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)

Is there a pro-life case for Hillary Clinton?

While many conservatives are unwilling to back Donald Trump, few conservatives of any stripe are willing to openly support Hillary Clinton.

Enter Rachel Held Evans, a pro-life Christian, ex-evangelical and current Episcopalian. (As are a number of us here at The Hipster Conservative.) As a popular blogger, Ms. Held Evans made a name for herself as an in-house cultural critic of evangelical Christianity. Now she takes up the unenviable task of making a pro-life case for Hillary Clinton.

Her case is simple and clever, if ultimately unconvincing. She argues that to be pro-life is to have a consistent life ethic. Therefore, she says, we must not simply outlaw abortion but also, “. . . create a culture with fewer unwanted pregnancies to begin with.”  So far, so good. She argues progressive policies are more likely to create this culture. Ms. Clinton is more progressive than Mr. Trump, ergo Clinton is the more pro-life of the two candidates. Lastly, she claims that outlawing abortion would simply be a Pyrrhic victory, the GOP is really just being cynical in its attempts at abolition, and that Democrats are actually the better choice if your goal is fewer abortions.

Whew. That’s a heady brew. Where to start?

Do Progressive Policies Help?

A big part of the essay is based on the assumption that progressive policies exclusively help the poor. While neither Ms. Held Evans nor I are economists, I’m far less willing to pretend that the economic debate is closed. For starters there is decent evidence that progressive taxation and welfare policies have a negative,  not positive, impact on economic inequality and poverty. Even in Scandinavia, long honored by American progressives as a social democratic paradise, has a persistent inequality problem.

Further it’s extremely arguable that Democratic education policies hold back the education of poor children in the inner city, arguably one of the most direct causes of urban poverty  and misery. The most direct is probably our government’s disastrous war on drugs, in which Ms. Clinton was a fervent soldier.

Ms. Held Evans’ strongest case probably comes from the expansion of birth control and how it reduces the overall abortion rate. However in this she assumes too much. While it is true that abortion rates have decreased during the Obama administration, her piece leads you to assume that this decline began during Mr. Obama’s years in office. It did not. The abortion rate has dropped consistently since its peak in 1980. Lastly, she forgets that Republicans are the ones who propose making contraception available over the counter, which would probably be the single largest barrier reduction to contraception since the 1960s.  Bizarrely, it’s largely been the left who opposes OTC contraception.

Ms. Held Evans believes the GOP is foolish to pursue an end to abortion (she even implies that this is a merely cynical position). She provides studies on how abolition can increase abortion-related deaths but fails to mention on how all of these studies are of developing countries without widespread access to quality healthcare, not a nation like the U.S.

Ms. Held Evans is a progressive Christian, both politically and theologically. That’s fine, but too often her piece seems to assume that a panel of experts in white coats somewhere has ruled that progressivism just works and the intellectual debate is over. It’s not over, and Ms. Clinton’s policies are not some kind of pro-life panacea.

Can a Pro-Life Person Vote for Clinton?

Ms. Held Evans spends a lot of time arguing that Donald Trump isn’t pro-life, either respecting abortion or, really, anything else. This is almost certainly true, but it doesn’t exculpate Clinton either.

Which takes us to the crux of the matter. I take Ms. Held Evans at her word that she’s pro-life (though she engages in some ridiculous, “Who am I to force my beliefs on someone?” sophistry). Let’s really back it up and ask, “What is abortion to a person who is pro-life?” That’s very simple.

On a medical, scientific level abortion is the process of ending the life of a living individual, genetically distinct, member of the species homo sapiens. We end these lives by killing them with chemicals, dismemberment, and lethal injection.

To the pro-life person, whether secular or devout, this practice is infanticide. To put it simply we kill the most physically vulnerable class of human beings by poisoning them and cutting them to pieces. To the pro-life person like myself or Ms. Held Evans this is a monstrous injustice. For this to happen to just one child would be grossly wrong. In the United States, where it is firmly legal, it occurs more than a million times, each and every year.

The legality of this practice is one that Ms. Clinton strongly defends, though she claims to takes umbrage at the occasional exculpatory circumstances such as some late-term or sex-selective abortions in the People’s Republic of China (no word on the American girls who find themselves so unneeded).

