Review- Guinn, “The Road to Jonestown”

Jeff Guinn, “The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple” (2017) – One interest my sisters and I had in common when we were kids was cults. Whenever something about cults was on tv — and it seemed that it happened pretty frequently in our nineties youth — there was no more arguing over what to watch (for my younger readers, this was from an era when most middle-class families had only one tv, and the internet wasn’t much of a thing yet). It was presumably from one of these tv programs that I learned about Jonestown and Peoples Temple. I thought it might be interesting to get a better idea of what went on for historical purposes and so picked up this book.

Jeff Guinn, a journalist, exhaustively documents Jones’s early life and the activities of the Temple. Of course, we all know going in what Jones became, and so we are primed, jumpy, like people watching a horror movie. Will child Jim reveal what a monster he would become? When will we get the gruesome details of all the weird shit that must have been going on at the Peoples Temple?

Well… Jones was something of an odd little kid, bold, theatrical, an accomplished liar from an early age… but not at all outside the ambit of how kids act. He didn’t have a good family life — maimed WWI vet dad, domineering delusional mother, in the context of upright, disapproving small town Indiana — but nothing truly spectacularly wrong. It probably did help him become the charismatic megalomaniac he became, both because his mother insisted he was destined for great spiritual power and because he had the attraction of one of those guys who needs mothering. This is roughly how he won his wife, Marceline, who would be with him every step of the way on his journey to Jonestown.

As for Peoples Temple, for a long time, and it seems clear Guinn hates to admit it, it actually did do a lot of good for a lot of people. Starting in Indianapolis, Jones created a genuinely racially and class-integrated organization. He worked indefatigably for the welfare of his people, sorting out bureaucratic hassles, feeding the hungry, providing clothing. The Peoples Temple nearly single-handedly integrated many of the businesses of Indianapolis by the expedient of just showing up as integrated groups, and making it clear they would keep doing so regardless of what happened. The reader, primed by their knowledge of what happened at Jonestown and what they know of other cults (Scientology, say) keeps waiting for the catch. Early on, there wasn’t one. Jones and Marceline begin opening up pay-what-you-can old folks homes, and you cringe, waiting for them to exploit the poor old people- but no, they were some of the best facilities in the state. Jones badgers white business owners to hire his black followers, and you wait for it to be a scam that makes integration look bad- nope, the followers work hard and make a good impression.

Things got weirder as they got on. Worried about nuclear war, Jones moves his congregation from Indianapolis to rural California. They continue doing good works but paranoia intensifies (no doubt helped along by the very real revelations of government spying on and sabotaging progressive groups). This allowed Jones to increase his control. Never one to brook opposition, he began going through the usual tyrant’s playbook, encouraging snitching, cutting followers off from the outside, etc. At the same time, he began making moves with power players in California politics. He got in, somewhat, with the Hollywood glitterati crowd, garnering praise from the ever-credulous Jane Fonda among others. He delivered votes and campaign work for liberal San Francisco pols like George Moscone. He had an official audience with Rosalyn Carter after Jimmy Carter got elected. He was something of a pillar of the community, though it was never enough for him.

This is also when things take the more salaciously hinky turn the reader presumably awaited. Physical punishment became a thing within the Temple, including one guy who got his junk smashed flat by a rubber hose (admittedly, for pedophilia, which you can see wanting harsh penalties for). Jones more and more insisted on being God, or Jesus, or the reincarnation of Lenin (more on Peoples Temple socialism anon). He also started sleeping with his followers, including at least one underage girl, publicly sexually humiliating some and basically sexually assaulting others (especially male followers, during his occasional forays into bisexuality). He also started talking a lot about destruction and about the example of Masada, where the Jewish Zealot rebels slew themselves rather than let the Romans take them alive.

Jones was always interested in having his own little remote colony, a perfect socialist utopia/place where he’d have complete control. He was already looking into Guyana, fledglingly independent and possibly the weakest country in the Americas at the time, as a place to set up a rural commune, when articles started coming out about how weird Peoples Temple was appeared in the San Francisco press. It’s weird how sensitive Jones was to bad press. He fled to Guyana with as many of his followers as he could convince to follow him, to a settlement barely hacked out of some of the thickest jungle on earth, where his people worked sixteen hour days in the sun while an increasingly unhinged Jones ranted at them via loudspeaker about the coming apocalypse.

As cult panic took hold in hungover post-sixties America, more and more people began looking critically into Peoples Temple, including California congressman Leo Ryan. In a very seventies turn, much of the action against Jones turned on a complicated paternity/divorce/custody battle. Ryan came down to investigate, a few Temple members tried to leave with him, Jones had his goons murder Ryan and a few others. Realizing he was at the end of his tether, Jones took his people with him. Something like nine hundred people — nearly three hundred of them children — died out in the jungle. Jones didn’t drink the Flavor Aid (not kool-aid, as in the sayings). Cyanide poisoning is a nasty way to die. He shot himself.

What can we learn, here? Guinn restrains himself admirably in terms of trying to slap a moral on the story. As he puts it, unlike most cults, Peoples Temple really did appeal to the best in the people, their altruism, empathy, and desire to be helpful to the world. In the end, Guinn sort of shrugs and says this is just one of those “evil in the hearts of man” things, with a little soupçon here and there of the desire to believe and belong driving people to do unimaginable things. There’s truth to these.

Let’s dig a little though- throughout the book, Jones, the Peoples Temple, their followers, their actions and their beliefs are described as “socialist.” At first, I thought Guinn might have been attributing that to them himself, his own reading, but no, he provides quotes of them talking socialism. This was difficult for me, not just because it sucks to have such a villain describe themselves the way I do (there’s plenty of those historically, after all) but because of my ingrained pedantry. Jones was of that post-McCarthy tendency (that we’re not shot of yet) to think of the word “socialism” as designating mostly “organized sharing and niceness” with some overtones of “what self-declared socialist states do.” This is not a useful definition of socialism, which I define as the working class’s control over the means of production and governing institutions derived therefrom (as our governing institutions are derived from the capitalist mode of production). Did Jones even know about that idea? Peoples Temple followers threw themselves into all kinds of causes pre-Guyana, but if they ever joined a union picket line, Guinn doesn’t report it. Labor conditions within the Temple were abhorrent and naturally, no one even dreamed of organizing against “Father” Jones to improve them, let alone control them.

