Monthly Archives: February 2018

Cognitive Killswitch

George Orwell described crimestop, the bedrock survival principle in Airstrip One, like this:

CRIMESTOP means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. CRIMESTOP, in short, means protective stupidity… orthodoxy in the full sense demands a control over one’s own mental processes as complete as that of a contortionist over his body.

And that, our Nine Regular Readers, is why Millennials suck.

It used to be that the main thing wrong with Our Betters, The Liberals, wasn’t so much what they didn’t know, but that what they did know wasn’t so, as various folks apocryphally said.  After that, it was just plain ignorance.  Both of those things are correctable, should one want to (or be forced to) get corrected.  The problem nowadays is that they’ve mastered crimestop.  Facts — which to them are synonymous with “opinions” — can’t get through.  That armor’s too strong for blasters.

Harpoons and tow cables don't work, either.

Harpoons and tow cables don’t work, either.

Imagine yourself a properly goodthinkful priest teacher, preaching teaching students the catechism History.  What you’re teaching is, of course, mostly lies, but they still have to contain a grain or two of truth, for verisimilitude.  It’s child’s play to get the dullards to simply memorize the right answer, copy it down on the test, and forget about it.  The brighter ones, though, might get to noticing things.  Things like: “even though we spent most of the school year on Phillis Wheatley, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, and The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior, it still kinda seems like white men pretty much did, said, and invented everything useful.  Yeah yeah, it’s cool that there are 300 uses for the peanut or whatever, but that doesn’t really stack up against ‘all the rest of agriculture,’ plus antibiotics, math, the phonetic alphabet, and everything short of fire itself (and I bet it was one pale-ass caveman who figured that out, too).”

It’s not enough to say, as the Afrocentrists maintain, that Honky stole everything from those who wuz kangz, as there’s far more physical evidence for the life of Jesus Christ than there is for Afrocentrism (suck it, atheists!  Afrocentrists, too).

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Nor is it enough to say that The Man is keeping wymyn down via Teh Patriarchy, because again, you can refute it Samuel Johnson-style.  Take a look around — a mere 40% of high school teachers are men; the lower grades barely crack double digits.  Given that two-parent families don’t exist anymore, the last time a grade school boy saw a male authority figure was never.

The logical conclusion:  If they haven’t — despite every conceivable opportunity and umpteen zillion programs, quotas, set-asides, and awareness-raising campaigns — it’s because they can’t.

And we can’t be having that.

The only way to get around it is to go all-in on teaching crimestop.  You can’t consciously teach people NOT to think, though, so what you do is 1) bury them in trivia, and 2) immediately and brutally punish any deviation.

1) is self-explanatory, and the reason why all high school students hate History.  They’re forced to memorize every known fact about Harriet Tubman’s life (all three of them), and quite a few more fakey-fake bullshit ones, while that whole “Civil War” thing gets a single passing mention.  Make them memorize enough trivia about the trivial, and their brains will be too stuffed to wonder what the point is.

2) is accomplished by changing the facts without warning.  It’s Global cooling warming cooling Climate Change on a grand scale.  It’s a fact because the Science is Settled!, and Settled Science ™ can never be questioned, even when yesterday’s Settled Science is 180 degrees away from today’s.  See also “gender;” “homosexuality, genetic basis of;” “homosexuality, cultural basis of;” etc.  Since what got you the gold sticker today gets you reeducation tomorrow, it’s best not to do anything other than memorize today’s fact and write it down in the test blank, fingers crossed that it doesn’t change between the time you remember it and the time you finish writing.

Thus, by the time they get to college, they not only can’t make a logical deduction or follow a chain of reasoning, doing so actually scares them.  Safe spaces for everyone!

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This is Only a Mystery if You’ve Never Met a Young American

Why is narcissism increasing among young Americans?”, a very very concerned therapist asks in Psychology Today.  You can read the bit if you want to savor some canned hypotheses: lack of play, intense competition, self-esteem culture.  But since life is short, and my experience with young Americans is long, I’ll just tell you:  It’s the hoops.

NCLB comic

Today’s young people are indoctrinated from birth to believe the following two propositions:

  1. there is nothing in life more important than “achievement;”
  2. achievement is simply a matter of jumping through hoops

Every time I assign a paper in class, the most common phrase out of students’ mouths before the due date is: “so you want me to say that ____.”  After graded papers are handed back, the most common phrase is: “But I worked so hard!!!”

They don’t see anything wrong with either of them.  They really do come to my office hours, in ever-increasing numbers, to ask me what to write on their midterms.  When I point out that they’re effectively asking me to give them the answer — thus defeating the purpose of a “test” — they give me blank looks.  They’re not acting.  Kids these days are oppressively, monomaniacally literal — they can’t act.  They genuinely don’t get it.

Nor do they get it when I point out that not all efforts are successful.  “But I worked so hard!!!” is a description of a behavior, not an outcome.  If hard work always worked, I’d be in the Major Leagues right now, because nobody ever worked harder than me at hitting a curveball.  Alas, I lacked talent.  They can’t process that, either.  They’re convinced that results are always proportional to effort.