Ms. Held Evans’ chosen candidate not only backs the legality of this practice, but openly calls for the use of Medicaid funding to directly subsidize it. Her candidate’s party’s platform functionally opposes any limits on the practice.

Let’s sum this up. In the United States, every year, over a million human beings are eliminated, usually by physically traumatic and violent methods, the vast majority of whom are Latino or black. Ms. Clinton not only wishes to allow this practice to continue legally, but perversely defends using funds designated for the poor to subsidize the death of their children.

Much of Ms. Held Evans’ essay rightfully highlights her passionate concern for social justice, a concept too often reserved to the secular left.  She spends a good deal of time discussing her concerns that Donald Trump’s candidacy reflects a threat to marginalized populations. No doubt, if Mr. Trump openly called for the violent liquidation of Muslims, Hispanics, immigrants, and the disabled, she would recoil in horror. She would extend this horror if Trump floated the idea that, while he himself wouldn’t pursue such a policy, he would be loathe to use the power of the government to keep others from murdering them. Even if Trump simply winked at such a future, no doubt she would find a Trump vote to be morally unthinkable.

Yet she has no such qualms about using her voice to endorse Ms. Clinton.

To the pro-life there can’t be a difference. A pro-life person, opposed to the practice of killing human beings in utero, can’t distinguish between human beings in or out of the womb.

I think part of Ms. Held Evans’ disconnect is due to the banality of evil. Hillary Clinton isn’t some grotesque. She isn’t even a crass, demagogic buffoon. She looks like a respectable, boring, American politician. In another life, she looks like she would’ve made a typical PTA president. This doesn’t make her policies any less unjust. One  wonders if Held Evans’ belief in Clinton’s pro-life life ethic extends to those killed at wedding parties struck by American drones, dead Libyans, or Syrians. Another part of her disconnect likely comes from the ease with which our mind can gloss over mass violence. A good (though imperfect) comparison can be made to the judgement in the Einsatzgruppen trial.

That verdict is asobering reminder of evil and our limitations;

[O]ne million is but an abstract number. One cannot grasp the full cumulative terror of murder one million times repeated. It is only when this grotesque total is broken down into units capable of mental assimilation that one can understand the monstrousness of the things we are in this trial contemplating. One must visualize not one million people but only ten persons falling before the executioner . . . . If one million is divided by ten, this scene must happen one hundred thousand times, and as one visualizes the repetitious horror, one begins to understand the meaning of the prosecution’s words, ‘It is with sorrow and with hope that we here disclose the deliberate slaughter of more than a million innocent and defenseless . . . children.’

If one describes oneself as pro-life, if one believes that the poisoning and dismembering of human beings in utero is unjust, then we cannot give our votes to those on the Right or Left who wink at those who engage in such practices and at those who wish to use public funds to directly subsidize them. To do so it to be complicit in a great evil, no matter how banal and boring it appears. I’ll let C.H. Spurgeon, a more eloquent Christian than either Ms. Held Evans or myself, play us out:

This is one of the most specious of those arguments by which good men are held in the bonds of evil. As an argument, it is rotten to the core. We have no right to do wrong, from any motive whatever. To do evil that good may come is no doctrine of Christ, but of the devil.

Conservatism and progress

Near the end of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov, the eldest brother Dmitri is wrongly accused of his father Fyodor’s murder. Spectators at the trial had mostly assumed Dmitri’s guilt, and many in the crowd felt that Dmitri’s personal wrongs against them were being avenged. Only the reader has witnessed the scene in which Dmitri, seething with rage at his wretched adulterer of a father, grasps a pestle in his pocket—and then, mastering himself, swallows his anger and backs out of his plan to kill his forebear. Only the reader has seen Fyodor’s illegitimate son Smerdyakov admit to the murder.

The Brothers Karamozov concludes, some months after Dmitri’s trial, with the funeral of a peasant boy named Ilyusha. Earlier, Dmitri had learned that Ilyusha’s impoverished father, the “Captain,” was involved in Fyodor Karamozov’s illicit business dealings. Dmitri, who had been swindled by the Captain, exacted a humiliating revenge, dragging him through the street by his beard as his son and neighbors looked on. Ilyusha’s schoolmates teased him violently for the incident, throwing stones that hit him hard in his chest. Ilyusha died from his wounds two days after Dmitri was found guilty for a murder he did not commit.