I spoke some about how “normal” and even decent Jones and the Temple seemed early on. Even at the end, Leo Ryan found far fewer people willing to jump ship than he thought he’d find. Very few people were coerced, in the classical sense of gun-to-the-head force, by Peoples Temple. Rather, Jones drew people in through his good deeds and socialism-lite talk and then slowly cut them off from other options. But most of them could have walked at any time (this did become harder, practically, in the jungle, but not impossible), and several did. Any good con relies on the complicity of the mark, the desire to believe.

None of this is to say there weren’t red flags from the beginning. Above all else, Jones was a liar. Especially early on, in Indiana, he did a lot of public faith healing, pulling chicken gizzards from planted followers and claiming he healed tumors they didn’t know about. He lied about believing in God and the Bible, insisting to initiated followers that he was “infiltrating” organized Christianity for his social message. Jones’s opposition to bigotry, while seemingly at least somewhat sincere, was also deeply patronizing in a familiar way, “jive talking” to prove how down he was black people, insisting everyone is actually gay, etc, and did nothing to alter his strict control over his organization. And he lied about random bullshit, stuff that wouldn’t even help him, the mark of a compulsive liar, from his childhood on.

Followers knew about these things, but most of them decided to keep following, for the demonstrable good Jones was doing for the community. Jones may have been ignorant of the more substantive meanings of socialism, but it wouldn’t have mattered had he known. He, presumably, would have lied about it, to an audience composed of people — spiritual seekers, desperate slum dwellers, educated progressives looking to make an impact — prepared to believe that socialism was in any way compatible with Jones’s lies and megalomania… and of course, the history of socialism is littered with movements and regimes that took roughly the same path. I guess if there’s a “lesson” here it’s this: do not follow someone who lies to their followers or to their supposed beneficiaries. Lie to enemies if you have to, but whatever excuse a leader makes for lying to their followers or those they are meant to be helping isn’t good enough to keep following them. As usual, with worthwhile lessons, it is simple, brutal, not always especially usable, but there it is.

Guess I should talk a little about the qualities of the book. It’s exhaustive! Guinn did a lot of footwork, old records, newspapers, talking with surviving followers, including Jones’ surviving sons (who were away from Jonestown when the mass suicide occurred). If anything, it skews too much towards description rather than analysis for my taste. This probably makes it highly useful for students of the subject, but also made it a bit of a slog. All in all, a dispiriting story, exactingly told. ***’

Review- Guinn, “The Road to Jonestown”

Review- Branch, “Parting the Waters”

Taylor Branch, “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963” (1988) – I might eat this assessment, but from where I sit it looks like the eighties and nineties were the prime era of what I think of as “bow wow popular histories” — big, sweeping, chonky books of (usually American) history, aimed at a popular (but educated) audience, roughly centrist-liberal in politics, often taking the form of “life and times” biographies, heavy on the “times,” often written by non-historians. I’m thinking of Robert Caro’s biographies of Robert Moses and of LBJ, Anthony Lukas’s “Common Ground” on the Boston bussing crisis, Edwin Burrows’ and Mike Wallace’s “Gotham” on the early history of New York City, Jack Beatty’s “The Rascal King,” about legendary Boston politico James Curley, Richard Rhodes’s “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”… I feel like there are more examples, provided I didn’t make this genre up out of whole cloth. I’m rather partial to these sort of books. They’re fun.

Taylor Branch’s triple-decker history of the civil rights movement, of which “Parting the Waters” is the first volume, fits right in. It is a bow-wow, bells-and-whistles, life-and-times look at Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement he symbolized, weighing in at over nine hundred pages. The book begins with a lengthy discussion of King’s predecessor at the Dexter Street Church, Vernon Johns, a peripatetic Christian intellectual who waged his own nonviolent battle against the oppression of black people. This establishes Branch’s interest in bringing out the unsung heroes of the black freedom struggle, those who preceded King, fighting hard during much less congenial times, and those who worked alongside him. Many of those figures, like Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin, are now better-known than they were in the late eighties when this was written, with major biographies of their own. It’s admirable that Branch sought to make King share the stage with others, something King seemed more comfortable with than those (mostly white) image-makers who would render him the sole symbol of the acceptable face of civil rights…

All that is in the future, and presumably comes up in the next two volumes. What we have now are your classic “humble beginnings.” Admittedly, they are a little less humble than the quasi-christological mythology of the civil rights movement might suggest. Rosa Parks wasn’t (just) a tired woman who wanted to sit on a bus- she was a longtime activist who know what she was doing, if not the scale of what she would kick off. Branch takes us from MLK’s upbringing and education to the Montgomery bus boycott, to King’s rise to fame, to the partial defeat in Albany, Georgia, back to Alabama for the protracted struggle in Birmingham, ending with the ghastly bombing of the 16th Street Church, to the March on Washington. We learn of MLK’s intellectual development and influences. We follow other campaigns, like the Freedom Rides and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s voter registration drives in the depths of Mississippi. There’s plenty of back and forth and competition between the organizations — King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the student radicals at SNCC, the older establishment figures at NAACP, CORE, and so on. Branch describes riots (including one at a black Baptist conference) and meetings with politicians with equal aplomb. Like a good Bollywood picture, you get your money and time’s worth of interesting stuff, well-conveyed.

I’ll illuminate two themes of interest to me. The first is one Branch makes explicit, King’s relationship to the Kennedys. Being a Masshole, it’s inevitable that I’d either love or hate the Kennedy clan- I have family in both camps. Being a pedant, I split the difference. Teddy did some good in this world (after killing a woman), and Bobby tried (after an early career as a red-baiter). I have little time for Jack. I wish fewer Kennedys would be like the Joe who ate shit last year running for Senate, and more like his dad (also Joe) who quit politics to use his money to help people with their heating costs. Branch inadvertently makes the case for crime writer James Ellroy’s assessment of John Kennedy: he was “all about looking good and kicking ass.” He cared less about civil rights than he did about a whole range of things: the Cold War, his image, his electability, keeping segregationists in his party happy. His brother/Attorney General Bobby cared a little more, but had his notional employee and guy who arguably ran the country, the Hoosier Gollum J. Edgar Hoover, to worry about. When either Kennedy helped civil rights, it was out of a combination of electoral calculation and irked pride- “were these crackers really going to defy — a Kennedy — because they didn’t want black people at their lunch counters?” seemed to be the attitude. Lyndon Johnson, far from perfect, did far more for civil rights, and his predecessor arguably helped the cause more dead than alive.

