2021 Birthday Lecture – Alternate History, At the End of History and Beyond

When I was maybe twelve or so, my dad got in maybe his last real zinger on me, and what’s more, I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean to. After seeing a certain display at a Waldenbooks, I asked my dad if he knew anything about “alternate history.” He looked at me, a little puzzled, and asked “you mean, like Howard Zinn?”

No, listener, I did not mean Howard Zinn. I had nothing in mind that pointed to me being a good virtuous little leftie or particularly interested in learning anything useful. When I said “alternate history,” I meant novels set in worlds generated by asking historical “what if” questions. I’m not going to dwell too much on definitional questions — arguably, every novel set on Earth in the past or present is an alternate history novel given they all posit something happening that did not actually happen, yadda yadda — and simply say that for the purposes of this lecture, I define “alternate history fiction” as fiction where a historical counterfactual is a major part of what sells the book to audiences- the usual punt to the power of marketing to define literary categories that critics under late capitalism so often make, but there it is. And it was marketing that drove me to ask my dad about alternate history that day, namely, a display of alternate history novels by writers like Harry Turtledove, S.M. Stirling, Steven Barnes, and other stalwarts of the subgenre. 

Alternate history fiction in the form we know today came about when the form jumped the track, from a plaything for historians — from Titus Livy to Winston Churchill — into the emerging genre of science fiction. This was in large part due to various conceits that became common in alternate history stories and that are still present today: time travel, dimension-shifting, various divergences in the history of science leading to technological leaps, on and on. But the identification of alternate history and scifi was so complete by the time I was paying attention in the late nineties that alternate history stories without such conceits, where there’s no time travel or magic or advanced technology, were still usually considered scifi and shelved as such at bookstores and libraries… unless they were written by established literary figures, such as Philip Roth or Michael Chabon, both of whom wrote alternate history novels that are generally considered literary fiction, albeit with some genre flavor. 

Widely-admired works of alternate history fiction, including L. Sprague DeCamp’s Lest Darkness Fall, Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle dot the scifi landscape throughout the twentieth century. But something changed in the late nineteen eighties, and this change gathered strength in the nineties and early aughts. Alternate history became a mainstay of science fiction. Many authors dabbled in it but a few became dedicated writers of alternate history science fiction, writing little else, and often cranking out multiple such novels a year. Literary fiction got in on the act, too, as with the aforementioned works by Roth and Chabon. So did TV, in the form of the show Sliders, which began as a show about a group of people forced to travel to a series of alternate dimensions with different histories (that eventually became a monster-of-the-week show). No less a figure than Academy Award winning actor Richard Dreyfuss co-wrote a novel about an America where the American Revolution didn’t happen with Harry Turtledove published in 1995 (they were going to make a movie but it didn’t get anywhere). Newt Gingrich slapped his name on some co-written alternate history novels between 1995 and 2011. Hack historian Niall Ferguson put out a book of “Virtual Histories” in 1997, a cheap cash-in that tried and failed to take shots at leftist history, mostly on the basis of great social historian E.P. Thompson having called counterfactuals “ahistorical shit.” There was a flourish of alternate history discussion groups online, on usenet, on webrings, and so on. 

This moment in the sun for alternate history fiction coincides with two relevant stretches of time. One is my childhood, as well as the portion of that childhood spent reading a lot of alternate history fiction- roughly ages twelve to eighteen, when I gobbled down works by Harry Turtledove, S.M. Stirling, Eric Flint and others. I bothered my friends talking about them (though my friends Miri and Phoebe were sweet enough to take me to see Harry Turtledove speak at a local scifi convention), attempted to write stories in the genre myself, and made one of my best friends in college when we gingerly admitted, with the shame that nineteen can have for seventeen, our respective alternate history reading phases to each other. 

The alternate history moment also coincides with the era we now sometimes, ironically, call “the end of history.” This is named after one of the great whoppers of bad historical prediction, one so bad you have to figure someone could write a decent alternate history story based on the idea of “what if Fukuyama was right?” Francis Fukuyama was a neoconservative intellectual who wrote the essay “The End of History?” in 1989, where he suggested that with the impending collapse of the Soviet Union and with it the dream of communism, history — capital H History, in the Hegelian sense, as in conflict over what ideology should guide politics and society — was over, and that liberal democracy, American style, had won the day. This was turned into a book in 1992, and became that rara avis, the Hegelian bestseller. 

You could call the “end of History” era the period where serious people could buy what Fukuyama was selling. Ironically, Fukuyama himself, one of the more thoughtful of the neocons, was less bullish for the concept than many others. But for plenty of “thought leaders” at the time, the world was destined to look more and more like America in the nineties as time went on. 

When did this era end? Some would say 2001, with the 9/11 attacks. While I see the point, I think in many ways the reaction to 9/11 was guided by the sort of people who believed in the “end of history” thesis and that Islamic fundamentalists were just backwash to be mopped up, many of these people being Fukuyama’s fellow neocons. 2008, with the financial crash and the resurgence of white revanchism that reared its head with Obama’s election is my general stopping point for the end of history.

The late eighties was also when figures like Harry Turtledove and S.M. Stirling began writing alternate history stories. Arguably the best alternate history novel of that period, Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain, came out in 1988. On the other end of the End of History, the break is less clean, but Harry Turtledove concluded his 11-book series that begins with the Confederacy winning the US Civil War with one last novel in 2008. The major figures of nineties alternate history continue to publish in the subfield, and new writers take up the concept as well, but I think things shifted, somewhat, as the twenty-first century wore on. 

I guess now is as good a time as any for a thesis, isn’t it? I put it to you that the high point of genre prominence for alternate history occurred when it did due to a concatenation of circumstances that we can see as characteristic of the “End of History” era. This is not simply a matter of cultural or ideological critique, though that enters into it as well, but is also a question of material conditions pertaining to the production and consumption of popular art. As these conditions shifted in the post-2008 period, so, too, did the place of alternate history fiction. 

A caveat, here, around the question of “high points.” I would not say that the alternate history fiction produced during the “end of history” era is the best alternate history fiction out there. The products of the subgenre from that era range in quality from quite good, like Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain, to absolute drek, like Niall Ferguson’s work and much of Sliders. In general, I’d say they tend to the formulaic and the lower end of mediocre. This was, above all, the era of series, as exemplified by the work of Harry Turtledove, who at various points in the twenty years we can call the “end of history” worked on no fewer than eight series that could be called alternate history, all of them at least three books long, alongside multiple standalone alternate history novels. Other major alternate history writers followed suit, and some of these series, like Eric Flint’s “Ring of Fire” which he began in 2000, are still being written. These series tended to have concepts that did most of the work for them, with action, worldbuilding, and characterization varying in quality but generally being a little pro forma. Whatever their quality, these blockbuster series, many of them bestsellers that hooked a lot of readers, helped fill out the sorts of chain bookstore displays that first notified me of the genre. This would have been difficult to do with, say, alternate history fiction in the early nineteen-sixties, when works like The Man in the High Castle, miles better than any Turtledove pot-boiler, came out, but weren’t understood as representing a discreet subgenre for marketing purposes. 

I argue that things changed in alternate history fiction after 2008 or so. But of course, most stories of historical rupture carry with them elements of a story of history continuity (and vice-versa). There is continuity in the story of alternate history fiction across the 2008 barrier, but there’s rupture too. Let’s see if we can’t parlay continuity into rupture in both the alternate history sphere and the larger historical context. One continuity between our post-2008 period and the “end of history” era in which so many of us were born and raised has been the steady progress of a few economic trends: rising wealth and income inequality, stagnating wages and increasingly precarious job security, the delinking of productivity gains from wage growth and increases in standard of living, the consolidation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands and of corporate power in an ever-smaller number of conglomerates. 

This sadly familiar tale has a bearing on our story in a few ways and continuity and rupture across the 2008 line do-si-do with each other in both the realms of alternate history fiction and of the broader political and cultural context. The speculative fiction industry, like the culture industry more broadly, has seen a bifurcation- big name writers make big money, usually with big tentpole series that compete to become movies and tv shows, while millions of other, less fortunate scribblers find other outlets for their work than conventional publishing, especially self-publishing (now enabled by Amazon to sell directly to consumers) and fan fiction. 

This dynamic was somewhat less pronounced at the beginning of the “end of history” era in the late eighties than it is today. You could argue that a lot of the alternate history writers of the time existed in a sort of broad middle class of speculative fiction writers, the sorts of people who read and wrote for the pulps back when they were still relevant and cut their teeth on the expanding paperback market of the mid to late twentieth century. But we all know what happens to middle classes when the top decides to rake back their wealth and power, and there’s no meaningful opposition to stop them. Arguably, the creators of big alternate history series in the End of History era — Harry Turtledove, S.M. Stirling, Eric Flint — made it past the big thresher, into the lower strata of the series-producing scifi gentry, though they’re small-fry compared to your J.K. Rowlings and George R.R. Martins. 

Inequality and a general feeling of stagnation or decline also spurs discontent. This is true in the literary realm as it is in the political realm, though if the linkage between discontent and action can get blurry in the political world, it gets downright warped in the world of culture. In an altogether too neat analog of so many political situations the world over since 2008, the speculative fiction community, in the anglosphere in any event, has grown its very own red-blue divide. It maps neatly onto the red-blue divide in mainstream American politics (and which spreads like a weird memetic virus to other political contexts the world over), complete with a febrile, fascist-adjacent red team and a smug, complacent blue team, and masses of people and many pressing questions left out of the equation. 

This manifested itself most dramatically in the “Puppygate” saga, where various coalitions of right-leaning scifi and fantasy writers ranging from libertarian contrarian cranks to out and out Nazis tried to hijack the Hugo Awards nomination process, one of the big award ceremonies in the speculative fiction community, or else burn the award’s credibility to the ground. The different “Puppy” factions (you see, they’re ironic, which means they can’t actually be terrible pieces of shit, etc etc) did this out of spite for what they saw as a liberal elite of writers and editors imposing social message fiction on a mass of readers who just wanted spaceships and lasers. 

Unlike certain other encounters in the 2013-2017 period in which the Puppygate fiasco happened, the blue team decisively won. N.K. Jemisin, author of the Broken Earth novels and target of much abuse from the Puppies as a “social justice warrior” and a black woman, won three Hugos for best novel in a row. For now, it seems that the red and blue camps in contemporary scifi are here to stay for the foreseeable future, sniping at each other online and conforming more and more to type — the conservative gobbler-up of identikit military scifi stories of buff guys in power armor shooting aliens, the liberal mark for any story pitch with an oppressed narrator and a few buzzwords — as mutually antagonistic believer communities so often do. 

