Vaporwave’s Hall of Mirrors

by Derek Hopper

It’s kind of hard to remember what life was like before the world wide web. We work on it, communicate on it, socialise on it, and shop on it. Just like the computer on the USS Enterprise, it’s indispensable to us and practically omniscient. The existence of Wikipedia alone means that anyone in the world with a 3G phone carries around in their pocket the closest thing we have to the collected sum of human knowledge. If we suddenly “lost” the web, our world would be changed unimaginably, for it involves itself in almost every aspect of our lives. Yet just 25 years ago most people had never heard of the internet. As recently as 1994 there were fewer than 3,000 websites. By 2014 that number had exploded to one billion—a 33 million percent increase in just twenty years.

According to research carried out by MIT’s Matthew Gray, just 623 websites existed at the end of 1993. Rewind another six months to the middle of 1993—back to the internet palaeozoic, when Jurassic Park was in theaters—and you find a mere 130 websites online. So the web is relatively new, yet just old enough to have witnessed a generation grow up with it.

Our gilded age

The 1990s were good years for the United States. The economy grew at an average of 4% per year between 1992 and 1999. The New York Times reported in 2015 that an average of 1.7 million jobs a year were added to the workforce, versus around 850,000 a year during the 21st century so far, and that “the unemployment rate dropped from nearly 8 percent in 1992 to 4 percent—that is, effectively zero—at the end of the decade”. The country had a federal budget surplus and saw a 41% decline in the murder rate and an end to the HIV/AIDS nightmare we had endured throughout the 1980s. Furthermore, the Soviet Union had just collapsed. This meant the US was the sole superpower in a world rapidly thawing out after the decades-long Cold War.

Arriving amid all of this economic and political prosperity was Microsoft’s Windows 95 operating system, launched in the August of its eponymous year. James Titcomb of the Telegraph writes that the OS was “a technological breakthrough” and “an unprecedented cultural phenomenon”. Its release seemed to come at just the right time. Home PCs were becoming more affordable and Windows 95 was followed a week after its release by Internet Explorer 1.0. PC sales boomed.

A person who was 15 years old in 1995 and listened nightly to their modem connect to the web would have been in their thirties by the early 2010s, when vaporwave first appeared.

Dreams of the ’90s

Vice has described vaporwave as “chillwave for Marxists”, “post-elevator music”, and “corporate smooth jazz Windows 95 pop”. They ask readers to “imagine taking bits of 80s Muzak, late-night infomercials, smooth jazz, and that tinny tune receptionists play when they put you on hold, then chopping that up, pitching it down, and scrambling it to the point where you’ve got saxophone goo dripping out of a cheap plastic valve”. In an article entitled “Soundtrack to Austerity”, Stylus said vaporwave was “a micro-genre of electronic music that draws on the corporate sonic ephemera of the 80s and 90s—such as lift muzak, ad soundtracks, ‘hold’ music and cocktail jazz—to satirise the emptiness of a hyper-capitalist society”. Vaporwave, then, is a genre of music. But it is also an aesthetic. On the rare occasions when vaporwave records are given a physical release it’s on cassette tape, with artwork that normally contains some combination of the following themes: classical sculpture, 1990s web imagery, tropical landscapes, surrealism, low-poly computer renderings, “glitch art”, VHS recordings, and Japanese text.

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

The highest ranked—and oldest—vaporwave album on the music site rateyourmusic.com is Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 (2010). (This makes vaporwave highly unusual in having peaked for many people as a genre upon its very first release). On the opening track the familiar strains of 1982’s “Toto” by Africa are slowed down and chopped and screwed, and listening to the record one can imagine window shopping in a Florida mall during the mid-90s while on Vicodin. Many of its other warped samples will be instantly recognisable to anyone who lived through the decade. The album’s cover is a collage of 16-bit imagery referencing the 1992 Sega Mega Drive video game Ecco the Dolphin, which was described by one Vice writer in an essay about the game as “the scariest I’ve ever played”.

Cover art of Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1

Ecco the Dolphin was a bestseller and had a significant effect on a subculture of American kids. Daniel Lopatin (the artist behind Eccojams) was ten years old when it was released. Entering one’s teen years is always a formative period but for Lopatin it happened to coincide with the period relevant to our discussion; the last American “golden age”. Other tracks sampled on the album, such as “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty and “The Lady in Red” by Chris de Burgh, were part of the easy-listening soundtrack to this gilded era, the pre-9/11 world. And so, aside from the economic prosperity and optimism for the coming internet age that characterised the 1990s, nostalgia for a more geopolitically innocent time should also be considered as a factor in the emergence of vaporwave.

If Eccojams was the first vaporwave record, then 2011’s フローラルの専門店 (Floral Shoppe) by Macintosh Plus is its defining one. Macintosh Plus is the single-serving nom de guerre of a Portland, Oregon-based graphic artist and producer, Ramona Andra Xavier, also known as Vektroid. It is Xavier who is most responsible for vaporwave as people understand it today. Esquire wrote that previous albums may “have pointed the way, but Floral Shoppe is the lodestone that embodies all the most salient elements of vaporwave”.

