Human Nature Seems Fairly Constant; or Parallels between the Crusades and Our Present Political Perils

So I’m reading Zoe Oldenbourg’s history The Crusades and have found myself rather struck by the parallels between the situation then and our current political atrocities. And I don’t mean the rule by a group of senseless religious fanatics. Sure, the first crusaders who ventured over to the so-called Holy Land did so for the sake of religious fervor, but they soon rather adapted to their surroundings, making deals with local Muslim lords in order to solidify their standing. That doesn’t excuse the utter slaughter that commenced once they took hold of Jerusalem. I’m just saying that, after being there a few years, they began to understand that the security of their kingdom depended in large part on making alliances with their neighbors. After all, you don’t just want to make friends, you also want to make sure that your enemies have other enemies than you.

When the next wave of Crusaders comes over, they aren’t so interested in practical efforts to shore up Frankish Syria. They didn’t want to take part in efforts to take towns they hadn’t heard of, no matter how sensible that would have been strategically. Nope, they were driven by zeal and wanted to go kill them some Muslims in significant places:

“Saint Bernard had realized, quite correctly on the whole, that the Holy Land was in real peril and that the growing power of the Zengid dynasty must be checked at all costs. But his extraordinarily eloquent preaching placed greater emphasis on the spiritual side of the affair than on its practical aspects; he spoke of the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and of the Christian’s obligation to abandon everything for the land where God had ransomed men. If he had spent his time explaining to his audience the necessity of preventing the atabeg of Aleppo from seizing Damascus and of driving the Turks back across the Euphrates, he would probably have not filled the crowds with such enthusiasm. The Crusade was based on a terrible misunderstanding: not only was Jerusalem not in need of defense; in addition, the barons of the place preferred to disband the Crusade hastily rather than quarrel with their Moslem neighbors. The Crusaders neglected to attack the real enemy because his possessions lay far from Jerusalem.” (444)

And here in the United States, what passes for a political Left is more eager to throw millions of dollars at a vanity campaign against “Moscow Mitch” McConnell than it is even to vote in local school board and city council elections. Never mind that this is where the enemy is attacking, taking over one town, one state at a time, so that the Democrats have been practically routed at the state level. And then:

“It was only when the news of the fall of Jerusalem reached the West that Europe realized what possession of the Holy Land meant to Christendom.” (445)

And it is only when the Supreme Court finally stopped just chipping away at Roe v. Wade and gleefully overturned their own precedent that Democrats realize, oh shit, maybe we should have been paying attention to the mechanisms of power that lay beyond the presidency because the combination of local elections and court-stacking has given the Republicans a veritable lock on power for the next generation.

Maybe the coalition of folks who continues to hold to the principles of equality and enlightenment will organize themselves sufficiently to fight back this threat and regain the kingdom. But it didn’t go well for the Crusaders once Jerusalem was lost. Spoilers: they never got it back.

What Hamlet Taught Me about Ukraine and Abortion

(Update: A few days after I wrote this, the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective published a piece by Ahmed Bouzid that reflects many of the same viewpoints, but much more thoroughly explored. I highly recommend reading it.)

Early in the pandemic, my wife and I started watching one full production of Shakespeare a week. With theaters closed down, many companies began to put filmed performances online to help raise funds, including Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theatre (UK), and Stratford Festival. In addition, we had subscribed to two streaming services, Marquee and Britbox, offering full productions of his works. Going through his entire body of work helped us really develop an appreciation not only for Shakespeare as the immortal bard, author of some of the greatest lines in all of literature, but also Shakespeare the man, for we could more easily see him shuffling about plot devices and tropes until he hit combinations that worked.

My greatest joy at first was watching the plays that are not so often taught or performed. Timon of Athens” is beautifully cynical, while Cymbeline bursts at the seams with most every one of Shakespeare’s plot devices (cross dressing, men believing themselves betrayed by lovers, people believed dead who aren’t, nobles finding refuge in the forest, etc.). I was less eager to engage with the standard fare of Macbeth and Othello and Hamlet, however, given how much they have been overexposed in our culture. One actor (I forget whom) said that the difficulty of performing as Hamlet was that his lines were so iconic, so embedded in our consciousness, that he felt more like he was simply quoting Shakespeare.

I had expected, by the time Hamlet entered our rotation, that I would find myself more critical of the play, that, at this far remove from my first exposures, I would naturally view it with a more critical eye. However, much to my astonishment, the play proved itself a marvel, worth its ranking as one of the greatest works of English-language literature. Moreover, the play speaks to our present-day politics in ways that seem prescient.

Consider two of the most significant news stories of the year to date: Russia’s fascist invasion of sovereign Ukraine, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s invasion of sovereign bodies with its imminent reversal of Roe v. Wade. In both cases, most of us believed that there had been long established a modern norm that was simply inviolable. The post–World War II consensus held that wars of territorial conquest would no longer be tolerated, even if that norm was undermined by small-scale incursions like Russia’s nibbling at the Crimean Peninsula. Likewise, the post-Roe consensus held that abortion prior to fetal viability would be legal at the national level, even if that norm was undermined by small-scale court cases that sought to limit the window during which abortion would be available to a woman in need.

In both cases, our assumptions about the permanence of these norms were wrong. Beneath the appearance of consensus, evil forces were at work to undermine everything that had been achieved in the name of freedom and sovereignty. And when finally faced with the genuine march of evil, most of us, just like Hamlet, have engaged in silly performative politics rather than undertake the hard work of employing power constructively for purposes of benefiting the people in need.

What does Hamlet do when he learns that his father had been murdered by Uncle Claudius, who not sits on his father’s throne and lies in his father’s bed with Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother? What does he do? He tells his best friend, and then spends the better part of Act II bumbling about. Finally, he decides to stage a theatrical reenactment of his father’s murder to see how Claudius reacts: “the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” But Hamlet is a prince. He has access to power. He should not be worrying about catching the conscience of the king. He should be worrying about catching the throne of the king.

For Hamlet later to be exulting in Claudius’s discomfort at seeing his crimes performed on stage is the equivalent of liberal Twitter exulting when Mitch McConnell says or does something that reeks of obvious hypocrisy. It does not matter that Mitch McConnell is inconsistent. It matters that he has power. His power will survive his inconsistency. You can complain that his behavior vis-à-vis U.S. Supreme Court justices shows that he has no moral core, but he doesn’t need a moral core. He has power. It is your responsibility not to ridicule him on social media but to do everything you can to strip him of that power in order to further the cause of justice.

But complaining keeps one pure, while action must necessarily entail compromise. As the British author Rebecca West wrote in her 1958 book, The Court and the Castle: “We are members of an imperfect society, and when we cooperate with it, we are committed to imperfection, because we are all imperfect beings and cannot conceive a perfect thought or act.” Hamlet is a terminal case of this. What happens when he is sent in exile and manages to evade the execution order handed down by Claudius? He eventually ambles back to Denmark, again with only Horatio in tow. He has not made deals with any rival kingdoms for aid to help him take the throne. Instead, he has eschewed power to retain his purity, treating this whole matter of usurpation as if it affected him and him alone, and so he gets himself killed, along with most the main cast, at the end of Act V. “Our imperfection,” writes West, “cannot be sweetened by our acts or limits in its effect by our caution. Hamlet is exquisitely accomplished, but it does not aid his moral power,” and everything that happens by play’s end, all the death and destruction, is the result “of Hamlet’s refusal to bind himself to the same ties of the flesh which have, through the ages, been generally blamed as the sources of sin. To our species all gates to innocence are barred.”

The various myths of “consensus” under which we have operated for several decades have been nothing more than convenient excuses for not getting our hands dirty with actual politics. We wanted to pretend that such wars abroad and at home would simply not be capable of happening again. But evil does not rest. To all who had ears to hear and eyes to see, it was stunningly obvious that Vladmir Putin did not feel himself constrained by any international consensus but, instead, has long been planning to rebuild the Russian Empire of yore, even if doing so entailed a massive campaign of genocide and rape. To all who had eyes to see and ears to hear, it was obvious that the American Right was happy to mouth the obligatory lie that “Roe v. Wade is settled law” while planning to give parental rights to rapists and hand down death sentences to women who experienced any of the complications so common to childbirth. But we have not heard and we have not seen simply because that might demand action, and action is by nature imperfect.

Russian imperialism, the American forced-birth movement—these things are evil. And evil cannot be fought on Twitter or in the comments section of this post. Evil must be fought in the streets, in the courtroom, at the ballot box, with money, with votes, with force. Fighting evil takes time. Fighting evil will necessitate alliances with people whom you do not like, but that is the nature of working toward justice in an imperfect world.

Even at the end, Hamlet fails to understand, saying: “And is’t not to be damn’d / To let this canker of our nature come / In further evil?” Yes, to allow such an evil to develop is to court damnation. But here, Hamlet is worried about his own personal salvation, not the actual lives that might be saved by his actions, the kingdom that might be preserved. Determined not to engage in imperfection, he rather ironically brings down the whole kingdom of Denmark.

Hamlet wants to be right, not to do right. To be better than he is, we must do better. Evil is forever on the march.