And the sad thing — the reason “narcissism”* is on the rise among young Americans — is that they’re right, for a specific value of “effort.”  You can get anything you want in the American educational system; it’s just a question of how far you’re willing to go.

Start at the base of the victim pyramid.  Every educator in America, K-thru-PhD, knows We Do NOT Fail the Blacks.  The Blacks know it too, I assure you.  Then there’s the females.  A female student with less than an A, is a female student who will be in tears in your office right after class, wailing how you ruined her life because she tried soooo haaaarrddd!! and she’s already been accepted to law school (sadly, I believe this part) and now it’s ruined!  Before you tell me to man up and just flunk the bitch, please google “Jackie Coakley“.  Also “Mattress Girl.”  You think #MeToo is gonna end with with Hollywood?  Academia is full of dorky, pathetic, unsocialized guys, surrounded by pretty girls who obviously want something from those dorky, pathetic, unsocialized guys.  Student loan default isn’t going to pop the higher ed bubble; hashtags will.  Give the ladies what they want… and for God’s sake keep your door wiiiiiide open and talk VERY LOUD while you do it.

And so on down the line.  And yes, even Chad Thundercock has a way out — he’s a paying customer; Mr. and Mrs. Thundercock are determined to get their money’s worth for their little snowflake.  If the Dean fires me, there are 5000 other fools in grad school right now who’d be happy to replace me, working twice the hours for half the pay.  If Chad Thundercock fails out, there’s less money to fund research sabbaticals.  They’re all mouth-frothing Marxists, these ivory tower types, but they’re ruthless enough capitalists to give Gordon Gekko wood when it comes to their own paychecks.  So Chad gets an A, too.

See what I mean?  Success — the most important thing in the world — depends only on how well you whine.  No wonder they’re all narcissists.

 

*”Narcissism” isn’t really what we think it is.  We tend to think of a narcissist as grandiose, which is actually a separate (though often comorbid) pathology.  “Narcissism” is best defined as “seeing yourself as the star of your own personal movie.”  See here for lots of great insight (be prepared to lose yourself on that site for a few days).

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What Do College Kids Know?

In a comment on an earlier post, Tim of the North asked

Do you find any college kids at all interested in this stuff [political theory]? Do any of them care about reading, are any of them capable of being challenged?

The short answer is: No.  Their attitude is, if they don’t already know it, it’s not worth knowing.  They exist in an endless, contextless now, with an obsessive focus on the present moment that would be the envy of a Zen master (if Zen masters could envy).  “Pebbles in a pond” used to be a pretty good metaphor for education — the pebble of fact sinks below the surface, and the ripples spread all around, moving everything in their path.  Nowadays, it’s pebbles in thick mud.  The fact drops — splat! — and just sits there, unaffected, affecting nothing.  And that’s assuming you can get them to acknowledge that it is a fact in the first place — they’ve been trained since kindergarten to avoid correlating the contents of their minds, lest the obvious contradictions between the “facts” they’re required to parrot lead to badthink.

This is the only way to function in the modern college environment.  At some point on this blog I suggested they think in tweets and upvotes — that is, each statement is to be evaluated entirely on its own, with no reference to anything, even the speaker’s own timeline.  If it’s upvoted or retweeted, it’s true, even if the exact opposite thing got upvoted and retweeted just five minutes ago.  That’s an awkward way of expressing it, but I think it’s essentially right.

 

That’s the only way one can chant the catechism without skull-smashing cognitive dissonance.  As far as I can tell — and I’ve been in and around academia a long, long time — a modern college “education” can be summed up in three propositions:

  1. Everything is society’s fault (“socially constructed”), and
  2. Change (they call it “progress”) is good in itself, BUT,
  3. Everyone must be one thing only, always and forever.

So, for example, every day on campus presents a dilemma like this:

  • Gender is a social construction, but
  • how dare you suggest I could ever be anything other than a yellow-scaled wingless dragonkin?

The only way out is to Facebookify it.  Gender is a social construction? Upvote.  You’re a yellow-scaled wingless dragonkin?  Upvote.  There’s no “logical connection” button on Facebook, though, so the (to normies, glaringly obvious) link between the two never gets made:  “You can socially construct yourself a different identity — a heterosexual human female, for instance.”  It can’t be upvoted, so it doesn’t exist.

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For the Libertarians

A few run-ins with these guys in my youth soured me on Libertarianism forever, but the Z Man still likes batting them around a bit.  As Libertarianism attracts mainly college kids, who don’t know what they don’t know, I present the following as a public service:

This “non-aggression principle” you keep going on about…. that’s been covered.  As always, a Dead White Male got there first.

Thomas Hobbes said the first Law of Nature — the very first one, and please note the capitals — is: “seek peace.”  Problem is, no individual man is powerful enough to guarantee peace for himself against all the other people he’s forced to interact with.  So we form covenants — what comes to be known as the famous “social contract” — in order to secure peace for ourselves and our posterity.  Hobbes spends the rest of a fairly long book exploring the consequences of this social contract.