The cover of Floral Shoppe features most of the tropes that would become essential elements of the vaporwave aesthetic: lurid colours, a Roman bust to the fore, rendered landscapes, a garish pink and orange photo of a city skyline, and song titles in Japanese. The music itself met with some serious acclaim. Sputnikmusic gave it a perfect 5.0 score, saying that “it could well be the future’s first masterpiece”. The standout number on the album and perhaps vaporwave’s defining track is “リサフランク420 //現代のコンピュー”. It features a Diana Ross song, “It’s Your Move”, slowed down to something that sounds like a prozac daydream. Adam Downer’s review of Floral Shoppe for Sputnik discussed the obscurity of the samples used, “as though it was the internet spitting back what we’ve been feeding into it”. Here was mainstream acknowledgement that internet culture was being recycled and presented to us in new forms.

Cover art for Floral Shoppe by Macintosh Plus

Certain elements of the vaporwave aesthetic are present for obvious reasons. If vaporwave is nostalgia for the technology and cultural aesthetics of 1980s and 1990s then the frequent Windows imagery makes perfect sense. We can assume, given the immense growth in home computer sales during the mid- to late-90s, that for many vaporwave artists Windows was not just the first operating system they used but also perpetually and nostalgically emblematic of a rapidly “computerising” world. It was aptly named too, since it was their window out onto this fascinating new thing called the internet.

During the development phase of Windows 95, Microsoft executives commissioned Brian Eno to develop a piece of music to play when the operating system started up. Eno said that they wanted “’a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional’, this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said ‘and it must be 3.25 seconds long’”. The end result is one of the most iconic sounds in nineties cyberculture. A number of vaporwave artists have used Windows samples in their music, but perhaps the most notable example is Blank Banshee’s “B:/ Start Up” from 2012. If you want to arouse nostalgia in your listener then sampling a sound people heard every day for years during a boom-time is a stroke of genius.

The vaporwave fascination with classical statuary is less easily understood, but one Reddit user gave a reasonable explanation as to its presence: “Statues are a big part of the vaporwave aesthetic because they are materially perfect (or supposed to be) but spiritually inert, empty. If you see [Michelangelo’s] David as an aesthetic ideal of what a man should look like, fearsome, chiseled (pun intended), very handsome, etc., it kind of makes you feel inadequate in the same way a lot of popular media does (buy this to be better-looking, etc.). It can be seen perhaps as a critique on capitalism that we are presented with beautiful bodies that force us to consume, and classical statues seem to evoke this same kind of ‘perfect human’ idea”.

Is vaporwave political?

This analysis makes certain assumptions about the philosophy underlying vaporwave, specifically that it is anti-capitalist. Certainly this is a common view among commentators. Esquire said the genre was born of a “cynicism about capitalism”. Another outlet described it as “a dystopian critique of capitalism”, and a leading figure in vaporwave believes “it’s anticapitalist and antiglobalist”. A 2012 article by the musicologist Danny Harper went even further, suggesting a link with Marxism; “The name ‘vaporwave’ is reminiscent of a famous passage from Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, ‘all that is solid melts into air’, referring to the constant change society is subjected to under bourgeois capitalism”. It is hard to tell if these are fair and accurate summations or simply the projections of a liberal milieu whose job is to find sociological meaning in the latest fad.

In a Reddit AMA, Daniel Lopatin was asked who his favourite philosophers are. He mentioned modern names such as Manuel DeLanda, Bruno Latour and Alexander Galloway. Among the canonical thinkers he listed—Kant, Heidegger, Leibniz, and Deleuze—Marx was notable by his absence, and one of them, Martin Heidegger, is a controversial figure whose affiliation with Nazism has long affected if not tarnished his reputation. A New York Times article from 2009 posed the question “Does a Nazi Deserve a Place Among Philosophers?” Emmanuel Faye, author of Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy (2005), argues that “fascist and racist ideas are so woven into the fabric of Heidegger’s theories that they no longer deserve to be called philosophy”. Combine Lopatin’s interest in Heidegger with his public rejection of any political readings into his music—a common trait of politically right-leaning artists—and suddenly the assumption that vaporwave’s appropriation of capitalist imagery is merely ironic is not so tenable. It should go without saying that none of this means Lopatin is a Nazi or even necessarily right-wing. But it does mean there is a degree of ideological diversity present in the movement, and this perhaps sheds some light on certain recent developments in vaporwave.

The plague of frogs

In January 2017 Vice published an article on “far-right appropriation” of electronic music. This claim is interesting in itself as it presupposes that leftism is the a priori, factory-setting political position inherent in all electronic music, and that rightist political expression in the genre is a deviation from an assumed universal norm. The essay documents the rise of “Trumpwave” and “Fashwave”, two vaporwave offshoots that incorporate elements from across the right-wing spectrum, ranging from Donald Trump to actual fascist and even Nazi aesthetics and slogans. The piece reported that “leading vaporwave producers were gathering in Montreal for an emergency summit to discuss ‘creeping fascism’ in the scene”, a meeting that happened in early 2016. (Surely this is one of the most unusual sentences ever to appear in journalism.) One vaporwave artist said he loved making music, “but if Neo Nazis keep using my tracks in their propaganda videos, I might have to stop releasing more albums. I don’t want to help enable their hatred. Music should be about bringing people together, not about establishing a 4th Reich under God Emperor Trump, Lord of the Americas, or whatever the fuck it is that fascists are trying to do”. One fashwave video—“Galactic Lebensraum” by C Y B E R N ∆ Z I—features a Hitler bust, classical columns, ferns, and the usual garish colours that make up the vaporwave palette.