It’s not strictly symmetrical. The “red” side, led by the Puppy factions, really did harass and try to disrupt the other side in ways the Blues didn’t do back to them. If you want your scifi to jump the track to mainstream respectability, it helps to have the literary ambitions, social relevance, and better editing (and less cringeworthy cover art) of “blue” favorites like Jemisin, Ann Leckie, and so on… though that doesn’t always translate to superior sales numbers, as any number of pulpy populist stalwarts like Jim Butcher or David Weber can attest to. 

Alternate history fiction enters into this dynamic mostly on the margins. One of the bigger social-media brawlers in the notoriously rough playground that is young adult fiction, Justina Ireland, started a YA alternate history scifi series about slavery and zombies, and she doesn’t hesitate to wade into speculative fiction fights on the blue side (her day job is as a defense logistics professional for a US Navy contractor, as it happens). But most of the big players in high-stakes speculative fiction drama aren’t mainly known as alternate history writers. As I will discuss later in this lecture, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that alternate history has gone into eclipse since the End of History period, but it’s place in the genre and the culture at large has changed. 

This is where the long suffering listener might be thinking that we’re finally going to get into the ideology critique- how alternate history fiction has changed with the changes in prevailing ideology between the late eighties and today. Of course you all know I’m a materialist so I throw in stuff about material conditions, but we’ve read enough leftbook-shared articles to know that now’s the time when I lay the ideology bare. Well, far be it from me to disappoint my guests, but I’m gonna play with it a little. I think changes in ideological bent — the values expressed that map, more or less neatly, onto contemporary set-piece political battles — are only one strand in a braid of ruptures and continuities that run not just between contemporary alternate history fiction and that of yesteryear, but between any set of coordinates in cultural past and present. In short, I’ll give you your ideological meat but also your historiographical veggies.

It won’t surprise anyone to learn that the main ideological differences between alternate history of its peak period in the nineties and aughts and alternate history today is found in treatment of race and gender. It would be pretty easy, and even true enough, to say that earlier alternate history had problematic takes on those subjects, and contemporary alternate history is more “woke.” Consider some of the plots of big time alternate history works from the nineties and aughts: Harry Turtledove’s “The Guns of the South,” where Afrikaner militants use a time machine to give General Lee’s armies AK-47’s, the same author’s Southern Victory series, depicting a victorious Confederacy sans time travel this time, Steven Barnes wrote a series about Africans enslaving white people to work in the Americas, and there’s my personal favorite, the Draka series by S.M. Stirling, where American loyalists fleeing the Revolution go to South Africa and create a slave superstate that eventually conquers the world. Then consider the premises of recent alternate history hits: downtrodden nineteenth century nations use magic and steampunk tech to turn the tables on the imperialists in P. Djèlí Clark’s work, the ANC and the apartheid South African secret police fight over an empathy machine, wandering circus folk disrupt a world run by Luddites, dinosaur riding Sioux do Dances with Wolves but with dinosaurs instead of horses with Colonel Custer’s son. A whole new world!

Maybe! But- there’s complications. Let’s look closer. I’ve seen people cite the basic premises of these books — especially the older alternate history novels I just cited — as prima facie evidence of the writers’ racism and reactionary sentiments (or lack thereof, in the case of more liberal-leaning recent volumes). I think it’s worth getting deeper in there and exploring what exactly these writers thought they were doing with race, gender, and politics more generally. 

Let’s start with the material again: the big alternate history writers of the End of History era were all working scifi writers who made a living by cranking out a ton of writing, often multiple novels a year, usually in multiple subgenres of speculative fiction, and often had sidelines writing for tv or movies or for the tie-in novels attached to them; Terry Bisson, who wrote the excellent Fire on the Mountain, also wrote the novelizations of Johnny Mnemonic, The Fifth Element, and Galaxy Quest among others. Many of them have continued that work rate well into the second and third decades of the twenty-first century. What this means for us is that along with whatever points they are trying to make with their fiction, they primarily write to entertain. This doesn’t obviate the messages within their work, but it’s relevant to reading them that these writers needed to crank out a lot of prose, needed it to appeal to an audience, and needed ways to vary things up to keep the formulas fresh. 

The model I developed when visiting or revisiting these works is less that any given writer had a line, a defined take on race or sexuality or power or whatever, but a space, a range of ideas they considered sufficiently credible or interesting or just relevant to put into their fiction. So the same guy, S.M. Stirling, who wrote about the white South African slave superstate also wrote a series about a black lesbian sea commander who uses her samurai swords to fights slavers (after nineties Nantucket gets zapped to the Bronze Age… it’s complicated). The guy who wrote the “Africans enslaving Europeans” series was black himself and wrote about different kinds of slavery and their relative merits, etc. Harry Turtledove wrote of a kindly Lee using his AK-47s to create a gently progressive Confederacy in The Guns of the South, but ended his Southern Victory series by lazily mapping the story of Nazi Germany onto that of the Confederacy, with black people filling in for the Jews. Let’s put it this way: in the mainstream of End of History era alternate history fiction, you will find no careers that argue, straightforwardly and schematically, the way we like it to be on the Internet, for white supremacy, slavery, misogyny, fascism, etc. 

So what, then, is the space of thought in alternate history? What’s there and what’s not? Well, let’s get the obvious, for this crowd, out of the way first: communism is right out. Communism means Stalin, as far as Turtledove and Stirling are concerned, and moreover means weak competitors with liberal democracy and a lame villain next to fascism. No one but fanatical idiots believe in it in their stories, and they’re outnumbered by devious secret policemen and ideologues playing the system. The Draka, the South African master race Stirling devised, practice a weird sort of slave-driven corporatism, and it’s clear Stirling can more easily imagine that than an end to capitalism, and that seems to be the main line for alternate history at the time. There’s exceptions- Terry Bisson’s cooperativist New Afrika, founded by John Brown’s breaking of slave power in Fire on the Mountain, but that was exactly the kind of work your old scifi heads nod approvingly at and never reproduce. Eric Flint, author of the 1632 and 1812 series, was a Trotskyite, but is also clearly one of those dudes who working classed himself into thinking that working class revolution is bullshit because the guys in pickup trucks don’t talk about it. His good societies are vaguely social-democratic, but revolution to him is getting rid of inquisitors in seventeenth century Germany (a good first step, I grant) and teaming up with the most progressive king around (Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden and— no shit— Oliver Cromwell). It’s less that these writers were anticommunist and more that their visions were orthogonal to seeing any kind of communist or revolutionary horizon. 

The radical left option is out of the box in End of History scifi. The radical right option is not. Genocide, slavery, and the redemption of various right-wing monsters loom all throughout End of History alternate history. The redemptive angle is especially worth considering, and here, aspects of vernacular historical thought inherited both from the culture at large and from speculative fiction tradition mesh with timely ideas and concerns to dress up old themes in new clothes. Harry Turtledove premises all of his work involving the Confederacy on acceptance of many tropes of Lost Cause historiography- Robert E. Lee as a kindly man who didn’t like slavery, the importance of states rights over and above the slavery question, the idea that the Confederacy could ever have been a normal, functioning country, let alone a superpower. The Germans eventually join Team Earth to fight off aliens when they invade during WWII in another of Turtledove’s endless series, because, as everyone knows, the German army was essentially smart and honorable, unlike that nasty Hitler fellow. The good dictator, the ambivalent slaver, the reluctant mass killer, made to be what they are by circumstances and their realistic acceptance of same, their humanity wrung for pathos on the rack of their (fun to read) misdeeds… we see these in a lot of science fiction and fantasy going back to the genre’s origins, and the old alternate history guys were thoroughgoing readers of the old school scifi and fantasy, we know. 

Muddles, ironies, paradoxes, and the self-congratulatory consideration that wisdom is made up out of muddles, ironies, and paradoxes, constitute many of the coordinate points defining the space of alternate history fiction at the End of History. To the extent there is a hook to these books other than curiosity about the what-if premise and whatever action they boast, it is precisely the “made you think!” moment you’re supposed to have when you consider that perhaps the AK-wielding Confederate or the novel-writing slaver-soldier isn’t so different from you after all (another way in which Fire on the Mountain is exceptional- Bisson’s characters really are different along with the world, but still relatable). You can change the set dressing, move borders around on the big risk board, occasionally have more or less political freedom, but the basic structures — capitalism, our concepts of race, sex, gender, and so on, something like the nation state — do their structuring thing, providing scaffolding for the usual human dilemmas of middling writers: war and peace, love and sex, career ambition, inability to control complex situations, and so on. These dilemmas in their turn provide filling in between depictions of battles and little historical cameo moments for the fans that make up most of the appeal to most readers of end of history era alternate history. 

In many ways, this space of fiction maps onto the general space of politics that the philosophers of the End of History provided, which is also sometimes considered the era of “there is no alternative.” What we had, and the mental armature that comes with it, is what we have, and it’s not going to change. History, in this vision, becomes a set of dusty museum pieces to be mulled over. If anything, the difference between the alternate history space and what someone like Francis Fukuyama thought about things is that Fukuyama would have understood that in the past, people really did think differently, not just in their opinions about issues but in their patterns and concepts, in a way that writers at the time (or now) only seem to fitfully understand. Different thinking means a modern person can rook an ancient person at strategy if they get zapped back to the last, in these novels, because ancient people are (supposedly) mentally inflexible… that’s the level of sophistication at which they generally work. 

Allow me to fill in the space we’ve created for End of History alternate history fiction a little before we turn to what changed as the twenty-first century wore on. I see there as being basically two engines for the alternate history mobile as it chugs along, picking up readers on its tour for what it thinks of as the garden of forking paths but what is actually more like a carousel or Disney theme ride. The first is Harry Turtledove, of course. Like a certain kind of car, you know what you’re getting when you pick up a Turtledove novel. You get high concept what-ifs that can usually be described in one sentence. You usually get some war- war is important to a lot of alternate history fiction from this era, which had few fun conventional wars for nerds to gawp at. You’ll get a few awkward heterosexual sex scenes each book. You’ll get disasters but little really changes save for some borders and who is alive and who is dead. 

The second engine of End of History alternate history consists of online alternate history fans who wrote their own series. These were often better-written and more historically rigorous than published alternate history fiction. They often took the form of hybrid works combining omniscient history-book style analysis with narration from fictional viewpoint characters. They often pushed the envelope, too, with the historical concepts more than your Turtledove types did. In the end, though, a lot of the successful series in places like the Usenet group soc.history.what-if can be read as parables of how badly wrong things could have gone had anyone messed with the history that resulted in the triumph of liberal democracy circa 2000. An Australian I corresponded with wrote “Decades of Darkness,” which situation is brought on by New England seceding from the union during the War of 1812 and allowing the rest of America to become (what else) a slave superstate. The serial often considered the crown of the genre, “For All Time,” starts with FDR dying, relative progressive Vice President Henry Wallace becoming President, and a series of disasters occurring which culminates in nuclear war, mass cannibalism, and Jim Jones becoming US President thirty years later.