That book is Leviathan, and it ends with the most absolute monarch that ever could be.  Hobbes’s reasoning is irrefutable if you grant his premises.  It’s worth reading.  Our forefathers thought so, at least, since all that “by the people, for the people” stuff — Locke, Montesquieu, the whole schmear — is an attempt to wrestle with Hobbes’s premises without arriving at his conclusion.  They used to teach this stuff in Humanities 101, I swear.

It’s not your fault you didn’t get this in college — we gotta fit Jay-Z, Ru Paul, and Andrea Dworkin in the curriculum somewhere — but you can find a copy in every used bookstore in the land.  Give it a skim, then get back to me on the moral basis of Libertarianism.

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Black Panther is Barack Obama

One of the reasons I don’t do more pop culture stuff — aside from the big one, which is that I just don’t watch much of it — is that what I have to say seems obvious, and what’s the point of that?  If that’s the case, let me know — Rotten Chestnuts has 9 readers; we can’t afford to chase any of them off by insulting their intelligence.  If not, though, here’s another post on a movie I haven’t seen and don’t intend to.

Movies take a long time to make.  Hollywood has lots of experience, and there’s no creativity anymore, but still — even the most by-the-numbers superhero flick is in the pipeline for a few years.  According to Wikipedia, for instance, the Black Panther movie has been in the chute since 1992, when it was a Wesley Snipes vanity project.  The version that actually hit the big screen was announced in 2005, the script was commissioned at the start of 2011, and the two guys who wrote the filming script came on board in 2015.

I don’t think I need to remind the Nine Regular Readers what was going on in America back then, but for the peanut gallery: By 2011, the oceans had stopped rising and the planet had healed.  The Lightworker, President Sort-of-God, had a term under His belt and was getting ready to cruise to reelection, in fulfillment of the scriptures.  By 2015, Utopia had been built; it was only a matter of handing the keys of heaven over to The Anointed One’s chosen successor:

saint-martin-dainay-basilica-stained-glass-window-jesus-giving-keys-JGYR6T

Here’s Wiki again, describing Black Panther’s plot:

Centuries ago, five African tribes war over a meteorite of the alien metal vibranium. A warrior ingests a “heart-shaped herb” affected by the metal and gains superhuman abilities. He becomes the first “Black Panther” and unites the tribes to form the nation of Wakanda, though the Jabari Tribe choose not to follow. The Wakandans use the vibranium to develop highly-advanced technology and isolate themselves from the rest of the world by posing as a Third World country.

In 1992, while on an undercover assignment in Oakland, California, Prince N’Jobu became convinced that Wakanda’s isolationist policies had done more harm than good, and vowed to share its technology with people of African descent around the world in order to help them conquer their oppressors.

In other words, Black Panther is a victory lap.  Had History unfolded the way the scriptures foretold, the oppressed peoples of the earth would right now be throwing off the shackles of their oppressor, aided by the advanced technology they’ve always had.  After all, we wuz kingz!  By the time it was revealed that Her time had not yet come, it was too late to change the script (it was set to shoot in early 2017).

So no, Black Panther is not globalist diversoid agitprop (or, at least, not any more so than any other Hollywood production).  The version where he defeats the evil rayciss billionaire head of state is being written now; the sequel probably starts shooting in 2019.

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No Conflict without Ideology

One of the job requirements for being a Commie dictator is: Squaring your policy with the Scriptures.  Even minor-league nobodies like Enver Hoxha and Nicolae Ceausescu have Collected Works in the double digits; Kim Il Sung’s complete works run 100 volumes.  Behind the Iron Curtain, being an “intellectual” meant nothing more than justifying any and every policy shift as the quintessence of Communism, and the despot du jour as Marx’s one true dharma heir.

It’s the only way to keep your society on a constant war footing.  Which is why Game of Thrones fails, and will be forgotten five minutes after HBO’s tits-and-Brits rape spectacular goes off the air.  (Bet you didn’t see that coming!)

Medieval wars, like Martin’s inspiration the Wars of the Roses, could drag on for a long time, but they were intermittent, localized, and not very bloody.  Technical limitations account for a lot of that — knights are stupendously expensive, and logistics requires widespread literacy — but by no means all of it.  Knights might fight for glory, but the footsoldiers that have made up the majority of all human armies since we stopped swinging in trees need very different motivation.  Lord So-and-So might get a group to follow him for a season or two by appealing to their feudal obligations, or through personal magnetism, or something like that, but a campaign that dragged on much longer than that could only be sustained by hardened professional soldiers

….of which there weren’t many, and they weren’t so keen on fighting, and no medieval monarch could afford to pay enough of them to win on their own anyway.  It’s only ideology that keeps men fighting in long, drawn-out campaigns.

This isn’t a complaint that GoT is militarily unrealistic — it’s a fantasy novel, I get that.  The problem is that Westeros’s leaders lack motivation even more than their troops do.  One of the reasons the Hundred Years’ War dragged on for as long as it did was that nobody was really sure just what he was fighting for.  Even when the English captured the French king the war wasn’t over, as every local lord with two pennies to his name was using the chaos to advance his own personal interests, settle old scores, etc.