But there is a deep irony at work in the rejection by the vaporwave “establishment” of far-right entryism. Ramona Xavier (of Floral Shoppe fame) is on record as saying “I always assumed it was transparent through my work that I leaned left”. But the thing that made vaporwave possible in the first place was easy access to the cultural detritus of the ‘80s and ‘90s. When Xavier was producing the abstruse social commentary of Floral Shoppe in 2012, filled as it was with samples taken without permission, there had to be an understanding that cyberanarchy works both ways.

In American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis’s pitch black, searing commentary on the empty materialism of Wall Street brokers in the 1980s, Donald Trump is namechecked multiple times. Patrick Bateman idolises Donald Trump, who in 1991 (when the novel was written) was just a celebrity real estate mogul—albeit the kind of celebrity real estate mogul who appears as a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show. Trump was something of a pop culture phenomenon in the 1980s and early 1990s, with cameos in several movies and TV shows including Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. CNN found in a review of thousands of hip-hop lyrics that Trump was mentioned 318 times between 1989 and 2016. For decades the world viewed Trump as the reification of American Dream economics. His positive association with this rose-tinted era in American history almost certainly contributed to his election and also assured him a place in the early days of the vaporwave aesthetic, though whether that is still the case is debatable. So when something like “Trumpwave” comes along (Xurious’s “Hail Victory” featuring samples of Trump telling a rapturous crowd that they’ll “get bored of winning” best exemplifies the subgenre), nobody can be surprised that some people don’t “get the joke” about vaporwave, that they don’t realise its embrace of capitalist imagery, ‘80s/’90s culture, and soulless corporate ephemera is just ironic, hipster posturing.

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

Nostalgic seduction

Bryan Bierman at the Philly Voice has written about the idea of nostalgia as drug. Regarding its role in vaporwave he says, “unlike regular nostalgia for things you remember experiencing, the young age of many vaporwave artists means that many of them weren’t even alive or cognizant enough to see any of their vaunted late ’80s/early ’90s relics in action. It’s a peculiar sense of nostalgia, a sort of imagined memory, pieced together with fragments of the aftermath”. This, he believes, is significant. “This sort of pick-and-choose revisionism can snowball into a false past utopia that for a lot of younger people, then becomes the truth”.

We see something similar in the resurgence of vinyl as a medium. Rudy Van Gelder, the American recording engineer who is considered one of the most important in jazz history, said that he was “glad to see the LP go. As far as I’m concerned, good riddance. It was a constant battle to try to make that music sound the way it should. It was never any good. And if people don’t like what they hear in digital, blame the engineer”. The Conversation’s Lee Barron believes “the revival of vinyl could be similarly motivated by mere nostalgia for the antithesis of digital streaming: large and fragile discs in cardboard sleeves that manifest a distinctly un-digital crackle when played on the similarly redundant technology of the record player”. None of this is meant to deny vinyl’s merits, but it illustrates the power of nostalgia, and substantiates Bierman’s assertion that it clouds reality. Bierman says that “young artists are imbued with an ingrained nostalgia for the same capitalist images they’re disgusted by”. The implication is that mass confusion is at work; that the vaporwave generation is both fascinated and repelled by the nihilism of techno-capitalism.

The art of vaporwave has now gone viral. In an event reminiscent of the 1962 symposium in New York which announced pop art to the world, the A-side B-side gallery in Hackney, London launched “Vaporwave.exe” in December 2016. Hanging on the walls of the gallery were prints of exactly what you would expect at a vaporwave exhibition: classical statues, lots of pink and teal, skulls, bottles of Fiji mineral water, tropical scenes and Nintendo screenshots. There were also obsolete home electronics, ferns, VHS tapes, and most interesting of all, actual canvases of Pepe the Frog that were painstakingly painted by hand—Pepe being an anthropomorphic cartoon frog that debuted in 2005’s “Boy’s Club” cartoons. Since 2005 the cartoon has spread through online communities such as 4chan, 8chan and Reddit, and been embraced by the “alt-right” to the point where the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) added it to their database of hate symbols. However, the curator of Vaporwave.exe, Marvin Watkins, refuses to analyse the movement too deeply. “I don’t really subscribe to the political connotations of vaporwave. I understand for some it reflects an anti-capitalist movement, but personally I just enjoy the aesthetics”.

Watkins is not the only one who appreciates vaporwave on a superficial level. When Barbadian pop singer Rihanna performed on Saturday Night Live in November 2012 with seapunk visuals as a backdrop, it caused outrage among the niche online community that made up the scene. Seapunk is (or was) a precursor to vaporwave and characterised by “computer screens with ’90s 16-bit aquatic video game GIFs, mops of turquoise Manic Panic dye jobs, and retro-futuristic 3D collage art featuring floating dolphins and chrome-metallic geometric shapes”; a “rave-in-Atlantis”. New York rapper Azealia Banks was next to incorporate seapunk/vaporwave, this time in her video for the November 2012 track “Atlantis”. That month saw a spike in Google searches for both vaporwave and seapunk, though it is the latter that has faded away and the former that has gone from strength to strength, despite repeated declarations of its demise.