There’s some outliers that deserve talking about, too, who did things a little differently but still belong firmly in the literary space we’re talking about. One is familiar from a lot of our adolescent readings: Orson Scott Card. Card was big stuff in the nineties, coming off of the success of Ender’s Game. In 1987, he began the Alvin Maker series, a series of fantasy novels set in a version of early nineteenth century America where the various magical traditions of its inhabitants work. The first two books in the series are actually pretty good, and it’s a compelling concept. The reason I bring the series up here is that both point to a historical apotheosis outside of the End of History concept while remaining well inside their idea space. The answer to the riddle of how that can be is Mormonism. Any non-Mormon reader of the Alvin Maker series knows the sinking feeling of reading the series, getting into the latter books, and before the action gets stupid as Card becomes a worse writer, it turns into obvious Mormon propaganda. Alvin Maker is going to fix everything, the broken promise of America, by incorporating all of the magic traditions of the continent’s inhabitants, white, black, and red, into his anti-entropy super-magic and start up a golden city in the west. This sort of redemptive narrative is also seen in his novel “Pastwatch,” where time travelers go back to 1492 and make the indigenous peoples and Christopher Columbus, here depicted as a decent put-upon striver following impossible orders, become friends. Everyone can get along if they just hear the good news.

And then there’s S.M. Stirling, with his aforementioned oscillation between slave empires and… not-slave empires. Among other things, Stirling was a participant in online scifi discussion groups for a long time, and was notorious for getting in flame wars that led to him being banned from forum after forum (he seems to have calmed down some in the tens- he has a Twitter but doesn’t use it that much). This is part of how we know that genocide and slavery aren’t just fantasies for him. He would make big, Heinlein-esque declarations about how genocide solved many problems, that Muslims as a whole were an enemy of western civilization, etc etc. From what I know of his biography, he’s a classic child of late empires, with an Anglo-Canadian dad (no one loved the British empire like nerdy men from the white settler dominions) and a French mom. So it makes sense why the romance of settler empire — and you see it again and again in his work, not just with the slaver Draka — would appeal so strongly. 

The reason I talk about Stirling here isn’t to own him for being a reactionary. For one thing, he would try to wriggle out of that by pointing to his liberal heroes and reactionary villains. It’s true that the Draka get into a Cold War with the United States where he frantically signals that the US are the good guys (spoilers: the Draka win because they’re tougher). It’s also true that his time-stranded Nantucketers go around the Bronze Age world freeing slaves. Stirling does seem to see these actors as heroes doing heroic things- but also allows that slavers, Nazis, and genocidaires can be heroes too, because heroism is ultimately defined by strength. Beyond the politics, I think, to put it bluntly, he gets off on slavery. His slave empires, the Draka and others, have a lot of sex Stirling would probably think of as kinky, but which any millennial would instantly ID as fairly standard misogynistic slavery-based nonconsensual S and M between men and women or between women and women (among the Draka, for instance, Draka men routinely rape slave women but Draka women, liberated in most instances, never rape slave men- Stirling knows where to draw the line, and it’s where he stops being horny). 

At times, Stirling has his good liberal heroes denounce the lack of consent as a concept amongst the Draka or the bad guys in the Change universe or wherever. One is even tempted to believe that Stirling believes it, with his brain if not his libido. But it’s also clear that he loves the Draka, and loves his settler badasses more generally. They’re always tough, always smart, always sexy. Most of them see the problems with their system but philosophize them away, often with reference to their responsibility to keep things from getting worse- we are supposed to believe this constitutes depth of character. The process of settlement gives life meaning, provides opportunities for mastery, allows the good life. The liberals in Stirling stories often lament the pointlessness of their societies or else find a settlement-substitute, like space exploration. Stirling’s good settlers and slavers are usually from classy old money, and the bad ones are tacky new money, bureaucrats, gangsters, etc. The slaves have mostly resigned themselves to their lot and are often quite frisky, sexually speaking. You can almost appreciate the lengths to which Stirling goes to make every instance of upsetting a slave or settler applecart into a hideous pointless atrocity, really upping the pathos… if you’ve a strong stomach. Here, we see the prevalent patterns of thought in the End of History era — rebellion as tragedy — coincide with good old fashioned sexual pathology. This is a good time to google image search “S.M. Stirling” if you want a funny little stinger to the whole thing. 

As it happens, I could stomach Stirling as a teen. I didn’t read the Draka books, they weren’t at Borders and what I knew of them from the forums made me leery, but I loved (and often pestered my friends about) the Change series, the ones with Nantucket in the Bronze Age. And as it happens, I can stomach him as an adult, too, though that’s partially because of my training as a scholar of the right and of genre fiction. Stirling’s a pretty decent action writer, and writing good battles and fights isn’t as easy as it sounds. The sheer verve and gusto of his world-building concepts and the way he wears his weirdness on his sleeve — even as he thinks he’s completely normal! — can’t help but stir my admiration. The first Draka novel in particular is pretty good, because it gets into a genuinely alien headspace — Stirling, I think, did a lot of weird reading in old race theory and reactionary thought before starting — and has good battle action and, critically, is only about two hundred pages. What poisons Stirling’s work isn’t being a reactionary crackpot. It’s bloat and sentimentality. As he got older and more established as a writer, he asked fewer interesting questions, wrote much longer books with a lot of filler, repeated himself, and, perhaps in response to the Internet interlocutors we know he paid attention to, softened a lot of edges of his heroes and made his bad guys more capital-E evil, both in hammy Disney-style ways (also making the bad guys even rape-ier). It doesn’t work. His shit is still weird and creepy but hasn’t been that way in a fun way for a while. But it sold, especially during the End of History period. 

So! We have a reasonably fleshed out ecosystem of alternate history writing circa the End of History. What happens when history comes back, around our admittedly somewhat arbitrary milepost of 2008? 

Let’s once again get the relatively obvious Internet-style “ideology critique” out of the way first. There is, indeed, a good amount of back-and-forth pertaining to capital-H History, in the mode of ideological conflict, in contemporary alternate history fiction. Things like slavery and genocide are treated not as just unfortunate aspects of the human condition but as the product of power relationships that deserve to be critiqued and overturned. Many writers put a great deal of attention into matters of representation, what sort of characters they have doing what. I actually don’t see that as a complete break from earlier eras — if nothing else, your old scifi heads, including some of the alternate history guys I’ve spoken about, knew putting objectionable ideas and actions on characters from put-upon groups helped them get over — but there’s a different sort of focus on it now. Sometimes it drives more serious attention to character, sometimes it’s tokenism, but I will say the character-representation question does seem to eclipse other ways that writers could use to interrogate difficult subjects and create interesting perspectives. 

Let’s see if we can’t elevate ourselves beyond the culture war set pieces by going through them, like striking through a target. In the ideological conflicts that have roiled the speculative fiction scene in the last ten years or so, the reactionary side accuses the liberal side of neglecting entertainment in favor of political sermonizing, mostly about identity. This is patently false. Liberal scifi favorites like N.K. Jemisin, Ann Leckie, Yoon Ha Lee and the rest pack their stories with all the space battles and twisty betrayals you want. Reactionary and liberal scifi both seem to borrow from the same basic sources these days: video games, anime, role playing games, comic books, and major crossover hits like Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. It’s clear that what the “puppies” and other reactionary fans object to is their inability to project onto heroes who might be women, or queer, or people of color. 

What does it mean when the argument over the nature of speculative fiction — which is meant to be an exploration of human and even beyond human possibilities — so often becomes a question of projection, that is to say, one of the more common modes that viewers use to criticize pornography? They don’t like this actor because they can’t project onto him, they don’t like this actress because of X, Y, or Z flaw that they could only care about in their peculiar viewing situation – they can’t imagine themselves the captain of this particular spaceship, engaging in this particular mission, it’s all the same shit. 

Let’s use the sort of internet pronunciamento about the current age I usually don’t like, just as a pry bar to help us understand: the idea of the death of context. It’s not really dead, plenty of people get context. But it’s true enough in the case of the projection complainers, either in scifi/fantasy or in pornography. Why should they need any context for their decisions when they’re just looking to jerk off? To whom must they explain themselves? Ironically, as the eye of the surveillance machine of which the Internet makes up a large part steadies it’s gaze on us, many of us imagine ourselves alone to satisfy our consumer preferences, isolated from all other considerations. It seems clear that more and more of us are incapable of understanding choice in any other way. 

I see this mode of consciousness as a product of the conjuncture between the maturation of consumer economics in the late twentieth century and the concomitant collapse of shared public narratives about how life, politics, society and much else functions as the Cold War wound down and finally ended. In short, the discursive mode that seeded much of the ideological turmoil in speculative fiction — and, I’d argue, that is currently eating criticism alive — gathered much of its strands together in the End of History era. 

So- it’s all a continuity, right?! Joined together by superficial readings, mediocrity, context collapse, etc? Well, a graph is a continuity- starts one place, continues on into another. At what point in the graph is the change it depicts significant enough to become a rupture? That’s the kind of question that bothers a certain kind of historian. It sort of bothers me but I won’t dwell on it. Spend enough time thinking seriously about history and you’ll get used to seeing continuity and rupture together, creating continuities and ruptures out of their opposite numbers. 

But here’s a rupture for you: intellectual and cultural historians identify the end of the twentieth century with the collapse of consensus narratives that dominated public life, in America and many other societies, in the early and mid twentieth centuries. A lot of these histories are pretty good but they tend to be two panel comics: first, Americans by and large agree on a broad consensus around what you could call moderate nationalism, anticommunist liberal democracy, gradual progress in terms of equality of opportunity, and so on. Panel two, people no believe, or if they do they mean completely different things when they talk about these concepts. But it doesn’t make sense it would happen just like that.

Rupture and continuity: science fiction and fantasy in the twentieth century has been a site for the exploration of unusual and uncommon ideas (including being a place where seeds of extremist ideologies understood in midcentury as unamerican, mostly on the far right, could estivate, waiting for a better climate). But there’s continuity- in many respects, science fiction held to the idea of a common core of truth, generally identified with science, it’s progress, and the social progress that is meant, mutatis mutandis, to go with it, longer than it was necessarily fashionable in more “literary” publishing circles. Moreover, it seems pretty likely that Francis Fukuyama, when he wrote The End of History, thought he was ushering in a new consensus, at least among elites, not heralding an age of consensus collapse. 