King Jean II was captured at Poitiers, in 1356.  Henry V’s famous victory at Agincourt was 1415, and the final French victory — you know the French won, right, and that in part precipitated the Wars of the Roses? — came in 1453.  That’s a lot of chaos.  How do you put a realm that fractured back together?

Historians argue that the Hundred Years’ War is what made France, France — as opposed to a random conglomeration of fiefs that might or might not have heard of their supposed king (and wouldn’t care much about him anyway).  Nationalism melded the French armies together.  Where’s that in Westeros?

Westeros’s nobles practice what a famous sociological study called “amoral familism.”  The Moral Basis of a Backward Society argues that life in southern Italy was nasty, poor, solitary, brutish, and short because nobody ever considered anything beyond the immediate material welfare of his nuclear family, Mafia-style:

Banfield concluded that Montegrano’s plight was rooted in the distrust, envy and suspicion displayed by its inhabitants’ relations with each other. Fellow citizens would refuse to help one another, except where one’s own personal material gain was at stake. Many attempted to hinder their neighbors from attaining success, believing that others’ good fortune would inevitably harm their own interests. Montegrano’s citizens viewed their village life as little more than a battleground. Consequently, there prevailed social isolation and poverty, and an inability to work together to solve common social problems, or even to pool common resources and talents to build infrastructure or common economic concerns.

Montegrano’s inhabitants were not unique nor inherently more impious than other people. But for quite a few reasons: historical and cultural, they did not have what he termed “social capital” — that is, the habits, norms, attitudes and networks that motivate folk to work for the common good.

This stress on the nuclear family over the interest of the citizenry, he called the ethos of “amoral familism”. This he argued was probably created by the combination of certain land-tenure conditions, a high mortality rate, and the absence of other community building institutions.

Sound familiar?  Not only would nobody fight for the Lannisters (or whoever) in real life, but none of the nobles would ever be able to band together to face a common threat…. of which there are two, of the end-of-the-fucking-world variety, just over the horizon (the ice vampires and the naked dragon chick).

It’s actually worse than that.  There’s ideology on display in GoT, all right — George R.R. Martin’s obvious belief that even a relative amount of power corrupts absolutely, such that everyone ranked “Ser” or higher is a vicious nihilistic amoral, indeed psychopathic, scumbag.  But very few people are like this in real life, if for no other reason than even amoral familists will rouse themselves to off a bona-fide psychopath who threatens the entire community.  Nor do psychopaths have the kind of long-range planning skills Martin’s plot requires, because, again — psychopaths.

Consider the infamous “Red Wedding” scene.  Martin spent considerable time building up Walder Frey as a scheming, patient, cautious man, who can afford to be patient and cautious because his territory is both strategically vital and completely impregnable.  That kind of a man simply isn’t going to massacre a king and all his supporters, no matter how insulted he is, or what a rival king offers.  Only a psychopath with nothing to lose and a love of rolling the dice for its own sake would.  Cesare Borgia was such a man, but Walder Frey is no Cesare Borgia.

GoT is, in fact, full of this kind of thing.  Without nationalism, whoever manages to claw his way to the Iron Throne won’t have much of a kingdom to rule; with amoral familism, he won’t have anyone competent to help him rule it.  GoT is fascinating at first, because Martin stands every epic fantasy convention on its head.  But conventions exist for a reason.  Subversion for subversion’s sake gets old quickly, though, and even Machiavelli — who knew a few things about vicious nihilistic amoral scumbag princes — said that nobody is capable of being consistently, thoroughly evil, even when it is to his own obvious advantage.

Ultimately, then, GoT is nothing but a “deconstruction.”  Its gritty, depressing “realism” is actually anything but.  It’s SJW message fic — better written than most, but ultimately as meaningless and forgettable as “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.”

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Complex vs. Busy

Never let it be said that I don’t give the people what they want — I’ve got plenty of half-assed takes on pop culture stuff I vaguely remember.  Here’s one on Game of Thrones:

[Disclaimers first, so everyone knows where I stand.  I read the first….three? I think…. books.  Up to whenever he magically resurrected Caitlyn Stark, at which point I threw the stupid thing across the room.  Having seen a few pairs of breasts in my time, I feel no need to watch the tv show (plus, the naked dragon chick is obviously about 4’10”, which gives it a weird pedo vibe).  I’m not really much of a fantasy reader, anyway; Tolkien bores my tits off.  So again, we’ll do this Jon Stewart style: If you agree with me I’m serious; if you don’t, I’m kidding].

People tell me A Song of Ice and Fire’s plot is complex.  It’s not.  It’s just busy.  A competent historian could knock out a pretty good summary of the major events in five pages (see e.g. this Infogalactic summary of Martin’s inspiration, the Wars of the Roses).  Martin likes to pad his page counts by delivering small nuggets of information via viewpoint characters that get killed at the end of their chapters.  Instead of simply reproducing a one-paragraph dispatch from a commander to his lackey, we have to read all about Ser Josaph Sixpacke, his hopes and dreams and the girl he left behind him, his journey through the mud and the blood, what he had for dinner, what he’s wearing, the sixteen different positions he used to rape the serving wench at the last tavern, all before he hands over two lines of actual information and gets broadsworded in the face.