Eternal return

The claim that ‘vaporwave is dead’ has long been a running joke among insiders. As early as 2013 and perhaps even 2012 (just a year after Floral Shoppe was released) people have been attributing death to something that continues to flourish in multiple cybercultural contexts. In 2015 Motherboard announced that “Tumblr and MTV Killed the Neon Anti-Corporate Aesthetic of Vaporwave”. Supposedly this happened in June 2015 when, quite independently of one another, these outlets rebranded themselves by “turning vaporwave”. Perhaps for the purists vaporwave really has died. It is admittedly hard to see how the “critique of capitalism” exegesis stands up when corporate behemoths and fascists see something they like in your aesthetic and successfully appropriate it. But art often begins as cage-rattling political statement and ends up neutered by its own popularity. Consider that Igor Stravinsky, Elvis Presley, and the Sex Pistols, who once outraged people, now reside in the tastefully-lit glass cases of the Museum of Western Culture.

I have attempted to address the idea that vaporwave is both a product and a producer of culture simultaneously. I have looked at how several of vaporwave’s aesthetic components were appropriated from the cyberculture of the late ‘80s and ‘90s: primitive web design, Windows 95, Apple Macintosh computers, AOL-era visuals, low-poly computer renderings, strange neon grids, “glitch art” and VHS fuzz. The ubiquitous Japanese text acts as a kind of Saidist techno-orientalism, enigmatically representative of an era when the Japanese were thought to be on the verge of “taking over”, until their economic bubble burst in the early-90s. e have also examined how vaporwave became aproducer of cyberculture, not only in its midwifing of “fashwave”, but also in its ability to reach the very pinnacles of popular culture, shaping artists and corporations alike in its image. We’ve even now seen the opening of the world’s first ever “vaporwave mall” in Miami.

Jordan Pearson in his Motherboard piece noted that “MTV may have just dragged [vaporwave] over the precipice. And this is where the genre’s holy boundary is crossed. This is where the cynical impulse that animated vaporwave and its associated Tumblr-based aesthetics is co-opted and erased on both sides—where its source material originates, and where it lives”.

Erased on both sides. Think about that.

The ancient experience of time was very different from our own modern, linear understanding. For the Greeks, Etruscans, Aztecs, Iranians, Hindus, and even for backward-looking modern prophets like the poet W.B. Yeats, time was not perceived as something flowing uniformly and indefinitely, but rather as a cycle, in which every period had its own meaning and specific value in relation to all others, as well as its own uniqueness and purpose. When confronted with a cultural phenomenon like vaporwave, we must ask the question: is it even possible to destroy something that breathes life elsewhere? Or is culture like time as the ancients understood it: cyclical, a series of eternities, both product and producer simultaneously?

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

Come On! Feel the #Resistance!

The princess from the movie you like stares defiantly at me from a bumper sticker on the back of your laptop screen. The princess tells me that you (“we”) “are the resistance.” The sticker is affixed so that onlookers will see it right-side-up, not so that you can enjoy it when the clamshell screen is closed (which would make it upside down.) You are presently staring at your other, handheld, device and so I assume that the laptop is most valued for what’s on the outside than whatever’s going on inside of it, which surely is two or three half finished scripts and seven tabs open to various articles and things that you’ve read about a third of.

The sticker refers to three recent events. The first event is that you just saw the latest sequel to the movie you like. The one with the princess.

The second is that a loudmouth demagogue has been elevated to the highest office in the world, beating out a shrill career politician of remarkably poor character. Just another year, I know, but the demagogue may also be an honest-to-God psychotic this time and the shrill one of poor character was a woman, so we must pay attention. Her defeat (because it was a her) must be avenged. Not politically of course, but symbolically, which to you is pretty much the same thing. The shrill one was not defeated, you see—she, like the heroine from the film you like, is now a princess of the rebellion against an evil overlord. In reality, she is in her home office gulping a third Chardonnay, which is making it hard to focus on her ghostwriter’s questions but is helping to get her through another dismal Chappaqua afternoon.

The third event is that the actress who played the princess recently died of heart failure on an airplane. She had been in poor health for some time after a lifelong bout with chronic despair, brought on by a truly hellish upbringing by some of the worst parents the world has ever seen, combined with the misfortune of being a troubled and exceptionally comely girl handed a great deal of fame and money at a young age at the apex of the Sexual Revolution.

None of these events have anything whatsoever to do with another, but they all add up to great feeling, and feeling has carried this god-damned century. The feeling tells you the defeated candidate has something to do with the dead actress. It tells you that the one was defeated unfairly and the other died nobly. It tells you the movie you like has something to do with reality and so you are not wasting your time or brain cells entertaining yourself with it.

Hope. Change. #Resist. These meaningless phonemes are vessels of feeling. They bottle it up and carry it away to Neverland where fairies can fly if you just believe. In those heady days of 2008, a freshman senator photoshopped to look like Che was all that was needed to heal the human heart. But it was only ever style and kerning and two can play at that game. Today, a cartoon frog with a red hat sits on the throne.