Let’s get back to alternate history: with the inevitable exception of Terry Bisson (an old SDS and antifascist hand, it’s worth noting), the major alternate history producers of the End of History era, even if they didn’t buy or even know about Fukuyama’s proclamation, all, in their way, pay tribute to the last thing that could pose as a consensus picture of history — the progress and triumph of liberal democracy, capitalism, and western science and technology — even as they honor it in the breach by creating alternate history scenarios where everything goes the other way. Even Fukuyama thought the End of History would prove tiresome, especially for people who dig war, like most scifi nerds do. The consensus picture of history is the negative against which the alternate history scenarios of the End of History period could be read. I don’t think it’s a total coincidence that this was also the height of the subgenre’s visibility.

A rupture with a continuity: many of the big names of alternate history fiction from the End of History era are still plugging away in the genre. Eric Flint turns out stories of his West Virginia mining town democratizing Europe after getting zapped back to the Thirty Years War. S.M. Stirling has a series about Teddy Roosevelt winning the presidency in 1912 and starting the CIA, but cooler, early. Harry Turtledove, who really has seemed to have given up, wrote a story about Stalin being raised in the US but still doing all of his Stalin stuff as US President despite his life being completely different from babyhood. Where do these guys figure in the ideological conflict that has occurred in scifi/fantasy in the last ten years? You’d figure they’d be involved, especially with Stirling’s documented love of online flame wars.

The answer: almost nowhere. Stirling used to try to start fights with left-leaning writers early in the period but seems to have settled down of late. Occasionally, given what the Draka series looks like, left-leaning writers use his work as an example of what reactionary scifi looks like, but he’s a third-stringer there next to gaudy assholes like Ted “Vox Day” Beale. Some commenters use Eric Flint’s allegiance to the publisher Baen, which publishes a lot of the major reactionary military scifi writers, as proof that said publisher is beyond ideology, given Flint’s background as a Trotskyite organizer. Turtledove’s nowhere to be found. I tried to find commentary among the Puppygate types on alternate history. It doesn’t seem to be something they’ve thought a lot about. And if they’re not thinking about it, their opposite numbers, speculative fiction liberals, aren’t thinking about it much either, even as some produce alternate history fiction themselves. The alternate history greats of the End of History era are now like so many of our legacy cultural institutions, seemingly going mostly on inertia. 

What does alternate history mean in a situation where there isn’t really a consensus idea of what happened in actual history? You could argue that many of our fellow citizens are, essentially, living in alternate history fiction scenarios already. Here, I draw a distinction between people living with inaccurate ideas of the past in their head — that’s everyone — and people collaboratively recreating history according to standards that the participants may think are those of actual history, but are actually many of the same standards that go into creating genre fiction: entertainment value, emotional satisfaction, potential for viral spread. Think QAnon, but that’s only an extreme example. 

We have also seen a collapse of genres along with context and consensus history. Alternate history becomes one trope among many, and easily mixed with all kinds of others between and across genres. You can index this to the rising prevalence of alternate history fiction that throws fealty to science out altogether. There was always magic or what amounted to magical technology in alternate history fiction. Most of the time, before our current era, the magic was restricted to a single moment- something gets shifted in time, a single advanced technology becomes available, and we follow the historical changes. Stories where magic and ultra-technology exist throughout the story, as part of the setting, are much more prevalent in alternate history fiction written now. 

Alternate history writers of the late twentieth century were among the first to seize upon the possibilities of “alternate dimensions” and the many-worlds interpretation, as shown by subgenre progenitor’s H. Piper Beam’s “Paratime Patrol” series, the inevitable alternate-dimension-cop series by the inevitable Harry Turtledove, and so on. But the many worlds came into their own not with the schematic stories of the late twentieth century where, with few exceptions, there was a stable reference point — America, circa whenever the piece was being written — but with contemporary scifi- and not high end writers either. Those of you who think I’m a genre snob, hear me now: comic book fans and fan fiction people get many-worlds — they “grok” it, to use a term from an old scifi lion — in ways that the old scifi masters generally did not. You have to hand it to them. They navigate a world of few stable reference points. Sure, there’s canon… but who cares? Your real fan fiction head keeps a great many realities in their minds at once, lord love them. Horniness, narcissism, obsessive completism, and pedantry have driven your true fan into a mental space that had precursors before the 2008 breach but really only came into its own after. 

Alternate history scenarios, then, become so many branches of the noosphere, the realm of ideas, nothing separating them from Tolkien’s Middle Earth or any other product of the human imagination- from the world of QAnon, for that matter. I suppose if there’s a thesis here, it’s to say that the late twentieth century — arguably the whole second half — was a time of unusually strong divides in the noosphere, that people believed in, and that many of those divisions have since collapsed, leaving us in the situation we’re in today. After all, who’s to say somewhere in the many worlds of ill-understood quantum physics there isn’t a Middle Earth, or a world where JFK Jr faked his death to battle the deep state, or the scariest world of all, wherever the fuck The Brave Little Toaster happens? Well, physicists are to say, but who cares about what a Steven Hawking might have to say next to what Rick Sanchez offers our imaginations?

In the collapse of consensuses from the definition of genre to the understanding of history, we have a freedom that has naturally led to an effervescence in alternate history fiction, and in speculative fiction — in art — more generally, right? Of course we did- just like how the Internet democratized information and made people much smarter and less susceptible to misinformation. To use an expression from the End of History period and my youth: NOTTTTT! Contemporary alternate history fiction is mostly pretty lousy, much like the alternate history fiction of the late twentieth century. Most of it abandons efforts at being historically rigorous, which would be fine, a good thing even, if they did anything especially creative with it, which they usually don’t. You wind up with a lot of just-so stories and tedium, at least in part, I think, due to the shadow of YA fiction and other influences that don’t especially encourage critical thought about what a given writer is really doing. Contemporary alternate history fiction tends to be shorter than the honking long series of yore, which is nice, I guess. 

Here’s a suggestion: maybe instead of adopting a single story, or just giving the nod to any story that comes down the pike, we apply our critical capacity. We acknowledge that there’s a reality that we live in, that not everything is equally true or untrue, but also that we have imaginations, capable of seeing things that aren’t there, for a reason, to imagine possibilities and impossibilities. Maybe we can try out some old ideas and some new ones as something other than set-dressing. The first that comes to mind is the dialectic, the creation of new ideas through the opposition of existing ones, like that between our concrete realities and our limitless imaginations. Maybe games are better with rules, because everyone can play- and everyone can make new ones, everyone can make house rules with their friends. Maybe we could try communicating, but first we’d have to come up with something to say. When we do, then we can walk onto the path of the many worlds as though we belong there.

2021 Birthday Lecture – Alternate History, At the End of History and Beyond

Review – Mailer, “The Naked and the Dead”

Norman Mailer, “The Naked and the Dead” (1948) – For most of my life thinking about literature, I thought of Norman Mailer as one of the great overrated buffoons of American letters. I thought this mostly on the strength of his nonfiction. This included his pseudo-gonzo reportage from riots in Miami and Chicago but the text of his I saw the most was “The White Negro.” People invariably cite this essay in histories of American culture and thought in the late twentieth century, and in the culture-drowned internet discussions about race of twenty-first century- Norman, the archdevil of white appropriation of black culture, along with Moynihan, the devil of pathologization of the black family.

Well, “The White Negro” might be needlessly flogged but it is also, to borrow a usage I dislike, deeply “cringe.” It is genuinely a bad piece of work, and his reportage sucks hard, too, especially when Hunter S. Thompson was around, showing what was possible in the same vein. Mailer’s performance of self after the sixties is impossible to take seriously: bloviating, macho, homophobic, Hemingway without the pretense of elegance. And he stabbed his wife (and pretty much the whole of New York literati at the time, including at least one contemporary progressive saint figure in the person of James Baldwin, signed statements to let him off). That’s the Mailer who serves as midcentury New York literary foil to Gore Vidal, in the minds of internet people with some stake in being literate, little time or interest in reading long old books, and an awareness that Mailer was the straight buffoon and Vidal was the queer guy with the bon mots and the fine taste in enemies. 

So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up Mailer’s first novel, “The Naked and the Dead,” written a full decade and a half before he punched Vidal, stabbed his wife, or ran for office. What I got is actually pretty stellar, and even more impressive considering that this was a first novel from a twenty-five year old just coming back from a grueling wartime experience. It seems like a shame to me, now, that Mailer’s later reputation in many ways overshadows his first book, though Mailer himself can take most of the blame for that.

“The Naked and the Dead” tells the story of an American campaign to take a fictional South Pacific island from the Japanese, part of the “island hopping” strategy. Most of the viewpoint characters are part of a reconnaissance platoon. The island is hot and wet, the men are mostly sweaty, horny, contentious, and when not terrified, bored. We get insight into the private lives of at least a dozen members of the platoon as well as frequent visits to the general leading the campaign and his psychological war with his aide de camp. These include “time machine” sections where we get insight into the men’s lives before the war (Gore Vidal sneered at these in his dismissal of this book, saying they were second rate Dos Passos knock offs- Vidal was wrong here, and wrong about the book as a whole, which shows he takes Ls in this game, too). 

The plot isn’t complicated. The platoon lands on the island and gets shot at. The platoon hangs out on the island for a while when the campaign stalemates. The platoon gets sent on a cockamamie long-range patrol, ordered and run according to agendas that have little to do with winning the battle winds up determining their fate. Some of them survive, most of them don’t. 

More than the plot, the point of the book is the situation and the characters, a study of men — gendered pronoun used intentionally, there are no women on the island (there are also apparently no indigenous people- I’m not sure whether there any islands that big that were uninhabited out there, but whatever) — in an extreme situation around other men. Ever wanted to know what was going on in the heads of all those members of those multiethnic (but no black people) squads of WWII dogfaces, before we decided that generation was too Great to have internal lives? Mailer tells us, by the expedient of throwing them all in with each other and adding numerous stressors. 

You can see some of where Mailer’s gendered bullshit later in his career comes from, but in a larval form, arguably a form that could have had a very different growth. The root, in a predictable enough pattern, is in insecurity. All of the men in the platoon, and the general and everyone else, is in one way or another insecure in their masculinity. Even the sergeant who leads the platoon (it’s without a lieutenant for a while), Croft, a self-contained autochthon made of rage and competence, feels insecure, is constantly on guard from challenges to his manliness. The other characters — especially Mailer’s two Jewish characters, who, like him, live in the shadow of the “nice Jewish boy” stereotype (and of raw antisemitism) — don’t stand a chance. 

So, they rub up against each other, emotionally if not physically (one way the macho buffoon Mailer of later decades shows himself here is the clear association he makes between heterosexual sex and happiness, if not necessarily wholesomeness, and homosexuality — as represented by the ruthless, mind-game-playing general — and a sinister devaluing of human life). They complain about their wives and sweethearts, and fantasize about female infidelity even as they undertake many of their own. They get in little pissing contests. Much of the action are the attempts of the men to get out of doing difficult and dangerous things, and the way the Army makes their lives worse, whether they manage to get out of the firing line or not. 

