Review- Moynihan and Søderkind, “Lords of Chaos”

Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderland, “Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground” (1998) – I like some metal but not generally black metal. Too screechy, too bombastic. I like metal (and rock music in general) where you can still hear its roots in the blues. It’s ironic that “black” metal is the major metal subcategory (I know there’s a million tiresome varietals of metal, and this is probably more true of one) that’s the farthest away from black music.

All of which is to say, I picked this book up out of interest in the far right rather than interest in black metal, or I guess the other point of interest, murder. The Norwegian black metal scene in the early nineties produced a small number of bodies and a larger number of burnt churches, a big deal in a country as staid and peaceful as Norway generally is. Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderland document the scene in minute detail, in that way of rock journalism. I thought they did a reasonably ok job, journalistically, though their subjects, especially the endlessly pedantic murderer Varg Vikernes, contest this. They mostly let the people on the scene speak for themselves, which is generally the right move.

Might as well cut to the chase of my interests- the Norwegian black metal scene embraced fascism along with other “evil” trappings and accoutrements. Vikernes, sort of the philosopher or anyway the dorm room philosophy major of the bunch, adopted fascism more intellectually than the rest, including a “volkisch” worldview that others on the scene ape more or less consciously. And there’s a lot of back and forth about whether the author Michael Moynihan is a Nazi, whether his Nazism influenced the book, so on and so on.

In certain respects, it misses the point, or anyway begins unraveling the thread at the wrong end. What both Moynihan and Vikernes are is a familiar species to anyone who’s had to deal with that just slightly too-old specimen in a cultural space: they’re Gen X edgelords. Bereft of any larger struggle, the best thing they can think of to devote their lives to is offending sensibilities. They turn this into a whole philosophy and way of life, and a means to out-do each other. They’re highbrow shock jocks. Moynihan just tried to push it farther than the others by publishing Italian occultist fascist Julius Evola, Charles Manson, and for some reason Quadaffi’s little forays into the written word. The only thing that unites these people is shock and a certain degree of elitism based on who can/will stick with the nonsense and the gore. In Vikernes’ case, he took his schtick (and I definitely enjoy applying Yiddish to this particular putz) into murder.

Moynihan took it into relatively serious journalism. I don’t think “Lords of Chaos” is a particularly good piece of evidence of Moynihan’s fascist predilections, perhaps largely down to Søderkind’s influence. I see the evidence pointing to Moynihan’s fascism as being his friendship and amanuensis relationship with James Mason, the proponent of aleatoric terrorism as a means of bringing about white revolution, and Moynihan’s flogging of Julius Evola’s work. His publisher, Adam Parfrey at Feral House, was a Jew, as Moynihan’s defenders like to point out- so he rooked a credulous Jew, nothing a fascist need be ashamed of. In “Lords of Chaos,” his fascism doesn’t surface much- the idea there’s this roiling mass of discontent with society being too boring and hypocritical (as opposed to oppressive) waiting for a spark to ignite is a right-wing notion in my opinion, but that’s about it.

But what kind of fascist repeatedly denies being a fascist, as Moynihan has? Well, the pusillanimous Gen X edgelord kind. The kind whose passion for catching out supposedly-simplistic moralistic critics — every enemy is Tipper Gore to these people — belies their inability to take a stand on anything more meaningful. Both Moynihan and Vikernes claim to be more “spiritual elitist” than anything else. Moynihan, being generally the less circumspect of the two, takes that to indulging in Satanism, the ultimate rube’s philosophy. All that spiritual crap means is they’re too cowardly to take what they believe into the streets. We all know which way the “spiritual elite” bent when fascism came around the first time.

So do I think Moynihan is “fascist” as in “a real threat?” Not really. Do I think he’s “fascist” as in “fuck him and the pretenses he rode in on?” You bet. **’

Review- Moynihan and Søderkind, “Lords of Chaos”

Review- Morrison, “Song of Solomon”

Toni Morrison, “Song of Solomon” (1977) – There’s a clade of writers whose work I respect but do not, generally, enjoy- Faulkner and Garcia Marquez are the top of that marquis. Then there’s writers I both enjoy and respect but don’t have a ton to say about, and Toni Morrison would probably be near the top there. “Song of Solomon” is in the running for the best fiction I’ve read this year, as “Beloved” was a few years ago when I read it, but I don’t have a whole big thing of commentary on it. The story of Macon “Milkman” Dead as he grows up in mid-twentieth century Michigan, “Song of Solomon” expands leisurely, but never slowly, on a world of black people extending outward from Milkman’s family tree. His family is something of a mess- an unwanted child saved by his mother and his aunt Pilate, born from a union made for dynastic convenience among petty black wealth in their small rustbelt city, two sisters too educated into precious black bourgeois conventions to do anything, family secrets extending back to rural Virginia from which they hailed.

Milkman is an everyman in the best sense, which is to say he’s relatable while being somewhat feckless, selfish, and altogether human (another Berard Complete protagonist in literary fiction to go with Naipaul’s Mr. Biswas- fully realized without being tedious in the usual manner of bourgeois fiction). He floats through life, largely on the both reproductive and emotional labor of women relatives (mother, sisters, aunt, cousin-lover), until his thirties when he tries to find both gold and home by retracing the steps his family took backwards from the Great Migration. At the edges, he encounters traces of the mythical/countercultural past that Ishmael Reed (Reed and Morrison knew and read each other) conjured in his work, underground or renegade existences of outsiders on the perimeter of American life, living more authentically than their neighbors or descendants, magically so even. Morrison keeps this elusive, allusive, on the edges of Milkman’s perception, in a way I found compelling.

What else to say? “Song of Solomon” is beautifully and dynamically written throughout. The existence of a vengeful black counter-terrorist secret society threatens to take it into realms of speculative fiction that might not work, but it does work, in the end. I wonder to what extent the book reflects its time, when the retreat from black power and the civil rights movement was in the air but hadn’t yet reached the counterrevolutionary depths it would with the Reagan years. There’s a melancholy to the work, a desire for escape and an inability to find it, this side of fantasy… I don’t know enough to say. It’s good! *****

Review- Morrison, “Song of Solomon”

Review- Naipaul, “The Return of Eva Perón”

V.S. Naipaul, “The Return of Eva Perón” (1981) – Naipaul covers Argentina, the Congo (Zaire at the time), and his home country of Trinidad in this series of essays published over the course of the nineteen-seventies. These places find him in fine literary form, though if I were an Argentine, especially, I wouldn’t appreciate the depiction. You don’t send Naipaul out, especially to the developing world, to paint a pretty picture. Argentina and Zaire, in Naipaul’s tellings, are lands of delusion covering over fundamental inadequacies. In Argentina, the delusion is longer-running, having gone since the early nineteenth century; in Zaire, it’s largely an invention of Mobutu, uncrowned king and dictator, and his cronies. Argentina tried to convince itself it was Europe (aided by the wholesale slaughter of its native population and denial of existence of black Argentines), Zaire pretended to be an “authentic” African state forging its own path into the future when all either were doing, according to Naipaul, were fleecing each other and degenerating. Peron, husband and wife (wives), are what Argentina deserved, and peculiarly enough the closest to a revolution it would ever get. Zaire gets more of a Conrad treatment which was less interesting than the other essays, and there’s also an essay on Conrad I skimmed because I don’t know the author well and am not wild about him in any event.

The Trinidad case is interesting because it’s about another Trinidadian who made it big in England, like Naipaul did: Michael de Freitas, aka Michael X, British/Trinidadian Black Power leader and multiple murderer, who made a brief splash in mid-60’s England by posturing as a black power leader and getting people to go along with it, though not enough to substantiate an actual movement. Michael X was a part-black, part-Portuguese Trinidadian, which translated in England as just black. Naipaul comes from the island’s Indian community. I’ve heard it suggested that this essay, larded in contempt and with a palpable sense of doom, is Naipaul’s revenge for having been a dorky Asian swot surrounded by bigger, meaner black kids who essentially inherited the country out from under the Asians when the British moved out. It’s a nasty reading but Naipaul was a nasty guy. I could also see it as contrasting the fame Michael X briefly accrued from credulous white lefties, including John Lennon, eager to believe any black man with a grudge was a true revolutionary, with Naipaul’s own process of shucking and jiving Tory-ish for his own right-wing white patrons, which of course goes unmentioned, as it always does in Naipaul (did Naipaul have any rock star fans? Ray Davies, perhaps?). Either way, it’s a squirm-inducing homecoming for the eventual Nobel laureate, as his black other half winds up on the gallows for murdering several of his followers, dismembering two with a machete. All told, quality essays, though one questions some of his more severe judgments as coming from a place of Tory swot-ishness. ****’

Review- Naipaul, “The Return of Eva Perón”

Review- Stross, “Accelerando”

Charles Stross, “Accelerando” (2005) (narrated by George Guidall) – One thing that has struck me lately is how, outside of the “New Wave” of scifi in the late sixties through the seventies, scifi will depict the most outlandish developments — often transcending the merely human plane — in fairly conservative ways, literarily speaking. Probably this is a good thing- I’m generally more interested in inventive concepts and gripping plot than I am in literary experimentation. But it is interesting, beyond prose, how often old tropes find their way into these stories of dashing future exploits.