No court could ever convict Dmitri for Ilyusha’s death. The legal system can only sentence the person immediately responsible for a murder. But Dostoevsky’s genius shines a floodlight on the intricate and thorny web of moral cause and effect. Continue reading Conservatism and progress

Perpetual Pyrrhic Peace

“Peace is a good thing, but a glass of beer is a good thing as well.”
—Fragment of conversation

Thomas Hobbes described the natural political state as a “war of all against all,” waged by solitary people who live poor, ugly, brutish and short lives until, guided by self-preservation, they come together to form political bodies. These bodies deliver us from the state of war and, in exchange for our obedience, promise a peaceful and orderly life. For all of us, our desire for peace is associated primarily with security, a life that can be lived aesthetically and without continuous stress. However, does peace sometimes have a price too high to bear? Can perpetual peace be easily achieved? And can our idealism about peace blind us to its weaknesses and costs?

Painting of Immanuel Kant as a young man
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

Immanuel Kant, the greatest philosopher of the Enlightenment, successfully persuaded Europe that perpetual peace was a goal worth trying to reach. Until Kant, no one imagined that peace could be a sort of normal and unchangeable condition.

The pre-Kantian perception of peace as a fragile state between wars is best embodied by a saying of the Roman writer Vegetius: “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

The European Union can be perceived as a materialization of Kant’s idea of a perpetual peace union. After two bloody world wars, the wisdom of Vegetius was rejected in people’s minds and the center of geopolitical thinking was occupied by an idea that is best described with a quote from the ancient Greek poet Pindar: “War is sweet to those that never have experienced it.” Pindar was not so banal, but the popular community tends to take quotes out of context in order to justify their conformism to the spirit of the age.

In Perpetual Peace, Kant claimed that standing armies must eventually disappear. This is because the existence of armies in permanent combat readiness is disturbing to other countries and encourages them to compete in an unlimited arms race, leading to destabilization of the peace. (Kant offered as an alternative to a permanent army, a voluntary period of military exercise for citizens.) Kant also stated that the threat of war is also increased by political unions and the phenomenon of lending one country’s army to the other in order to fight an enemy that is not a threat to both countries.

Kant also affirmed that “no state has a right to interfere in another state’s affairs and government.” Kant created an illusion that relations between states can be perceived in terms of interactions between individuals. Supporting this illusion is the belief that nature leads people and, along with them, states toward peaceful coexistence—that just as civil law protects individuals, international law should protect rationally disputing states. Kant believed that international law would be a better shield for national sovereignty than treaties of mutual belligerency.

ichkantevenKant, who died in 1804, would seem to have been proven right by the breakdown of mutual alliances that plunged Europe into 30 years of devastation. After World War II, European politics began to be rebuilt after the pattern in Perpetual Peace. The European Union is the fullest development of these ideas so far.

When we recognize that the European Union is built on Kant’s framework, we can begin to understand the real nature of the Ukraine crisis. Ukraine is not an EU member state, but all its troubles began precisely when its citizens decided not to put up with the political course swaying towards the East. In Kiev, masses of young people waving EU flags demanded that their county become a member of the peaceful union.

However, from a Kantian perspective, no country in the peace confederation could really legitimately interfere in the Ukrainian state’s affairs. It sometimes seems that the West thinks there is no need to seek perpetual peace—as if it is already here. The response of Brussels suggests this view. Publicly expressed concern and minimal humanitarian aid, which in no way offered a significant advantage in a crisis situation, was the maximum help they provided.

There is a dual problem. In the beginning of the crisis, Ukrainian civil society was expected to reshape domestic politics according to their needs, convincing their fellow citizens in public bodies (for example, local militias) that they should contribute to the stabilization of Ukraine’s peace. But the effort to exit the natural Hobbesian state of war failed because of the “green men” found in various places, meaning Russian forces wearing the uniforms of local security organizations, and Russia-supported political fronts.

The same thing happened later when the eastern border of the country was overrun by strange “Ukrainians” who became the entourage of self-proclaimed regional leaders, and of the waves of Russian “humanitarian aid convoys” that were led by neither a humanistic desire for good, nor an inclination to help. Nevertheless, Western lawyers did not dare to publicly express their position because there was not enough evidence that would oblige the European peace union to introduce warlike measures in a foreign country.

