either of them political power with your vote?

Virtue Contra Virtù: Reflections on a Claremonster’s Idiocy

by Anti-Hystericus

For several decades, good, earthy conservative thinkers have noted with some disgust the Straussianus Claremonstrius, a peacocking species of intellectual native to the West Coast whose esoteric armchair philosophy, peculiar contortions of Plato and Leo Strauss, and atrocious SoCal fashion choices inspire his Eastern brethren to contest any claims to common ancestry. For when a pseudonymous author at Claremont goes so far as to “read into” a fellow scholar’s “esoteric endorsement of Trump,” it’s safe to say that the moniker of “Straussian” has become wholly detached from its namesake and the pretender is best escorted with mirth from the party.

Pity the joke is on us, however, for the Claremonster is in dead earnest and has used several intelligent words and rhetorical flourishes to make his point. And the viral masses are biting.

Our story begins in medias res aboard the doomed Flight 93, a mere six days before the 15th anniversary of 9/11—an allusion as tasteless as the cheeto-stain of a man whom the piece apparently endorses. We are standing with a semiautomatic to our head, handed a partly-loaded revolver, and told to take a spin or meet our maker. Obviously, a man of virtù, who stands in solidarity with Chicken Little and unflinchingly declares to the world that THE SKY IS FALLING, knows the only option is to put the barrel to his head and pull the trigger, however much those Pollyannaish dorm-room Marxists urge him to guard his moral agency.

The flurry of allusions is as dazzling as it is banal, and amid the hysterics and histrionics one almost fails to note the egregious elision of the received ethical tradition of the West, an ethical tradition which reaches beyond the Machiavellian virtù that delimits the author’s morals, and ties genuine virtue to the moral agency of the person as given by God and made in his image. Brutal, pragmatic, and Machiavellian things tend to have adverse effects on the soul, that tradition holds, and it is one’s soul that one must ultimately give an account for.

It is unclear that the author shares this sensibility (one is tempted to doubt his Christianity, given his appeal to pagan generals and pagan virtù, his worship of the martial above the meek, and the interests of the mass above the dignity of the image of God cast upon our shores). But Christians we are, and Christians we remain, and our vision must ultimately be cast beyond the success of this year’s (or any year’s) political bouts. We have survived a hostile culture before and are capable of doing so again. Our fathers have been fed to lions or coated in pitch and set ablaze without calling on Trump to save them, and the Church has managed to spring back from the setbacks. So forgive us if we’re not ready to declare 2016 the year it all finally unravels. We’ll take their virtue over virtù for now.

Editor’s note: With that Flight 93 analogy, is Claremont’s most subtle brain saying we have to fly America into the ground ourselves so Terrorist Hillary can’t do it? Aside from it being a ridiculous and offensive metaphor to begin with, the result seems undesirable. Since when has anarchy been a conservative value?

Mother of God: Two Guys Almost Lost Their Pet Human Child

We all need to feel sorry for two men who, as Buzzfeed reports, nearly lost custody of the male human child they had bought and paid for, through the unreasonable malice of a rogue judge.

The male human child was the byproduct of an otherwise unrelated instance of artificial reproduction in the form of in vitro fertilization, and thus he is actually the biological offspring of another couple, friends of these men, who didn’t want him. The two men already have custody of two other human persons of the female variety, whose biological origin is apparently unimportant other than that they too were brought into the world through surrogates. (These women are always referred to in this type of journalism as “surrogates” — what precisely they are a surrogate for it is unfashionable to mention — or “gestational carriers.”)

Buzzfeed is of course at pains to detail how unspeakably bourgeois and in fact even wealthy these two men are. One, we read, is quite fetchingly the president of a lobbying group, the National Association of Manufacturers, which may explain why he believed that manufacturing a child in the womb of a paid surrogate was a reasonable thing to do. This man is also referred to as “a conservative Christian” for reasons that are unclear. His partner was “a federal lobbyist for Capital One” until he quit to care for their growing family pursue the couple’s litigation efforts full-time. Such wonderful, human people.

The rest of the Buzzfeed article centers on the controversy about whether paid surrogacy ought to be legal, because it’s 2016, and why shouldn’t two rich white gay men have the best children money can buy?

I of course take the view of the benighted Wisconsin judge who tried to frustrate their plans. Two human bodies were bought and sold in this transaction: one the surrogate whose womb is effectively rented; the other of course being the child. (To be fair to the child’s new proprietors, they were not responsible for his genesis in a lab; we can blame his biological progenitors and their medical collaborators for that.)

I hope this child and his putative siblings have a lovely childhood, and that in experiencing the joys and challenges of parenting these unique human beings who, despite their unusual origins, are unique persons made in the image of God, their “dads” will become better people.

The worst thing about this story is Buzzfeed‘s relentless spin, which I am trying, perhaps recklessly, to un-spin. Buzzfeed weasels its way past all kinds of problematic moral situations with the words it uses to frame the story. Surrogates, for instance, are always “used,” as providers of gestation-as-a-service. They are rented bodies who seemingly do not relate as mothers to the children they carry.

While refusing to dignify the surrogate with even a transient motherhood, Buzzfeed refers to her two clients as “dads” and “fathers,” even as their biological fatherhood is specifically disclaimed. Buzzfeed calls the boy “their son” even before they attain legal custody of him. What exactly makes them his parents? Presumably fatherhood is something that can be purchased once one achieves the appropriate socioeconomic status.

As usual, the early Christian church was on this issue before today’s sophisticated surrogacy techniques were ever contemplated. One might ask: Could not the Virgin Mary be seen in the same light, as a “gestational carrier” for the Son of God, who inhabited her womb through no human agency?

No, said the church at the third ecumenical council in 431. Mary was to be honored, not as one who merely provided the material for his human life, but one who, having carried and given birth to the incarnate Son of God, remains forever His mother, and not the mother of his humanity only, but mother of his undivided person, rightly to be called Theotokos, the Mother of God.

May she also be a true mother to the motherless, through the merits of her blessed Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Featured image: “Romulus & Remus” by CellarDoor85, CC BY-SA 3.0