By about the seventh time this happens, one begins to suspect that Martin is just stalling — he has no idea what to do with his story; he’s hoping to string it along until the HBO guys figure it out for him, and hoping nobody notices.

I’m sure he’s mostly doing it for the money (do we all appreciate the irony of a minor-league nobody such as myself giving writing advice to a guy who can probably build a complete medieval castle entirely out of stacks of money?  If not, I’ll pause for a second to let y’all get that sorted out.  Everyone back? Ok, as I was saying…) But I also think his much-publicized SJWism has something to do with it.

Faux-complexity is one of the most reliable ways liberals convince themselves they’re Smarter Than You.  The ivory tower’s impenetrable jargon, for instance, isn’t only, or even primarily, to snow you, the consumer.  It’s for them.  By “arguing” with each other in a bizarre idiom which takes fifty two syllables of neologism to express a simple idea like “all women should be lesbians” (“the social construction of the gender binary within the heterosexual matrix;” read ’em and weep), they convince themselves they are very, very, very Smart.  Who but a towering intellect could ever even conceive such a barmy idea, much less phrase it that way?

George R.R. Martin obviously thinks he’s brilliantly “deconstructing” the tropes of your standard High Fantasy sword-n-sandal epic.  By making everyone in Westeros a vicious, nihilistic, amoral scumbag, he thinks he’s mocking the pretensions of the 1%.  In Martin’s world, anyone who thinks he’s a hero — or even aspires to be anything other than a vicious, nihilistic, amoral scumbag — is either a fraud or a fool.  The only “sympathetic” character left standing (for a very loose value of “sympathetic”) is Tyrion Lannister, a malformed, hideously scarred dwarf.  That’s some subtle fucking symbolism right there, ain’t it?

But that’s the thing.  The more grimy details he packs in  — the more rapes, gaping wounds, tortures, degradations, rapes, betrayals, double-crosses, rapes, triple-crosses, rapes, incest, rapes, etc. he shows — the more he reinforces his own pretensions.  Like the professor inventing ever more arcane jargon, Martin thinks that by rubbing our faces in it yet again, he’s really putting one over on us.  In reality, of course, there’s no “there” there, and there hasn’t been for about 2200 pages.

This is not to say one must be a conservative to write epic fantasy.  But again, as with Conan (my interpretation, anyway), even a thorough deconstruction of a trope must acknowledge the trope’s conventions.  A hero has a tragic flaw that brings him down.  Martin has no heroes, only viewpoint characters, and they’re nothing but flaws.  The world is interesting and the writing is intermittently good, but without a moral center, epic fantasy — even a deconstruction of epic fantasy — is just one damn thing after another.  Plus rape.

 

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Is Conan the Barbarian Art? – UPDATED

The fact that we’ve spent several days and upteen thousand words discussing it says “yes,” but I’d like to take a closer look as to why that might be so.

Stephen King said somewhere that any creative work throws off art the way plutonium throws off radiation.  He’s right, I think, provided that the creative endeavor is sincere — no sincere creative work, no matter how inept, can fail to say something about the human condition.  Whether that “something” is profound or trivial, beautifully or clumsily expressed, etc., is what distinguishes bad art from good.   Something like Hamlet has survived every attempt to subvert or “deconstruct” it, because no matter what you do to it — rewrite it in Ebonics, set in on Mars, cast a Kardashian, whatever — the character’s inner conflict is indisputably real.  Hamlet tells us something about being human, because Hamlet is human.

Even propaganda passes this test, though of course not in the way the artist intended.  This is good propaganda:

adolf-wissel-farm-family-from-kahlenberg-1939

It’s bad art, I’ll grant you, but it’s art for all that.  You can sense the artist’s worldview in his painting, and though you probably don’t agree with it, there’s nobody who hasn’t wanted something like this at some point in his life (however briefly).  It’s Nazi art for Nazi purposes, but Nazis were people too.  Didactic art is still art.

Which brings us to this:

black panther 02

Folks in Our Thing learned that a Black Panther movie was in the works and, after finding out what Black Panther is, immediately dismissed it as yet more SJW agitprop.  It’s not, though.  Propaganda is didactic art; Black Panther, like Girlbusters before it, is a liturgy.  There’s no lesson here, because everyone who goes to see it already has the catechism by heart.  You don’t see it to see it; you see it to be seen seeing it.  “Thank God I am not like other men!,” saith the Pharisee.

And so, Conan.  I don’t really think John Milius and Arnold Schwarzenneger sat down with a copy of Nietzsche for Dummies and doped out how best to put in on film.  But Conan comes from an obvious, coherent worldview — it is, at worst, propaganda.  At best — and I think it’s a lot better than people give it credit for — it says something about the human condition, and says it pretty well.  Not bad for a sword-and-sandal pic starring a professional bodybuilder.