The other theme is not something Branch really dwells on, but I thought about it throughout the book. In my childhood, King and the civil rights movement were enshrined in American civil religion and taught to me as unquestionable avatars of good. This has had staying power, so much that conservatives have basically seized King (on the strength of one line of one speech, mostly). To the extent the black power phase of the black freedom struggle was discussed at all when I was a kid, it was as a decline- recall the sinister Black Panthers in “Forrest Gump,” that “Birth of a Nation” for centrist baby boomers. Then, in college and especially in grad school, I learned a lot more about black power and more radical manifestations of the midcentury black freedom struggle. This was mostly a good thing. Sometimes it gets into a kind of “radical chic” that threatens the project with superficiality.

But more to the point here, I’ve seen a fair amount of pooh-poohing of the civil rights movement, nonviolence, and King. All three warrant criticism. Every movement makes mistakes, King was far from perfect, as Branch shows- he could be domineering, over-sensitive, fascinated by power, and was a womanizer. I see nonviolence as a tool, not a principle, and the religious attachment to it on the part of some civil rights leaders was/is unhelpful. All that said, many of the critiques I hear, especially in some more pop-ier precincts, are unfair. The idea that integration was an unworthy goal, a psychological game between white liberals and self-hating black bourgeoisie… I’ve seen that bandied about, on podcasts and social media and even figures like Ibram Kendi flirt with the position. Truth be told, I see it more as a manifestation of the sicknesses of social-media-driven discourse — the glibness, the psychologizing of opposition, the black-and-white friend-enemy distinctions — than a serious position, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an effect.

It’s possible to think integration in and of itself was a less worthwhile goal than others that could have advanced black freedom (though you’d be hard-pressed to say that getting hauled off to jail for sitting at the wrong seat of a bus is anything other than a serious violation). But the idea that all of the people who fought integration, put their bodies on the line in these dangerous actions, were all self-hating weaklings acting out of a sick love for whites… I’m sorry, but no. That doesn’t hold, and Branch’s work shows that. To use a term that has been sadly diluted, the civil rights movement empowered everyday black people the country over- maybe not as much or as quickly as it could have with different strategies, but still. And who knows what the latter stages of the black freedom struggle would have looked like had the civil rights pioneers not paved the way? History gives us our shots at times and with instruments not of our choosing. The civil rights movement concatenated context, individuals, masses, and ideas to make history- indeed, can a movement make history any other way? ****’

Review- Branch, “Parting the Waters”

Review- Galeano, “Open Veins of Latin America”

Eduardo Galeano, “Open Veins Of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent” (1971) (translated from the Spanish by Cedric Belfrage) (narrated by Jonathan Davis) – I first became aware of this book during a walk in Harlem as a stripling grad student. I bought a copy of Elaine Brown’s “A Taste of Power” from a sidewalk used bookseller (one of the best things about New York, those booksellers), who, having spotted a fledgling white lefty buying a Black Panther memoir, tried to upsell me with a copy of “Open Veins of Latin America.” I’d’ve taken him up on it, too, if he hadn’t pegged me for the rich kind of grad student and charged full cover price for both (used) books. He was mistaken, and I went away with only “A Taste of Power,” which is well worth reading.

Either way, I knew “Open Veins” as an old lefty classic and finally got around to listening to it (changes in my work duties have me back listening to audiobooks for the time being). Eduardo Galeano, one of the grand old men of the Latin American literary left, goes through Latin America’s history and explicates a few simple principles that guided it from the Spanish conquest onward. Exploitation of Latin America’s natural wealth and the labor of its people enriched other parts of the world, mainly Europe and the United States; this exploitation left Latin America with a pittance and, seemingly intentionally, delayed its economic and social development; the Latin American class structure, topped by a numerically small landowning and mercantile bourgeoisie, prevents progress and only overthrow of this class structure from below can improve things.

Galeano drives these points home with gusto and, considering the geographical and temporal scope in play, with respectable elegance. American exploiters replace British ones who replaced Spanish conquistadors and encomenderos; cheap manufacturing (this was just as multinational manufacturers were figuring out the maquiladora strategy, perfected after NAFTA came into effect) supplemented cash crop cultivation which partially supplanted the mining of precious metals; civilian rulers, reformers, conservatives, and military dictators replace each other in varying rhythms and patterns in the different nations of Latin America; always, always the same dynamics. Always, exploiters plunder the land (often leaving it depleted, in the cases of mining and some types of destructive agriculture), and work the people to the bone for a pittance, brutally repressing them when they complain. Always, the exploiters overseas grow ever richer and cement their competitive advantage over Latin America. Always, the native elites of Latin America come up with half-hearted (and soon reversed) reforms at best, and at more frequent worst, gladly accept the roles of brutal lieutenants to foreign capital, to fund their lifestyles and keep society as it is. Nothing will change as long as they are in charge.

Relatively little of this was new to me (more would have been had I bought the book that day in Harlem and read it soon after); as a student of the history of American foreign interventions, I had learned much of it along the way. But it was well presented, combining history, stories from Galeano’s travels across Latin America, literary references, etc. The prose partakes some of the vaguely mystical Latin American literary trends of the day, evoking the outsized happenings, lavish booms and bottomless terrors, and endless cyclical repetitions that characterized the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other writers of the “Boom” in Latin American letters then going on. Galeano later indicated some regrets about the prose style he used, but I think it worked fine. The penultimate part of the book, describing how Latin America fit into the political economy of the time, is somewhat more technical and necessarily dated, but still interesting.