Both family/lineage stories and, to a much lesser extent, monarchy find their way into the posthuman explorations of noted blogger and novelist Charles Stross in “Accelerando,” arguably his flagship work. “Accelerando” started life as nine short stories, linked together by three generations of the Macx family, who experience (and affect) the rapid changes of the twenty-first century. We start with Manfred Macx in a recognizable near-future and as a recognizable near-future (or present) type- the peripatetic internet entrepreneur/techno-hobo, wandering around Europe drinking beers and coming up with “six ideas before breakfast” about how to hack normal economics into post-scarcity, AI-and-human-upload-friendly forms. He makes some deals with some uploaded sentient lobsters to start mining in space, and takes real hell from his dominatrix tax lawyer wife Pamela. Their kid, Amber, does some shenanigans to divorce from her mom, moves to a Jupiter orbital platform as a teen where she eventually makes herself queen, and before long leads a group of other space-teens to an alien communications portal just outside the solar system, or uploads of their brains anyway. The son her left-behind body has, Sirhan, meanwhile tries to write the history of the post-singularity future as assorted post-humans and AIs turn out to want to make the solar system unfriendly to biological life.

There’s a lot going on here. What starts as a hippie-ish dream of “ajambic” post-scarcity gift-economy economics becomes a nightmare of sentient corporations creating “Economy 2.0” and dismantling the planets to make “matrioshka brains,” concentric rings of massive super-computers to run simulations of intelligences forever. This supposedly solves the Fermi paradox of why aliens haven’t come knocking- at a certain point, most advanced civilizations basically upload themselves up their own asses and don’t want to bother exploring away from the good bandwidth. Despite having been on the cutting edge of technology for a century, the Macx clan winds up helping to lead a relatively-technologically-backwards group of humans who want to keep their bodies into forming colonies in deep space, away from their “vile offspring.”

Probably another reviewer would want to geek out over the other technological gee-whizzery Stross comes up with, and there’s plenty of it, much of it very creative, but I want to talk about the underlying paradigm a little. Beyond the family lineage stuff and the space-monarchy (potential birthday lecture topic in future years- a brief history of space monarchies), everything is very rules-based. Getting ahead means hacking the rules. Amber essentially hacks both corporation and sharia law to liberate herself from Pamela, and Pamela hacks sharia right back to try to retrieve her. Manfred’s whole career is finding strange loopholes, creating automated corporations and doing other shenanigans. Sirhan is more conservative, more rules-attached, and by that time the “rules-based order” to borrow a phrase from international relations has gone pretty distinctly anti-human. Force seldom seems to decide anything. Hacking and shenanigans does. When parasitical aliens hijack Amber’s crew in a simulation space, they don’t just threaten to blow up her spaceship once she starts maneuvering against them, which would be pretty easy because it’s just a flying canister with computer-stuff in it. It’s a consistent vision of the future, but one that clearly gelled pre-9/11 and came into full form pre-Trump, and is more than a little eye-roll-worthy. Stross is every basically decent technie nerd that cannot, will not, understand structural conflict, especially between classes, and thinks progress is basically finding the right systems to render conflict irrelevant. He’s far from the worst in that clade and has a sense of humor about the “rapture of the nerds” — it doesn’t really work out — but still. An entertaining yarn with a lot to think about, down to both Stross’s vision and his limitations. ****

Review- Stross, “Accelerando”

Review- Jackson, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”

Shirley Jackson, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” (1962) – They’re creepy and they’re kooky/they’re altogether (something?)/nuh-na-na-na-na-na-nah/The Blackwood family!

Listen: a goth, I am not. In fact, I used to be pretty anti-goth before I learned to just let people enjoy things without my interference (to be fair, I was outnumbered by goths and pro-goths who hadn’t gotten that memo yet, either). To a certain extent, it’s the narcissism of small differences, different shades of interest in the tragic- my emphasis on conflict and the agon, theirs on the outcome, the beauty of the dead and damaged… or in less exalted terms, I like wars and they like murders… or that all could be bullshit. Either way, like I said in my Mishima review last time, I’m altogether not much of an aesthete, so the goth (or punk, or really most subcultures) way wasn’t for me.

So what do I get out of gothic literature? And does Shirley Jackson’s oeuvre really count? I think the answers to those questions are “not as much as other people” and “yeah, basically, at least this book does.” In “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” we are taken into the mind of Mary Katherine Blackwood, from a family of creepy murdered people the only survivors of which are her cohabitants sister Constance and uncle Julian. They live in a creepy old house in creepy old small town Vermont. Mary, or Merricat as she is known, lives her life according to the sort of rules and rituals made up by someone who stopped growing up at around twelve, or around the time most of her family was poisoned to death by… somebody. She buries things in the yard and nails other things to trees for their magical, protective properties. She’s into mushrooms, especially deadly ones, and her cat Jonah. Her sister consumes herself with cooking and other domestic tasks, and Uncle Julian obsessively documents the day in which his family was poisoned and he himself rendered invalid. It’s a gothic scene, I think we can all admit.

Her post-murders applecart is upset by the intrusion of her materialistic cousin Charles. Charles wants the family money, and is quite willing to turn Constance against Merricat to get it. He’s no match for her, though, and her means of removing him leads to what was for me the most interesting part of the book, a conflagration at their house followed up by a mob attack on the family- the Blackwoods had become fell legend for the small-minded Yankees they lived amongst and the fire became a bacchanalia for their greed and violence. Between the villagers and cousin Charles, you can’t help preferring the Blackwoods for who they are, creepy and potentially murderous though they are. Presumably, this was the effect towards which Jackson aimed.

All told, I could get why this is such a well-loved novel by so many people I know. It was definitely meticulously put together, and I’m interested in having more looks at Shirley Jackson’s work, especially her short fiction. That said, it’s not especially calculated to grab me. The stakes — the maintenance of Merricat’s way of life and the mystery of who murdered her family — didn’t interest me that much, for reasons not really the author’s fault. I wouldn’t say I related to Charlie or the villagers as opposed to the Blackwoods. Maybe I most related to Uncle Julian, who wanted to be fed, watered, and left alone to his historical researches… or maybe I just relate to the world outside the suffocations of the gothic, even if I can appreciate the intricacy and skill of its structures. ***

Review- Jackson, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”

Review- Mishima, “The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea”

Yukio Mishima, “The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea” (1963) (translated from the Japanese by John Nathan) – I’m pretty opposite-day from Yukio Mishima. White, straight, fat, socialist, given to thinking in moral-cum-political terms versus Asian, gay, jacked, fascist, given to thinking in aesthetics and gestures. He’s an icon of world literature where I’m a lowly scribbler, but then again I haven’t bungled any auto-disembowelments in my life, so that’s something.

All that is to say I read Mishima in many respects to get into an alien mindset. It’s not a race or nationality thing, either, I don’t think- there are plenty of other Asian writers I can relate to just fine. I think it comes down to the role that aesthetics play in our respective lives. I’ll be the first to admit I’m aesthetically impoverished. I think I get how to avoid embarrassment under lax standards of judgment — whether the sartorial standards of schlubby intellectual-political types or the prose standards of genre fiction and criticism — and that’s about it. For Mishima, and for a lot of other writers and I think at least a few people in my life, aesthetics are a whole independent realm of experience and judgment, free (or, at any rate, detached) from the bits of the world that make more sense to me, the world of material and lexicographical conflict and compromise.

So sometimes I struggle with writers like Mishima. Certainly, I think little of his interventions in my world, the world of politics, where he embraced extreme right-wing Japanese imperialism… but then again, how much that was a political intervention versus an aesthetic one is open to debate (and so is the question of whether that matters, at bottom, or where the bottom is, etc etc). But I do try to understand literature on its own terms, and even an aesthetic goldfish like me can see something in Mishima’s writings, even in translation.