UPDATE 2/10/2018: Further evidence that Conan is indeed art: A strikingly different take, from commenter Whiskey Jack.  Any creative product that sparks thoughtful discussion over its meaning is art.

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Conan, Ubermensch [UPDATED]

Since we seem to love talking about 30 year old pop culture around here, I’ll share my theory about Conan the Barbarian (the movie, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger) being John Milius’s attempt to show what a Nietzschean ubermensch would really look like.  Never say I don’t give the people what they want!

[Disclaimers: I’m not a philosopher; I don’t even have a BA in the Philosophy of Language from the University of Chicago.  I know what I know only from fairly broad but unsystematic reading; my opinions don’t reflect those of the management, yadda yadda yadda.  So we’ll do this Jon Stewart style: If you agree with me, I’m serious; if you don’t, I’m kidding.  Don’t plagiarize this for your term papers, in other words].

Here’s the famous opener.  So far as I know, Conan is the only mainstream movie to open with an epigraph:

conan-the-barbarian_screengrab_0001a

Nowadays, this is the kind of thing pimply teenage boys post on Facebook when their crush won’t return their text messages, but back then if moviegoers had ever heard of Nietzsche, it was probably something along the lines of “that weird kinda-Nazi guy” (for the benefit of younger readers: There was a time when the average American knew that “Nazi” was a real movement with actual beliefs, and kinda sorta knew what they were.  Calling Nietzsche a Nazi was an attempt to say something about his philosophy, not an outburst of virtue Tourette’s).  The pop caricature of his philosophy — that is, what “everybody knows” about Nietzsche — runs something like this:

God is dead, and that’s good, because Christianity was always a scam to help weak people stab strong people in the back (“slave morality”).  The strong make their own rules in life (“ubermensch”), and that’s the only way to live — without God, there’s no morality but what we make (“beyond good and evil”), and everything is ultimately meaningless (“nihilism”), so grab life by the neck and choke that bitch out!  Everyone else is, whether they’re strong enough to admit it to themselves or not (the “will to power”).

Most of that is wrong, and that’s what Milius is trying to show us.

Take the epigraph.  It’s tough, manly, bombastic, classic Nietzsche… and totally false.  There are lots of things that don’t kill us which leave us permanently weaker: Malaria, diabetes, minor strokes.  The quote only makes sense in the context of Nietzsche’s idiosyncratic definition of “health:” The amount of disease an organism can withstand.*  The man who survives a heart attack is thus “stronger” than the man who dies from one, but that’s not what most of us consider “strength.”  Nietzsche’s point — his “existentialism,” if you must — is that viewing things from the standpoint of an individual human life is pretty pointless.

Speaking of pointless, here’s the Wheel of Pain:

Conan_Wheel

The symbolism just knocks you in the head, doesn’t it?  Existentialism and nihilism are always lumped together because they seem to entail each other: If man is the measure of all things like Protagoras said, then there’s no point to anything, because even the “best” use of your threescore-and-ten will be forgotten in a few years… and even if it isn’t, well, you won’t be around to benefit, will you?  This attitude inevitably leads to hedonism….

… except that it doesn’t.  The practical, real-life consequence of existentialism/nihilism isn’t bohemian decadence, it’s Communism.  The old saw goes “if you believe in nothing, you’ll fall for anything,” but that’s not true.  Look around: people who make a big production about believing in nothing always — always — end up going for the biggest, most all-consuming version of collectivism they can find.  Have you ever met an atheist who didn’t tell you he’s an atheist within five minutes of meeting him?  Atheists make being-an-atheist their sole purpose in life; their whole identities revolve around it.  They’re not heroic individualists; they’re the most boring, conformist people on the planet.

Ditto Communists.  Even though the whole point of their philosophy is temporarily alleviating the material suffering of short-lived hairless apes, and despite the fact their philosophy promises the Revolution is inevitable anyway, they have a “Party line” on everything, right down to the “correct” fraternal Socialist haircut.  Their lives are regimented down to the smallest detail — it’s the only way to (temporarily) escape the horror of their philosophy’s obvious conclusion.

John Milius — who wrote Dirty Harry and directed Red Dawn — was a commie-basher from way back.

Shortly after the Wheel of Pain is the most famous scene in the movie:

main-qimg-4a4488c4e08efab303543abedd74cf1aI tried (and failed) to find a well-lit wide-angle shot of this, because the context is extremely important.  Remember Nietzsche’s bit about “slave morality?”  That collar around Conan’s neck is attached to a chain.  He is literally a slave when he says his famous lines.  Everyone thinks “crush your enemies!” is Conan’s real motto.  It’s not.  He’s telling his masters what they want to hear.  Crushing your enemies is, of course, as self-defeating a philosophy as existentialism.  “Alexander wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.”