Galeano received the honor of having his books banned in the military dictatorships of the Cono Sur, including his native Uruguay. The right never forgave him for making his points about Latin America clearly, poetically, and to a mass audience. Pundits grumbled when Obama accepted a copy of “Open Veins” from Hugo Chavez at a conference in 2010, and no less a literary light than (ex-leftist) Mario Vargas Llosa contributed to a volume which called “Open Veins” “the Bible of idiots.” But really, how much has changed since Galeano’s day? Most of the Latin American countries are now at least notional democracies. Drugs have joined the more traditional cash crops as drivers of the patterns he relates. The “pink tide” promised much, delivered some, and has not broken the class structure Galeano saw at the center of the whole thing. The work remains undone. As that bookseller in Harlem made clear, the book still has relevance- he could’ve tried to upsell me on some other volume, after all. ****’

Review- Galeano, “Open Veins of Latin America”

Review- Leiber, “A Specter is Haunting Texas”

Fritz Leiber, “A Specter is Haunting Texas” (1969) – Fritz Leiber is probably best known for his sword-and-sorcery books, which I should read some day. I picked up this scifi volume of his at a library sale, amused by the title. I knew nothing about it going in.

It turns out to be the story of Christopher “Scully” LaCruz, a ham actor from Circumluna, an orbital society of scientists and “longhairs” who escaped from a mid-twentieth century nuclear war, two hundred fifty years before the action of the book. Scully goes down to Earth (wearing a special exoskeleton to cope with the gravity) to lay claim to a mine in Canada that he inherited. He winds up in Dallas, where he finds out that Canada, and much of the rest of North America, got taken over, post-apocalypse, by Texas. Now, Texas was an empire, inhabited by hormone-fed eight-foot-tall (Scully is also tall from having lived in zero G, but skeletally thin where the Texans are beefy) back-slapping, gun-toting yahoos, every Texas stereotype come to massive, cartoonish life. I couldn’t help but picture the first Texan Scully meets, the political fixer Elmo, as a gargantuan Hank Hill. The Texans run a sort of neo-feudal empire, enslaving the Mexicans and making cyborgs out of many of them (and all of them run about four feet tall).

Scully doesn’t really care about this, he just wants his mining claim so he can have enough money to save his theater troupe or something. But he gets sucked into various plots. First, one Texan faction tries to use him against the President (every President of Texas dies by assassination, traditionally). Then ragtag revolutionaries who want to overthrow the Texans and liberate the Mexicans enlist him in their cause. He’s a reluctant revolutionary at best, but as a ham, can’t resist a crowd that sees him as El Esqueleto, the skeletal harbinger of Death- redoing the old trope of Mexicans as greeting white people from abroad as gods. Also, he wants to get laid with two revolutionary women, one a tiny Mexican and another a huge Texan. So he goes on a tour northwards towards his mining claim, inspiring uprisings and learning ghastly truths about what the Texans are doing to the Earth’s mantle.

Leiber was closing in on sixty when he wrote this book and altogether it feels somewhat painfully like a middle-aged man trying to be With It circa 1968. Though, in a way, as both a scifi writer and an actor (he came from a theater family and acted some himself), Leiber could probably claim better hedonism and mind-expansion bona fides than most of the youth at the time. I think his sympathies were probably with “the youth,” both in the novel and in society at large, but from a foggy and at times patronizing distance. Both Scully and, I think, the author, treat revolution as essentially a child’s game, theater.

The whole thing is played as farce — like the sort of comedy Scully might put on with his company, get it?! — and you get the thing you get in a lot of writing by men circa 1960s-2000s where there’s a lot of stereotyping going on and you’re not sure how much of it is “genuine” vs satirical. You’re also not sure how much it matters. The whole premise of the world of the book is reversion to type on a racial scale. The Texans are the whitest white yahoos, having assimilated the rest of the white people of the continent to their empire. Mexicans are spicy, superstitious, physically small, and given to revolutions launched by dramatic gestures. Black people have “hip republics” on the coast, and the one black character is a jive-talking Buddhist monk. Native Americans live in teepees, Russians have genetically engineered themselves into bear-people, there’s a ranting genocidal German-Texan engineer, etc. Luckily for us all the book didn’t have any Jews or Asians. Leiber would presumably point to his farcical white characters as proof he’s an equal opportunity offender. Meditations on gender, or anyway, the
mentality of women, in a similar vein pop up throughout as well.

I’m less interested in offense here than I am in the fact that two hundred odd pages of ethnic farce with a bit of sex farce thrown in for variety gets old. I can almost feel people out in readerland thinking “aha! A writer who cares not for restricting moralism in prose! It must be good!” I, too, find the social moralism in a lot of contemporary criticism constraining but to borrow a contemporary phrase, “this ain’t it, chief.” The book didn’t lack for zip and it was oddly prescient, in some ways, like the prominence of Texan (and other southern) tropes and practices in reactionary white American manhood going forward. But in general, there’s not enough going on, ideas- or action-wise, to really justify the broad farcical elements. ***

Review- Leiber, “A Specter is Haunting Texas”

Review- Coe, “The Closed Circle”

Jonathan Coe, “The Closed Circle” (2004) – I very much enjoyed Jonathan Coe’s “What A Carve Up!” (published in the US as “The Winshaw Legacy” – I prefer the British title), his breakout novel, when I read it a few years back. I also remember liking “The Rotter’s Club,” his look back at life in Birmingham in the late seventies, right at the precipice of the Thatcher era, though I have to say I don’t remember it that well. It came in handy that this sequel, “The Closed Circle,” came with a brief synopsis of its predecessor.

Coe possesses an Old Labour sensibility and social conscience. If “The Rotter’s Club” presents life on the edge of Thatcherism, “The Closed Circle” takes the same characters into the ideology’s realization, when New Labour institutionalized Thatcherism-with-a-smile as the ruling ethos of Britain at the turn of the twenty-first century. The characters mostly managed to ride the wave of neoliberalism into professional jobs, as accountants, journalists, one of them is a member of Parliament, etc. This isn’t a story of working class devastation, even if plant closures and corporate abuse form an important part of the backdrop. It is a story of distinctly middle-class ennui.

It’s also a story about looking backwards. Benjamin, arguably the main character in the ensemble cast of “The Rotter’s Club,” is obsessed with a teenage fling he had in that book, twenty years later, and can’t move on, even though he’s married to someone else. Another character lives in the shadow of her sister, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances, also in the first book. Characters gain fixations on figures from the school they all went to, and try to track them down. It’s understandable, given that “forward-looking” in Blair’s England seems to mean shallow platitudes covering over base greed and power-mongering, as is the case with Paul, who went from an annoying brat in “The Rotter’s Club” to an unprincipled New Labour MP in “The Closed Circle.”