As a dude who hangs out with a lot of other dudes, it all rang pretty true. The prose was good, with some pyrotechnics in places but little of the pretense Mailer with which Mailer would come to stultify us. It felt honest and immersive. I spent a long time reading this, partially because I’ve been busy (especially in my traditional novel-reading time, evenings after work), but by the end, because I was savoring it. My plan now is to read down Mailer’s oeuvre chronologically to see when he went from this guy to the guy he became. *****

Review – Mailer, “The Naked and the Dead”

Review – Butler, “Gender Trouble”

Judith Butler, “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity” (1990) – One of the things that has bemused me in the last decade or so is how concepts, tropes, and names that were distinctly “grad school” things have slipped the bonds and become something that the sort of people who never took a GRE — and not for the many good reasons not to, usually — have started bandying about. “Critical race theory,” “American exceptionalism,” “ethnostate,” etc. And to look at their work, you wouldn’t figure that Judith Butler would necessarily become this big cultural figure, either, literally a demon figure as far as many chuds are concerned.

There’s a lot of cliches about theory, and most of them have some basis in fact. The unreadability thing is often overstated, but the prose is usually ungraceful and in the case of some theorists, like Homi Bhabha, quite incomprehensible. You wouldn’t read “Gender Trouble” for the prose. Abstract, referring to other writers and their generally abstract concepts, feints towards a more thoroughgoing radicalism and theoretical bet-hedging weaved together, like a new boxer juking around the ring. The funny thing is, Butler can make themselves quite clear when they want to- you can see it in interviews and the like. Well, it was the late eighties/early nineties, high theory era. We all come from decades, like the man says.

Really, it was people taking up Butler’s work — and, predominantly, the first third or so of it, when they state their main case and before they do their exegeses on other theorists — who have made it, and them, something like household concepts/names. Gender as performance, gender as divorced from biological sex, gender as constitutive of our ideas of biological sense (to my mind, more provocatively overstated than what I know of the case would support, but that’s theorists for you). It took people — a lot of them quite divorced from the circumstances of holders of named chairs at Berkeley — applying these ideas to their lives and those around them to make them relevant. There were trans and non-binary people well before Butler put pen to paper, as they’d surely acknowledge. But Butler put a lot of the pieces of a theory of gender performance — the dreaded “gender theory” of chud nightmares — together in a usable package.

Butler also did something important, that might not be obvious, but I’ve been reading stuff from the late eighties/early nineties a lot lately, and it stood out to me. Butler explicitly linked their theorization to a feminist project. Now, it seems obvious, and we have a word for feminists who refuse the idea that gender does not straightforwardly map on to biological sex: TERFs, and they are increasingly aligned with the far right against anything resembling any meaningful feminism. But I don’t think it was necessarily the obvious angle then, and the outraged cries of TERFdom, that destabilizing their precious essentialist concepts of womanhood constitute a betrayal of their concept of where history was going, shows this. It’s not hard to imagine a similar set of concepts, in the hands of a contemporary of Butler’s — a Camille Paglia type, say — delinked from feminism, either explicitly — no transcendent feminist subject, no political movement — or with an insouciant end of history shrug. Among other things, Paglia was generally a more lively prose stylist than Butler. You can see her selling it, maybe. 

It sounds silly, and it probably is. I don’t think a non- or anti-feminist critique of gender essentialism would get that far. One thing we’ve seen is that opposition to rethinking gender roles, and the concept of permanent gender roles, is one of those things that unites the contemporary right, something that really drives them crazy, and I don’t think any theorist was, or is, going to change that. And like I said, the thinking we’re seeing now, especially it’s spread beyond academia, has a lot more to do with everyday people looking to, and adapting, these concepts to explain their concepts than with any one theorist. But it was probably a good thing — a better thing than the book as a whole, probably, which isn’t especially new news (can’t ding it for that- it’s thirty-two years old, now) or compellingly written (can ding for that, imo) — that Butler situated this as they did, for all it riled up the easily riled down the line. ***’

Review – Butler, “Gender Trouble”

Review – Butler, “Gender Trouble”

Judith Butler, “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity” (1990) – One of the things that has bemused me in the last decade or so is how concepts, tropes, and names that were distinctly “grad school” things have slipped the bonds and become something that the sort of people who never took a GRE — and not for the many good reasons not to, usually — have started bandying about. “Critical race theory,” “American exceptionalism,” “ethnostate,” etc. And to look at their work, you wouldn’t figure that Judith Butler would necessarily become this big cultural figure, either, literally a demon figure as far as many chuds are concerned.

There’s a lot of cliches about theory, and most of them have some basis in fact. The unreadability thing is often overstated, but the prose is usually ungraceful and in the case of some theorists, like Homi Bhabha, quite incomprehensible. You wouldn’t read “Gender Trouble” for the prose. Abstract, referring to other writers and their generally abstract concepts, feints towards a more thoroughgoing radicalism and theoretical bet-hedging weaved together, like a new boxer juking around the ring. The funny thing is, Butler can make themselves quite clear when they want to- you can see it in interviews and the like. Well, it was the late eighties/early nineties, high theory era. We all come from decades, like the man says.

Really, it was people taking up Butler’s work — and, predominantly, the first third or so of it, when they state their main case and before they do their exegeses on other theorists — who have made it, and them, something like household concepts/names. Gender as performance, gender as divorced from biological sex, gender as constitutive of our ideas of biological sense (to my mind, more provocatively overstated than what I know of the case would support, but that’s theorists for you). It took people — a lot of them quite divorced from the circumstances of holders of named chairs at Berkeley — applying these ideas to their lives and those around them to make them relevant. There were trans and non-binary people well before Butler put pen to paper, as they’d surely acknowledge. But Butler put a lot of the pieces of a theory of gender performance — the dreaded “gender theory” of chud nightmares — together in a usable package.

Butler also did something important, that might not be obvious, but I’ve been reading stuff from the late eighties/early nineties a lot lately, and it stood out to me. Butler explicitly linked their theorization to a feminist project. Now, it seems obvious, and we have a word for feminists who refuse the idea that gender does not straightforwardly map on to biological sex: TERFs, and they are increasingly aligned with the far right against anything resembling any meaningful feminism. But I don’t think it was necessarily the obvious angle then, and the outraged cries of TERFdom, that destabilizing their precious essentialist concepts of womanhood constitute a betrayal of their concept of where history was going, shows this. It’s not hard to imagine a similar set of concepts, in the hands of a contemporary of Butler’s — a Camille Paglia type, say — delinked from feminism, either explicitly — no transcendent feminist subject, no political movement — or with an insouciant end of history shrug. Among other things, Paglia was generally a more lively prose stylist than Butler. You can see her selling it, maybe. 

It sounds silly, and it probably is. I don’t think a non- or anti-feminist critique of gender essentialism would get that far. One thing we’ve seen is that opposition to rethinking gender roles, and the concept of permanent gender roles, is one of those things that unites the contemporary right, something that really drives them crazy, and I don’t think any theorist was, or is, going to change that. And like I said, the thinking we’re seeing now, especially it’s spread beyond academia, has a lot more to do with everyday people looking to, and adapting, these concepts to explain their concepts than with any one theorist. But it was probably a good thing — a better thing than the book as a whole, probably, which isn’t especially new news (can’t ding it for that- it’s thirty-two years old, now) or compellingly written (can ding for that, imo) — that Butler situated this as they did, for all it riled up the easily riled down the line. ***’

Review – Butler, “Gender Trouble”

Review – Bartov, “Hitler’s Army”

Omer Bartov, “Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich” (1992) – I’m old enough to remember when the “good Wehrmacht” myth still played with people who should know better. It was a Cold War myth, originally, a way to save face while rearming West Germany, but it got mixed up with all kinds of other ideas about war, memory, etc., that seem to make less and less sense the further we get from it. I imagine some chuds out there still hold to the myth, but you gotta figure they hold the harder the more we understand what the Wehrmacht actually was, both because they like to trigger libs (i.e. anyone who knows anything) and because they like what the Wehrmacht actually did, and pretending it was noble is a good way to have your cake and eat it too.

Because it’s pretty clear, now: the Wehrmacht was, as Omer Bartov put it, “Hitler’s army.” Bartov, an Israeli historian who’s currently at Brown, emerged from a variety of tedious fights in the history of the Third Reich — the debate of “intentionalism” (it was all Hitler’s idea) versus “structuralism” (it was all them reacting to/interacting with structures), the “Historikerstreit” where Nazi apologists like Ernst Nolte burnt their fingers by saying the quiet parts loud — waving a simple, undeniable thesis, backed by archival research and affirmed by where more abstract theorizing was going. Namely, if you hate your boss so much, you usually don’t fight the biggest war in human history and kill tens of millions of people when he tells you to, like the Wehrmacht did in Eastern Europe. The war against the Soviet Union was understood as something other than a normal war, even the wars the Nazis unleashed to swallow up countries like France. It was an ideological and racial crusade, extreme violence — even by the standards of an epoch of bloody wars — was always a part of it, and the Wehrmacht embraced it from the beginning.

There’s a lot of historiographical hedging here — Bartov beats the shit out of rival theories of what kept the Wehrmacht together, most of them obvious Cold War snowjobs, at somewhat tedious length — and the meat of the book comes towards the end. This is where you get the letters and the diaries, and the exposition of the totalizing world that the Nazis made in the killing zone in the East. By 1941, most of the men going into the Wehrmacht had lived under the Nazi regime most of their lives. Many of them had been through the Hitler Youth and they all mainlined propaganda. Above and beyond the specific politics, this propaganda insisted that fighting, suffering, obeying, and above all, killing, is what will make the Reich. In many respects, what Nazism aimed at was creating a sphere where that would be a reality, and they only came close in the East. However bad they were to the French or whoever, whatever they had in mind for the Atlantic powers once they got grips on them (rather unlikely), it was the East where the action was.

Probably the most compelling part to me was Bartov’s explications of a peculiar mental operation that a lot of German soldiers did. You can see this operation attested to over and over again in the literature, and you see other conquerors do it too- British, Americans, I don’t want to say it’s universal but it’s common. And that operation is, treating the human condition that these soldiers see as a result of their army’s actions as an indictment on the people they are conquering, and a justification for further violence.

Germans saw inhabitants of the Soviet Union after said inhabitants were subjected to extreme violence. The Soviets they encountered were scared, hungry, hurt, bewildered, dirty, and often far from home. People in that position don’t usually look or act their best. And it seems that more or less the official position of the Germans out there, as revealed in letters home as well as in official orders and dispatches, is that’s just how Slavs, Jews, Roma, etc. are. They don’t even really bother to say “well, we Germans wouldn’t be like that if we got invaded.” They didn’t seem to need that extra mental armature. They saw hungry, ragged wretches, who they had done most of the work to make wretched, and decided that what they saw meant that the people they were conquering were just wretches who deserve what they get (you’d figure the next step would then be “why are we bothering with them” but nobody seems to have gotten there, either, in any meaningful sense). We know what the consequences of that kind of dehumanization look like.