Out of the Mishimas I’ve read, this one is probably the most straightforward in terms of laying out what it’s about. Noburu is a thirteen-year-old boy in then-contemporary Japan. Raised by a widowed mother, he’s part of a gang of adolescents furious in their hatred of the adult world of compromise and sentimentality in favor of teenaged nihilism and transgression. One of the few things this gang can be said to approve of is the sea, so when Noburu’s mom gets together with a sailor, Noburu is tentatively pleased. A sailor represents connection with the high aesthetic ideal of the sea, of storms and death, of women left behind, etc. etc. Mishima’s not so didactic as to lay out a system of aesthetics, of what counts as worthy and what doesn’t- one of my problems with aesthetic types more generally is they don’t come clear about these things. But we do know the sea is cool and sailors are all right.

They’re all right, that is, until the sailor tries to be that worst of all adult things- a father. From where I sit he tried to be a pretty good one- if anything, a little too lax and understanding when he discovered Noburu had been spying on him and the mom having sex. But that, if anything, makes things worse from the point of view of Noburu and the gang. The last scenes are of the gang luring the sailor out to a cave where they plan on poisoning and dismembering him, which they had already practiced in a grueling earlier sequence involving a kitten. The sailor keeps joking and telling stories, trying to ingratiate himself with the boys and making them all the surer they’ll do the deed in the end.

This is a short book and wastes nothing in presenting a hermetic world of the boy Noburu, pierced by a fleeting glimpse into the adventure of the unknown and moments of transgression. I think of the cliches of amazon-review criticism- no likeable characters. That’s true enough, though even a goody-goody like me can recognize some of the thought process behind the adolescent nihilists. In all, this is an aesthetically sound, interesting, and at times disturbing artifact of the sort of mind I can only as yet grasp from a distance. ****’

Review- Mishima, “The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea”

2019 Birthday Lecture: The Countercultural Vision of History

Ishmael Reed is back in the news these days. The writer, now eighty-one years old, got national attention for his latest play, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Most of the headlines of pieces on the play are some variation of “Ishmael Reed Does Not Like Hamilton,” and indeed he does not. He sees the hit musical as whitewashing the Hamilton family’s involvement with slavery and the generally elitist politics of its subjects. Reed’s play is about the ghosts of the family’s slaves, as well as displaced Native Americans and indentured servants, coming to haunt Lin-Manuel Miranda, who whimpers piteously that he was basing it all off Ron Chernow. In interviews, Reed claims that Chernow, not Miranda, is the real target of the play. The Haunting sounds basically on the historiographical money, though perhaps a little dry.

The news pieces on Reed’s blast at Hamilton struck a chord with online people who associate the musical with gormless liberalism- some of you probably shared articles on it somewhere I could see them. Vice ran a video piece that followed Reed as he saw the play for the first time (he had previously only read the script), and he presents a likably irascible figure. Beyond that, though, Reed is in the position many of us know well, shooting rubber-bands at a cultural juggernaut. Thus far, Lin-Manuel Miranda and his people have not deigned to notice the play about his haunting, and Hamilton continues to be a big smash success.
Had Miranda wanted to take the offensive against Reed — and I’m not saying he should have, either morally or strategically — the materials are there. Ishmael Reed has had a long and let’s just say colorful career. In the sixties and seventies, he was a major literary star: one of his poems was the last in a volume of the Norton Anthology of English Poetry, literally the show-stopper of the canon. He’s been feted by critics across the spectrum from Amiri Baraka to Harold Bloom, the latter of whom included Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo in his list of five-hundred canonical works in the western canon. It looked, for a while, like Ishmael Reed might be the future of American literature.

Then, the seventies happened. Reed was always pugnacious and individualistic, a hard combo in the cliquey world of literature at any time, but harder still in the heightened ideological atmosphere of the 1970s. He wasn’t a movement guy- Amiri Baraka might have praised him, but Reed had little but scorn for black nationalists, either in terms of their literature or their politics, and he received at least one public death threat for writings satirizing militancy. He had his own ideas.

Things really started to sour after he got into an acrimonious public feud with Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple. A recurring pattern in Reed’s public beefs is that he starts out with a reasonable criticism. In this case, Reed began publicly wondering why it was black men were so often depicted as incestous sexual monsters in the works of supposedly progressive writers. He gets in trouble with his conclusions- black women writers were in league with white men to bring down black men, all part of some literary-sexual conspiracy. Feminism, to Reed, was the political expression of a lynch mob mentality directed at all men but at black men in particular. He says stuff like that in his essays — still does, sometimes, though he tones down the conspiratorial aspects — and has his characters say this in The Last Days of Louisiana Red, where I first encountered this tendency in a chapter-length rant by the main character. It was a weird thing to stumble upon, to say the least.

Other writers reacted to Reed accordingly, drawing a kind of cordon sanitaire around him. This in turn led Reed to becoming increasingly bitter and small, and it showed in his books. Where once he wrote sprawling works packed with symbolism and crackling with strange energies, his books from the 1980s onward lose a lot of their creativity. They engage with a world derived from bad op-ed writing rather than one created from myth and poetry, and they always involve a Reed-substitute character giving the comeuppance to some deserving representative of the establishment, often enough including feminists. I’m not going to do Lin-Manuel Miranda’s publicity hacks’ jobs for them, but there’s definitely enough pull-quotes about Reed’s feelings on feminists, women, and gays to go around.

If not to pillory Reed — if not to pull the old switcheroo, making you see the harsh truth behind a figure you might have briefly liked, clicking on some of those anti-Hamilton pieces — why else am I bringing him up? Well, there’s a few reasons. For one, I don’t think it’s that simple of a story. Reed’s a complicated figure. It would be a lot simpler if he had never created anything worth our time, but that’s simply not the case. His work from the 1960s and early 1970s is first rate, innovative, performing a high-wire act of drawing both from the highest and lowest ends of culture. Even in his lesser later works, you still see flashes of what made him great in between the silliness and superciliousness. In short, he’s not an ordinary troll, or anyway that’s not all he is. He’s also someone who partook in the construction of a particular vision of America’s past, present, and future, and I think the liabilities in that vision help explain his troll turns.

Most of the ideas of the American past that we now receive come to us from a breaking point: the breaking of the American establishment consensus idea of what American history was (and hence what American society is). Expressed by the historians of the mid-20th century, this held that American history was characterized by a consensus on the worthiness of liberalism, democracy, free (but sometimes regulated) markets, orderly progress, etc. When conflicts arose, like the US Civil War, they were over defining these concepts. In this, they argued, America was — is — exceptional.

That’s a ruthless simplification but I have a lot to get to. The point is, starting in the 1960s, there arose challenges to this consensus school, and different conceptions of the American past gobbled like so many hungry, hungry hippos over the minds of the American people. Even conceptions of the American past that partook of many of the ideas of the Consensus school were incapable of putting it back together just as it had been. Liberal believers in progress had to make previously marginalized voices part of the story (this is more or less the stream Hamilton comes from); conservative believers in American exceptionalism had to explain away the parts of American history that seemed a lot like the grubby histories of every other country in the world, and of course there were other, rival conceptions that undercut all of these assumptions.

It’s not just historians who create our concepts of the past. It wasn’t in the days of the consensus and it isn’t in our day or any time in between. In a sense, everyone who thinks or talks about the past, no matter how vague a notion they have of it, contributes to the creation of shared views of the past. This is true of actors with no intention of making a statement about the past- people looking to write a novel, say, or produce a TV show, or get elected to office, or make their kids grateful for some treat, etc. Conceptions of the past created largely by non-historians are important, but much vaguer than those professionally crafted… so you’ll just have to bear with me.

One of the actors on the spot for the collapse of the consensus narrative of American historiography was the counterculture. Here, I want to define my terms, mostly negatively. When I talk about the counterculture I am not talking about the New Left, as defined by groups like Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers, the anti-Vietnam War protests, and so on. I’m referring instead to those who put emphasis on “dropping out” of a mainstream society they defined as being stricken by a variety of largely psychological or spiritual ailments- boredom, hypocrisy, malaise, etc. Rather than tackle these problems or source them to a political or social structure that created them, the counterculture sought to escape them. They did this physically by establishing communes and spiritually by various “mind expansion” techniques- drugs, eastern spirituality, rock music, so on and so on.

Of course, the New Left was on site to help redefine American history, too, and was in many respects better equipped to do so. And they did- a lot of contemporary American historians from that generation were involved in the New Left in some way, and they pioneered a historiography that stressed conflict, discontinuity, and non-exceptionalism in the American past. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I want to talk about the countercultural conception of the American past.