Divisive Russian Concepts (or why conservatism is a philosophy of weakness)

(Note: I’ve not been on this site for nearly two years, largely because I’ve had some other outlets for my musings, such as the History News Network and the Arkansas Times, as well as a few books I’ve published in the interim. I’d always kind of used this place to through out some ideas in rough form and have occasionally taken one or two of those to develop into something a little more refined. Now that I don’t have some obvious projects lined up before me, and am reading more widely than I have been, I’m having more of these scattered and raw ideas, so back here I am.)

There are lessons in Russia’s war against Ukraine even for us here in Arkansas. Because before Vladmir Putin declared war against Ukraine, he waged his own brutal war against the Russian version of “divisive concepts.”

Here is one of those “divisive concepts”: In March 1940, the Soviet Union NKVD, their secret police, massacred more than 20,000 Polish prisoners of war. Some of these prisoners were officers in the military, but others were broadly termed “intelligentsia,” constituting every class of people from business leaders to priests and rabbis. The killings were concentrated in the Katyn Forest in Russia and so are known as the Katyn Forest Massacre, but some of the killings took part in Soviet-controlled Ukraine.

The massacre took place when the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were still operating under a non-aggression pact and working to divide Poland among them. But by April 1943, when the event was made public by Joseph Goebbels propaganda machine, the two nations were at war, and the United States was reluctant to offer too much criticism of the Soviet Union, with whom it was temporarily allied in the effort to destroy the Third Reich. In an example of realpolitik, Winston Churchill famously told Wladyslaw Sikorski, head of the Polish government then in exile in London, “If they are dead, there is nothing that will bring them back to life.”

The politics of war and the immediate postwar era ensured that, while Germany would be forced to confront the realities of the Nazi years, no Soviet leaders would ever be brought to account for their role in any wartime atrocities, much less those atrocities that occurred outside the context of the war, such as the various Stalinist purges, the deportation of ethnic minorities to Siberia, or the imposition of a genocidal famine upon Ukraine. By the time the Soviet Union fell, that history was decades old, and so the impetus for confronting it was minimal, not to mention the fact that post-Soviet youth were more interested in the future than the past.

In fact, in the Soviet Union, what we call World War II was known as the “Great Patriotic War.” But not only was the name different—so was the whole war. As the Moldovan expat Slava Malamud recently posted on Twitter, generations of Russians have been taught that the war was fought against those “whose only goal was enslaving the Russian people.” In this worldview, the term “Nazi” does not reference a particular ideology but only signifies an enemy of Russia; the Holocaust was never mentioned. Russians were taught to regard themselves as the sole heroes of the war, the people who single-handedly brought to an end the regime of Adolf Hitler. “The loss of over 20 million Soviet citizens as a result of the war is exploited as a counterargument to invalidate the historical narratives of neighbouring states asserting that in the 20th century they were victims of Soviet imperial expansion,” writes Maria Domańskav, Senior Fellow at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies.

And Vladmir Putin has tapped into this reserve of myth-making for his own expansionist projects. And this promotion of the myth of the “Great Patriotic War” has entailed its own war against any of those “divisive concepts” that would threaten to call into question the greatness of the Russian past. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that some commemoration of Soviet-era atrocities could take place, including the installation of plaques in 1991 commemorating some of the victims of Stalin’s terror. But in 2019, Russian authorities removed the plaques. Historians and activists who have insisted upon an honest accounting of the past have been intimidated and even arrested for crimes against the state.

So you will likely not be surprised to learn that one particular target of Russian soldiers during their genocidal war against the people of Ukraine has been not only volumes of Ukrainian literature but also those archives housing documents relating to Soviet atrocities. After all, if the Russians can destroy it, then they do not have to deny it.

So the “divisive concepts” at the center of a longstanding Russian war against history are not that different from those that have become the fixed object of conservative wrath here in the United States. Namely, it is the notion that our nation may have performed deeds morally wrong or dishonorable that remains verboten. Therefore, those who wish to draw attention to the darker aspects of our history are enemies who wish not to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice but, instead, undermine the work of our forebears, or even of God itself.

Take, for example, Arkansas’s own Act 1100 of 2021, which lists as one of its foremost “divisive concepts” the nation that “The state of Arkansas or the United States if fundamentally racist or sexist.” The word “fundamentally” is doing a lot of work there, all of it vague. Would teaching the fact that many of our Founding Fathers owned human beings and profited from the system of slavery be considered as asserting that the United States is “fundamentally” racist?

The goal, of course, is to dissuade teachers from teaching anything save a curriculum of American Greatness. It is the same motivation underlying the occasional bill introduced in the state legislature to ban the works of people’s historian Howard Zinn, as well as more recent attempts to ban the 1619 Project. Both the works of Zinn and the 1619 project are important not for providing definitive answers but, rather, for provoking discussion regarding the nature of this country we call home. However, discussion and doubt are anathema to the conservative worldview, so much so that those who raise certain questions are regarded as enemies.

“Republicans who wish to hold their party together through fear must focus their efforts almost entirely on building up the menace of internal enemies,” writes Konstantin McKenna on the 1776 Project, the notorious (and notoriously deficient) conservative answer to the current war over the meaning of American history. “Central to this is an effort to shoehorn the contemporary left in with the worst historical enemies of the United States.” Most notably, this project “frames identity politics as existing in direct and irreducible competition with love for the United States and its founding ideals.”

So Republicans here in America are imitating Vladmir Putin’s war on historical truth, and for much the same reason—to unify the nation (or at least a functioning governing majority) on the basis of grievance, all to restore it to some imagined greatness.

What will be the result? We can see it on the battlefields there in Ukraine. Just as Putin made Russia a laughingstock, with the feared armies of the Russian Bear running retreat in the face of a country much smaller, so, too, do Republicans want to weaken America, want to turn America into an utter joke of a nation. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that conservatism is nothing but a philosophy predicated upon the idolization of weakness marketed as strength to the gullible.

Consider this: where free debate exists, then the best ideas can rise to the top, and where real democracy exists, the best people can become leaders.

Consider this: where free debate and democracy exist, a broader swath of the population becomes invested in the operations of the state, and so even those people whose parties or candidates end up losing an election nonetheless remain invested in the system that offered them the opportunity of participation.

Consider this: where democracy is strong, not only are elected leaders accountable for their actions, but so are the people those leaders hire, and so official corruption is minimized, making for stronger institutions.

Now, in Russia, debate has been practically outlawed (especially since the start of the genocide against Ukraine, with Putin forcing the last vestiges of a free press to go underground or abroad). Democracy is a joke. And corruption is endemic, as exemplified not only by the scores of oligarchs who sail the high seas on mega-yachts packed with their whores, but also by a poorly trained and underfunded military much of whose equipment has been sold on the black market by officers, leaving draftees looting supermarkets in Ukraine just to feed themselves. The three-day conquest Putin was expecting has now drawn on for more than a month, with some analysts imagining that this war might drag out for years.

Anybody could have predicted this. One common proverb to remember is “Moscow is not Russia.” That is to say, conditions that may pertain in Moscow simply do not in the rest of the country, which, so far as standard of living goes, has more in common with North Korea than with Europe. More than one-fifth of all Russians still live without indoor plumbing. Russian roads are notoriously bad, with funds for maintenance regularly being stolen by corrupt officials. Low trust in the government has led to a very low acceptance, even among Russians, of the Sputnik V vaccine against COVID-19, not to mention that few other countries have sought the vaccine themselves due to lack of transparency on the part of Russian scientific officials. And those unfortunate enough to get sick face the horrors of Russian hospitals and their moldy walls, shit-filled toilets, and ignorant doctors.

But Russia is the conservative wet dream, and no wonder that Republicans embrace Putin so whole-heartedly. The entire conservative project is predicated upon making the United States of America as weak as Russia. When the Supreme Court, led by Federalist Society flunky John Roberts, struck down campaign finance reform in Citizens United, it paved the way for the corrupt rich to buy yet more influence in government. When the Supreme Court, led by John Roberts, struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County, it paved the way for the dismantling of even the formal structures of democracy here in America. When the Supreme Court, led by John Roberts, eventually completes his lifelong project of making corruption endemic in America, we will know what to expect—we can see it right now in Russia.

Corruption and the veneration of tradition exist hand-in-hand precisely because conservatism, as a philosophy, is the veneration of corruption, aiming to reinstate those ancient artificial hierarchies that allowed the talentless (but wealthy) sons of talentless (but wealthy) fathers to inherit the earth at the expense of all others. “Though it is often claimed that the left stands for equality while the right stands for freedom, this notion misstates the actual disagreement between left and right,” writes political scientist Corey Robin in the second edition of “The Reactionary Mind.” “Historically, the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders. What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension.”

Modern conservatives believe only in their own power, and they will do anything to secure it. This is why the moral code of the old Moral Majority has been thrown out the window in favor whoremongering degenerates like Donald Trump (and Putin himself) and (alleged) sex traffickers like Matt Gaetz. “I’m a great believer in hypocrisy,” said the character Rawley Bradfield in John Le Carre’s 1968 novel “A Small Town in Germany.” “It’s the nearest we ever get to virtue. It’s a statement of what we ought to be. Like religion, like art, like the law, like marriage. I serve the appearance of things. It’s the worst of systems; it is better than the others.” You cannot call modern conservatives hypocrites because they no longer care enough about virtue to try to preserve even its façade.