I intermittently enjoyed reading “The Closed Circle,” but I don’t think it’s as strong as the others I’ve read of Coe’s work. In part, this is due to his choice of topics: gray middle-class Englanders with ennui tend to blend together more than younger adults do. The big surprise ending does indeed “close the circle” of a love mess that makes up one of the central plotlines of the novel, but in a coincidence-heavy way that summons up for me bad memories of Oscar-bait “we’re all connected” movies of the same period, like “Babel” and “Crash.” Coe has chops and his book is better than either of those movies, but the ending really didn’t do it for me. I’ll still keep my eye out for the sequel that came out recently. ***’

Review- Coe, “The Closed Circle”

Review- Allen, “Skinhead”

Richard Allen, “Skinhead” (1970) – My readings on the right have brought me to this underground cult classic. It is part of the “youthsploitation” wave of pulp novels of the era, where cheap publishers rushed out material on the range of youth subcultures then making the news. Many of them were written by a middle-aged alcoholic Canadian hack named James Moffat, who wrote under numerous psuedonyms, including Richard Allen. As Allen, he wrote a dozen-odd skinhead novels that became quite popular within the subculture and became both passed-around artifacts and subjects of artistic parody.

No one has ever accused skinheads of being the most sensitive readers, and part of me is a little surprised they took to these books the way they did, given the undisguised contempt the author has for the subculture. For Moffat/Allen, skinheads were a symptom of modern culture gone awry, barbarians at the gates of a civilization too weak (due to egalitarianism and the welfare state) to fend them off. At the same time, he has a sickly fascination with the virility and violence of Joe Hawkins, his skinhead main character. Joe is something of an East End ubermensch, who takes what he pleases, be it blood, money, or sex, with violence and cunning. He does lose a fight or two but always gets revenge. One can see how the character would appeal to a certain type of young man.

This book was published in 1970, relatively early in the career of the skinhead subculture. As such, the politics involved were much more muted. Joe and his friends are racist and hate hippies and radicals, to be sure, but they care about beating up black people and Asians about as much as they care about beating up rival soccer fans. Moffat/Allen doesn’t seem to really make the connection between his preferred social order, where men are real men, hierarchy is gladly accepted, and Britain is great again, and the sickly fascination he has for Joe’s violence against shared enemies, but others would, and I wonder if the author does in later books.

Moffat/Allen clearly had some pulp writing chops and the novel zips right along. I don’t think I encountered a single sentence where the only verb was a variation of “to be,” a good sign for pulp. But there’s two major problems here that prevent me from recommending it as (highly, highly “problematic”) fun. The first is the author’s ideological hectoring. No one was (is, afaict) as attached to orderliness and The Rules as the Anglo-Canadian pedant, and Moffat/Allen makes sure to point out for every bad thing happening (which he leers and drools over), there is a social welfare policy encouraging it. This attachment to order, presumably, is what prevented him from seeing the Joe Hawkinses of the world as allies, as later far-right nerds would. More importantly, there basically isn’t a plot. The book begins with a depiction of Joe’s father and his corrupt docklands milieu, where faux-radicalism and pilfering go hand in hand and dock leaders plan strikes for malicious reasons. I thought that it would end with the skinheads attacking strikers. That would have been interesting and have dramatic unity, but no. Instead, Joe just does a bunch of crimes and gets away with them, the end. I guess that’s all you need for “youthsploitation,” but I prefer my voyeurism to at least have the decency of a plot. This is an interesting literary artifact but that’s about it. **’

Review- Allen, “Skinhead”

Review- Rothstein, “The Color of Law”

Richard Rothstein, “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” (2017) – This book has come to constitute part of the new canon for antiracist activists, or, anyway, people looking to heed the call to “educate yourself.” It covers an important part of American history — the creation and maintenance of our regime of residential segregation and everything it entails — and as Richard Rothstein points out, you won’t learn about this sort of thing in standard high school American history textbooks. I remember teaching community college students — mostly kids of color — about how the government backstopped, in many instances created, housing segregation, and I got a lot of surprised looks. They knew about the segregation- they didn’t know about the causes. This book serves a valuable public purpose.

The main idea Rothstein, a law professor, looks to upend is the idea that there’s something natural about residential segregation by race. He shows how government policy, from World War One onward but ramping up around World War Two, reaffirmed existing segregated residence patterns and often created them where they did not exist. Like most aspects of American awfulness, the creation of our segregated reality came about as something of a kludge, a mashing together of private and public, local and federal, written and unwritten policy. Presumably, historians debate over how much weight to give private versus governmental actors, but Rothstein makes clear that the federal government (along with state and local governments) was there every step of the way. For war production in both world wars, the federal government (acting through private builders and real estate people) built huge public housing works for defense workers, and kept them segregated, even after desegregating many key defense industries in WWII. Most famously, the Federal Housing Administration institutionalized redlining, the designation of neighborhoods by race. Here as in so many other instances, the government both tailed private actors — especially the real estate moguls building the new postwar suburbs — and led them, for instance by declaring even pre-existing integrated neighborhoods bad loan risks. Even when things like discriminatory housing covenants were outlawed, the damage persisted and got worse. Even when black people were able to surmount these difficulties and buy a home in a white neighborhood — and these black people were generally at least a notch or two above their white neighbors on the profession/class scale, given how much more expensive real estate was for them — police forces stood by and let white mobs terrorize the new homeowners, when the cops didn’t join in themselves.

The postwar suburban experience acts in many respects as the crux of the story. It’s not just that black people missed out on living in white suburbs. Appreciating home values built white wealth — I know for a fact houses bought by previous generations in the postwar period act as socioeconomic anchors for otherwise downwardly mobile white families I know of — and levered open the wealth gap between white and black America. Then there’s all the add-on effects that result from the absurd amount of things our society predicates on real estate values: black people either miss out on jobs in the suburbs they couldn’t live in, or pay higher transportation costs. Black homeowners pay more in upkeep for dilapidated housing stock, proportionately higher property taxes (decent housing black people are permitted to live in is generally more expensive), and are often the targets of subprime loan banksters. Black renters paid proportionately more in rent or lived in depressing housing projects. Black children go to segregated schools underfunded by depleted tax bases. On and on. Meanwhile, white (and increasingly non-black PoC) suburbanites can pat themselves on the back for their good life choices in avoiding poverty and crime, secure that all the privileges they had and have are “natural.”