In keeping with the differences between the counterculture and the New Left more generally, there was some overlap between their historical understandings but many important differences, most of them involving emphasis on the political. If the New Left’s vision of American history has helped shape academic ideas of the American past, this is because it had a thesis about the sorts of things historians study, expressed the way they express things- articles, pamphlets, books, conference arguments. The countercultural idea of the American past was expressed indirectly, by inference, mostly (but not exclusively) in works of art- novels, poetry, film, etc. The counterculture’s idea of history is affective and reticular. Affective in the sense of privileging structures of feelings and expression over structures of politics, economics, etc. Reticular in the sense of being a reticule, or, in plain English, a “grab bag”- instead of neatly laid out narratives, it has a basic shape and concepts bump up against each other and form connections within the basic shape. This makes it harder to pin down, but by no means makes it less important.

Let’s get into specifics. Probably the easiest way to illustrate what I’m talking about is to talk about one of the ur-images of American history: the frontier. To the consensus historians, the frontier was one of the things that made America exceptional, that guaranteed that old aristocratic hierarchies from Europe couldn’t reproduce themselves, that guaranteed democracy- this is the Turner thesis, named after Frederick Jackson Turner, one of the great grandaddies of the American historical profession, who first advanced the idea in the 1890s. To the New Left, the frontier was sometimes a promise — consider how many of them came to political awareness under the influence of John Kennedy, who called for a “New Frontier” — but mainly a site of conflict, brutal conflict, between Native Americans and whites, between the US and other countries, between social classes, so on and so on.
The frontier is also a key concept for the countercultural understanding of the American past. The consensus school enshrined the frontier for what it created- modern American society. The counterculture held up the frontier as being what modern American society lacked- what it lost, in fact. You can argue, in many respects, that the lost frontier — the ejection from the garden, the creation of mainstream society with all of its repressiveness — is the reticule, the grab bag in which the parts of the counterculture concept of American history coexist outside of much in the way of linear order or structural hierarchy.

Once you know to look for it, you see it all over, from the counterculture’s fetishization of Native Americans to the writings of the Diggers and others to the emphasis on small-scale technologies, from the acid blotter to the personal computer, as tools of liberation one can take with them out to a frontier- as opposed to the big technologies, factories and room-sized computers and the like, favored by mainstream society at the time. They don’t call it “the Electronic Frontier Foundation” idly. Escape and transformation are key counterculture themes- for the American branch of it, anyway, it’s almost inevitable that they’d reach for the frontier as a key metaphor, as a space to escape to and in which to transform.
This trope produces some very strange visions of what went on in the American past. In many ways, it’s one of the more natural things you can imagine- a group of people projecting themselves into the past, locating an honorable lineage for themselves. This takes some strange shapes in the case of the countercultural past. A good resource for this is a book called “Gone to Croatan,” an edited volume put out by the anarchist press Autonomedia in the early 1990s. The essays are all about pre-20th century “dropout” cultures- various communalists, runaway slave communities, whites who ran off to join the Native Americans, etc. Taken together the essays in the volume produce a number of impressions: first, the sheer fecklessness of comparing the impulse to “drop out” of stultifying midcentury conformism with running away from one’s masters or facing genocidal violence; but second, the sort of affective, reticular approach to history I’m talking about. What binds the subjects of Gone to Croatan together is less any structural relationship or shared frame of reference but more the sort of mood or attitude that they conjure up in the reader, or, anyway, the intended anarchist reader of the early 1990s.

A lot of Gone to Croatan is taken up by an earlier effort that shows a strange intersection between academic history and countercultural historical vision. This is the strange story of the Ishmaels- not to be confused with the Ishamel, Ishmael Reed, we started with and to whom we will return. The Ishmaels were a poor family in and around Indianapolis in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Numerous and impoverished, they were a target for the active eugenics movement in the State of Indiana, and made the subject of a once-famous ethnographical study that labeled them “the Tribe of Ishmael.” Oscar McCullough, the sociologist who “discovered” the Ishmaels, was something of an amateur orientalist on top of everything else and threw in various references to exoticize and other-ise this family, which soon suffered under Indiana’s eugenic sterilization regime.

Fast forward to the 1970s, and the Ishmaels are discovered by yet another supposed do-gooder, Hugo Leaming. Leaming was a grad student at the University of Illinois. He found McCullough’s research, took some giant leaps of logic on his own, and concluded that the Ishmaels were in fact a tribe- a part of an underground of tri-racial — that is, part white, part black, part Native American — society of secret Muslims that existed on the frontier before the forces of the Man — people like McCullough — shut them out. He further speculated that the Ishmaels and others from this posited Islamic subculture helped found groups like the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple, which were gaining substantial attention at the time.

A good book on this is over in the “Ds” on my bookshelves, “Inventing America’s Worst Family” by Nathaniel Deutsch. It showed that both McCullough and Leaming were wrong, and there was little to separate the Ishmaels — a common enough name in Wales — from other poor white families who found their way to Indianapolis and other cities around that time. In fact, he tracked down the Ishmael family’s own genealogy websites, and found bemusement and consternation at the range of mixed messages their family history had been made to tenuously support.

Lost tribes surviving — thriving, even — on the margins of society, staying under the radar of officialdom, living a truer and more authentic life than those accepting the rules of mainstream society, rebelling by their very existence- you can see how that would appeal. More than that, the countercultural vision of the American past was participatory. You could participate in finding these lost groups and reviving them, like Leaming and other participants in Croatan. You could emulate them in your own life. If the book was published in the 90s, it has the stamp of the 70s and 80s on it as well, the decades when participatory history, with its reenacting and craze for genealogy, first got underway.

This is where history gets conflated with art, and this is where we return to literature and to the work of Ishmael Reed. Reed’s called his approach to literature “neo-hoodooism,” in reference to the version of voodoo originated in New Orleans in the nineteenth century. Like the Afro-Carribbean religions, Reed’s vision is syncretic, black themes changed by the experience of the New World and intermixing with other traditions. His novels (especially his earlier, better ones) are less driven by plot or character in the traditional western literary sense and are more like “conjurings” in this hoodoo sense, sacred dramas that instantiate a vision of the world and a prophecy of the future.

This merges most clearly with the historical vision of the counterculture in his 1969 novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. In it, a society of children living in the wilderness and dressing as Native Americans are destroyed by the forces of land speculation, who create a town inhabited by figures representing the other evils of mainstream society- racism, organized religion, and so on. The only survivor is the Loop Garou Kid, a black cowboy and conjurer who joins other outsider-types in raining surreal destruction upon the town created in this act of slaughter. It’s at once an allegory for the destruction of a frontier seen as a space of freedom from mainstream society and a prophecy of that society’s destruction and the frontier’s rebirth.
Reed’s historical vision is on display in other works, most notably Mumbo Jumbo, about a sort of jazz-brain-virus that threatens to loosen up society in the 1920s, and Flight to Canada, a similarly surreal novel about the underground railroad, but I won’t go too deeply into them. What all of them have in common is the vision of both a prior existence and a rebirth of a spiritually authentic, liberated, non-Judeo-Christian polyculture in America. The very form of his novels — surreal, discursive, self-referential, partaking more of spoken language than canonical literary form — merges with its content and themes in this case. Even if you don’t believe a word of it, historically or aesthetically, his early novels are significant achievements.

At much the same time Reed was accomplishing these things, he was squabbling with the black freedom movement, praising capitalism and dictators like Papa Doc, and eventually coming to his big blow-up with feminism. The connective thread of his more recent forays into the public are defending any black men who find themselves in controversy — including Barack Obama along with Mike Tyson, Clarence Thomas, and OJ Simpson — from foes he inevitably compares to Nazis, be they feminists or actual white supremacists. Reed isn’t the only example of a right-wing strain in the counterculture. There’s the history of libertarianism, which we don’t need to rehearse here. There’s also a weird strain of Confederate apologia running through the countercultural idea of history, from Howard Zinn’s equivocating about who was right in the Civil War to the image of the Confederate as the great symbolic rebel against mainstream society in hippie writer Richard Brautigan’s The Confederate General from Big Sur. If it turns out the losers of the American past were all heroic underdogs, and the Confederates lost… most Confederate nostalgia can be traced to resistance to the black freedom struggle but it’s been at least abetted by the romanticization of rebellion qua rebellion that the counterculture helped promote.