And so the ceremony of innocence is drowned, one court ruling, one “don’t say gay” bill at a time. Yeats called it: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” And here in America, with our voting rights restricted and our districts gerrymandered in Jackson Pollack–esque shapes, that rough beast, probably a demented elephant, feeling its hour come round at last, slouches toward Moscow to be born.

Police and Priests in the Streets

From genesis to revelation
The next generation will be hear me
And all the crowd comes in day by day
No one stop it in anyway
And all the peacemaker turn war officer
Hear what i say

–“Police and Thieves,” J Boog

For the longest time, the figure of the Catholic priest was a symbol of moral weight in American popular culture, which was rather odd, given our nation’s predominantly Protestant background. The movie Going My Way, starring Bing Crosby as Father Chuck O’Malley, was the highest grossing picture of 1944 and won seven Academy Awards. Or think of The Exorcist, both a bestselling book and one of the most popular movies of all time, with its priestly characters cast as the heroes in a struggle against demonic forces. When I was growing up, one of my favorite comic books, Suicide Squad (by John Ostrander and Kim Yale and a far superior product in its original iteration than the movie) even featured a wise priestly character taking up residence at the Belle Reeve prison where the squad is headquartered in order to minister to the various misfits there.

In short, if you needed a character to provide moral leadership in some story or other, chances are you went with a priest.

But, you may have noticed, something changed around 2002. And changed quickly. Of course, that’s the year that the Boston Globe published its famous “Spotlight” series on clerical sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese. Almost overnight, it seemed, our perceptions of priests were radically altered, so that the collar now evokes some semblance of reverence only among the already dedicated, rather than the general population at large.

(Funny story: I’ve a friend who is a priest with the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, a group affiliated with the Old Catholics who broke away from the Church after Pius IX declared himself infallible. The ECC does not forbid priestly marriage and is typically progressive on most issues. After some years, he had a large enough group that he had to start taking things to the next level, which included getting insurance for him and another priest to cover things like malpractice. However, in calling up insurance companies, as soon as he uttered the word “Catholic,” they would hang up on him because they regarded covering Catholic priests as a losing proposition. So he had to call back multiple times in order to explain his particular denomination.)

In a short period of time, we became privy to the reality of Catholic priesthood, and our perception of the agents of priesthood shifted accordingly. Very few people nowadays think of a priest without thinking at least of the possibility of child rape. Jokes about altar boys still have currency in popular culture.

I have to wonder if, right now, we’re at a similar tipping point with the police. After all, just as with priests, cops have long been a trusted part of American society (if you are white and middle class) and a staple of our popular culture. Yes, we love Andy Griffith, but we also love the rougher cops who have to break the laws in order to get things done because we see their actions outside the boundaries of normal police procedure as necessary for the protection of the public good. Moreover, shows like CSI or NCIS show us a job bubbling over with technical wizardry that lets us see crime fighting as largely a technical pursuit removed from policies and social relations, thus appealing to our American sense of innovation, and our relative ignorance of the larger structures that give shape to our lives.

But now? After weeks, even white America has to admit the fact that police in general, police brutality specifically, far from serving the cause of public order, are often the source of public disorder. We have seen again and again beating bystanders, shooting people on their front porches to stop them filming, pepper-spraying and tear-gassing young people exercising their constitutional rights in a legitimate manner, and even, in one rather infamous example, arresting the very people who had flagged them down to draw attention to looters. This is just their response to the protests of police brutality. The original act that spawned this round of protests (or was the proverbial straw that broke the back of public patience) was the slow murder of George Floyd. More and more these days, we can see the police for what they really are: authoritarian, violent gangs who imagine themselves warriors against chaos, just like previous generations of fascist street thugs.

And now, the public’s desire to imbibe more of this culture is wearing thin. Not as many people are eager right at this moment to have even symbolic affiliation with the police. Hell, even Lego is withdrawing advertising for any cop-themed products. Will our view of the police go the way of the Catholic priest?

Whether it does or not, the experience of the Catholic Church can guide us in how best we might address the system of criminality that is our policing institutions. Namely because the Catholic Church has not yet been reformed in a real effort to prevent priests from predating upon young children. Sure, the Church has some policies requiring that suspected abusers be reported to secular authorities, but we don’t have any figures on how well that is actually working. And there may be some oversight boards staffed by lay people, but they only function to the limits that bishops allow. What the Catholic Church has accomplished wouldn’t even rise to the level of window dressing.

Father Thomas P. Doyle has written that the “sex abuse crisis” is no crisis at all but instead “a worldwide manifestation of a complex, systemic and self-destructive condition in the church,” adding that church leaders have primarily been concerned with “what is best for the image, the reputation, the power and the financial security of the clerical elite. The persistent failure to make it all go away is akin to trying to fix a hardware problem with a software solution.”

The condition of the church is marked by clericalism; or, as Doyle puts it: “The clerical culture, or clericalism, is the most commonly identified contributor. This is a world set apart from the rest of society. It is sustained by the toxic belief that the ordained are not only set apart from lay people but superior to them. This belief fosters the narcissism and sense of entitlement so common among clerics…. It creates, sustains and protects the deference that far too many clerics believe is their due. By the same token, far too many lay people continue to believe that this deference is part of their Catholic belief system. This erroneous thinking is at the root of the failure to demand accountability from the offending clerics and their superiors who protect them.”

Hmmm… Do we see something similar to police culture here? A world set apart from the rest of society, superior to that society, believing itself entitled to certain benefits, most notably the benefit of deference that produces a failure to demand accountability?

Moreover, Doyle notes that, because of the culture of the priesthood, it tends to attract men who are socially and sexually dysfunctional. Likewise, does the culture of policing attract the sort of men who enjoy violence and preying upon the weak. And both groups are apt to respond to any attempt at accountability as an attack upon their ontologically elevated status and resist it with full force. And both groups have typically regarded the documented misdeeds of any of their numbers as a case of “a few bad apples” and not as a sign that the whole culture needs to be reformed. But as Doyle writes, “The true scandal did not arise from the sexual violation of children and adults. The real scandal came from the bishops themselves through their efforts to hide the problem, then lie about it and finally try to shift the blame to any person, idea or practice they hoped it would stick to.”

The laity have no real power in the Catholic Church, aside from leaving. I mean, they do not get to choose, or even influence, their choice of parish priest. They do not get a vote for bishop, archbishop, or pontiff. They may be allowed a presence at church councils, such as the Second Vatican Council, but they will not be voting on the final articles. All they have is the ability to leave, to take their money and their children with them, and many have, leading to the closure of parishes across the country. But the Catholic Church still retains its wealth wrapped up in property, and it still receives generous tax breaks from state and federal governments. Moreover, the departure of those who disapprove of the current clerical culture only leaves behind a population even more invested in the predator-producing culture of clericalism, so the problem is not solved entirely by withdrawal, short of everyone withdrawing.

We may have more luck with policing. Sure, there are similar hindrances. In many places, there are not even civilian review boards to examine allegations of police violence or set standards for police behavior. And, unlike churches, we cannot withdraw from local and state taxes, unless you happen to be rich enough to game your way out of them. But our democratically elected leaders do set the budgets for law enforcement agencies, and so we have some influence there. Too, we can ask ourselves just what events actually warrant calling the cops. The store where George Floyd allegedly tried to pass a counterfeit banknote has publicly announced that it will no longer be calling the police when passed a counterfeit bill. There are plenty of issues that we can probably solve by communicating with one another and working something out, rather than by calling the cops, and so if we can minimize their workload in such a way, we also minimize the justification for spending so much money on them. And we can draw those purse strings tight and force a change of culture.

The same structures and cultures that produce rapist priests also produce brutal policemen. No simple reform, no tinkering at the edges of the problem, will change that. Indeed, those kinds of reforms tend to push the problem deeper as priests and police become more skilled at hiding their crimes under the new regime. If we want to end clerical rape and police violence, we have to dismantle thoroughly the cultures in which they thrive.

 

Ex-Pats by the Waters of Babylon

So I’ve had the book for maybe twenty years or so, but I’ve only just recently gotten around to actually starting G. J. Whitrow’s classic Time in History, a study of how people of the past have understood the concept of time, how they measured it, and so on. And while the book is interesting in many ways, what sent me briefly for a loop was an aside, simple mention of the fact that the people of Judah taken in the Babylonian Captivity constituted the elite and middle classes of their society.

Why is that so important? So the deportations of the people of Judah occurred in a few waves in the 590s and 580s BCE, but the deportees (or rather, their descendants) were allowed to return by King Cyrus in 539 BCE. As demonstrated in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (as well as the apocryphal books of Esdras), these “returnees” were rather devastated upon their return to find that the old ways had not been kept up; foremost among the concerns of returnee leaders was the intermarriage between those Jews left behind and “foreign” women, or women from tribes who lived in the area but who weren’t deemed Jewish enough to count. So the first thing folks like Ezra and Nehemiah do is try to get rid of these foreigners and also build a wall around Jerusalem.

(Folks who like to imagine that the Republican Party and Donald Trump somehow exist at odds with biblical values have clearly not read the bible.)