In Dante’s Inferno, those damned for adultery are blown about by a great wind, just as their lusts blew them about in life. Just as we have cast the shackles off of our sexuality, once chained in place by morals and manners, now have we have liberated our politics from the chains of good sense, and lo and behold, it got results! Electoral results for a madman! Activism without action!

Raw feeling moves people. Perhaps “we are the #resistance” stickers on laptops are the seeds of some future movement that will carry the day again. I cannot predict who will be on top next. But I am sure of one thing: we cannot continue to emblazon our political discourse with empty icons and vague mottoes without losing our political system as we know it. Our Constitution was written with words—very few of them, but carefully chosen, and these images are no substitute. When the two major political parties abandon the use of carefully chosen words and replace them with images dredged from pop culture and the bowels of the internet, they have abandoned ideas in favor of raw emotion. This is a catastrophe, and one despairs of meaningful engagement or debate.

The victorious party will be the one that best channels the passions of its constituents. Man may be the only creature capable of reason, but that does not mean he has ever made much use of it, especially in these strange latter days that misfortune has decreed we must make sense of. Feeling Wins.

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

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

Trump & Hillbilly Heroin

Donald Trump’s presidency has had a rocky start, but at least, the narrative goes, he is delivering for his supporters. Matthew Continetti over at the Washington Free Beacon sure seems to think so. Mr. Continetti assures us that he’s making sure his supporters “win” either by canceling TPP, ramping up immigration crackdowns, or bringing back jobs, though he functionally admits that last one is basically going off gut feeling rather than any hard data.

While one can quibble over whether or not making trade more difficult or spiting Mexican laborers really helps his core supporters, a major issue that Continetti ignores is the fact that President Trump’s FDA nominee is morally complicit in the deaths of thousands of Americans, disproportionately the sort of folks who voted for Trump in the first place.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb is a physician who worked for the Food & Drug Administration during the second Bush administration. He also is a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Unlike some other appointees, Dr. Gottlieb will almost certainly sail through his confirmation hearings in the U.S. Senate.

But the fact that Dr. Gottlieb has been nominated and will be confirmed is nothing short of a national scandal, and one that remains totally uncovered by the conservative media outlets, whether they are generally critical or supportive of the president. At the date of this writing, I could find nothing about this at National Review, The American Conservative, The Weekly Standard, The Daily Caller, Breitbart, or Mr. Continetti’s Washington Free Beacon. Typing in “Gottlieb opioids” either produces generic results about opioids or literally nothing at all. By contrast, if you search for “white working class” you get endless scrolling with hundreds of articles to choose from.

This lack of reporting is disgraceful because we are in the middle of a drug overdose crisis of epidemic proportions. Drug overdoses are now deadlier than car crashes and firearm homicides. As of 2015 they are now deadlier than HIV/AIDS was in the 1990s. Prescription opioids such as OxyContin, Percocet and the like, are responsible for 63% of these deaths.  Over 560,000 Americans have died of drug overdoses from 1999 to 2015, with another 50,000 in 2016 alone. To put this into context this is the roughly the number of Americans killed in action in both World Wars. The agony of Owens’ war poetry could be equally descriptive of either a young man dying in France or a middle-aged woman ebbing away with a handful of pills in Corbin, Kentucky.

How do Trump’s supporters figure into this disaster? The opioid crisis has not hit all sectors of America equally. It is most harshly felt in places like Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio, and especially among white, working class Americans. Prescription opioid abuse is so common it’s been nicknamed “hillbilly heroin.” One former West Virginia addict, Sam Cox, remembers opioids as “…straight from the devil. The devil comes to steal your soul. That’s his job. The drug is [a] demon.”

And while this demon is sharpening his scythe for those addicted to it, hillbilly heroin fuels a wider spree of crime and violence across Appalachia and the Rust Belt. Car wrecks, petty theft, aggravated assault, domestic violence, murder and racketeering. In some Appalachian towns, sheriffs are now estimating that in some places as much as 80% of crimes are related in some way to opioids. The chain of events is simple. Pharmaceutical companies produce opioids en masse. The narcotics find their way onto the illegal market either through theft or by pumping fake prescriptions through pill mills. It’s gotten so brazen that criminals literally bus hillbilly heroin from Florida to West Virginia by the truckload. The “OxyContin Express” fuels Appalachian organized crime the same way liquor smuggling used to finance the Mafia.

The old folk song “O Death” asks, “What is this that I can’t see | with ice cold hands takin’ hold of me?” No worries, sir. That’s just a legal prescription The Weekly Standard assures me is “safe and effective” as well as a “home run.”

So how does Dr. Gottlieb fit into all this? A new investigation from the Intercept found that Gottlieb is deep in the pockets of the opioid industry. Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals paid Gottlieb over $22,000 for one speech alone in 2016. That’s more than double the average annual income in Jackson County, Kentucky. And Mallinckrodt is infamous for willfully ignoring obvious red flags and pumping over half a billion prescriptions from Florida in a four-year period. Pollyannaishly assuming each prescription was just 10 pills, that’s more than enough generic Oxy to kill every man, woman and child in Appalachia several times over.