What to make of all this? The space of freedom imagined in the countercultural vision of the past is not a space of responsibility, and what all of the structural critiques we see in the aftermath of the 1960s have in common is a call to take responsibility for imbalance of power and the iniquities thereby created. Even using the phrase “space of responsibility”” brings Reed’s literary villains, like Drag Gibson, the land speculator in Yellow Back, or the Knights Templar from Mumbo Jumbo, to mind. The countercultural vision is a picture of freedom as escape- not just from specific oppressions, mainly not even that, but from the very existence of the sorts of structure that could be used to any purpose, oppressive, liberatory, or otherwise. In short, it’s taking for the hills, fleeing for Croatoan, making like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress — or Siddhartha, for that matter — and leaving it all behind, even if “it all” includes a family and responsibility. Wherever responsibility rubbed up against this particular form of freedom in Reed’s work, responsibility lost out- and those who would be on that losing side often viciously satirized.

Along with everything else, Reed was one of the early backers of multiculturalism, calling for ethnic studies departments in universities, publishing authors from all sorts of backgrounds (including some of the first collections of Asian-American literature in the US), suggesting a bewildering array of ethnic literature from obscure slave narratives to assorted white-ethnic works as replacements for the conventional canon of American literature.

Taken together, I think Reed and the countercultural vision of the American past represents an early draft on the concept of multiculturalism. It partook both of the wide visionary nature and the fecklessness of movement culture of the 1960s and 1970s. Participants, from Ishmael Reed to cranky facebook boomers, not only see an attempt to correct its fecklessness as an imposition, but seem to interpret it as a threat to the whole project. Responsibility is just bringing back the structures that they sought to escape in the first place. The point of the polyculture, in this early draft of multiculturalism, is that it’s free and fun (well, for somebody, anyway), not necessarily that it’s just. I’m not certain anyone involved would see the distinction. As with so many baby boomer projects, we are getting stuck with the bill for fixing the situation.

I came to this subject because of my interest in how non-historians create involved visions of the past. This can tell you a lot not just how people see history but how they go about constructing their worlds more generally, what make up their patterns of thought. There must have been a feeling of exhilaration, the sense of rediscovering a better, freer history, which can point to a better future… the rebels of the sixties sought to awaken society from the somnolence of the Cold War consumer society, but many of them sought to escape into another dream. These were dreamers who resented being woken up.

2019 Birthday Lecture: The Countercultural Vision of History

2018 Birthday Lecture: tradition and Tradition Amongst the CHUDs

What the hell is history good for?

This is the first Peterfest, in its contemporary form, where I stand before you… not a graduate student, but a doctor of philosophy in history. I also stand in front of you fortunate- I am gainfully and remuneratively employed in something that I am reasonably ok at, but not what I went to school all those years for, exactly. But that isn’t the reason I am asking, “what the hell is history good for?” To the extent I ever really know why I ask the questions I do — never my strong suit — I think it’s out of curiosity about the other. How do people understand history, that of themselves, the societies they live in, the world as a whole? What do they talk about when they talk about history?

One of the interesting things that’s happened in the last few years is that a number of things I learned about over the course of a long and advanced history education have jumped the gap from academic obscurity to something you might hear on the news or quoted at you by a rando online. One example of this is how “American exceptionalism,” a real grad-school honker of a phrase, the sort of thing that was considered a “problem” for sententious tenured types to go back and forth over, slipped the bounds of academe and has become something that presidential candidates need to swear fealty to. As a student of the history of the far right, this happens in even more jarring ways. One example of this has been the lurching of the figure of one Julius Evola into public consciousness, culminating (so far) in news stories parsing who this guy was and why Steve Bannon talked about having been influenced by him.

By the time I started seeing his name in CNN articles, I had known about Evola for a decade. Like many subjects of my birthday lectures, I can’t remember exactly when I first heard of him, but I vaguely remember it being in some kind of a role-playing game supplement. This is fitting- Evola was, basically, a cartoon villain. He was an minor Italian nobleman who got involved both in occultism and fascism. He survived the war and was at the center of a circle of neofascists, including some terrorists, until his death in the 1970s.

In the way I often wind up with projects — picking something that happens to pop into my head and sticking with it until it’s done without quite knowing why — when I was in my very first semester of grad school at the New School, in the fall of 200coughcough, I took a class on the history of fascism and decided to write my term paper on Evola. To the extent I really had a thesis question going in, it was about the concept of “traditionalism,” a movement Evola claimed to belong to. What tradition did Evola mean- how did he conceive tradition? How would he remake society to fit his vision, how did it differ from other fascists, so on and so forth.

I remember going in thinking that Evola was basically Tolkien but mean. That he would harken back to some “traditional” way of life — that of the Italian peasantry, say, or medieval Europe — and project his ideal society on to that. It’s curious to see what people cherry pick, how they try to implement stuff like that… alas, that would be too simple. Soon after cracking open “Revolt Against the Modern World,” I found that the tradition that Evola’s traditionalism refers to is not any of the actual existing bundles of ideas and social arrangements handed down across generations that actually exist on Earth, in his time or any other. Instead, the tradition in question was a body of occult knowledge, roughly coincident with western esotericism. In the Traditionalist telling, this knowledge was handed down from teachers to students through a process of initiation since time immemorial- many of them refer to it as coming from Atlantis or Hyperborea or some such made up place. In some versions of it, the Tradition were the broadly-believed folkways of some distant past, but in recorded history, the Tradition was the property of an intellectual elite who guide society, or should anyway, in accordance with its unchanging rules.

Traditionalism, in turn, was part of a larger wave of movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that sought to eschew western rationalism in favor of more emotionally satisfying alternatives. A lot of bored bourgeoisie on both sides of the Atlantic dabbled in one or another flavor of spiritualist or occult shenanigans at this time- this was the time that saw Helena Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley become international celebrities. Traditionalism was a few notches more intellectual than many of the esoteric fads of the time, spreading amongst theologians, anthropologists, and art historians who dedicated study to finding “timeless” spiritual truths across a variety of historical and geographical contexts.

Traditionalism is, necessarily, backwards-looking- at one point, we had humanity united in timeless spiritual wisdom, and now… we don’t. Some versions of the Traditionalist intellectual canon led down benign, hippie-ish roads; the idea that every religion leads towards the same basic truths so you should be nice to people from all of them is a Traditionalism-inflected idea- they’re all pointing back towards some primeval truth. But more often that not, Traditionalism took the intellectual trajectory that most of the irrationalist philosophies developed at its time took- violent reaction against social change. For the most part, this meant more of a passive rejection of a “Modernity” seen as corrosive of the Tradition but too advanced to take head on. So you saw the creation social networks dedicated to urging people — almost inevitably young alienated bourgeois intellectuals — down the path of initiation to… whatever kind of secret sacred knowledge which, inevitably, various Tradition-peddlers squabbled over. Eventually, this was more or less absorbed into “New Age” stuff. The furthest out on a limb the Traditionalists put themselves was Evola’s interventions in Fascist Italy, which culminated in him becoming a recruiter for Hitler’s SS, on the idea that he could steer them into becoming an initiatory order in the Traditionalist mold.

I got my copy of “Revolt Against the Modern World” from a dopey New Age press based out of Vermont. The introduction from the editor takes great pains to separate Evola from fascism, in a way that has since become familiar to me, because random fascists get mad at me because I wrote a couple of rude dismissive sentences about the book on goodreads. This happens at least once a year. Mostly they argue that Mussolini and Evola didn’t get along, that Evola looked down on fascists as low class. This is actually true enough. What they neglect to mention is that whole “worked for the SS” bit, or the fact that Evola’s problem with fascism is that it wasn’t extreme enough- did not reject modernity, did not go all the way in creating a new elite, was too willing to negotiate with authorities like the Vatican, and, at first, wasn’t racist or antisemitic enough. Evola makes clear, in “Revolt Against the Modern World” and other works, that the Tradition is the sole property of the Aryan race- that Aryan blood may not be enough to ensure initiation, but it is a prerequisite. To answer the obvious question dogging any traditionalist, whether in the big-T sense we’re talking about or the small-t sense of people who just fetishize the past, that is- if the past was so great, why did people change it? Evola provides a common enough answer- the Jews did it.