I’m used to stupidity and to cruelty, but that kind of motivated, but seemingly not quite intentional, divorce between cause and effect… That, I don’t really understand. I think it might be important to understand but ultimately not something you can think your way into. This mental habit was in no way confined to Germans between 1941 and 1945. I had to read “American Sniper” for a project a few years back, and that was Chris Kyle’s basic impression of Iraqis. That’s the logic behind the “shithole countries” remark. That’s how the British saw Indians, Africans, and often enough the Irish. That’s how a lot of American cops look at black, brown, and poor people.

It does seem that “official” first world culture encourages that little voice that says “they’re still people/how do you think they got so wretched, dummy?” And it seems that first world fascists can be reasonably defined as the kids who are mad that that voice got installed in their heads and want to kill it, and kill it in everyone else, joined sometimes by those who lack it entirely and are mad that people say they should have it. And, no, “leftists aren’t just as bad.” A lot of the worst leftists atrocities took place precisely when leftists didn’t do the thing they’re supposed to do, and think seriously about the lives of those in front of them. And it just doesn’t happen as often, or as severely, as crimes motivated by this sort of master-wretch dichotomy that seemingly defines the mental landscape of a lot of people in positions of relative power.

This attitude has to be institutional to get the sort of effect you saw on the eastern front, not just “bad apples” or just the SS. Ultimately, it was the logic behind the whole war. It’s one of, maybe the main, or the only, non-logic behind the concept of race in general. It defined the goals of the war in the east and its conduct. It’s why the Germans couldn’t try to move slow, couldn’t try to meaningfully ally with minority nationalities in the USSR or just Russians who hated Stalin and communism, even as, in many cases, such people greeted the Nazis, went to great lengths to join them. All that dried up pretty soon after the initial invasion, with the way the Germans treated the entire population of the USSR. Assholes like Bandera stuck with it out of a mixture of ideological fanaticism and the knowledge that there was no going back. The SS did some of their major killing actions because the Wehrmacht asked them to, after general Nazi policy so badly alienated the (previously grievously oppressed!) people of the USSR that they were willing to risk the worst retribution possible to strike back.

They were all in it together. The attempt on Hitler’s life by a small clique of Wehrmacht officers was a poorly-organized, half-hearted attempt for a few of them to save their own skins, get the Anglos on side to stop the Soviets from coming for them. The Soviets took terrible vengeance on Germany, but you’ll notice Germany still exists, which is more than would have happened to Russia or anywhere else east of Prussia had the Nazis won. Maybe because the logic of dehumanization was so prevalent in the power centers of the world no one really knew what to make of it when they saw what it all led to. Then the Cold War came along, so official historians and social scientists had a new script, and a new motivation to explain away what we saw, to redeem the Wehrmacht and so on. Well. Pretty much anyone who takes history seriously anymore gets that that’s bullshit, in no small part to Omer Bartov here, but who’s to say whether we’ve closed the barn door after the horse got out? ****’

Review – Bartov, “Hitler’s Army”

Review – Anderson, “The Quiet Americans”

Scott Anderson, “The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War” (2020) – God help me, I can’t remember why I put this book on my list. That makes it sound worse than it is. But I know enough about the Cold War that this was, as they say, “surplus to requirements.” That’s not to say I didn’t learn anything! But like… I’m just trying to figure out my thought process. Did LARB or somebody run a review that made it sound revelatory? Then I just unthinkingly put it on my amazon list and a gracious relative picked it up for me for Christmas? That’s the most likely etiology, here.

This book is about four spies who made the transition from the World War II era OSS to the Cold War era CIA. There’s Frank Wisner, the OG company man; Peter Sichel, Weimar refugee turned Cold War operator; Ed Lansdale, ad man turned counterinsurgency guru and the one I know the most about; and some guy I forget and haven’t got the book on me, but he was the classic “he was on the football team at an Ivy League school so let’s make him a SPY” type (just for extra pathos, he was Irish-American, not WASP like most people in that clade). They all did hella derring-do in the war, were mad that they got decommissioned and they just let the Soviets do whatever, supposedly (Lansdale, more Asia-oriented, had a more complicated mad-on about, like, corruption letting communists in the door, or something), wound up in the Company when “Dean” Dean Acheson himself tapped them for our new permanent civilian foreign intelligence service, the CIA. 

We all know what’s coming: high ideals compromised by, uhhh… and here’s the thing. The “high ideal” that Scott Anderson, a fairly standard establishment liberal journalist whose dad was an “agricultural adviser” in Asia in the sixties (read: he either was a spy, or reported to some) is anticommunism. Free the Romanians/Vietnamese/whoever from oppression! Show Stalin what’s what! Well… what they wound up doing, the stuff that would go on to reave the souls (such as they were) of our four spies, it was all pretty standard anticommunist stuff. 

I’m well aware of the idealism surrounding liberal anticommunism in the period Anderson writes about. I wrote a dissertation about it, mostly about the Kennedy era but I read plenty on the times that preceded it. I don’t think everyone involved was lying, exactly, when they thought they were liberating people. Ed Lansdale is the one I know the most about, and he was a cipher: he probably thought he was doing something good, but he only “thought,” as in “performed ratiocination,” to a very limited degree. He mostly just zoomed around doing whatever. But you know… insofar as people bound and determined to avoid thinking too hard about things can be said to have sincere values, some of these Company guys probably did.

Here’s the big question… so fucking what? Where exactly is the pathos? Lansdale was upset that when his schemes, like trying to dissuade the Vietnamese peasantry away from the National Liberation Front via tricking them with astrology (this is how actually racist he and the others were, that they thought that would work), invariably failed, that they called in the bombers to try to keep Vietnam in the “free world.” Sichel quit because his higher-ups kept parachuting Ivy League kids like the one from the Penn football team whose name I can’t remember into Poland or Ukraine or wherever, to meet up with a non-existent WWII-style “resistance” to the USSR. They all got caught, they all got killed — that’s most of the stars on the wall at Langley that every CIA movie lingers on — but the Company kept doing it, because, uhhh, it wasn’t the desk jockeys being dumped out of a plane there and who knows, it might work? 

It’s not pathos. It’s bathos and dark comedy. The Coen Brothers knew what to do with the CIA, in “Burn After Reading.” John Malkovich’s character, Ozzie Cox, actually waxes into a tape recorder for the memoirs no one asked for about how much he admired the old Cold Warriors, doing the thing back when men were men and you couldn’t get shitcanned for being a sloppy drunk, like Ozzie did (it’s a funnier scene when you know that Malkovich is something of a pretentious, right-leaning ass, too- and I think he knows it). The joke is, it was always a fucking joke. It’s a sad joke, a deadly one, a joke about missed opportunities, less for a “good” anticommunism than for a saner policy… but a joke nevertheless. 

Anderson misses the joke. The reasons I’m giving this a star rating above the threshold where a book is likely to get included in my “worst of” list at the end of the year are that Anderson is a capable writer, and I just can’t discourage baby’s first thinking that maybe Cold War anticommunism wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He’s outraged, outraged! By the ways the likes of Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover advance their own agendas at the expense of the noble goals of Acheson and the Company. These, along with the inevitable hubris and a bit of Silicon Valley style failed iteration, explain how the CIA erred as it did, failed as it did, became something that men like Sichel (who went on to make a fortune marketing Blue Nun- “the wine so bad it made the news!”) could no longer be proud of. Anderson occasionally points to something like “well, the US and the UK really DID delay a second front in Europe in a way that probably got millions of Soviets killed” or other elements poking a hole in Cold War mythology, with the miffed indignance of a high schooler watching his first Oliver Stone movie. Maybe… follow that train of thought? But what I do know. I don’t think I could get published in New York Times Magazine. 

But like… what did the CIA exist for other than as an extension of what the J. Edgars of the world had in mind? You can see why the Hoosier Gollum was pissed that the Ivy League boys got the assignment to extend his surveillance regime globally! He might have been better at it! In all seriousness, the dream of a meaningfully democratic anticommunist liberalism, even if you think it’s not a pipe dream at any point in history, definitely was circa 1945, after communist resistance movements just got done playing a major role in defeating fascism, and leading the fight against colonialism. There wasn’t any way to combine the disparate vagaries of the liberal anticommunist imagination at that period with anything like reality on the ground. You could, with something like Hoover’s vision of mass surveillance, manipulation of political and social structures the world over, and the occasional use of massive lethal force. And that’s what we did, the whole Cold War through. And, in a sense, it worked. As usual, Ellroy knows the score better than the liberals. 

If anyone deserves pathos, it’s the people on the receiving end, not the people doling it out but feeling bad about it. If you want to do something other than straight-up condemnation of those people, want to humanize them, the answer is obvious. As J.K. Simmons puts it at the end of “Burn After Reading,” “What did we learn? We learned not to do it again… but I’ll be fucked if I know what we did!” Put that in bronze letters on the wall at Langley, above those stars. ***

Review – Anderson, “The Quiet Americans”

Review – Elkins, “Legacy of Violence”

Caroline Elkins, “Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire” (2022) – The main thing with the British is how they’ve gotten away with it, all of it. The worst they’ve ever gotten in return for all the dirt they’ve done was some aerial bombing — by the one enemy they actually looked good next to, classic sociopath’s luck — and then spending a few decades looking a bit like a (prosperous, safe) joke-country. Defenders of the British empire like Niall Ferguson can not only acquire the kind of respectability it’d be impossible to acquire defending any other empire, but they can also pretend they’re somehow intellectual underdogs. They all act like “we already went through this,” “this” being any kind of meaningful reckoning with what empire meant, and you know that “this,” in substance, meant little Niall and undergrad Andy and hungover 10 AM history seminar (no 9s or 8s for Oxbridge boys I bet) Boris had to hear a couple of fellow students wax indignant once or twice. Man… what the Germans or the Russians wouldn’t give to have THAT have been, continue to be, their comeuppance!

Caroline Elkins pisses those people off like nobody’s business. While she builds on the work of and acknowledges many previous generations of anti-imperialists, she seems poised to be the one to lay the foundation for something like a real intellectual reckoning with what the British Empire meant. If, down the line, we flinch from Empire the way we flinch from Nazism or “actually existing Communism” — not intellectually get that it was bad, but flinch, have it built into our historical reflexes — Caroline Elkins, and this book, will probably have a lot to do with that. 