Gottlieb has also done paid speaking gigs for the Healthcare Distributors Alliance, a trade conglomerate for companies like Cardinal Health. Cardinal Health made its bones in the Oxy game by pouring over 780 million opioid pills into West Virginia alone from its Florida warehouse (seeing a connection here?). They were so irresponsible they got on the DEA’s radar and lost their license to distribute. Gottlieb’s response? He condemned the move and said the DEA shouldn’t have the right to regulate the opioid market. “Cardinal isn’t a Colombian drug ring,” he whined. “Its CEO isn’t Pablo Escobar.”

That’s certainly an interesting comparison. While Gottlieb gets paid more than the average annual Appalachian income from public speaking alone, his friends over at Cardinal and Mallinckrodt flood Appalachia with hillbilly heroin. They rake in billions. Over 600,000 Americans have died. By contrast, fewer people have died in the Colombian civil war and the Mexican drug war combined. While he and his pals may not be Pablo Escobar, they are functional drug pushers who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the levers of American medical policy.

Conservatives should ask ourselves; Will Gottlieb’s tenure really promote order and tranquility? Can a defender of hillbilly heroin really promote the dignity of the person and the common good?

(Similarly, will Trump really deliver for his voters? I don’t know. Maybe. Those left alive, anyway.)

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

Conservatives Should Bemoan Trump’s Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 7 Books to Read through the Trumpenreich

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

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

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

The Top 7 Conservative Books to Read through the Trumpenreich

7. Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam.

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

6. Coming Apart by Charles Murray.

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

5. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.

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

4. After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre.

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

3. The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk.

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

2. The Quest for Community by Robert Nisbet.

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

1. The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher.

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


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

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

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

Get reading, kids.

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

Stalin vs. Hitler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Wreck of the Abraham Lincoln

“All in a shipwrack shift their severall way”
— George Herbert

Apprentice to the bigger bully,
Christie licks his master’s hand,
as will the rest, eventually.
Lapdogs are not bred to stand.

Every person in the crowd
should have a voice. But all one tone.
Giuliani shouts so loud
he doesn’t need the microphone.

Melania’s dressed to the nines
for this commedia del arte,
but has to speak in borrowed lines
left over from another party.

Lepers and thieves they might embrace,
but someone who refused to crawl?
A man has got to know his place;
Cruz, you stand outside the wall.

Toeing the line, the acrobatic
Ryan performs with death-defying
balance — still smiling, diplomatic —
trying to sell what he’s not buying.

Trump tells us things are getting scary,
and he’s got reason, having made
a demon of his adversary.
We get the message: be afraid.

The refugee crisis & why America is different—part 2

This piece originally appeared at Musings On the Right. It is published here in modified form.

In my last essay, I wrote about the value of cultural assimilation, as well as the role that culture plays in both negative and positive policy outcomes. Given these facts, it seems that Europe, and soon America, will face a major challenge. As the Near East becomes more unstable, the pressure to accept more refugees will increase. In addition the rate of immigration from Muslim-majority nations will likely grow over time. That leaves us with some difficult questions. How has the assimilation of Muslim migrants fared in Europe? What effects has this had on problems of terrorism and crime? How have Muslim migrants fared by comparison in the New World?

Islam in Europe: A Summary

In the last 25 years, the number of Muslims in Europe has ballooned by nearly 50% from 29 million to 44 million. Today Muslims make up 6% of the population of Europe, though is projected that Muslims will make up 8% in another 15 years. However, Europe’s Muslims make up only 3% of the world Muslim population.

We must note that Islam has existed indigenously in some parts of Europe. While some Muslim presence has been recorded in the Iberian peninsula, parts of Sicily, and Eastern Europe, greater numbers of Muslims live in the Balkans and a few other pockets due to past Ottoman rule. Once the view is restricted to western and central Europe, though, there are only 19 million Muslims, comprising 4.5% of the population.

But because of the relatively recent and massive influx of Muslim immigrants, Europe faces three major concerns. The first is obviously security. The savagery of ISIS has left many wondering if ISIS operatives could simply sneak in among the very people they have driven out as refugees. Secondly, there’s been a serious concern that Near Eastern, Muslim migrants cannot, or simply will not, assimilate to “European culture.” Lastly, there’s wide concern about crime. While increased crime rates can be associated with immigration in general, recently an alarming spike in sexual assaults has had many asking extremely pointed questions.

Terrorism & Security

Before the Paris attacks our chattering classes dismissed the very idea that an increase in Muslim refugees could pose a security threat. However after last November’s attack with over 500 casualties, and ISIS’ explicit threat to take advantage of the refugee crisis, the threat of terrorism cannot be ignored. When Europe’s terrorism trends are broken down, there are relevant facts that we should notice.

In the past, terrorism in Europe has traditionally come from three main sources: the far right, the far left, and violent ethnic separatism.

Religiously-inspired terrorism, however, is a new category. While jihadist violence in Europe is not a totally new phenomenon, most Islamic terrorism before 9-11 was sporadic. The first major jihadist attack on European soil was the 1985 El Decanso bombing, which killed 18 and was likely targeting American servicemen. In 1994 there were two attacks, one on France from Algerian Islamists and the other on London’s Israeli Embassy. In 1997, an Al-Qaeda affiliate attacked Croatia, killing several in a Mostar car bombing.  It seems most of these were attached to specific grievances.