Evola survived the war, and one consequences of his disdain for Mussolini is that he was far away enough from the failures of actual existing fascism that he could become a rallying point for postwar neofascists. The story goes that all the leaders of the postwar Italian fascist party, as well as of the little groupuscules that took part in the Years of Lead, all went to Evola’s manor to kiss the ring, and an Italian cop has been quoted as saying that at one point in the seventies, finding volumes of Evola’s work in someone’s apartment was as damning as finding explosives. For my money, Evola was a snitch- he was connected to Operation Gladio, a NATO effort to train and arm “stay-behind” armies in case the Soviets invaded which, surprise surprise, mostly funded guns to right-wing groups and mafias, and there’s no way Evola would have stayed free and openly involved with fascist terrorists for so long without giving someone — the Italian police, the CIA, whoever — something. He would have been an ideal informant and control rod for when the Italian police wanted to keep control over their sometime-assets, the Italian fascist terrorist gangs. You can imagine the goodreads fascists love it when I suggest that.

I don’t quite recall when I found the second seed of this lecture, either, but it was sometime around the same time- 2008 or 2009, where I somehow found out that a prominent public figure was running around calling himself a traditionalist: Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. I was immediately tickled by a vision of this aggressively ignorant lace-curtain cretin passing what time he didn’t spend screaming on TV or sexually harassing women in a study lined with many leatherbound books and vaguely spiritual trinkets from foreign lands, leafing through the works of Evola, Rene Guenon, and Ananda Coomaraswamy as he ponders the ineffable mysteries of the perennial Tradition. While in many respects the works of the Traditionalists are fatuous, these were highly-educated people — highly-educated, kind of stupid, and profoundly amoral, the pre-1945 European upper class mold — and it shows in their writing. So it was an amusing picture, and like many of the amusing pictures in my head, made up of compound obscurities and so difficult to share with others.

Of course, O’Reilly meant no such thing. It’s not always easy to extract a kernel of consistent meaning from contemporary pundits, but as far as I can tell by “traditionalist” O’Reilly means “maintaining existing social and cultural arrangements except insofar as they harm me or people like me.” O’Reilly’s “tradition” is stoutly populist, or, anyway, based in a sentimental portrait of Reagan Democrats or the “Silent Majority,” far from the proudly elitist, intellectual bent of Traditionalism in the occult sense. But really it’s just an occasion to screech at liberals or leftists for meddling with “tradition,” as in “traditional marriage.” O’Reilly doesn’t hate gay people, he informs us, he just hates liberal judges and bureaucrats redefining tradition all on their own. The term also allows him to avoid the self-description “conservative,” thereby maintaining a fig leaf of nonpartisanship back when that still mattered.

O’Reilly’s a funny figure- in most respects, from his ignorant outer-borough bluster to his fake populism to his record of sexual harassment, he was exceeded by Donald Trump, and where O’Reilly was, eventually, punished for the latter, Trump has been continuously rewarded for it, all the way to the White House. He does seem to have played a key role in poisoning the brains of Baby Boomers who might have slipped the grasp of traditional Republican pied-pipers ala Rush Limbaugh, a sort of gateway drug for people who don’t generally start shrieking like a tea kettle when they think about unions or the estate tax but who can be rooked by a self-assured white guy telling them their resentments of a changing society are legitimate, and leading them down the path to Trumpism from there. But he clearly was not where the action was by 2016- I wonder how much his downfall was linked to the way that now that Trump was around, O’Reilly was surplus to requirements.

Certainly, the people injecting “Traditionalism” and Traditionalists into the discourse in recent years fancy themselves stronger stuff than the average Fox News host, let alone one willing to occasionally throw liberals a bone. Steve Bannon namechecking Evola is pretty close to the amusing picture of O’Reilly leafing through the Baron’s weighty tomes- Bannon is a man in much the same mold, and frankly I’m not convinced he’s read any of the books whose title he likes to throw around- maybe Jacques Raspail’s grotesque white genocide fantasy, The Camp of the Saints, but this is a guy who made his fortune out of opportunism and bluster. But it is in keeping with Bannon and other Trump hangers-on saying what was the quiet part on Fox News — white nationalism — loud. We also have the Traditionalist Workers Party, an altright formation involved in street-fighting in Charlottesville and elsewhere. TWP was founded by a nerd named Matt Heimbach, who later became famous for destroying his own group by having an affair with his right-hand man and father-in-law’s wife and getting arrested for beating several of the people involved.

Heimbach’s career as a fascist militant leader, such as it was, entailed playing what could be called trailer-park schtick, or redneckface, or something, which culminated in the sordid little tangle with his wife and father-in-law that imploded his group. Heimbach is from solidly middle class circumstances from a leafy Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., and is a university graduate. His organization liked to posture itself as the defenders of a white working class defined culturally- a classic right-wing populist move, using race and culture to try to rope the masses into a project that will only benefit the few. This entailed a bifurcated concept of “Traditionalist.” On the one hand, Heimbach is a deeply pedantic cherry-picker of right-wing obscurity, citing figures like Evola and Romanian fascist occultist Corneliu Codreanu as influences. On the other, his movement embraced a kitschy caricature of the white working class, based in stereotypes of “rednecks,” as the object of its efforts, the “tradition” his group meant to uphold and defend. When Heimbach ordered his movement to spread out amongst the Appalachian and Rust Belt masses and make the inhabitants problems their own, like Mao but stupid, the reaction was predictable- people didn’t buy it. But Heimbach bought all the way to taking his expensively-educated corpus to a rural Indiana trailer park and undertaking the sort of domestic arrangements a deeply patronizing and none-too-bright fetishist of a stereotypical version of white America might consider appropriate for the surroundings. One wonders how many descents into the most degraded forms of identity politics are seeking that sort of LARP-ing catharsis more than any given political outcome…

Heimbach and his goons weren’t the only people on the newly effervescent fascist right to cite Traditionalism as an influence. The spread of the far right online has facilitated what I think of as the wiki-ing of political signifiers within the space. Figures that you would have to seek out in the sort of books that mostly gather dust on university library shelves now have wikipedia pages, that are often linked to the wikipedia pages of more familiar figures or movements, put on convenient curated lists of figures from given traditions and movements, and so on. This doesn’t entail a deep engagement with figures like Joseph de Maistre, Nicolas Gomez Davila, or, to cite a figure pretty popular on right-wing memes, Julius Evola. You don’t need to slog through Evola’s long-winded explanations of the descent of man from the aryan Atlantis golden age to use him in a meme on facebook communities like “Fully Esoteric Techno Fascism,” which at various points have had five-figure memberships, for whatever that’s worth. Presumably, at least a few of the fascists lapping at my goodreads heels are members.

What do these people — so many of them kids — mean when they say “tradition?” I found myself wondering if they meant it in the normative sense — roughly like what Bill O’Reilly meant — or in the sense that Evola and his peers meant it, as in a single esoteric body of thought? Well, gentle listener, you’ll no doubt be shocked to learn that some descents into their online content — primarily youtube videos, none of the ones who write essays that I found really address this — did not clarify the situation much. In fact, despite avowing themselves as followers of Tradition or Traditionalism or of specific Traditionalists like Evola, most of them seemed unaware of the bifurcation of meaning in the term. By default, this would seem to put them in the camp of meaning “tradition” in its lower case “t” sense. But they honestly weren’t even especially clear about that. Among other things, it seems like they were primarily making videos to engage each other, and so took for granted shared definitions of what is traditional and what is not. So the sort of detailing of what in specific people should do to be a traditionalist in their sense of word really wasn’t there in overview videos of “traditionalism vs cultural marxism,” say. Those just repeated some variation of “the world is bad- it’s the fault of cultural marxists, read Jews, messing things up- we need to go back to the before time,” without the latter being specified much.

A little more specific were, naturally, videos or other content that explored specific subjects. One branch of online traditionalism that probably outnumbers the Evola-fanciers are those who embrace one or another form of fundamentalist religious practice, generally unreformed versions of various conventional faiths. In classic internet style, this begin with relatively well-known denominations, like “TradCaths,” Catholic believers in various ultramontane pre-Vatican II forms of the religion some of whom can be found in real life, and has since split off into all kinds of varieties- TradProds, converts to Eastern Orthodoxy, which is seen as more traditional, people who trad so hard they become pagans (or Wahabbists), presumably somewhere there’s TradZoroastrians on some corner of the internet. The point is, some of them have something more material to say about what the tradition is. In keeping with people who are mostly teenaged recent converts who aren’t plugged in to any tradition offline, this mostly consists of things like “go to church” and “find likeminded people.” Probably most interesting were various traditionalist women. While a lot of what they said was warmed over TERF material, or stuff that insists that somewhere some mean feminist is telling them they can’t be a housewife, but there was also a lot of deeply-felt despair- the idea that feminism and modernity in general sell false promises to women, and the best they can do is transform themselves to find a good “traditional” man and attach herself to him.