Rothstein places a lot of chips on the supposed unconstitutionality of all of these structures. This makes sense, as he is a law professor, but I wonder at the effectiveness of this argument. It seems to me to join a series of tropes that take on load-bearing weight in this generation of (relatively) mass-market antiracist books, and that might not be able to bear up. I’m thinking here also of Ibram Kendi’s definition of antiracism as believing there is nothing wrong with black people, or the mother of them all, the (re)definition of the word “racism” to mean the upholding or reenforcing of oppressive race-based power structures. I basically agree with the latter rhetorical move and it seems to be catching on, but such maneuvers risk fundamental miscommunications with interlocutors who do not accept your premises. In the case of the constitutionality of segregation, Rothstein points to the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Segregation violates due process and equal protection clauses, he argues, and moreover the intent of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth, two of the Reconstruction amendments, were to abate the consequences of slavery. Anything that goes against that goal goes against them, and courts and government officials from the downfall of Reconstruction in 1877 onward have been going against the Constitution.

I’m no lawyer, but these arguments seem to range from plausible (the application of due process) to very thin. The Reconstruction amendments only mention slavery to ban it and make no reference to any specific race of people. Again, we come to the kludge of American institutional life- the Constitution was kludged together, and is a vague document in many cases, and the Reconstruction amendments had to please racists and free marketeers in the Republican Party at the time and so they’re vague, too. As you so often get with monotheism, the people who insist The Book sanctions something awful are at least part right.

Luckily, unlike Rothstein, I don’t place many chips on the US Constitution. I guess I see it a lot like the federal highway system: some impressive engineering (for its day) kludging disparate elements together, in some cases vaguely approximating the form of something that should exist and usable for some purposes, but ultimately built for ends we will need to get past to proceed into a better future. We can house everyone, safely and equitably, and we should. All of the things we predicate on real estate, from education to job prospects, also belong to everyone regardless of where they were born or where they live. I don’t know whether such a scenario would result, in the short or medium term, in racial integration in neighborhoods and schools (I tend to think in the long term, real socialism would erode the significance of race). From the cheap seats, I get the impression people of color are less dying to have white neighbors than they are struggling to gain substantive equity in society. I am suspicious of anti-integrationist arguments from the left — they seem to think generations of civil rights campaigners were sell-outs or morons, and it just generally raises my hackles, especially when white people do it — but in general, place less emphasis on integration than on redistribution. As it turns out, the Constitution isn’t super helpful for either goal. Oh well. ****

Review- Rothstein, “The Color of Law”

Review- Faye, “Archaeofuturism”

Guillaume Faye, “Archaeofuturism: European Visions of the Post-Catastrophic Age” (1998) (translated from the French by Sergio Knipe) – It’s been a while since I read an actually interesting book by a fascist. Guillaume Faye helped lead the French Nouvelle Droit in the seventies and eighties. To simplify greatly, the Nouvelle Droit exemplified the possibilities of the “suit” strategy in the far right’s “suits and boots” dichotomy. They were very “intellectual” fascists (they didn’t like being called fascists, but fuck them) looking to change politics by changing culture. The Nouvelle Droit achieved a great deal of visibility and prominence for a while in France, where they like their intellectual novelties. But it was in terminal decline for a while by the late nineties, with Faye having jumped ship some time before to work in mainstream media.

“Archaeofuturism” was Faye’s return to far-right political writing. In it, he attempts to both right the ship of the French far right and inject energy into its project. The Nouvelle Droit went wrong because it got too academic, too self-obsessed, too weird, Faye argues, citing in particular erstwhile ally Alain de Benoist’s odd religious ideas- pagan, anti-Christian, but friendly to Islam. Catastrophe is coming, Faye declares, and modernity, defined here as the combination of industrial society and egalitarian culture and politics, is doomed. One way or another we will get “archaeofuturism” – a return to archaic cultural values, social structures, and politics combined with ever-advancing science and technology. The role of the French (and broader European) far right is to help usher in and eventually rule the brave new archaeofuturist future.

Faye’s not wrong about catastrophe. As expected, he gets the valences wrong. The threat of climate change, the major thing he is right about, looms over the book, but typically low down on the list of things Faye worries about. Similarly, Faye highlights the rise of inequality, unemployment etc. He shared the anticapitalism of the Nouvelle Droit, which is to say, he was rhetorically opposed to capitalism’s culturally disintegrative tendencies and the rulers it promotes and pays lip service to its actual problems, while sharing many capitalist assumptions about worth and merit- the usual weak sauce bullshit of right anticapitalism.

But this is a right-wing book, after all, so his big worry is demographics, basically “the great replacement” the right goes on about. He takes it as given that European values and culture reside in some bio-mystical way in European genes and European land, and that allowing non-Europeans in means the death of Europe, etc etc. Islam plays the big boogie-man here, and as you often get with demon figures, there’s an admixture of admiration here. Islam, in Faye’s telling, is still a healthy, vibrant, “macho” culture, unlike weak, sickly, feminized, “ethno-masochist” Europe. If he didn’t see Islam as backwards (and wasn’t as attached to his European nativity), Faye might join his old pal de Benoist in being sort of positive about it. Of course, Faye lumps all billion or so Muslims together as sharing the same agenda, a real laugh after the last decade and a half of struggle within the Muslim world. Same with colonized people all over- they all want revenge on the colonizer and will get it through immigration. Faye doesn’t do subtlety or nuance.

Catastrophe will force archaic values to re-emerge, whether anyone wants it or not (Faye sees it as devoutly to be wished). Modernity, Faye argues, brings on the catastrophe, not so much through capitalistic profit motive but from its utopian promise that everyone can get along and live well. The planet can’t sustain it and people don’t want it- they want to advance their ethnic/religious interests, says Faye. Everything is ideology, for him and many on the far right. When modernity collapses, archaic values — hierarchy, order, valorization of warriors, a cyclical view of history, etc — will reimpose themselves upon the survivors. Faye waxes rhetorical about this at various points. He’s smart enough to avoid the usual “traditionalist” trap of valorizing everything old, or defining which culture’s folkways are really traditional and which aren’t (most of them are actually not that old in any event). Instead, Faye enlists the right’s best philosophical player, Nietzsche (and yes, he was on the right, sorry, don’t at me), and Nietzsche’s definition of the archaic values of classical Greece and Rome. That’s what we’ll all go back to, he says, though he also sees archaic values as those of medieval Europe, which doesn’t make a ton of sense and seems like a soupçon thrown to traditionalist Christians.