I believe I knew beforehand that the cream of the Judean crop had been taken into captivity, but reading that information again in this present context sparked some connections. Have you ever known any ex-pats? I am lucky enough to belong to a Swedish language group here in Little Rock that is a mix of both Americans who have learned Swedish and Swedes who now reside in America, some of them having become citizens. And there is a certain conservatism among several of them, a despair that “Sweden isn’t like it used to be,” that Sweden has failed to keep its culture intact; and this despite the fact that they are observing from abroad after years, if not decades, of absence. For them, Sweden is frozen at a particular moment in time, and trips back don’t temper this, because they see drastic changes rather than the slow evolution of a culture. They can’t believe what is happening in their “home country” and, if they continue to maintain citizenship and voting rights, tend to cast their lot with the most right-wing parties on the ballot.

But it wasn’t the original exiles returning to the land of Judah. In many cases, it was their children and grand-children. And if exiles or ex-pats are liable to idolize and idealize the land of their birth, how much more so children who have had to grow up listening to these stories? This population, being taken captive and surrounded by obnoxious Babylonian otherness, made of themselves a distinctive population emphasizing the purity of their ways. But those left behind in the land of Judah did not feel the compulsion to emphasize their differences from others; they lived where they had always lived, and besides, you take away all those priests and upper crusts, and folks might realize that they weren’t personally all that invested in the idea that tithing your first fruits to some distant religious authority was actually necessary for the preservation of the kingdom. Look where it got those priests, after all.

Oh, but they had become corrupted, the biblical text would have us believe, and they had intermingled with the local tribes who did not belong to the Chosen People. But those exiles, despite the fact that they liked to present themselves as the true and persevering remnant, had themselves become “corrupted” with the ideas and ideologies of foreigners much further way. We know that pre-exilic Judaism, such as it was, did not entail a dualistic worldview separating good and evil into opposing camps. This was an innovation tacked on due to the influence of the state religion of Babylon, namely Zoroastrianism. Many other innovations were added: ideas of apocalypse and of a messiah. The population of exiles imbibed these ideas and then returned to the land of their parents’ birth claiming to be the true representatives of the people of that land, despite the fact that, by this point, they were veritable foreigners themselves.

Extremist movements, perhaps because they are infused with people who have at best a tentative relationship with the culture as it actually exists, tend to hearken back to an idyllic time, an idealized version of what was. And this often entails the expulsion of supposed “foreign” elements. Thus it is no accident whatsoever that the two following quotations express the exact same sentiment:

“In those days also I saw the Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab; and half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke the language of various peoples. And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, ‘You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. Did not king Solomon of Israel sin on account of such women? Among the many nations, there was no king like him, and he was beloved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel; nevertheless, foreign women made even him to sin. Shall we then listen to you and do all this great evil and act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women?’” (Nehemiah, Chapter 13)

“Marriages between Jews and Germans are forbidden, even if conducted abroad.” (Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, Article 1, September 15, 1935)

And it is no coincidence that Psalm 137, which begins–

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.

–end with these words:

“Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.”

COVID-19: A Wake-Up Call on Subsidizing Religion

What can we do without? In some ways, we are all asking that question nowadays. If you are currently lucky enough to still be employed, the chances are you supervisor has been asking the question whether or not they can do without your personal presence in the office. If you are trying to do the right thing and limit your social interactions as much as possible, you have already asked yourself what sort of physical outings you can eliminate from your life. If you are a talking head on Fox News, you have been wondering if our country can do without all the elderly and immunocompromised who are more vulnerable to COVID-19, if it might not be best to sacrifice millions to disease and death for purposes of trying to get the economy back on track. And if you, like so many millions in our poorly managed country, have lost your job, you are no doubt asking what meals or medications you can do without simply to survive.

Whenever this pandemic comes to an end, we need to keep asking ourselves: What can we do without? It is by now cliché that pandemics reveal society’s fault lines and failures in the extreme, but this makes it no less true. In times of personal crisis, we can recognize harmful habits and work to change them. Likewise, in times of societal crisis, we can uncover gross inefficiencies in the way our institutions are managed and, with enough political will, modify our collective policies.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the social consequences of many terrible practices our government endorses. For starters, there is the upward flow of wealth from the pockets of workers into the trust funds and stock portfolios of the wealthy, a practice that leaves those laborers we now realize are truly essential to our economy and our society without the means to survive even a few days should their jobs suddenly evaporate. Economic equality is not merely a hippy ideal—it is the very essence of national security. A society is only as healthy as its poorest individual, and if people are forced to work while sick due to the lack of any safety net, then they stand a chance of spreading disease to the millions, especially a disease as transmissible as COVID-19.

While conservatives like to tout the proper place of philanthropy over “big government,” we sure have not had many examples of billionaires stepping in to ensure the safety and well-being of their labor force. Instead, the likes of Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have been demanding their employees take unpaid leave, but why should we be surprised? It was this sort of exploitation that made both men, and so many like them, rich in the first place.

At the moment, however, there are plenty of people more able than I making the argument for a politics of economic equality. Instead, right now, I want to make a proposal of the sort that never gets advanced by politicians, not even those left-of-center:

If we want to build a better America after COVID-19, we must cease subsidizing religious practice.

Churches have been ungodly vectors of deadly disease this year. Early during the pandemic in Arkansas, approximately one-sixth of all documented infections could be linked to one particular church in Greers Ferry. In early April, the Sacramento Bee reported that one-third of all infections in Sacramento County were connected to churches. Some 2,500 cases of COVID-19 have been linked to a mid-February evangelical gathering in France. Moreover, churches continue to defy limits on social gatherings all throughout the United States, while politicians enthralled to religious voters permit these dangerous activities to go unchecked. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas even deemed church services “essential services” in a recent executive order. Likewise did Florida’s own exemplar of incompetency, Ron DeSantis, overrule county officials in order to allow massive church gatherings.

Deep into this pandemic now, many religious leaders are still resisting calls to close their doors for the sake of public health. Awaken Church in Jonesboro received national attention when it posted on Facebook “Jesus died with COVID-19 so that you didn’t have to bear it,” apparently asserting itself as a corona-free zone as it continues to hold in-person services. In response. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who had exempted churches from his executive order closing various state institutions, was considering an order directed at Awaken.

If these believers existed in their own closed networks, went to their own businesses, or sought treatment in their own hospitals, there might not be so much concern, but the public will, in the end, have to pick up the tab for their malicious carelessness.

Why have these Christians been so resistant to the scientific consensus on the current pandemic? Certainly, much blame can be laid to the feet of Donald Trump, the chosen one of white evangelicals, who downplayed the pandemic earlier this year and convinced his true believers that reports of mass death were but a hoax to affect his reelection. And the Republican Party, the political arm of right-wing Christianity in America, has for decades been engaged in dismantling the scientific infrastructure of this once-great nation, including massively defunding the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as well as calling into question the efficacy of vaccination, while also promoting creationism and other non-factual doctrines.

But the problem is deeper than an exploitation of faith for political ends. “Science and religion,” writes University of Chicago biologist Jerry A. Coyne, “are competitors in the business of finding out what is true about our universe. In this goal religion has failed miserably, for its tools for discovering the ‘truth’ are useless.” The things we know about this reality we inhabit—the speed of light, the number of chromosomes in a human cell, the nature of gravity, or the atomic number for neon—were not achieved using the “tools” of religion. That is, religious “revelation” has been, at worst, absolutely wrong from a scientific perspective, and at best a mishmash of poetic imagery whose meaning can be debated ad infinitum.

As the University of Quebec historian and sociologist of science Yves Gingras writes, “Science is, by definition, collective knowledge and stands against personal and subjective beliefs that remain private and non-verifiable by other persons with the appropriate expertise.” Religious truth claims simply cannot be verified using any tools not specific to a particular denomination, school of theology, or rantings of a cult leader.

However, this has not prevented religious individuals from demanding recognition for their special claims from the broader public, be it the segregationist claim that God created the races separate and unequal and that the mixing of races was a sin (a claim that lay at the origin of the modern Religious Right) or the creationist claim that a collection of contradictory myths thousands of years old should serve as the basis for understanding modern geology and biology. Arkansas has had its reputation diminished in the wider world for embracing both such claims: in 1957 with the violence surrounding the desegregation of Central High School and in 1981 with the McLean v. Arkansas “monkey trial.”

Moreover, average Americans, no matter their philosophical persuasions, are forced to subsidize the activities of these very churches that threaten our lives. After all, churches are tax exempt, as are their affiliated institutions. Consider all the churches and church-affiliated schools in your town—none of them are paying taxes on the property they own. The IRS automatically grants churches tax exempt status and exempts them from accounting for their finances, both favors not accorded other non-profit organizations. Had churches been forced to account for their receipts and payments, chances are the practice of paying off child-rape victims in many denominations would have been revealed much earlier.

Sure, some churches do good works, and during this pandemic, many Americans are relying upon religious organizations for food or clothing. But this does not mean that a donation to a church will necessarily end up in needy hands rather than funneled to more nefarious ends.

There are so many tax exemptions for religious organizations: they don’t pay property taxes, they can opt out of Social Security taxes, they don’t have to pay sales taxes on purchases, and much more. Some years ago, University of Tampa sociologist Ryan T. Cragun and two of his students, Stephanie Yeager and Desmond Vega, tried to tabulate just how much it costs Americans to subsidize this nation’s religious organizations, arriving at a figure of $82.5 billion each year—a figure that is almost certainly lower than reality. Back in 2015, comedian John Oliver even organized his own church, called Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, to highlight the flaws in the system, and nothing has changed since.