My birthday lectures are typically about odd alleyways in the history of ideas, and this usually means dealing with people whose ideas were bad, or at least wrong. Pointing them out is easy. They wouldn’t be worth much if that’s all they were. I think there’s more to the story of the particular way in which these people are wrong.

When I first began looking into Traditionalism, way back when as a mere stripling masters’ student, I thought there would be some relationship between tradition as actually lived and the tradition that the Traditionalists claim to uphold. I didn’t think it would necessarily be a sensible relationship, and certainly didn’t think such a connection would justify anything politically, but I thought it would be there. I thought you could learn something from measuring the gaps between tradition as conceived by various actors, and the efforts to turn those conceptions into politics.

Many of these premises were wrong, ranging from what the Traditionalists thought tradition was, where it was located in an imaginary universal esoteric tradition as opposed to in folkways, to their interest in politics, which seldom has had anything to do with real organizing or governance. The crux of the matter — the point at which we can learn something from these loosely connected tales of mostly foolish, mean people believing mostly foolish, mean things — is both simpler and more complicated. We need a hermeneutics of bullshit here.

Let’s begin at the beginning. The wave of interest in the occult and esoteric philosophy that arose in the late nineteenth century had little meaningful connection to the western esoteric tradition that existed before the Enlightenment, which was not always a single, unitary tradition itself. Modern esotericism is a mish-mash of found parts. And there were more parts to find than ever before. The rise of the historical profession occurs in the same late nineteenth century time frame, and with it a moment that both made archives more available than before, and many of the early professional historians at the time were just as backwards-looking and conservative as the Traditionalists would be, and just as willing to cherry-pick to construct a past that suited them- leftists at this time mostly eschewed history for sociology and economics. The late nineteenth century esoteric wave is also awash in orientalism, just as its descendant, contemporary New Age thought, is today. This was the high point of European imperialism, remember, which opened up vast stretches of the world to exploitation by any bored white person with money. You can imagine given how little concern for human lives they had in the colonies how little concern they had for the actual contexts of the beliefs, practices, and in many cases actual artifacts they ripped off from colonized people. This was also the period of the second industrial revolution. Where the original industrial revolution dealt with things like textile manufacture and railroads — stuff that, while impressive, one can see reasonably easily how it works — the next wave of innovation the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries involved advances in the use of electricity, in chemistry and chemical engineering, and early atomic experiments – that is, things that you can’t really see working, things that are explained in metaphors of “waves” and “particles” and “frequencies,” in short, stuff that looks and sounds like magic. The past, the world, and even the properties of the universe made up a vast buffet of choices to stir together whatever kind of worldview you wanted- not for nothing did the Traditionalists and other esoteric groups provide much of the intellectual window-dressing for what we today call cafeteria-style religion or spirituality.

We can, if we choose, do a “first as tragedy, then as farce” comparison with the youtube traditionalists of today. Say what one will of figures like Evola, or more prominent figures of the reaction against rationalism from Nietzsche to Henry Adams, but they were highly educated, even when they were stupid. They put a lot of effort into learning difficult things, like Sanskrit and various obscure ends of history, to put together the pastiches that they did. They were reacting to a sea change in culture and political economy brought on by the industrial revolution and the fear of the revolt of the masses, and they played their part in shaping major historical movements and events. Whereas today… well, the fact that a lot of the yelling about defending tradition takes as its object children’s cartoons tells you a lot. In the end, contemporary traditionalism is an inept copy of an inept pastiche, and part of the context they are putting it in is that education today really doesn’t prepare people to do the kind of reading to even meaningfully extract the kernels of non-wisdom in the original material. So- tragedy (though with certain farcical elements), farce (though a pretty sad one), reflecting at each other back and forth like a hall of mirrors, the end.

But… but. At risk of being one of those “what if the whole world is a simulation, MAN” guys… our traditionalists did not enter this hall of mirrors when they first started formulating or believe their ideas. Because what was the picture of history they came in with? From both, a self-regarding dream, a pastiche of elements chosen, if not always consciously then reliably, more to obscure truths than to illuminate them. Raised under the shadow of a certain specter haunting Europe, which became all too material during events like the Paris Commune, the history created by intellectuals at the time was, in many instances, an ingenious project of mystification, reifying the bulwarks of order in Europe — the nation, the state, the church, class society — backwards into the past.

We live in a similar age of reaction, but with a big difference: the sheer density of messaging that is possible given modern media technology and the comparatively clear slate that America’s unique situation affords it. Disregard the history one learns in school- lord knows enough people do, and not always for ideological reasons. Think instead of the stories about the past implicit in the very social structure and built environment of the sort of boys who are posting videos about “tradition vs cultural marxism.” Think of the sheer amount of history — from the destruction of the Native Americans to slavery to industrialization to the assimilation of European immigrants to the postwar Keynesian state to the actual invention of things like mass-produced automobiles and everything that goes with them — that is taken for granted in day to day life in the suburbs and exurbs of our broad land. I’m not even talking about avoiding guilt, though there’s enough that- I’m talking about simple mental bracketing. Naturally, the instinct of most of us here is to eschew that sort of bracketing- we are all curious people, we all want to learn, we are all critical. But as an experiment, think along the grain of the implicit sense of history of most white Americans. We can ease our way into it. I read two complementary suburban histories recently- Kevin Kruse’s “White Flight,” about the Atlanta suburbs, and Lily Geismer’s “Don’t Blame Us,” about some towns not far from where we are now. The people who formed those suburban communities in their current form drew intentionally from a variety of histories — that of the antebellum South in the case of the white-flight suburbs of Atlanta, that of a “progressive” Yankee past for Newton and Lincoln and towns like that — to help form a sense of identity for communities that were, effectively, made up of uprooted (if materially comfortable) people in a materially new way of life for them. So we start with a comparatively robust — if shallow and basically inaccurate — historical imagination of these places. Then think a few generations forward, as these stories fade into the background and the lifestyles and social orders they explained come to be seen as self-evident facts of life. Beyond “inadequate,” what would a historical sense that started from the premise that what we have is natural and normal look like?

And here, at long last, we come back to “tradition” in the Bill O’Reilly sense of the term. Clearcut all sense of context — turn everything that happened to make our collective condition possible into so many bits of color for period entertainment pieces, or else ignore it all together — to prevailing social conditions, particularly ones that benefit you, and you’re more or less there. Consider one of O’Reilly’s pet crusades, the sanctity of “traditional” Christmas. Virtually everything we associate with Christmas was incorporated into our seasonal celebrations within the time O’Reilly or at least his parents were alive. In America in particular, Christmas celebration wasn’t done much until the late nineteenth century- the Puritans didn’t like it. It was mostly German immigrants who introduced many of our christmas traditions, like the tree, and then it was capitalism that did the rest, from our image of Santa, more or less invented by a soda company, to the exchange of gifts. Same with pretty much every other culture war shibboleth, from our ideas about marriage to veneration for police and the military to appropriate sports conduct. It’s wrong to say ideas about them were more liberal or progressive, or even more conservative, than the O’Reilly’s of the world present. They were mostly just stranger, and had a logic informed by deep context of the time. Where the late nineteenth century bourgeoisie created sophisticated history and literature to create an alternative context that kept away scary ideas, nowadays, we just go without it and let commercial culture or really just any random fucking thing fill it in.

So the contemporary traditionalist teen didn’t enter the hall of mirrors of flat, context-less history: he was born into it. I would argue that traditionalism is to our culture’s collective refusal to think critically about the past what libertarian is to capitalism. Libertarianism is a philosophy of capitalist inadequacy, of petty bourgeoisie and pedants incapable of doing what the real serious capitalists do, which is make the system and especially the government work for them. Traditionalism is a little sadder than that, if anything. As the social arrangements that nurtured our shared dream of an irrelevant past fray due to economic and cultural pressures, people who benefit from the arrangement — even just to the extent of securing a mediocre sense of self despite their mediocrity — begin to panic. If the older Traditionalists lamented the lost perennial wisdom of Atlantis, your contemporary alt-right traditionalist is obsessed with what he has supposedly lost — from incel laments for the wives they think they’re entitled to to things like “a sense of adventure” which isn’t even promised by their social order- it was promised by their society’s entertainment products! — and imagines further, apocalyptic losses. It is easier to imagine the end of the world than imagine truly coming to terms with its history.