Conan has two objectives: Avenge his people, and find the answer to the Riddle of Steel.  The first is mundane, the second, otherworldly.  Unlike his slavemasters, the Mongols (or whatever their name was in the movie), killing Thulsa Doom won’t be an existential crisis for Conan, because he still has the Riddle of Steel to keep him going.  That sets up the pivotal scene in the movie, where he seems to fail horrendously at both objectives at once:

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This is the least subtle image in the history of cinema, but nobody seems to get it.  This isn’t an Odin-esque self-sacrifice for ultimate knowledge.  This is a fuck up, tout court — Conan tried to kill Thulsa Doom, failed, and got tied to the Tree of Woe for it.  It’s actually worse than that — it’s a spiritual death, too, because before Thulsa had him crucified, he simply told Conan the answer to the Riddle of Steel.  He knows the answer, but Crom is still going to toss him out of Valhalla and laugh at him, because he didn’t discover it himself.  It’s the most shameful possible death….

…and he comes back from it.  And stays in the world.  And does this:

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Remember, Thulsa Doom is a cult leader.  To his followers, he is literally a god.  And now god is dead.  Get it?  Imagine if the Gospels all ended with the resurrected Christ going samurai on Pontius Pilate’s ass, kicking Pilate’s head down the stairs, and walking away.  It’d be a cool movie scene, but the only thing that has made life worth living for countless people for two thousand years would be rendered meaningless in a second…

…which is why the full Nietzsche quote, which nobody has ever heard, is this:

“Where has God gone?” [the madman] cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us – for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Nietzsche’s entire philosophy is against nihilism.  The ubermensch, the man who knows that all previous morality is at best a partial truth (“mere foreground perspectives,” he says), is impossible — a literal secular saint.  We don’t see what Conan did after walking down from the ziggurat, because the answer is: Nothing.  He didn’t do anything.  He couldn’t.  His life is utterly meaningless now, and he knows it, in the way a true “ubermensch” must know it.  Such meaning as there is in life is in the struggle, the agon  — remember, Nietzsche was an expert on pre-Socratic Greece — and now the struggle is over.

Here’s the movie’s final scene, of Conan in kingly regalia.  Doesn’t it look rather…. hellish?

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UPDATE (2/8/18): A different view, from John C. Wright (courtesy e-migo Nate Winchester).  He’s an award-winning fantasy author, so I’d go with his take.

 

*This seems to be Miguel de Unamuno’s view as well.  The Tragic Sense of Life!  If you wonder what a Roman Catholic Nietzsche would sound like, there you go.

 

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Why Everything Must be CGI

Reading Theodore Dalrymple’s write up of an art show in New York got me thinking of one of my old hobbyhorses: Fascism, appeal of.  I maintain that it’s aesthetics which is most responsible for both our current state of affairs, and the likeliest (n.b. not “the most desirable”) way out of that state.

Which got me thinking about Star Wars.  Bear with me here:

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That’s Grant Wood’s American Gothic, obviously.  Here’s what Dalrymple says about it:

Wood clearly intends us to see the couple as imbued with moral qualities: they are hardworking, modest, proudly independent, almost certainly sincerely religious—but not much fun. For them, life is something to endure rather than to enjoy, to frown at rather than to smile at: and pleasure is a temptation of the devil (as was bourgeois luxury or even comfort in the Soviet Union). So we do not know whether to admire or to detest the couple, to laugh at them or mourn their passing: for the pitchfork, symbol of pre-machine-age farming (and relentless physical work), is merely pathetic in the era of the combine harvester and the Dust Bowl. Since the man is old—or, at any rate, aged before his time as a result of backbreaking labor—one senses a lifetime of self-sacrifice, without anything to show for it, not even happiness along the way. The couple appear as trapped by their virtues as libertines are by their vices. But their virtues are nevertheless virtues.

That’s why Wood is a great artist, and American Gothic a great painting.  I don’t particularly like it, and I know no more about the theory and practice of art than any other reasonably-educated man of my generation, but I know significant art when I see it.  Dalrymple has the explanation that eludes me: Ambiguity.  I wouldn’t care to spend too much time in the company of the American Gothic couple, and I wouldn’t enjoy having them rule over me, but I’d take them in a heartbeat over these:

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or these:

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The first is Soviet, the second Nazi, and both are instantly recognizable as such if you just google up some examples and study them for a few minutes.  The Nazi example, particularly, is neither more or less “realistic,” nor “stylized,” than Wood’s painting.  Yet there’s no ambiguity there, or in the Soviet example: These figures are ideal peasants, painted by a person who can use the phrase “ideal peasants” without a single pang of conscience.

Which brings me to Star Wars movies, and the people who make them.  We know George Lucas is an SJW in real life, but back in the Seventies he was an artist first and an SJW second (that combo was still possible in the 70s), so his creations looked real.  E.g. Tatooine in the first one (I refuse on principle to call it “Episode IV”):

tatooine-ft

The only “sci-fi” touch there is the double sun.  Everything else is inescapably real — the buildings are battered, rough, dusty, just like they’d be in real life.  This is how people would really live on such a planet if it existed.

