“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 They have been replaced by the tenets of a secular humanism that is the prevailing orthodoxy of our new cultural, social and intellectual elites.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.)
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
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.”
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.
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:
After 8 years of liberal hedonist triumphalism, time for a little schadenfreude Liberal media in meltdown over Trump https://t.co/c5ZWOgXJDD
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.
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
You 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.
Murray 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.
Stop 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.
MacIntyre’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.
Whither 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.
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, statism 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.
This 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 venal, vice peddling, hedonistic, groping 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.
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?