The subtitle here is “A History of the British Empire.” That is a large subject. This is a large book. Elkins, a professor at Harvard (and, I’m told, a Watertown resident! Caroline! Get at me! Let’s have beers and play keno at Mount Auburn Grill! Bring the wife and kids I learned about from the acknowledgments!), makes a number of choices here calculated to land this book with maximum impact. She tells the history of the empire through its dual experiments in violence: learning to use violence to maximum effect to maintain a world-spanning and profitable empire, and finding ways to legitimize that violence within a philosophy of liberal imperialism. 

Most of what Elkins writes about the nineteenth century lays groundwork. Liberal imperialism as a philosophy comes not handed down from a Marx figure, but as a kludge, assembled from the results of battles in parliament and the papers over what Britain’s empire meant in the nineteenth century. Edmund Burke may have led the charge against abuses by the East India Company, but his anti-imperialism wasn’t so stiff that his criticisms could not be absorbed into later iterations of imperial technique, especially once John Company had outlived its usefulness. Crises like the Great Mutiny of 1857 and the Boer Wars at the turn of the 20th century refined both the techniques and the ideologies of Empire — and later for how Elkins relates the two — into a reasonably coherent body that Elkins spends the bulk of the book examining- the British Empire of the twentieth century. 

Focusing as much as Elkins does on the twentieth century, and especially on post-WWII British imperialism, is a peculiar but considered choice. The owl of Minerva takes wing at dusk, one of the old Germans the British did their best to not think about informs us, and British imperialism took on its most articulate and fully fleshed out form as it was indisputably in decline, at the very least decline relative to other, younger global powers. More than that, focusing on twentieth century imperial conflicts forces the reader to stop thinking of the British empire as some weird old anachronism, something involving powdered wigs and wooden ships. Many of the worst crimes of the British Empire took place contemporaneously to the great ideologically-motivated crimes we are all taught to loathe, to organize our social orders around avoiding repeating. Some of them took place after a British judge sat on the bench at Nuremberg.

India, Ireland, Palestine, Kenya, Malaya… tied together more than being victimized by the same empire, but often by the same personnel. Black and Tans picked up stakes to suppress the Arab uprising against the British Mandate in Palestine, and often the Zionist revolt a decade and change later in the same place. Palestine veterans, in turn, made their way to Malaya to fight the Emergency and to Kenya to suppress the Mau Mau (the latter being the subject of Elkins’ first book). Plenty of them wound up back in Ireland to deal with The Troubles once they kicked off in the late sixties. Everywhere, these personnel, and the London-based imperial bureaucrats who deployed them, cross-pollinated techniques of repression: emergency suspension of civil liberties, economic denial often past the point of starvation, forced relocation, encouragement of ethnic and sectarian division, torture, kill squads. Everywhere, the same, shifting but essentially coherent, body of ideological techniques as well: the liberal civilizing mission and demonization of anti-imperial fighters, control of information in and out of the war zone, careful attention paid to public relations, appeals to sentimental victimhood (dead settlers, traumatized and betrayed veterans of hard wars) and erasure of the many, many more victims they themselves created. Often enough, the literal erasure, through bonfires of records when the Tommies bugged out from Nairobi, Kuala Lumpur, Delhi, Tel Aviv, of the records of what they had done.

Elkins tells it all, chapter and verse, not glosses like with the Mutiny and other nineteenth century episodes but gritty, granular examinations of the dirty wars of the fading twentieth century Empire. Just as Whigs and Tories bickered over management of the Empire at its heyday (even producing opposite condemnations, not that they ever picked up enough traction to really stop the train) but united in dedication to it, so too did Churchill’s Conservatives and Bevin’s Labour remain equally committed, for much longer than we normally associate with either party, to liberal imperialism. After all, they had to somehow recover their economic position after two devastating world wars. One of the reasons they held onto Malaya as hard as they did was that the colony’s tin and rubber production brought in dollars, the international currency that replaced the pound sterling.

But it’s not all dollars and cents (or pounds and pence or whatever made up Harry Potter ass words they use over there). And it’s not all ideology and nostalgia. One of Elkins’s strengths is the way she not only refuses to engage in boring “intentionalism vs structuralism” style debates- she treats them as though they weren’t even there, which, honestly, is one of the better ways of getting across the fundamental truth that interest and ideology mutually constitute each other. Add a third element in there, too- technique.

Let’s put cards on the table- for all the dirt they did, the British Empire didn’t do literal, Treblinka-style death camps. They routed almost the whole Kikuyu population and numerous other Kenyans besides into concentration camps, and thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands (it’s hard to say with all those torched records) died there, many of them tortured to death. But they weren’t sent there specifically to die (complete with special industrial mass murder machines), as part of a specific plan to eliminate the Kikuyu from the earth.

Well… the thing with the Holocaust is it actually got a few useful things into the thick heads of the whites. It’s a good thing we memetically associate many bad things — book burnings, open embrace of war and evil, fascism, etc. — with outsized horror and avoid them, to the degree that the lesson has really stuck. So you can see why we don’t want to “relativize” these things. And I don’t think we have to relativize the Holocaust in order to get the point across that there were, are, a lot of ways to be horrific, to be mass murderers on a historical scale, to commit crimes, as the Church fathers used to say, “that cry to heaven for vengeance” (well, the Church fathers including gay stuff in that category, which doesn’t make any sense, but it’s a good turn of phrase).

But what we probably should do is recouple existential horror to a wider range of crimes. After all, as historians have been carefully pointing out, much of the Holocaust itself didn’t take place in the six death camps, but in fields and alleys all across the German war zone- the “Holocaust by bullet” in places like Babi Yar, starvation and disease in the ghettos. These things look less like some expression of unique bureaucratic-Teutonic evil and a lot more like what other empires do. It looks a lot like what the Soviet Union did around the same time, what the US did to Native Americans, and, more to the point, what the British did — what the British were doing, what they would do again — to colonial subjects.

The point isn’t that Nazis were or weren’t worse or better than British imperialists. That’s a stupid and childish way to look at it. The Nazis had a situation, the British had a situation. They had ideologies and interests that constituted each other. I would say the Nazi ideology was, in most sense, dumber than the British one, but this book also shows up just how dumb these supposedly clever British imperialists could be. In the Nazi situation, both an interest in trying to carve a continental empire out of Europe, and ideologies that both preceded that project (but were partially generated from many of the same factors that led Germans to think their empire was workable- like a certain lack of opportunities in other parts of the world to work their will) and were radicalized by it, created the horror of the Holocaust. Other situations — mostly a situation of massive but fading and endangered international strength, and much more pliable ideologies than the Nazis usually had — generated the British horrors.

I say all this as someone who is not a pacifist, who is willing to fight, to countenance and, if needs be, do hard and dark things, for freedom and for the ability of the people to thrive. But the thing with all of these crimes is how arbitrary, how pointless they were to any end other than allowing some privileged gang to thrive. Sometimes it was big gangs — the great big gang of Anglo settler culture, they just needed their “elbow room” no matter how many people had to be killed or enslaved to do it — sometimes it was little gangs, some racial or political elite. But it was never really for freedom, except in the sense that some people got the “freedom” to do what they want at the expense of vast numbers of others. The biggest mass killings you got for that happened with decolonization- Haiti, Algeria, the actual revolutionary stages in places like France, Russia, and China before their mass killings turned into ways to consolidate the power of an elite.

Maybe you’re the sort of person who flinches from a bomb in a cafe or a guillotined aristocrat in a way you don’t from starving Bengalis or a round dozen, at least, nations of this Earth plunged into endless ethnic strife by imperial endgames. Sometimes that does seem like a pretty basic divide- those who can really make themselves feel sorry for Marie Antoinette in the tumbril, but can pass over however many French kids died of diptheria and hunger to buy her jewels (to say nothing of how many were enslaved in the Indies for the same end) with an “oh, dear,” and those who have the opposite reaction. And there’s those who feel bad about both, about neither, etc., I get that. But pathos-directionality divergence does seem pretty fundamental, almost pre-political. There’s patterns — we’ve made Sad Aristocrats the basic element of real pathos from Burke’s day to Sophia Coppola’s, you need to flash kids with bloated starvation bellies to wring a dime out of most Anglos for Sad Poors and even then we can change the channel — but it does seem some people are just more receptive to one or another type of pathos than others. It’s worrisome.

Well! We’ve gone far afield. Oh well. “Legacy of Violence” is an excellent book. It is not a perfect book. The writing is sometimes a little rushed-seeming. There’s stuff to nitpick, and one thing Tories can do is pick the shit out of nits. The effort involved to make us understand the Empire in the horror that it deserves, she has to a lot of lumping. This shows up most notably in the category of Liberal Imperialism, which she clearly is trying to punt into the category of Bad Ideologies To Be Scared Of, like Fascism and, for most people, Communism. I question whether we’re not operating in enemy terrain, here- that accepting their category schema doesn’t necessarily mean accepting their categories, and trying to modify the schema is doomed to failure. But then I think… well, nothing else has worked. And Elkins is trying, and there’s at least some evidence that hammering the point home, with a lack of interest in niceties that’s less pointed and more just sheer eagerness for getting an actual point across, is exactly what we need. *****

Review – Elkins, “Legacy of Violence”

Review – Gross, Concord Histories

Robert Gross, “The Minutemen and Their World” (1976) and “The Transcendentalists and Their World” (2021) – Forty five years is a long time in history! And let’s be real, a somewhat less long time in the rather slow-moving world of academic history. Robert Gross started “The Minutemen and Their World” near the high water mark of social history in the American academy. Minute studies of New England towns were in! It helped that we Yankees are meticulous record keepers. There’s a cruel parody of every historiographical school implicit in its work, no matter how generative. The American social historians never had that Hobsbawm-Thompson of their British counterparts/inspirations. You kind of got the idea they thought they were getting away with something. “We can… we can parse old tax records and not make a point about them but consider it ‘history from below’ because it’s not about famous people?!”

Anyhoo, Gross saw where the wind was blowing and he was writing just before the bicentennial, so he got to have his cake and eat it too. He could comb the finely-kept records of the Concord burghers, and tie it in to a larger political point, i.e., how did these people convince themselves to take on an Empire they were just recently pretty proud to be in on? 

Truth be told there’s more burgherdom than revolution — more “world” than “Minutemen” — but honestly, that’s ok. Concord was a world on the move! You might just assume it would be anyway because it was a colony, all rough and new. But it was a hundred fifty years old by 1775! It was the first Puritan settlement away from the sight of the ocean in Massachusetts. Moreover, the Puritan fathers weren’t… well, it’s complicated, and Gross doesn’t analyze it closely. The Puritans were capitalists, some of the most important proto-capitalists. But they really didn’t seem to think a lot about the potentially socially corrosive effects of capitalism, or if they did, they thought that, I don’t know, prayer and surveillance could fix it?