The real escalation began after September 11th. The early 2000s saw a series of dramatic Chechen-jihadist attacks against Russian targets which killed hundreds. But the first jihadist attack on the EU specifically came during the Al-Qaeda-linked 2004 Madrid bombings which killed 191 and wounded nearly 2,000. Since 2004, excluding attacks on Russia, which are connected primarily to the Chechen insurgency in the Caucasus, there have been roughly 38 jihadist attacks on European soil, killing nearly 600 and wounding over 3,000. Some of these appear to be direct attacks coordinated by either Al-Qaeda or ISIS. Others are lone wolf attacks, like the murder of Theo Van Gogh. The interesting change is, with few notable exceptions,  most now seem to be motivated by a general hatred of Europe and the West for ills real and imagined.

These new trends, exemplified by this year’s March 22 attack on Brussels, are especially worrying given the relative proximity of Turkey and Syria. Since 2011, European law enforcement and intelligence professionals have been worried about European Muslims travelling to these warzones, only to return to Europe. In France alone, there’s been a 86% increase in French citizens volunteering for jihad in the Levant. Combined with an availability of arms and munitions from nearby conflicts, they worry most about the growth of attacks without logistical links to known terrorist organizations. Meanwhile, as these terrible last few months have shown, organized groups remain an extremely deadly threat.

Taking stock of this threat remains difficult. Compared to the Northern Irish Troubles one could argue that jihadist terrorism is miniscule, as six times the casualties were produced in a much smaller population in Ireland. It can also be argued that in an open society, terrorism and even the occasional mass casualty attack can never be fully stopped. Yet, unlike the north of Ireland, Europe is not divided by an ethno-nationalist conflict. Nor did Irish terrorism, be it republican or loyalist, seek to cause mass civilian casualties or seek to gain weapons of mass destruction to do so. Lastly, unlike political terrorism, religiously-inspired terrorism correlates to increasing immigration levels of a hitherto relatively uncommon cultural and religious minority.

Assimilation & Radicalization

Behind the issue of terrorism lies the broader issue of assimilation. I concluded earlier that culture can positively or negatively influence outcomes. There is a concern that Muslim immigrants, and their children, represent a cultural challenge that will lead to increased poverty, societal tensions and crime.

Compared to native Europeans, European Muslims are more likely to live in a state of poverty. European Muslims disproportionately live in consistently impoverished communities, with higher levels of unemployment, lower levels of education, and worse material living conditions. While this is also true for other immigrant groups in Europe, Muslims are some of the worst off. For instance, the unemployment rates of South Asian Muslim women in Europe are almost double their relevant counterparts. There are a number of potential causes of Muslim poverty, ranging from outright discrimination to simply less marketable skills.

This poverty means European Muslims often live an essentially separate life from their native European neighbors, leading to a building up of resentment that can reach its crescendo in violence. Complicating matters are the totally different cultural worldviews of Europe and the Islamic world. While Europe has undergone a systematic secularization,  Muslims in the EU remain fairly devout, identifying primarily with Islam over their national identity. This chasm becomes even more troubling given the widespread prevalence of Islamic fundamentalism among Europe’s Muslims and the increasing calls for accommodation of illiberal cultural practices. Ultimately the heart of the issue seems to be different ways of viewing religion. Shadi Hamid explains:

[T]his brings us to the issue at hand: there is a clash of values, one which will make it considerably harder to find a path of compromise between Muslims and the rest of Europe . . . [Europe] allows all groups, including Muslims, to practice their religion as they see fit. This assumes that the practice of religion is fundamentally a personal, private act detached from public, political life. It is here that Islam and Europe’s traditional identity and culture find themselves at odds.

This pervasive attitude creates a cultural separation where social pathologies can go nearly unchecked by the state. It leads to inevitable clashes on issues like the role and place of women in public. I find it curious that proudly feminist friends of mine, courageous critics of patriarchal culture, find themselves at a loss to show how the explosions of sexual violence in places like Cologne, Sweden, and Rotherham were not, on some level, tragically inevitable. Sexual violence is all too common in every society and culture, but closing our eyes to the immense disparity between the West and the Islamic world when it comes to gender issues is downright shameful. While it’s easy to impose our American context on this problem, we are once again faced with the uncomfortable fact that culture can drive social outcomes.

Isolation in itself can breed discontent and social disorders, even when a community is not vastly different from the mainstream. But the main problem in the European Muslim community is how wide the chasm really is between the worldview Hadi describes and modern Europe. While Europe remains culturally liberal, the worldview of the Islamic Near East ranges from conservative, traditionalist, illiberal and all the way to what we could politely call, “utterly outside the realm of publicly acceptable thought.” Polling of the Middle East-North Africa region from Pew Research blows apart the notion that the cultural differences between Europeans and Muslim migrants are simply superficial. For instance, 58% of European Muslims believe that Islamic jurisprudence (sharia) is the “revealed word of God.” So far this might be similar to, say, a traditionalist Roman Catholic dogma about Church tradition. But half (49.5%) believe that there is only one valid interpretation of sharia. And 70% believe that sharia ought to be the criminal and civil law of the state (the consistent outlier is Lebanon, which historically is more liberal due to religious diversity and French influence). By contrast, only 22% of Muslims in the Balkans and Russia believe similarly. Nearly half (47.5%) of European Muslims believe that sharia should apply to all citizens, not just Muslims. Not great, Bob. 80% believe this law should be used exclusively in family and property disputes. Nearly half (48%) believe that petty theft should be punished by some form of physical punishment, ranging from whipping to mutilation, like removing a hand. 63% believe that women ought to be stoned, to have their head repeatedly bashed in, for the crime of adultery. 58% believe that those who leave Islam ought to be murdered. And 65% believe that the laws in their country need to more closely reflect sharia.