You may not go to a church yourself, but you are paying for them nonetheless. And because these churches are exempt from so many taxes, they have plenty of money to spend on meddling in American politics, and so your tax money is also helping these preachers undermine our scientific institutions, the very ones upon which we are now relying in this time of pandemic. And because democracy depends upon access to truth—for we cannot, as an informed citizenry, make informed decisions without knowing what is real and what is not—tax subsidies for religious organizations also serve to undermine the very foundation of our American Experiment by giving these churches the financial heft to lobby our government to accord their personalized revelations a status equal to centuries of refined scientific advancement.

(And besides, as Matthew Yglesias has noted, “Whichever faith you think is the one true faith, it’s undeniable that the majority of this church-spending is going to support false doctrines.” Your Baptist preacher may rail against the false doctrines of the Roman Catholics, but your tax dollars are still supporting their priests, as well as Mormon missionaries, auditors for the Church of Scientology, and more.)

Churches will continue to operate even if they have to pay their fair share of property and Social Security taxes. And our government, “We, the People,” will have increased funds that we can direct toward the public health programs and epidemiological studies we now realize are crucial for saving the lives and livelihoods of millions of our fellow citizens. There is no real argument against ending tax subsidies for religions. In fact, one of the founders of a major world religion advocated for this very position when, nearly 2,000 years ago, he told his followers: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

How I Feel (Democratic Primary Version)

Sometimes, what we call the “French Resistance” gets boiled down into a far more unified organization than it really was. As Robert Gildea covers in his book, Fighters in the Shadows, the French Resistance included groups rather fundamentally opposed to one another, from communists to those who would preserve the Vichy regime but get rid of all these Germans; in addition, it wasn’t all just French but rather included Spanish anti-fascists, German refugees, colonial subjects, and more. And the French Revolution did not stand alone but was part of a broader network of resistance to Hitler and was heavily dependent upon British and American supplies, especially weapons, to carry out its acts of resistance.

As I argued in my previous post, Donald Trump is a literal fascist, and the Republican Party is the vehicle of fascist policies in the United States. In the resistance to fascism, we make allies of people whom we would oppose in less fraught circumstances. All that is really required is a shared understanding of the unique threat of fascism and a shared desire to eliminate it, root and brach.

This year, I made my first political donation, and it was for Elizabeth Warren, because I believe that she best understands the threat posed not only by the Trump regime but by the decades of slippery Republican (and neoliberal Democratic) politics that have diminished the regulatory state and made the emergence of fascism here and now possible. I’ll vote for anyone opposed to Trump (except for Bloomberg, who is opposed only to Democratic policies, his temporary party affiliation notwithstanding). But, selfish me, I wanted a leader who might inspire and who had a track record of achievement and a devotion to strategy and tactics.

So here is how I feel at the news that Joe Biden is sweeping Super Tuesday states and stands a good chance of being the Democratic Party’s nominee: I feel like I’m in the French Resistance opening up a crate of weapons from our allies across the channel, only to find muskets. I’m still committed to killing Nazis, but I feel like our allies don’t understand what kind of war we are fighting, and I’m suddenly a lot less sanguine about our chances of survival, much less success.

Is Donald Trump a Literal Fascist? Yes.

You may be shocked to learn this, but people do not always use certain terms accurately. While my brother Kris was stationed at Camp Pendleton, he once called me up to complain about life there in sunny California, summarizing his despair with the statement: “Everyone out here is a communist.” When I pointed out that, in fact, the governor at the time was Arnold Schwarzenegger, a long-time Republican, Kris replied, “Yeah, but he believes in gay marriage.”

I was confused. I tried to explain that Marx and Engels had never once approached the subject of homosexual relations; moreover, both men were somewhat critical of the bourgeois concept of marriage as centered upon property and regarded the family as the source of the original division of labor. “Indeed,” I insisted, “they probably would have been dismayed to see marriage as a concept receiving a boost through the legal expansion of such rights to gays and lesbians.” At the end of my brief lecture, there was a bit of silence on the line. Finally, my brother said “He’s still a communist.”

Kris wasn’t listening. But, then, neither was I. When he insisted that Arnold Schwarzenegger was a “communist,” he was not tying this Austrian bodybuilder to a specific economic doctrine; no, he was using “communist” as a catch-all term for political positions he found abhorrent, such as gay marriage. 

Like pesticide sprayed on a field, the meaning of politicized words often drifts and inflicts damage far beyond its original location – specifically, it can drift to poison any proposition we want to label as “anti-American.” In 1957 in Little Rock, it wasn’t gay marriage that was the greatest boogeyman of right-wingers; it was integration and the fears of “miscegenation” that entailed. And thus did a band of white supremacists rally at the state capitol with signs famously reading “Race Mixing Is Communism.” Again, although Marx and Engels advocated for the end of slavery, the liberation of colonized peoples, and the radical equality of working men and women, they did not actually say anything about “race mixing,” as such. In fact, they would have regarded race as a bourgeois concept aimed at dividing the proletariat against itself. They may not have disapproved of interracial relationships, but this does not mean that “race mixing” is functionally equivalent to the collective ownership of the means of production.

Like “communism,” the word “fascism” has also long been employed as a political Rorschach blot. As early as 1946, just one year after the end of World War II, George Orwell was complaining of this fact in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” writing: “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’ ” He went further, insisting that the lack of meaning was driving reactionary politics: “Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.”

So let us start at the verbal end, as it were, and try to recover the meaning of the term, for 70-plus years after Orwell’s essay, the word “fascism” is still being abused and distorted. Take, for example, Jonah Goldberg’s 2007 book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. Goldberg’s goal, as is evident in the book’s title, is to taint the left with an association with Nazi and fascist ideologies, and he attempts to accomplish this by saying that fascist collectivism — and related rhetoric focusing upon a nation exemplifying health and freedom from disease — have a modern counterpart in political programs, typically advanced by Democrats, to fight smoking, improve physical health and promote organic farming. He literally insists that Nazi ideology “foreshadowed today’s crusades against junk food, trans fats, and the like.” As he writes of Hillary Clinton’s book It Take a Village: “All the hallmarks of the fascistic enterprise reside within its pages,” adding later, “Quoting doctors, friendly activists, social workers, and random real Americans, in chapter after chapter she argues for interventions on behalf of children from the moment they are born.” 

But is this not also a right-wing project? Do not conservative Christians advocate for the total control of a child’s world from the moment of birth to ensure that he or she won’t exhibit any deviant traits especially not queerness?

Goldberg’s book is part of a larger conservative project of Freudian projection, or attributing to liberal and leftist groups those ideological labels with which conservatives see themselves as being slandered. He even insists that “fascism, properly understood, is not a phenomenon of the right at all. Instead, it is, and always has been, a phenomenon of the left.” The best that can be said about Goldberg is that he is a better practitioner of this form of projection than many of his peers. If you follow Dinesh D’Souza on Twitter, you are probably familiar with lesser skill typically employed in such pursuits. D’Souza regularly insists that because the Nazi Party was officially called the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party,” then it must have been a socialist, and therefore leftist, organization. By this logic, we must conclude that North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is a functioning democracy. Likewise, D’Souza repeats, again and again, that the Republican Party was the originally anti-slavery party, reminding the public that Abraham Lincon, the first Republican president, freed the slaves. He does this to assert a continuity between the Republican Party then and the Republican Party now, as well as between the Democratic Party then which was the party of the slaveholding South and the Democratic Party now. See, if it has the same name, then it cannot have changed its membership or its foundational purpose. Never mind that David Duke, Thom Robb and Richard Spencer voted Republican during the last presidential election. By this logic, we must assume that the Southern Baptist Convention continues to promote the instution of slavery, given that it was founded explicitly as the Baptist church for slaveholders.

Back to Goldberg. Here is the magic trick he is trying to accomplish to make enough shallow comparisons between fascist and modern liberal rhetoric so as to convince his reader that they are functionally the same thing. Sure, modern Democratic Party politicians in America have often pushed programs to increase the health of individuals, often casting this rhetorically as caring for the “health of the nation,” and early 20th-century fascists likewise promoted images of vitality and vigor and spoke eloquently about the health of their respective nations. But fascist ideas about the “health” of their collectivities were explicitly based upon exclusionary principles that manifested themselves specifically in violent deeds. As historian Aristotle Kallis observes in Genocide and Fascism: The Eliminationist Drive in Fascist Europe, fascist ideology was born with the specific aim of seeking redemption from recent “humiliations” by latching onto the glories of the past to drive a new utopian future. This “redemption” manifested itself externally, through expansionist policies of conquest, and internally, through a “cleansing” of the population so as to eliminate those figures responsible for recent humiliations: socialists, communists, Jews and other minority groups. 

The drive to “cleanse” the state, Kallis writes, “helped shape a redemptive licence to hate directed at particular ‘others’ and render the prospect of their elimination more desirable, more intelligible, and less morally troubling.” Fascism promoted a worldview of the nation as a sacred entity “where any means could be justified if it served the supreme purpose of national rebirth.” Moreover, as fascist states expanded, they came to encompass more of those internal “others” whose presence polluted the nation, thus necessitating even greater efforts at “cleansing.”

At the core of fascism lies violence specifically, redemptive violence in the service of a narrowly defined group. This is what Goldberg ignores, because to acknowledge it would rather strain his thesis and force him to assert an untenable comparison between the actual violence that defined the Third Reich and something like the modern opposition to trans fats in food. No matter how much rhetoric and misrepresentation Jonah Goldberg summons, one simply cannot draw a straight line from eliminationism to environmentalism, from anti-Semitism to anti-smoking, from Birkenau to Birkenstocks. 