So does all this archaicism mean a return to archaic modes of production and technology? Yes and no. Probably Faye’s most important point and what really gets at the nut of what he contributes to the contemporary far right is that the great inequality for which the right should both prepare for and strive for is inequality in access to the fruits of science and technology. Most people should live at a roughly medieval technology level, Faye argues, but a minority should live with ever-advancing technology. Only a minority can truly benefit from technological society anyway, Faye insists. Any guesses as to the racial composition of who gets to follow a donkey cart and who gets to see the future? Well, here Faye vacillates a little. In some versions envisioning a racial hierarchy where whites and maybe East Asians get to live in future-world and browner people toil, more or less happily, in the primitive level they supposedly belong to, in others, every continental bloc/empire (it’ll all be empires, you see) will include both techno-people who run everything and a majority of happy peasants doing their folk dances in the villages, including the “Eurosiberian” empire he envisions.

This is, of course, daft, and has the classic tell of daftness (on the right, left, and center) that is overschematization- everything in the archaeofuture is clear, all could be understood easily from a simple map (like one for a video game) or PowerPoint presentation. It’s as utopian as the most hippie-dippie soft-left daydream and considerably more so than most Marxist ones, as it basically handwaves away any question of the means of production, as in, “where does the food come from?” or “where are the raw materials for all that tech coming from?” or “who cleans the toilets in the pristine future-cities?” Presumably, the peasants are farming, but Faye makes clear: intercourse between technoworld and peasant-lande is to be strictly limited, if not altogether forbidden.

Faye doesn’t bother with any of these questions. Part of this is that technology is just supposed to figure it out. The other part, I think, is more important. Faye humble-braggingly insists he’s not laying out a dogma or a plan, that the right of the future will have to sail the seas of uncertainty. That’s a smart move, both rhetorically and because it leaves unsaid his other implicit answer to questions of political economy: it’s supposed to be cruel. The techno-lords are better than the peasant-folke he patronizingly pats on the head, and so along with having nicer lives, the former will exploit and oppress the latter. They’ll do it for fun if not for profit. That’s the other part of “archaic values” – no sentimentality about the peasants and their dead babies, even while having a little sentimentality for their charming folkways. At first, in Faye’s telling, the violence of the archaeofuture would be defensive, beating back “the hordes” and making new ethno-empires. But we all know — I’m sure Faye knew — it would turn offensive, the quotidian, personalized violence of the plantation, the pimp and the john, the colonizer.

Reaffirming racialized (and gendered and class-based) inequality and its attendant cruelty as a positive value and the only meaningful response to the crises of the twenty-first century: this is what “Archaeofuturism” is about and is basically what the entire far right is about today. Take out some of the silly filigree and this is more or less what the entire right dreams of. In terms of laying out an agenda for the far right in the twenty-first century, Faye is much more lucid than many figures who get more attention than he did (he died last year). His writing makes a lot more sense and is much more applicable to today’s situation than anything Julius Evola (who died in 1974) wrote. Some of the snootier “identitarian” types, like Generation Europa, namecheck Faye as part of their inspiration from the Nouvelle Droite. But it’s Evola that gets the memes and his turgid “Revolt Against the Modern World” that zoomer fascists try to slog through, lips doubtlessly moving the while. This, when a fascist press went to all the trouble of translating Faye into English, complete with explanatory footnotes for readers who might not know what a Breton or a GDP is! Alas for him.

Many of the more interesting strategic/ideological points Faye makes “scan” from the perspective of an ambitious contemporary fascist organizer. Faye’s attitude towards homosexuality is that it’s deviant, but should be allowed to go ahead in (fun, kinky) secret but unprosecuted- sounds roughly like what Milo Yiannopolous would like. He departs from the Nouvelle Droit in seeing America less as an enemy and more as a potentially productive rival. Presumably, his American followers disagree with his assertion that America isn’t badly threatened by immigration, but that was a throwaway point, easily papered over.

Most controversially, he has little to say about Jews, and in other work came out in support of Zionism as a bulwark against Islam. On the one hand, this is a path some on the contemporary far right have taken. On the other, it illustrates one of the ways in which Faye is too clever for his own benefit. Without antisemitism, there’s a gaping hole in all far right thought: why did anything change, if premodernity was so great? Most fascists just say “the machinations of the Jews.” Faye doesn’t, and so squirms around alluding to “neo-trotskyites,” bitches about the Jacobins (the French right has a long memory), etc. The whole thing would be more wrong but also more consistent if he was an anti-semite, but given his other commitments, you can see why he took the stance he did.

So this was an interesting read. The French right has long been a source of some of the more interesting and readable right-wing writing, in spite of (because of?) never getting a unified fascist movement off the ground. In terms of reading experience, it was better than the average right-wing screed, but contained long sections of Faye just spit-balling opinions that bogged things down. The end was also disappointing, a fictional “day in the life” of a mover-and-shaker in the “Eurosiberian Empire” of the archaeofuture- this sounds like it could be fun but was just a dull recitation of the points Faye already made. Above all, this was a clear presentation of what the twenty-first century far right is about, not in the sense that many contemporary fascists follow Faye’s blueprint, but that he prefigured much of their vision. ***

Review- Faye, “Archaeofuturism”

Review- Rothfuss, “The Name of the Wind”

Patrick Rothfuss, “The Name of the Wind” (2007) – A lot of people like this book. There was huge hype and lasting affection around it when it came out in the late 2000s, that magical time when we thought we had seen how bad it would get. It came highly praised by the likes of Ursula Le Guin. I have a lot of friends who like it. The friends I have who like it (when I posted about it on my social media, other friends with other opinions emerged, but that’s neither here nor there) use words like “poetic.” And Patrick Rothfuss himself seems like a decent sort, a harmless, fun-loving nerd who doesn’t appear to be using that performance of self as a guise to exploit others, as we see done (:cough: Joss Whedon :cough:) elsewhere in the nerd-o-sphere. His blog is all raising money for charities and pictures of his nice family.