Lastly this culture of economic and religious separation, combined with an unhealthy dose of externalized blame, plays a hand in the correlation between crime rates and immigration in Europe. While immigrants to the United States actually commit less crime than the native population, the opposite is true in Europe. While various studies point to a lack of correlation between crime rates and the overall immigration rate, when broken down by country, we still find that immigrants to Europe commit a higher proportion of crimes compared to the population, whether or not they are Muslim. This is especially true in DenmarkFrance, GermanyGreece, and the Netherlands.

These facts may be difficult for many Americans to accept, given our experience of how immigrants are able to successfully assimilate into the American mainstream. It is odd that those liberals who so willingly chide Americans for our lack of understanding and tact are less willing to recognize the facts about European immigration and crime. Perhaps, then, America is not the world and our immigration experience is, in fact, quite different from the norm?

What the Future Holds

While Europe deals with its dual crises of refugees and Muslim assimilation, it behooves us not to descend into feigned hysteria and conspiracy-mongering. (If you have some time to abuse yourself, type “White Genocide” into Twitter and see what comes up).

For starters, warnings of a “demographic takeover” are overstated. While Europe will continue to wrangle with the economic, security and cultural fallout of having a sizable Muslim minority, projections of a future Eurabia will simply not occur. While Muslims are projected to make up 7% of Europe by 2030, Europe’s clear cultural majority is going nowhere. European Chicken Littles forget that once immigrants move to the developed world, their birthrates decline precipitously. Furthermore this prediction forgets that religious populations shift. Among American Muslims religious observance is on a course of attrition. Even the most stolid of cultures have a way of losing their edge by migration. Even more curious, and heartening, is the ongoing trend of European Muslim conversions to Christianity.

Nariman Malkari, a 25-year-old Kurd from Tehran, lives in temporary housing in the garden of the Evangelical-Lutheran Trinity Church in Berlin while he awaits a decision on his asylum application.

He moved here after Norway rejected his first asylum request. In May, the Rev. Gottfried Martens baptized the young computer engineer, who now goes by the biblical name of Silas and wears a silver cross necklace.

“I can never go back to Iran and I don’t want to,” said Mr. Malkari after Sunday Mass last week, which is held partly in German, partly in Farsi. “I live in a tent, but I have found Jesus.”

Elsewhere, there are green shoots as well. For instance recent polls of British Muslims find an extremely high level of patriotism and identification with British culture. The poll is also worthwhile as Britons broke the narrative by having relatively positive attitudes towards British Muslims. Blessedly, the favorability of ISIS remains at historic lows among Muslims from the Near East. Lastly, rates of entrepreneurialism among Muslims in Europe may offer a way forward out of les banlieues.

The New World

In contrast to Europe, the Muslim migration experience in the Americas has been positively peaceful. Her Majesty’s Canada, notably, leads the way:

Vigdor attributes Canada’s success in assimilating immigrants to three main factors: First our relatively easy three-year path to naturalization. Second, our wide tolerance for dual citizenship. But third, and most crucially, our points-based system for selecting immigrants based on workplace skills. That system is being widely studied and adopted by other countries such as Australia (who is putting its system in place this summer) . . .

The United States also does quite a good job, as the Economist points out. American Muslims not only are relatively economically successful, but are less likely to sympathize with jihadism, less likely to place religious identity over national identity, and more likely to value the culture of their adopted home. Metrics like job skills, criminality, civic participation and English acquisition are extremely optimistic.

As in Canada, much of this positivity is driven by the fact that that the United States attracts a more highly educated, more prosperous class of Muslim immigrants than Europe does, as well as smaller numbers and more diversity in countries of origin. America continues to outperform, say, France, even though French migrants are disproportionately well-educated. Maybe there is something something unique about the United States and how “American” as a kind of ethnic designation interacts with “America” as a propositional, immigrant nation. This is something I hope to explore more in a third essay.

In conclusion, leftists, such as our friends over at The Migrant Crisis Podcast, are entirely too flippant. Europe faces immense challenges that are fairly unique in its history. These policy challenges of economic integration, assimilation, law enforcement, and intelligence-gathering are not easy. Furthermore they are exacerbated by the ongoing migrant crisis. Meanwhile lost in the hyperbole of both the far left and right is the question of how to care for overwhelming majority of Near Eastern refugees who remain displaced in the Near East, to say nothing of what an immense population exodus bodes for Syria’s future prospects.

While it’s clear that the European immigration crisis is no Battle of Tours, the movie Brooklyn, it ain’t. Deep cultural and economic differences challenge the universal applicability of the North American immigration model. This leaves open the question of how Canadians and Americans can respond to the Middle East refugee crisis, and I hope you’ll watch this space for more to come.

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For further reading:

Featured image from Eurocom