Here’s a similar shot from The Phantom Menace:

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That’s a video game cutscene.  There might as well be little power-ups floating around, and I’m told that the inevitable “special issue” anniversary re-release will feature a junior high kid calling you a “n00b faggot” in full Dolby surround sound.  We can’t believe that somewhere, somewhen, there are hover-speeders and aliens and androids, because clearly the filmmakers don’t believe it either — the giant furry horned thing must weigh 3 tons but stirs up no dust (despite its tail very clearly brushing the ground); the speeders all just came off the showroom floor; the buildings have the “rustic,” “distressed” look hipsters pay through the nose for.  The incredibly “realistic” CGI makes the whole thing look far more fake than even the clumsiest puppet effect in the original.

That’s no accident, as Marxists would say.  The new SJWars series is Leftist agitprop.  They know what they’re selling is impossible, in the same way the happy, well-fed peasants of Socialist Realism were impossible.  The Adventures of Girl Luke doesn’t fail because she — the character, Whatzerface — is a girl; it fails because Luke Skywalker is a man.  See the difference?  A woman could easily go through everything Luke went through — the Hero’s Journey is an archetype — but she wouldn’t react the same way Luke did, because men and women are different.

On the other hand, we’re used to video game characters acquiring — and mastering! — incongruous new powers out of nowhere, acting totally out of character, and ignoring plot holes big enough to fly a Star Destroyer through, so they made a video game.  A truly realistic story — where the armor has scratches, the vehicles have dings, and dust clings to clothes — would make the whole setup too implausible even for sci-fi fans.  They’d start asking obvious questions like, “wait, didn’t it take Luke the better part of three movies to master the skills Ol’ Whatzerface simply discovers on the fly?  Even assuming she’s twice the natural Jedi Luke was — and wasn’t he supposed to bring balance to The Force or some shit? — there should at least be a goddamn training montage.”  It’d be like panning back a few feet in the Soviet painting — sure, the peasants are smiling and laughing and acting like they’re having a great time, but that’s because there’s a commissar standing off to the left, pointing a gun at their families.

It’s actually even worse than that.  Much of the fun in a standard Hero’s Journey plot is seeing all the ways the storyteller varies the form.  The Odyssey, for example, is a fun story because the “hero” isn’t very heroic at all; Don Quixote is deliberately over-the-top ridiculous.  In both cases, the question for the audience isn’t “will So-and-So embrace his destiny as a hero?”  Of course he will — that’s why it’s a Hero’s Journey, even when the definition of “hero” is pretty loose.  Rather, the tension comes from seeing just what the hero will have to go through to get there.  A Hero’s Journey can be told without a hero, but the journey isn’t optional.*

SJWars doesn’t have one of those, either, and again, that’s by design.  How could it be otherwise?  The Hero’s Journey is an archetype; it works because it expresses a universal truth about the human condition, a bedrock Reality.  The only thing Leftists really believe, when you come right down to it, is that Reality is always wrong.  The Adventures of Girl Luke isn’t just Star Wars cosplay for the Millennials, then.  It’s an attempt — so far, quite successful — to keep younger audiences from learning there ever were such things as archetypes.  Why does Whatzerface suddenly, out of nowhere, have all these kick-ass abilities?  Because grrrl power, duh!

That’s why making the whole thing as video game-y as possible is doubly important.  If all this works, Millennials who go back and watch the original trilogy will conclude that it’s inferior to The Adventures of Girl Luke, not least because the setting is so grimy.  The Standardized Test Generation can’t see the point of all that “training” and “self doubt” stuff, because they know nobody’s different from anybody and everyone’s the best at everything.  Which is also the explanation, btw, for the oft-remarked fact that even though the original trilogy is chronologically after the events of the remakes, the remakes have much cooler and more effective technology.  Not only are the Alliance’s X-Wings battered and dirty in the original films, they’re obviously inferior prototypes of the stuff in the remakes — just like the original Luke Skywalker is obviously an inferior prototype of Girl Luke.

There’s no room for ambiguity in propaganda.  Realism — that is, anything that looks like it could plausibly take place in a world that might actually exist — is, by its nature, inherently ambiguous.  Thus, everything must be CGI.

 

 

*Even the most daring subversions of the trope still have to acknowledge the trope, and, most importantly, call the audience’s attention to it.  Much of the ooomph of the Schwarzenegger version of Conan the Barbarian, for example, comes from Thulsa Doom simply telling Conan the answer to the Riddle of Steel, thus ending his Hero’s Journey halfway through.  Schwarzenegger’s Conan is a wonderfully bleak, nihilistic movie, very out of step with its times; future historians will have a field day with it.  (The less said about the Jason Momoa “remake,” the better).

This is why Game of Thrones is also destined to fail, and will be forgotten the second it ends (until future Chinese historians, exploring the death of the West, have a field day with it in 2100).  Everyone in Westeros is an amoral power-hungry nihilistic scumbag; everyone who wasn’t, or might have been redeemable, is dead.  Rooting for Zombie Jon Snow (as is inevitable), or — God help us — Tyrion Lannister against the ice vampire thingies is like rooting for the Soviets against the Nazis at Stalingrad — the lesser of two evils, I guess, but only in the sense that lymphoma is a lesser evil than bowel cancer.

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