Today’s Kantian international law has become a victim of the simulacra. Russia today has mastered the art of juggling simulacra to the detail—not only in its domestic affairs but across the world. The Kremlin has long been aware that dirty deeds can be carried out under a mask that removes legal responsibility. Legally it is hard to positively prove Russia’s direct interference during the Ukraine crisis.

The peace union faces a moment of conflict for which Kant’s theory is too normative. It is naïve to think that all citizens will unanimously want the same thing, but even when the majority is asking for peace and wants to become part of the peace union, the Kantian theory does not offer any mechanism that would protect one country’s process of becoming part of the peace union from interference by another country that is against it.

Kantian trust would suggest waiting until the aggressor state realizes that it is useful to seek the same good. It assumes that this country actually seeks peace and that if it opposes the peace union it is because it sees itself as a guarantor of a higher level of peace.

It is as if international law regulates everything except when a state with significant power becomes the offender! Then the interpretation of international law degenerates into a giant process of politicking and questioning the foundations of legal competence. The Westerners are now defenseless against Russia since they created this system themselves and cannot suggest anything more advanced, and within their system they have no idea how to react to such questioning and Eastern simulacra.

It is not surprising that Poland and Lithuania have become the only countries that are acting like they understand that the peace held by the European Union is not a perpetual peace. These countries are not only related to Ukraine in terms of common history but are also familiar with the Russian style of politics that spread with Marxist-Leninist communism. Although Lithuania should be more familiar with it because of its former existence in the U.S.S.R., Poland is able to act much more decisively thanks to its greater intellectual and sovereign power. It is only through this power that EU mechanisms can be changed.

The democratic mechanism of the European Union is saturated with checks and balances that are supposed to guarantee proportional participation in evaluating and planning the response to geopolitical situations. This proportionality does not take into account the fact that the EU does not have any real military opponents in the West and in the South. A country in the far west of Europe is not willing to waste its resources against a threat it does not feel. Realpolitik has undermined the EU’s successful positioning in the case of Ukraine.

It is not possible to simply paper over Hobbesian pessimism with pages of Kant. A “state of nature” always exists between countries, even if it does not feel like a “war of all against all.” Insecure Eastern European states have to fight for a new revision of the “perpetual peace” that would be less normative and idealistic, and would critically analyze the principles, phases and external hostile forces of peace development. Otherwise, a great price will have to be paid when this overstretched period of artificial peace collapses and destroys all mutual trust and peace in the union. It is necessary to recognize the painful truth: peace and a glass of beer have one thing in common—they both inevitably come to an end.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user cyclonebill

A version of this article first appeared in “Eastern Partnership Countries Close-Up,” a publication of the Institute of Democratic Politics and Wilfried Martens Centre. It has been edited for publication by The Hipster Conservative.

What’s red and blue and all screwed up?

Every election season, I am newly confounded by those garish bi-colored maps that saturate every media outlet’s coverage of events. You know them well —those “red state, blue state” maps that so neatly divide our country’s political differences into digestible, candy-like nuggets. My confusion lies in the fact that these colors, red for Republican and blue for Democrat, are so obviously wrong. They defy the long-standing tradition, found among numerous modern countries, of red’s association with political leftism and blue’s with conservatism.

Image of a crowd of people holding tall red flags in a supposedly spontaneous demonstration after a Societ military parade in Moscow
‘Spontaneous’ demonstration after a military May Day parade (LIFE)

Red is, of course, the official color of Communist states—Soviet Russia, Red China, and the Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge, to name a few examples—and it is the color for labor and social democracy. It is also the impassioned, incendiary color of revolutionary violence, seen in the likes of the Bolsheviks, or Garibaldi’s redshirts. Is it surprising that it was also Marx’s favorite color? Continue reading What’s red and blue and all screwed up?

“The church ought to be doing [x] instead of obsessing over sex.”

Part 3 of Will Barrett’s series on “The Intra-Evangelical Culture War.”

The X could be any number of good and important things the church ought to be doing. Most likely, it means feeding the poor, healing the sick, promoting racial reconciliation, or agitating against economic injustice. It it is possible that some churches neglect their part in these activities, but to point this out in a dialogue about sexual morality serves no purpose but to divert attention away from the question at hand with an irrelevant attack on the credibility of the opponent.