And Goldberg’s deception runs even deeper than you might imagine. In an opening chapter on Mussolini, he insists that “Mussolini remained a socialist until his last breath,” insisting that “if at times he would adopt free-market policies, as he did to some extent in the early 1920s, that didn’t make him a capitalist.” Funny, then, that in an article Mussolini wrote and published eight months before his 1922 March on Rome, the future dictator declared, “Capitalism may have needed democracy in the 19th century: today, it can do without it.” 

Indeed, American businessmen regularly recognized Mussolini as one of their own kind, as the historian Michael Joseph Roberto has documented. The administrations of Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover supported Italian fascism. Organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Bankers Association and more all expressed support for Mussolini, and on March 9, 1923, 200 American delegates to the Second Congress of the International Chamber of Commerce rose to their feet to cheer Mussolini when the dictator entered the congress with his blackshirts in tow. In fact, Julius Barnes, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said of Mussolini: “Today he is the one real living force, not only in Italy, but in all Europe, and the conversion of that man with his strength and his following to the principle of the so-called capitalistic system that we believe in is the most extraordinary encouragement to us who want to see and hear sound and sane economics put into play.” Likewise did writer Merle Thorpe, writing for Nation’s Business, express admiration for “Mussolini and his methods,” which he described as “essentially those of successful business.”

You will likely not be surprised to learn that the second chapter of Goldberg’s book is titled, “Adolf Hitler: Man of the Left.” Nor should you, at this point, be surprised to learn that such a characterization is far from the truth. Just as they did with Mussolini, American businessmen (such as Henry Ford) found much to admire in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, and for largely the same reasons: They saw him as a bulwark against the forces of socialism. As William Shirer notes in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, “The free trade unions, which … once had crushed the fascist Kapp putsch by the simple means of declaring a general strike, were disposed of as easily as the political parties and the states” upon the ascension of Hitler to power. Indeed, practically the first thing the Nazis did was to raid all trade union headquarters throughout Germany, confiscate their funds, dissolve their organizations and arrest their leaders, many of whom were placed into concentration camps later. Within three weeks of this, Hitler outlawed collective bargaining. A man of the left he was not.

So if fascism isn’t a manifestation of leftist ideology if, as it seems, socialism is one of the things of which the fascist must cleanse the nation does that mean that fascism is simply another word for conservatism, or perhaps a more extreme version of right-wing ideas? 

Well, not exactly. At this point, it may be worth advancing a bare-bones definition of fascism and then building from there, rather than continuing to chip away at decades of desperate deceit about its nature. So here we go: Fascism is the attempt, birthed in reactionary politics, to resolve the contradictions of democracy for purposes of preserving elite power against the demands of the masses.

Let’s start with those “contradictions of democracy.” Although we today invest democracy with high ideals, seeing it was the best form of government because it allows all citizens to have a voice, the origins of democracy are a bit grubbier and, as with most things, all about money and prestige. For example, opposition to the Angevin kings of England (which was eventually to result in the Magna Carta) included, according to historian Robert Bartlett, such charges as “heavy taxation, elevation of low-born officials, slow and venal justice, disregard for the property rights and dignities of the aristocracy.” Much of the Magna Carta relates to the property rights of the aristocracy, limiting the king’s ability to levy taxes known as “scutage” and “aid” without “the common counsel of the kingdom.” And yes, the Magna Carta did contain such provisions as the following: “No free man shall be seized, imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, exiled or ruined in any way, nor shall we attack him or send men to attack him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and the law of the land.” But it’s worth noting that the category of “free man” was quite limited at the time. The majority of the rural population, in fact, would have been unfree. According to Bartlett, “The Norman and Angevin kings issued writs requiring their officials to secure the return of runaway peasants to their lords,” and serfs could be given away or sold. There are some noteworthy parallels to American history here.

In other words, democracy, as we might trace its origins back to the Magna Carta, was the aristocracy’s means of preserving its own rights and privileges against the crown. The eventual emergence of a mercantile class of “commoners” in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance sparked a similar expansion of “democracy,” as the bourgeoisie, or burghers, as they were often known, sought similar privileges in order to insulate their own wealth from predatory monarchs. But this new merchant class was by no means interested in sharing its privileges with peasants. Only with the emergence of industrialization, and the eventual concentration of the lower classes into cities, did the proletariat begin to accumulate enough power to demand reforms for itself. Eventually, in the United Kingdom, the Reform Act of 1832 expanded the franchise, largely by granting seats in the House of Commons, and thus some measure of democratic representation, to those cities that had risen during the Industrial Revolution. The character of Will in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch described the bill as emerging from the overwhelming necessity “to have a House of Commons which is not weighted with nominees of the landed class, but with representatives of the other interests.” But this measure was hotly debated at the time, with the House of Lords working to scuttle, limit, or delay its passing. And even after its passage, only about 20 percent of the adult men in England were eligible to vote.

At each step in the expansion of democracy, those who already possessed the franchise feared the loss of their power, the loss of their wealth, by allowing any “lower” classes the privilege of voting. The United States has been much more a racial society than a class society along the lines of the UK, and so here it was easier to get elite buy-in to the idea of universal male suffrage, so long as those males were exclusively white. The abolition of slavery and the expansion of suffrage to those former slaves and their eventual descendants provoked the rage of the south’s idle landlords, who initiated a campaign of violence in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War in order to return to the status quo ante of black servitude and submissiveness. What historians call the first Ku Klux Klan was an elite project to scuttle the political empowerment of African Americans, for they believed that black voters would use the franchise against them.

The rhetoric of an unworthy population using the vote to secure unearned benefits continues to manifest itself. My dad occasionally forwards me the odd right-wing mass e-mail complaining about how “real America” works for a living, while others live by voting — that is, by electing people who will give them free handouts provided by the tax money appropriated from “real Americans.” Many on the right have openly expressed the view that the franchise needs to be rolled back, that those old property requirements for voting (which many states in the U.S. had enacted early on) were a good thing that prevented the poor from using the ballot box to line their pockets. You may remember that, during the 2016 campaign, Ann Coulter even expressed support for a renewed “grandfather clause” that would only allow those whose grandfathers were American citizens to vote, apparently unaware that her favored candidate would be on the losing end of such a policy. 

The “contradictions of democracy” that I mentioned above can be seen in this struggle between those who believe that democracy should exist to preserve property rights and those who believe that it exists to give all citizens a voice in how they are governed. Fascism is an attempt to short-circuit this tension through the advancement of a purely corporate figure who is cast as the savior of “the people,” not by empowering or organizing them but rather by emphasizing his own unique attributes to act on their behalf. Fascists do not advance democracy but rather fetishize the individual through the person of the ruler. As the Israeli scholar Ishay Landa, probably the most astute student of fascism currently living, pointed out in his book The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Fascism, despite the fact that fascism regularly employs the rhetoric of collectivism (emphasizing nation, race, or society), it centralizes such collective and democratic yearnings upon the individual strongman leader, so that he becomes democracy personified, the one true spokesman for “the people,” who no longer need engage in self-governance. 

You can see such rhetoric as this employed by Donald Trump during his 2016 speech at the Republican National Convention. Nothing in the speech is about empowering people to direct the course of their own lives, and everything about empowering Trump, as leader, to fix their lives for them:

“I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”

I have made billions of dollars in business making deals — now I’m going to make our country rich again. I am going to turn our bad trade agreements into great ones.”

“I am going to bring our jobs back to Ohio and to America — and I am not going to let companies move to other countries, firing their employees along the way, without consequences.”

“I’m With You, and I will fight for you, and I will win for you.”

In fact, in the transcript of his speech, there is rendered one line in all caps: “I AM YOUR VOICE.” It’s a line he repeats at the end of his speech, as if to emphasize to his followers that they no longer need have a voice now that they have him.

This is the fascist trick. It feels like democracy, because those of you who feel yourself outside a functioning economy or a civil society suddenly feel like you have someone in your corner. But fascism doesn’t actually empower the citizenry to take part in governance. What it offers, instead, as noted above, is a license to hate, and that can feel empowering to the individual permitted to exercise such a license.

Remember, above, the quotation from Mussolini to the effect that capitalism may have needed democracy earlier in its history but did no longer. Mussolini was angling his worldview as specifically against democracy. But does this mean that fascism identified itself with capitalism?

Many on the left have argued thusly. The novelist Upton Sinclair, for one, famously defined fascism as “capitalism plus murder.” But this isn’t exactly accurate. First, capitalism already entailed plenty of murder itself, as the survivors of southern slavery, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, or the Ludlow Massacre could well testify. Second, fascism’s relationship to capitalism was more complicated than thinkers on either the left or right tend to believe.

Like the American business elites who praised Mussolini, we could interpret fascism as an explicitly business-friendly ideology. As Landa writes in Fascism and the Masses: The Revolt against the Last Humans, 1848–1945, “Rhetoric of honoring labor aside, the Nazis strove to achieve the exact opposite: keeping wages low and increasing working hours, which was precisely what German business was insisting should be done throughout the years of the Weimar Republic.” However, if fascists were vehemently opposed to the potential for economic equality inherent in socialism, they also regularly expressed disdain for the mass consumerism offered by the American variant of capitalism. Hitler, in fact, warned that, if it followed the American model of mass consumerism, Germany “will become more and more stunted racially, until it finally deteriorates into degenerate, brutish gluttons who will not even remember the past greatness.” He lamented that current trends threatened to “remodel the whole world into one big department store.”