So you can see why I might want to go easy on this book. Respected writers like it. More importantly, friends like it, and use language for it I feel weird challenging- am I really going to just diss my friends’ sense of aesthetic? Most pertinent of all, most of the time, when I really gun for a book, the author sucks in some way, like Mike Ma being a fascist or Sheila Heti contributing to tweeness and pretense in literature, to cite two recent examples. I can’t really say that about Rothfuss, who, I reiterate, seems like a decent, blameless guy.

But I will not go easy. I will reflect my experience. This book baffled me with its utter mediocrity. It bored and frustrated me. A lot of the time, when millennial critics say something bored them, they mean it offended them. This is not the case here- I would have taken some offense if I could’ve gotten it, just to spice things up. Similarly, when they say a piece of writing frustrated them, they imply there was something else they wanted the piece to be, or in non-fiction, wanted the author to acknowledge some hobby horse of theirs. I guess I wanted this to be good fantasy, but I’ll damned if I can say specifically how other than “be more exciting and interesting, and maybe shorter.”

“The Name of the Wind” is, mostly, the tale of one Kvothe. Kvothe lives in what we could see as a generic post-George-RR-Martin fantasy land- roughly medieval European technology level and social arrangements (though with post-Columbian-Exchange crops, like chocolate- I will admit that took me out of things a little early on), magic and monsters largely in the background… for now. Because this was supposed to be a big deal trilogy, there is an extended framing device, a good seventy-five pages or so dealing with demon spiders emerging in this little rural town, before we get to the meat of the story. The owner of the inn in this little town isn’t all he appears. A Chronicler shows up who knows who he is- Kvothe, big time badass wizard warrior. Chronicler wants his story and Kvothe, after some back and forth, agrees to give it, and that provides the action for much of the rest of the book. The demon spiders don’t come back- presumably they do in the second book or in the third book that Rothfuss probably at this point won’t write.

The biggest problem, if I had to pick one, with this book is that Kvothe is, as pointed out to me by a fan of the book, an utter Marty-Stu, a wish-fulfillment of the most banal fantasies of badassery that the first decade of the twenty-first century could conjure up. Kvothe relates his upbringing amongst traveling performers. From the beginning, he’s whip smart and savvy. He also talks like a twenty-first century adult, but we’ll get into that issue later. He meets an old wizard who teaches him some magical basics and of course, he picks it up faster than anyone. His lows are heroic lows- his family slaughtered by mysterious wights from ancient lore, first he survives in the woods all on his own, then makes his way by his wits on the streets of the big fantasy city of Tarbean. He then makes his way to the University to learn magic (and about the wights) and impresses the masters so much they pay HIM for his first term! He makes enemies — a mean professor, Snap- I mean, Hemme, and a snooty aristocratic boy Malf- I mean, Ambrose — and shows them up magnificently with his magic chops and street smarts. He’s a musical genius, too, and girls totally want his fifteen year old self. Above all, he’s collected and self-contained.

“Well, it’s HEROIC fantasy,” I can hear some of you say. Sure. And there’s a number of ways to make such a character interesting. One would be to make him a less reliable narrator, like maybe he has to dial back some of his stories (there is an interlocutor character along with Kvothe and Chronicler). Even if you want to keep him that heroic, you can make the challenges he faces interesting, or ones to which he isn’t suited. You can also set him in an interesting world, worthy of the hero’s talents.

Rothfuss fails to deliver on any of those options. Kvothe is understood to be reliable throughout. The lack of interesting challenges and the failure of worldbuilding reenforce each other. Magic and science aren’t separate in this world, so Kvothe learns a lot of both, seemingly more of the latter, but he does so so effortlessly it’s basically uninteresting. The details of the magic system, laid out in pseudo-scientific trappings, were left underexplored but were also so dull I didn’t really want to know any more.

Rothfuss seems to have been going for “gritty,” which led to one of his more interesting decisions- making young Kvothe constantly worry about money. He’s poor and the University costs, at least after first term. This is something of a departure for fantasy, but it isn’t handled well. It’s sort of a low-grade irritant throughout the book, worrying about Kvothe’s finances and doing exchange rates on the various units of currency he uses.

Most of the action takes place in generic medieval city-space and while several cultures are mentioned and attributes ascribed to them, none of them are particularly distinct. There’s lore, intimations of old, deep mysteries (like the murderous wights), but none of it is anything fantasy readers haven’t seen many times before, interspersed with similarly anodyne action. There’s numerous songs and poems but I’ll be damned if I remember any of them, and I finished the book the day I’m writing this.

Then there’s the writing. He didn’t want to do exalted high-fantasy diction. I get that. He doesn’t make even as many concessions to it as does George RR Martin- fine, I guess, you want to stake your own territory. But god help me if Kvothe and basically everyone else in the book (except some yokels done in painful yokel-speak) don’t just talk like anodyne twenty-first century people, with the occasional lapse into flowery language of the kind a marketing intern would make up for a renaissance faire. If your magic is (mostly) science and your cultures aren’t any different from ours except for having lords and ladies (which we might as well have, given where inequality is going), and everyone is going to talk more or less like the people at your friendly local gaming store — a little more verbal and descriptive than at the other stores in the mall, but basically the same dialect — why the fuck did you bother writing fantasy? What was the point?

What this most forcefully reminded me of was less another given piece of literature and more a moment in my life. That’s the moment in college — around the time this book was probably being written, in fact — that it dawned me that most nerds are boring as shit. They might be good or bad, smart or dumb, but nerd culture as a whole did not represent what I wanted out of culture. Cruelly, one of the better things about nerd culture, the participatory element found in role-playing games, fan fiction, etc., bore this out the most. Given the vast scope of possibilities laid out before them, most nerds will ineptly reproduce what came before, the ones who won’t just turn the creative possibilities before them into their personal toilet, that is. Rothfuss presents himself as an every-nerd, and, god love him, after reading “The Name of the Wind” I can’t disagree. I feel about as good about this as I would about roasting some of the decent nerds I knew, but wasn’t friends with, in college- but the hell with it, he made his pile and is doing fine. I’ll give him the extra half star for being a decent dude and deserving more honor, for at least trying fantasy, than shitty litfic gets, not that he or anyone really cares. **

Review- Rothfuss, “The Name of the Wind”