Imagine a formal debate in which one speaker declares that both sides would be better served by calling off the debate in favor of doing something more constructive. Then, after his opponent leaves the room, he proceeds to stump for his own point of view on the issue. This is precisely the tactic some progressive Christians use when faced with conservative arguments about the morality and theology of sex. Although they may complain that conservatives are taking too much time away from works of justice and mercy to preach about sex, I have yet to hear of any sexually progressive Christian commentator hold his own advocacy to the same standard. Continue reading “The church ought to be doing [x] instead of obsessing over sex.”

“The church is unhealthily obsessed with sex.”

Part 2 of Will Barrett’s series on the intra-evangelical culture war. Part 1 is here.

To have a decent argument that ends with a bow and a handshake, or maybe even a beer after the crowds have cleared, the parties involved must assume that both sides have come to the debate earnestly and with the best of intentions, even if they haven’t. In other words, both sides need to refrain from blaming the others’ motives for having the discussion in order to focus on the terms of the discussion itself. This limitation is even more important when one or both sides has reason to suspect that the other’s motives are rascally or base. To keep  the conversation from devolving  into tiresome defenses of honor, the arguers must agree to bracket out questions of motives.

New Atheist debaters like Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris regularly betray either their blissful ignorance of this guideline, or else an amusingly wilful disregard for it, when they regularly open debates over cosmology and first causes with charges that their theistic interlocutors just want to convert the audience to their chosen religion instead of helping them think for themselves. They probably do, but that is beside the point.

In the intra-evangelical culture wars, the liberal camp has lately displayed a wanton disregard for this first principle of debate whenever sex is the topic of discussion. Continue reading “The church is unhealthily obsessed with sex.”

Clearing the air in the intra-Evangelical culture war

The larger culture too often mistakes evangelical Christians for an unfractured conservative bloc. Many would be surprised to know about the culture wars that rage between liberal and conservative evangelical Christians. For instance, the advocacy of left-leaning evangelical groups is often reported as “a shift in evangelical culture” when in reality the same people have been saying the same things for a long time.

One would think that arguments between Christians about hot social topics would be more gracious and constructive than the venomous contest between the religious right and the secularist Left.

But is it? Evangelicalism’s internal culture war, between bloggers and authors like Rachel Held Evans and pastors like the recently ousted Mark Driscoll is lamentably hobbled by sloppy logic, red herrings, and an even firmer commitment to never having anything but an exchange of insults. The fond idea that the culture wars would not be so nasty if folks just got to know each other does not hold up in the case of the evangelical community, where the venom is even more poisonous for its thin coating of sentimentality. In fact, the culture wars rage within the evangelical world with a special viciousness, and this is probably to be expected. As anyone with siblings will attest, intimates tend to fight more often and with deeper malice. Continue reading Clearing the air in the intra-Evangelical culture war

The End of Hipstery and the Last Culture

By Jacob Stubbs

All-Inclusive Disclaimer: In this essay I do not necessarily use philosophers’ thoughts as they intended. Any reference to a philosopher will probably be a heterodox or downright incorrect interpretation. I do not use Hegel as a “hipster” would, nor do I claim that Hegel is himself a hipster. His great critic Søren Kierkegaard might have something to do with hipsters, especially since he was into the whole irony thing, but I do not have the purity of heart to elucidate this connection…

***

G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx are known as philosophers of History. That is, they focus on the process of man making himself and focusing on himself in such a way that he betters the world through technology. Alexandre Kojéve, the French philosopher who created the European Union, synthesized Hegel and Marx to argue that society lives at the “end of history.” For Kojéve, we live in a time where man has evolved to the point where all political, philosophical, and cultural developments have reached their highest apex and man lives as truth.

This “end of history” appeared with the advent of liberal democracy, given that democracy has found a way in which everyone’s rights can be respected so that each  person has the freedom or liberation to pursue satisfaction as he sees fit. The dialectical processes that fueled the movement of history have ultimately negated themselves and history has entered a “void of nothingness.” We see this happening tangibly in the ways that man has gained an understanding of nature, made technology, and used technology to counteract or negate nature. This led to a synthesis of the natural and contra-natural that causes man to live in “nothingness,” a realm that is beyond the demands of nature. Continue reading The End of Hipstery and the Last Culture