“America,” writes Landa, “was therefore deemed an even greater menace than Bolshevism, since it reflected the masses’ own desires rather than a top-bottom phenomenon.” And this gets at the kernel of fascist ideology, for it was fundamentally an anti-mass movement. Sure, socialism offered a radical vision of equality achieved through the mechanism of the state and a planned economy, but capitalism, in its own way, offered some liberation for the masses. They may not be liberated from poor working conditions, but the mass production of consumer goods previously only available to the middle class and the elites robbed those above them of their status, for status is by nature exclusive. The masses were living longer lives thanks to advances in medicine. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, more of the working class were learning to read and consuming literature, thus striking at another thing the elites used to separate themselves from the mass hordes. No wonder, then, that “literary” composition gradually became much more impenetrable: Charles Dickens wrote for a general audience, but it requires an extensive education to be able to understand, if possible, something like Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce, which makes it a much more esteemed book in the upper echelons of culture.

Realizing fascism’s anti-mass center allows its rhetoric and policies to make much more sense. For example, Nazi propaganda regularly depicted Jews as both greedy, capitalist bankers and as conniving, scheming Bolshevists. Granted, it was the Bolshevist side of that equation that drew the most attention of the Nazi Party. In her book Hitler’s Crusade: Bolshevism, the Jews, and the Myth of Conspiracy, historian Lorna Waddington writes, “What Hitler found objectionable in Marxism was not its programme for social and economic reform, or its political methods and organization, which he rather admired, but its championing of internationalism, pacifism and democracy, which made it so susceptible to Jewish manipulation,” especially as Marxism rejected “aristocratic principles of nature” and replaced “the eternal privilege of power and strength by the mass of numbers and their dead weight.”

Fascism as a form of political extremism does not simply emerge from nothing; rather, it rises in response to particular situations. According to the political scientist Manus I. Midlarsky, the two components for political extremism are the “ephemeral gain” and “mortality salience.” His term “ephemeral gain” describes the historical trajectory of a group to which one belongs: said group had previously existed in a state of subordination to another but managed to free itself and achieve a Golden Age, but now that gain was threatened by current events, thus raising fears of renewed subordination. 

Let us take the case of Germany as an example. It was the most modern state in Europe when it lost World War I, and it was just starting to recover from that loss when the Great Depression hit the world, risking a return to humiliation.

But “ephemeral gain” can constitute the narrative that groups tell themselves as much as it does any objective reality, as we can see if we look closer to home. The “Lost Cause” myth of the Confederacy and the Dunning School of history hold that the South’s antebellum years constituted a Golden Age cruelly brought to an end by the Union, which then tried to impose “Negro domination” by liberating and enfranchising the former slaves. The Ku Klux Klan and other groups were able to fight back against this “rape” of the South and managed to achieve a few decades of relative independence, during which states could oversee their own affairs and manage race relations as they would. But in the twentieth century, the activism of the “New Negro,” the threat of federal anti-lynching laws, and then the birth of the modern civil rights movement threatened to return the south to its previous state of subordination and humiliation. More recently in our history, political reactionaries were triggered by the election of a black man with an unusual name to the presidency of the United States, portraying that event as a humiliation for the white race.

Midlasky’s second component, “mortality salience,” is simply the term he uses for being conscious of death. An awareness of one’s own mortality is a threat to the ego and will result in the individual attempting to compensate, sometimes by lashing out at others. Social experiments have shown that judges forced to think about their own death before hearing cases render much harsher sentences, for example.

War has the effect of raising mortality salience, and in Germany after World War I, it would have been difficult to forget or ignore death, given that number of absent husbands and fathers and the former soldiers living with their wounds. But in our modern world, it seems that we are constantly reminded of death. People of my parents’ generation may have watched the Vietnam War on their televisions, but that was half a world away and relegated to just a part of the nightly newscast. By contrast, the events of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath consumed days of live coverage, including the ongoing hunt for bodies. Every mass shooting these days is reported live if not live-streamed by the shooters or victims themselves. And the lesson we take from every such act of terrorism is that we could be next – it could be us.

With this in mind, let us go back to Donald Trump’s RNC speech and see just how many times he draws upon these themes of national humiliation and how many times he seeks to remind his audience of their own mortality:

“Our Convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation. The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.”

“Homicides last year increased by 17% in America’s fifty largest cities. That’s the largest increase in 25 years. In our nation’s capital, killings have risen by 50 percent. They are up nearly 60% in nearby Baltimore.”

“The number of police officers killed in the line of duty has risen by almost 50% compared to this point last year. Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.”

“Not only have our citizens endured domestic disaster, but they have lived through one international humiliation after another. We all remember the images of our sailors being forced to their knees by their Iranian captors at gunpoint.”

“In Libya, our consulate – the symbol of American prestige around the globe – was brought down in flames.”

This is not the rhetoric of a responsible actor interested in the give-and-take necessary for the functioning of a political community. This is an extremist seeking to portray the basic system of governance as the source of insurmountable problems that, in the best fascist tradition, only he can solve.

And we haven’t yet gotten to the actual policies implemented by the Trump regime. There is plenty here that may be compared to the policies of earlier fascist regimes, from his ongoing war against labor unions and voting rights to the construction of actual concentration camps along our southern border. However, I think it perhaps more important to draw attention to the shared culture of corruption. Popular myth holds that Mussolini may have been a bad guy, but at least he made the trains run on time. But this wasn’t so. Mussolini carried out a mass firing of more than 35,000 civil servants, but this did not “drain the swamp,” as it were; instead, it inaugurated a regime of unparalleled inefficiency and profiteering, because suddenly there was no one keeping an eye on Italy’s corporations or trying to make the government work for its citizenry.

Moreover, while fascists encouraged citizens to embrace an ascetic lifestyle in the best warrior traditions of Sparta, they themselves indulged in endless luxury. As Landa writes, “In reality, behind the attacks on consumerism conducted by the fascists, their leaders and entourages conducted lives that were often extravagant. The demand to settle for little and make sacrifices in times of economic hardship was broadcast to the masses but did not form a binding code of behavior as far as the upper circles were concerned.” Hitler, after all, had a collection of luxury automobiles and several lavish homes that he visited on a regular basis. One of the more well-known occupations of Nazi soldiers was the theft of classical art, but these pieces were not being taken back to Germany for display in any museum – they were for the private collections of individual party leaders and generals.

Even Donald Trump’s golf excursions and gilded toilets recall the best traditions of fascism.

It is important, this election year, that we cease regarding Donald Trump as some aberration on the political landscape and, instead, as recognize him as but the latest inheritor to a long tradition best described as fascism. It is important to recognize that Trump and his supporters have no vested interest in the maintenance of democratic institutions but, instead, hold the maintenance of Trump as their highest priority, for they have invested in him all their concerns about the fate of the nation. And it is also important that we recognize that Trump and his supporters do not regard us as mere opponents, fellow Americans who simply have different ideas about the best policies to pursue; they view us, instead, as the very enemies of which their nation must be cleansed. 

Yes, democracy has its origins in the less-than-noble desire of the nobility to preserve their wealth from a rapacious king. But that point of departure birthed a political system that has continued to evolve and encompass more and more emancipated peoples. Indeed, it’s the imperfect success of democracy that always sparks the fascist backlash. No other policy or proposal put forward this election year should have greater weight than simply preserving our American experiment.

Behold the Scam of God: A Meditation upon the Life of Jesus in the Age of Trump

My aunt Mary Lane has, on the wall of her home, a copy of the painting “Crossing the Swamp” by Jon McNaughton. The painting is modeled after Emanuel Leutze’s famous “Washington Crossing the Delaware” but features Donald Trump in General Washington’s stead, leading a boat across a swampy morass.

My aunt loves Donald Trump, and so she sees no irony in the artist’s substitution of our greatest general with a man who scored five draft deferments during the Vietnam War, alleging to have bone spurs, an affliction that ran rampant among trust fund boys. My aunt loves Donald Trump and so sees no contradiction at all in replacing the man who led the Continental Army across the Delaware River in the coldest of winters with a real estate mogul who openly bragged about screwing all the wives of servicemen in their husbands’ absence, who described avoiding venereal disease as “my own personal Vietnam.” My aunt, in fact, reveres Donald Trump as someone even greater than our Founding Fathers, and it shows.

This is not the only painting Jon McNaughton, regularly described as the Trump administration’s unofficial artist, has produced depicting our current president in a manner that renders him the exact opposite of what he is. For example, there is the laughable “Teach a Man to Fish,” in which Trump, for whom “roughing it” means shitting on a toilet not made of solid gold, is depicted holding up a rod and reel in front of a confused young man. Likewise does the painting “All-American Trump” depict the current president (who in reality easily gets winded playing golf) scoring a touchdown in an old-fashioned game of football. And multiple times has McNaughton depicted this Yankee aficionado of porn stars and Playboy bunnies, this man who has said he never felt the need to ask for forgiveness, either holding a bible or appearing to pray.