I was going to say the Puritans weren’t big “opportunity people,” and maybe that is right- their capitalism was the frowny Weberian kind, where you thank your stern god for his sufficiency. They were “harmony people.” They wanted everyone on the same page. They wanted to do a Heaven LARP until god pulled the plug on this whole “material reality” farce. What did that mean a century and a half on? It meant Concord didn’t know how they were going to keep sons on the farm. Land was expensive and not super great to begin with. Open lands in places we don’t think of now as “open land” — Worcester County! Vermont! — beckoned. Social control was strict in Concord and people got in big theological pissing contests. They were definitely better off than they’d likely be in Britain. But they weren’t as well off as they’d like.

A general rise of individualism connects “The Minutemen and Their World” and the book released forty five years later, “The Transcendentalists and Their World.” The Minutemen beat the British! That was unexpected! It helps that the British used relative kid gloves on them, as fellow white English-speaking Protestants. About fifty years later, Concord is going pretty well after recovering from the time of troubles around 1812, but still needs to figure out what exactly it’s for, other than a springboard to places west. Industrialization is creeping in, and going past the traditional mechanic-operator-owned shops to big mills worked by a proletariat. Lowell is in full swing and often wants to steal the courthouse — it was a good thing to have the county courthouse in your town back then — from Concord, which the townsfolk fend off with their establishment political muscle. Even as Puritanism receded, the established political powers of New England sought harmony and order over most other social considerations.

How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm once they’ve seen Andy? Andy Jackson, that is. Jackson never won Massachusetts, or came close (New Hampshire, on the other hand…). But Jacksonian politics shattered New England’s elite-run politics. In some places, including Concord, it took the form of Anti-Masonic politics. A lot of big shots in Concord (and elsewhere, including a certain Tennessean President) were Freemasons, so inchoate populism streamed that way (a similar dynamic prevailed with the Know-Nothings a generation later). Even where Jackson’s enemies prevailed, they had to learn to play the game on something like his terms, appealing to the populace, modifying old laws, and in general learning to act in a master-race-democracy polity rather than an (also racist) aristocratic-republican one. Say what you will, but he put himself at the head of a political shift that knew what time it was. 

What did all that mean for Concord and the Transcendentalists? Well… vibes, I guess? A general effort to figure out a society where there was — along with everything else — a pretty unprecedented degree of individual opportunity? I can hear people flinching away from that. I know! Most people didn’t have a lot of opportunity. I know that “opportunity” is one of those sacred words like “courage” (we don’t want to say Andrew Jackson had that, because it’s sacred and he was bad, but…). But… maybe it shouldn’t be? Maybe it’s purely fucking circumstantial? Maybe people shouldn’t need a fairy godmother of opportunity to bless them to have a decent life? And every other empire on earth had similar structures keeping out-groups from accessing the fairy godmother, and a smaller in-group. That’s all I’m saying about America. It figured out how to do a big in-group. Slavery and the destruction and dispossession of indigenous people was a prerequisite for it. I’m not saying it was great. 

And, in many respects, the Transcendentalists became the poets and philosophers of that society and its opportunities. There were others, and vast portions of that society — anyone south of New York, basically — had nothing good to say about Emerson, Thoreau, or their milieu. But, like Yankees playing the Jacksonian politics game, eventually, Southrons learned to play the Emersonian personhood game. Emerson, for his part, learned it by navigating between various factions in and around Concord. There’s the elitism of the high toned Whigs, but spiritualized- anyone could be a great soul, just like Jacksonian Democracy promised (to whites). Emerson’s Concord was only a few years out from the Unitarians basically hijacking the Massachusetts religious establishment, and a lot of Emerson’s idea of man’s relationship to the spiritual world came from them… but the Trinitarians (which eventually became Congregationalists), who held to something like the orthodox New England faith, showed how emotional appeals could actually touch people, in the way that chilly Unitarian reasonability couldn’t, so Emerson learned to take from that, too. He talked reform and was at least somewhat anti-slavery… but the real reform, as far as he was concerned, was realizing you are, in fact, fantastic, if only you realize it, the original notionally-progressive self-help hack. 

Honestly, I see more of this in Emerson than European romanticism, but what do I know? It surprises me that a curmudgeon like Carlyle would hang with this dude, but Emerson could be a mean prick too, and you gotta figure Carlyle wouldn’t look the gift horse of an American publicist in the mouth… people in the expanding south and west might have seen Emerson’s irreligion and light-abolitionism as a threat (you have to figure they just thought Thoreau was a piker and fake), but they embraced something of his anything goes — except politics! which are stupid — ethos, the idea that the individual is the basis of all good, not necessarily because said individual is the ol’ image-and-likeness, but not not because of that, either! Because Emerson copped more attitudes than he actually staked claims, it’s possible to integrate him into all kinds of projects of personal fulfillment. The South would soon be so thoroughly dominated by slaver politics that you couldn’t afford to praise Emerson for generations hence, but again- Jackson never got close to winning Massachusetts, either.

Like the Minutemen book, the Transcendentalists book is more “world” than the subjects, and honestly, that’s a good thing. As you can probably tell I am not a fan of the Transcendentalists. It’s hard out there, for an appreciator of New England’s intellectual heritage who doesn’t actually like a lot of New England thinkers! Gross, forty-five years into a tenured career, sees it all for the good. It probably was, for him. Anyway! This was respectable social history with a good intellectual soupçon. ****/****’

Review – Gross, Concord Histories

Review – Carlyle, “The French Revolution”

Thomas Carlyle, “The French Revolution: a History” (1837) – I don’t know, man. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to get out of this (he said, about the book he assigned himself). Apparently this was a standard work once! It doesn’t surprise me that a round denunciation of the French Revolution would become a standard anglophone work on it- that’s still viable today. I guess I’m a little surprised that this massive, discursive mess that takes for granted a pretty substantial knowledge of the players going in was as big a deal as it was. Because Carlyle, romantic elitist sage that he was, does nothing so pedestrian as “begin at the beginning” or “explain the significance of any of the people in the narrative” or “have a written thesis.” He just blusters. He blusters learnedly, with some good turns of phrase, and an impressive ability to project his feelings (almost always disdain), but still. Shows how relatively unlearned even educated people are now! Barely anyone knows who Madame Du Barry was, or why she was important, or the Necker affair or whatever. I know the French Revolution pretty well for a nonspecialist but would still get lost sometimes.

Still and all, frustration won out over intellectual insecurity in reading this. Carlyle doesn’t argue, really, but he gets his point across- disdain, universal disdain, disdain given just enough contrast to some theoretical world of worth to even exist, an oxygen to fuel Carlyle’s smoky peat fire of secular damnation. That dingdong Curtis “Mencius Moldbug” Yarvin cites Carlyle as his intellectual master and you can see why, not that that fatuous nerd would be fit to edit Carlyle’s copy on one of the Scottish prick’s bad days. Carlyle could make a point when he wanted to. He was quite explicit about what he thought about black people and slave emancipation, for instance. He used the bare minimum of wordy bush-beating that a Victorian sage could get away with there! He was pithy with Margaret Fuller when he insisted she accept the universe (his, though, it went without saying, not her Yankee vibration). 

But I notice one bunch who our enterprising Scot seemed kind of leery of, even though he blames the French Revolution and whatever came from it on them: the philosophes. I came in expecting some good, ripe Frenchie-smarty-pants punching, and I did not get it! Many lesser lights have made Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire and company rhetorical pin cushions. They’re not hard targets! But while Carlyle, in as close to a real argument as he comes, strongly implies that it was the philosophes who ushered in the “age of paper” that allowed the sans culottes to run wild and cause all the problems, he never really comes to grips with them, never gives them a real working over. Was he… scared? Did he figure that argument by implication — “we all know what was wrong with philosophy, guys” — would play better? Probably a reasonable assumption in his time and place. Who knows! Maybe I’ll read a Carlyle biography someday and find out. I hear he had a peach of a marriage! **’

Review – Carlyle, “The French Revolution”

Review – Barbet, Eridanus books

Really, how could I resist??

Pierre Barbet, “The Napoleons of Eridanus” (1970) and “The Emperor of Eridanus” (1982) (translated from the French by Stanley Hochman) – I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but when it features robots in napoleonic garb, has that DAW yellow spine, and costs two dollars, you just pick it up. That was the situation with prolific French scifi writer Pierre Barbet’s “The Napoleons of Eridanus” (original title: “Les Grognards d’Eridane”) when I found it on some used bookstore spree or another. I was also jazzed by the back cover, calling on the war-gaming subculture — and this was the seventies, real motherfucking cardboard-pusher hours — to embrace this novel of ultra-civilized aliens recruiting Napoleonic soldiers to lead them against space invaders.

Well, I read it, and it was… fine! Not quite as fun as I was expecting. The aliens — sybaritic brains-in-robot-suits — use telepathy to smooth out most of the bumps that came after they jacked eight or so French soldiers from the retreat from Moscow. The grognards, led by Captain Bernard, stomp everyone’s ass at space war, first their hosts’ enemies, then their hosts. They’re Napoleonic badasses, they’re not gonna take orders from a bunch of robo-wusses forever. Everyone else makes war following the orders of computers, but Bernard and company have good old human initiative and brutality. They basically don’t lose, and even when one of them dies, the hosts just clone him. This is a thing you see in pulp scifi, sometimes- the ubermenschen too uber to lose a round, except maybe once, through treachery, as the climax… and they usually come back and win that round, too.

The first one was still reasonably fun. I made a classic mistake and ordered the sequel before I read the original (it was pretty cheap). I had the idea I would try to dust off my French and read the third one, which hadn’t been translated into English. Well, the second one might explain it. Published twelve years after “Les Grognards,” Barbet is really phoning it in for “L’Empereur.” Bernard’s in charge! But the whole galaxy unites against him. He gets arrogant. Rival space empire Itain uses its space navy, led by Lenson (yes, it’s that lazy), to contain him, really breaking down the metaphor because, like, it’s space… it’s mostly fleet actions? It’s just beat for beat the Napoleonic Wars in space. Bernard invades some space-Russia and it’s all over. He can’t beat the weather! His last act as space-emperor is to have the host send him and his posse back to where they were on Earth when they got picked up, and wipe their memories of the whole thing. Done and done! It was pretty lame. 

I’m still curious about Barbet. He wrote a lot! Including a story where aliens show up during the Middle Ages, only to piss off the Knights Templars so bad that the knights learn to do space stuff to convert the galaxy to Catholicism, etc. They have another involving a Carthaginian empire that left Rome in the dust, and that idea always intrigued me too. The “Cosmic Crusader” books are translated, the Carthage ones aren’t. We’ll see what I can do- when I read French, I usually wind up writing a lot of it down anyway, so maybe I can produce some “quick and dirty” translations. Stick it on the job queue! *** (Les Grognards)/* (L’Empereur)

Review – Barbet, Eridanus books