Of course, throughout history, people have been mythologized and remembered in ways that distort the historical record. But what is so fascinating to me is how this process is going on right now with Donald Trump, while the man is still alive and exhibiting behavior that belies the myths being constructed around him. Every action he takes should refute the reputation he has acquired among his true believers, but they remain unmoved. They remain devoted. 

And this makes me wonder…. If Donald Trump is being depicted as a humble servant of God right now, might it not be the case that a man we typically remember as a humble servant of God was, in fact, more like Donald Trump than his believers date to dream? With Easter upon us, let us interrogate what might have been the real life of Jesus Christ. Let us ask the question–was Jesus Christ the original Donald Trump?

Back when I was earning my degree in theology at the now defunct St. Gregory University in Oklahoma, we learned that, despite the way they are ordered in the New Testament, the earliest gospel was likely that of Mark, which was probably written around AD 70, between thirty and forty years after Jesus supposedly died. Three or four decades is a lot of time, plenty of time for a mythology to accrue around a man’s life, especially in those days when records could not be easily verified. If Trump can be turned from the obese, cowardly, narcissistic, and lecherous man he currently is into a mythologized general and spiritual leader right before our very eyes, surely thirty to forty years was more than enough to mythologize someone equally disdainful, if not moreso.

So let’s imagine that Jesus was originally, before the Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John got hold of the story, someone of the same mold as Donald Trump; in fact, we’ll call him Trump-Jesus to distinguish him from the later, fake Jesus invented by the four Evangelists. What would his life have been like?

Well, to begin with, he would not have been born to humble parents. Oh, no–Trump-Jesus’s father was not actually God, but was nonetheless is a big man who owned a great deal of real estate in Bethlehem and beyond. And if the Jesus of the Gospels scandalized society by hanging out with prostitutes, well, Trump-Jesus could also be found with flocks of easy women on his arm, though for a different reason. (“Are there none here who condemn you? Good, then neither do I. I mean, you’re at least an eight. No sense stoning a babe like you. Come here, gorgeous.”) Books like The DaVinci Code may have scandalized the world by suggesting that Jesus had a wife, but Trump-Jesus had at least three–and several mistresses. When you’re a Jesus Christ Superstar, they let you get away with anything. However, Trump-Jesus didn’t hang out with tax collectors. Trump-Jesus didn’t believe in paying taxes.

Just as the Jesus of the Gospel had disciples and followers whom he educated in the ways of the Lord, so was Trump-Jesus a rabbi, a teacher. After all, he had his own Trump-Jesus University, a sweet little scheme modeled after something he saw while touring ancient Egypt. Granted, it wasn’t an accredited rabbinical school, and many later lawsuits revealed that Trump-Jesus was only a figurehead for the institution and that most students did not find the courses on healing the sick, raising the dead, and speaking in tongues to be at all effective. But Trump-Jesus did just fine. As he liked to tell his followers, “Render unto Trump-Jesus what is Caesar’s, and render unto Caesar whatever pittance you have left.”

Unfortunately, Trump-Jesus’s activities created a lot of enemies. We may never know for certain what was the ultimate cause of his eventual crucifixion. Some say that it was his close association with Roman financier Jeffrey Epsteinius, who provided Trump-Jesus and other rich men with little girls to molest (“Let the little children come to me….”). Others say that Trump-Jesus was colluding with foreign powers, perhaps the Parthian Empire to the east, to have himself installed as the local prelate. Whatever the case, it was a good Friday indeed when the Roman Empire finally rid itself of the lecherous traitor Trump-Jesus.

Picture him there, on the cross. The Gospel writers say that Jesus endured his torture stoically and even asked of God, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But Trump-Jesus was a different man. The whole time on the cross, he bleated, “Unfair! No messiah has ever been persecuted as much as I have! It’s all the fault of the Deep Roman State! And the Jews should like me better–I made them rich!” And when the final moment came, Trump-Jesus did not simply announce, “It is finished.” No, he drew in a great breath and shouted, “My daughter… HAS GREAT TITS!”

Unlike the fictional Jesus of the Gospels, Trump-Jesus did not rise from the dead. Ordinary people simply don’t, and he was just an ordinary person, if extraordinarily repulsive. But his followers believe that he lives in them still. They remember when once, at one of his regular orgies, he shouted at the people lined up at the snack bar, “Look at you, you pigs! All that bread and wine costs money–you’re eating me all up!” So his disciples, after his death, began holding celebrations in which they would consume the bread and wine that symbolizes his body (although Trump-Catholics believe that the elements of communion are the literal body and blood, the literal rancid fat and coagulated crimson, of Trump-Jesus). 

Jesus may or may not have been someone like Donald Trump; his story is too far in the past for us to really determine any true thing about his life. But it’s clear that Trump’s own followers believe him the equivalent, or near enough, of Jesus. 

One of Jon McNaughton’s more popular paintings is “You Are Not Forgotten,” which centers a young man focused upon a tiny plant that has sprung from dried and cracked earth. His wife stands by with a jug of water, ready to help this little seedling along. But this act of renewal is not taking place just anywhere–we can see the White House in the background, and a whole host of patriotic Americans are standing around this scene, beaming with pride. One of these is Donald Trump, who smiles approvingly. 

In this painting, Trump’s left heel rests upon the head of a dark, green snake. It may seem an odd detail, but it has a long background in Christian imagery. Catholic art has long featured images of the Virgin Mary standing upon the head of a snake, evoking the lines of Genesis 3:15, God’s condemnation of the serpent in Eden: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” Christians have interpreted these lines as containing a prophecy about Jesus’s eventual defeat of Satan. Likewise, Romans 16:20 reads, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”

For true believers like my aunt Mary Lane, Trump is the fulfillment of prophecy. Paul, in 1 Thessalonians, writes that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” But there are some thieves who do their best work in the full light of day. 

And his followers will gather in great crowds, the biggest crowds you ever saw, record crowds, the most massive crowds ever seen to come to celebrate the return of a messiah. They will gather in great crowds around the Throne of the Scam of God and worship him forever and ever, world without end, amen. 

To Boldly Grow…

So, in case you have not noticed, this world is undergoing a whole lot of problems. The foremost of these is an environmental crisis topped by global warming but also including deforestation, mass extinction, topsoil loss, industrial and agricultural pollution, and much more. But with what project is the richest man in the United States, Jeff Bezos, investing his time and energy?

Space travel.

From the cover story of the November issue of the Atlantic:

He considers the work so important because the threat it aims to counter is so grave. What worries Bezos is that in the coming generations the planet’s growing energy demands will outstrip its limited supply. The danger, he says, “is not necessarily extinction,” but stasis: “We will have to stop growing, which I think is a very bad future.” While others might fret that climate change will soon make the planet uninhabitable, the billionaire wrings his hands over the prospects of diminished growth. But the scenario he describes is indeed grim. Without enough energy to go around, rationing and starvation will ensue. Over the years, Bezos has made himself inaccessible to journalists asking questions about Amazon. But he shares his faith in space colonization with a preacher’s zeal: “We have to go to space to save Earth.”

I’ve been contemplating this for a few months now, especially these recent January days when I could go outside and do my morning run in shorts and t-shirt because it was so hot–an oddity even for Arkansas. We have had no real winter here, and trees are budding out and bulb poking out of the ground. Climate change has not been our future for some time; it is here and now. And it’s obvious that we have to commit ourselves to some fundamental restructuring of our society and our economy in order to survive the coming decades. What Bezos imagines for a future without space travel is our future without a revolution based upon the needs of a habitable biosphere: rationing and starvation. In fact, rationing of water is already happening in many places. Space travel will not save us from this.

So it bears asking: what is Bezos actually up to?

When I was young, I wanted to be an astronaut. I absorbed science fiction, and the future embodied in something like Star Trek felt like ours for the taking, if we but committed ourselves to it. So I am naturally sympathetic to the call of the stars. But I don’t think that Bezos actually gives a damn about all of that. Instead, I think he sees space as the “final frontier” only in so far as frontiers have become sites of resource exploitation, and space is a handy one because there are no indigenous folk there to cause problems. Here on earth, if we want to survive, we are going to have to abandon the ideology of perpetual growth and, instead, restructure our economies along other lines. We might, in fact, have to tear up some of our developments and plant forests. We might have to consider the possibility of discouraging reproduction in order to bring our population under manageable control. We might have to implement some kind of universal basic income so as to get a buy-in from those who would otherwise be rendered unemployed by these possibilities, because if your job is predicated upon growth (say, the construction industry), and we decided to stop going, you might well starve under the current system.

This is the future Bezos is hoping to forestall, not a future of starvation and rationing, but a future of restrictions upon the visions of billionaires like himself, because billionaires are the single most unsustainable thing planet Earth currently hosts. In other words, Jeff Bezos isn’t out to save humanity–he is out to save capitalism. No matter the costs. No matter the expenses borne by all of us. In his future, people boldly go where no one has gone before not for human curiosity or to expand the horizon of our knowledge, but to loot and pilfer. Star Trek meets the East India Company. And it may be more appropriate than we think that Captain Kirk and others journeyed on a ship called Enterprise, for that name has been on ships captained by privateers, schooners sent on missions to protect commerce in South America, and slave ships.

Thus is our past, and thus, if it be in the hands of Bezos and his billionaire buddies, be our future. Carrying slaves and protecting commerce where no one has gone before.