So- what the hell is history good for? I am not so precious as to refuse to call bad history history. I can’t, somehow. Selection is inevitably part of the historiographical process and selection is inevitably biased. The selections of traditionalists, of all the species discussed here — from Julius Evola to Bill O’Reilly to CrusaderPepe88 or whoever — are silly, sloppy, and paired to a morally wrong and destructive project. But I recognize enough of the impulses and the operations undertaken to see that it is in the same family of activity, just as a bad person is still a person. I’m not sure what history is doing for them- it doesn’t appear to be making them happy.

One of the great living historians, Susan Buck-Morss, once wrote: “the critical writing of history is a continuous struggle to liberate the past from within the unconscious of a collective that tends to forget the conditions of its own existence.” This forgetting, I believe, was an active, if not necessarily a conscious, process, going back at least as far as the beginnings of the project to contain the revolutionary fervor coming out of France at the turn of the nineteenth century. Traditionalism is one small piece of that process, perhaps more relevant as a morbid symptom of the failure of more robust mechanisms than as a movement in itself.

What do we gain from liberating the past, and remembering the conditions of our collective existence? Whole societies have lived in massive denial, after all- probably more than make even the most elementary kind of reckoning with their past. A critical understanding of history is no safeguard against mistakes or wrongdoing. I’m not so sanguine as to say that liberating the past from ignorance and fantasy liberates us from the past- there’s a lot more to liberation than that. But it allows the past to act as a meaningful guide, a thread to follow through the hall of mirrors and refractions of refractions of given off by those who’d have us live and die there with them.

2018 Birthday Lecture: tradition and Tradition Amongst the CHUDs

2017 Birthday Lecture- The COIN of the Realm

Here’s an index of how long I’ve been in grad school. When I first got the idea for my dissertation project, back when I was a lowly master’s student, I could say I planned on writing about the history of “counterinsurgency” and typically not have to elaborate. Copies of the Army/Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which had hit bestseller lists not long before, often washed up in the wares of the sidewalk used booksellers I frequented in New York. Its purported author, David Petraeus, was still seen as a genius and a role model, a man who would not fight “dumb wars” of the kind newly-elected President Barack Obama swore to avoid. People might not have had a very clear idea of what counterinsurgency was, and of course like tends to happen in academic projects I wound up with a somewhat different definition than the usual.

What a difference most of a decade makes! Nowadays, I find even with people who pay attention to foreign affairs, it’s a crapshoot whether they’ll know the term “counterinsurgency.” And there’s a good reason for this- between his marital woes and the way his supposed accomplishments in Iraq were overturned by a few fanatics in pickup trucks, Petraeus isn’t looking like much of a genius these days. Obama always preferred drone bombings to lengthy, costly counterinsurgency campaigns, and whichever angry dweeb is pulling Trump’s foreign policy strings made a point to dismiss “nation-building” in the president’s latest speech on the subject. Frankly, I wasn’t and am not cool enough to know what was cool around 2008 and isn’t considered cool now, but counterinsurgency is roughly in that category. It makes meeting people and telling them what I do even more of an awkward affair than it usually is, given that I find myself torn between the danger of assuming they know something they don’t and the risk of patronizing them in case they do.

The problem is compounded because like most projects I work on, the key term is in dispute. For some people, pretty much any effort to fight guerrillas – that is, insurgents – is counterinsurgency. I believe that either is or has been in the past the US military’s definition. Of course, militaries have been fighting guerrillas forever, long before the term “counterinsurgency” came into use. More than a fancy neologism – though it is also that – counterinsurgency came to denote a specific strategic concept that started to gel in the late 1950s. Shaped by the Cold War and decolonization struggles, counterinsurgency doctrine held that the way to defeat insurgents – especially the crop of leftwing insurgencies springing up around the globe at the time – was to deprive them of popular support. Insurgents rely on the support of the people in the area they operate, for recruits, supplies, intelligence, and most of all, cover- occupiers typically can’t tell a guerrilla from a peasant, the “guerrilla swims like a fish in the sea of the people,” as Mao put it. So counterinsurgency strategists set out on the assumption that winning the loyalty of the people of whichever area they are trying to pacify is of paramount importance.

While some of the earlier proponents of counterinsurgency were officers in late-colonial conflicts, like the French side of the Algerian Revolution, for the most part counterinsurgency has been undertaken by notionally-independent regimes in the developing world with varying degrees of assistance by some patron power- so, the Malayan government and the British against the Malayan People’s Liberation Army, the South Vietnamese government and the Americans against the National Liberation front, and so on. This is where the “nation-building” component Trump (or whichever dingdong was writing his speeches that day) pooh-poohs come in- counterinsurgency generally involves a larger power (usually the US) bolstering a friendly regime, often one in pretty advanced states of collapse. The patron power attempts to prop them up and get them going on their own in a sustainable way so the patron can eventually leave- that’s what Petraeus convinced everyone he did in Iraq in 2011.

As often happens with subtle but important distinctions, what led to the rise of counterinsurgency as a distinct mode of thought and practice, over and above long-standing ideas about fighting guerrillas is context. The western powers, especially the United States, reevaluated what insurgency meant in the context of Cold War stalemate and rapid decolonization. By the late-1950s, the early battlefields of the Cold War – eastern and central Europe along with northeast Asia – had both stabilized and become far too fraught to make many moves in. Send the tanks in to South Korea or East Germany and nuclear war would ensue. This, along with the process of decolonization that picked up in this period, led to the superpowers doing more of their competition in the developing world. Both powers sought alliances with the newly-independent and other developing states in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and a number of proxy conflicts took place in those countries between forces backed by the US and those seen as representing the Soviet Union, though these distinctions were often murkier than that makes it sound.

American policymakers were not, by and large, opposed to decolonization as a whole. Most of them saw the European colonial empires as embarrassing relics. However, that did not mean that they trusted the non-white countries coming on to the world scene to shape their own destinies. They were especially worried about the political agendas of decolonization movements. Very few of the leaders in the developing world, especially those with much in the way of a popular following, were dedicated to America’s side of the Cold War. Typically, the people of Asia, Africa, and Latin America were not especially interested in capitalism, which they associated with colonial oppressors, or in holding a line against communism. Most of the newly-decolonized countries, in fact, at least flirted with the Non-Aligned Movement, which sought to elide the Cold War entirely. Few of them were really jazzed by the Soviet Union, though the rapid industrialization that the USSR achieved was attractive to countries trying to establish their own industrial base (alas, the costs of that model were less well-publicized), and China under Mao was reasonably successful at reaching out to other countries with recent experience of overthrowing long-entrenched elites, as the Maoists had. But in general, most of the leaders and the masses in the newly-decolonized and other developing countries wanted freedom, both from formal colonial dominance and from the economic dominance that capitalism often engendered. They wanted out from underdevelopment and inequality, and socialism – if not the Soviet model than one of the many theorized by people in the developing world – looked like the way to go.

Naturally enough, this scared the American defense and foreign policy establishment. Even if they did not tend to see all anti-capitalists as part of a monolith directed by Moscow (and they did), they would still be worried about access to the resources and markets of the developing world should they go over to one or another form of socialism. Moreover, by appealing to the most heartfelt demands of the people – independence, widespread economic development, popular participation in politics, social equality – left-leaning guerrilla movements posed a major threat to American-aligned regimes in many developing countries. The entire developing world seemed like a giant sea that guerrillas could swim in at their leisure, and in most of the world, it was movements who wanted real independence – from American neocolonialism and capitalism, as well as European rule – who seemed to have the initiative. Overwhelming conventional military force didn’t seem to stop them, as witnessed by guerrilla victories in Algeria, Indochina, and elsewhere. The US “losing” two countries it once considered pliable allies – China and Cuba – to differing varieties of guerrilla revolutionaries affirmed their fears of this type of conflict.

While there were always some in the US military establishment who thought that decolonization as a whole was a dubious Communist plot to rile up the duskier people against their rightful betters, counterinsurgency ultimately came to be defined people who sincerely saw themselves as supporters of liberation and development in the decolonizing world- that is, of liberals. Liberal Cold War strategists – figures like Walt Rostow, Roger Hilsman, Edward Lansdale, and others – came to see the energy generated by decolonization as something that could be harnessed to American Cold War goals. The thought was that the United States needed to do a better job engaging with – or channeling, if put cynically – the energies of decolonization rather than thwarting it. That energy could then bolster friendly regimes in the developing world rather than undermining it. The US should, alongside helping deter Communists – seen as “hijackers” of the process of economic modernization according to liberal social scientists – needed to also support economic development and “progressive” elements in allied countries. In fact, the two tasks – fighting insurgents and nation-building – could only really work together. If you can get into the villages and convince the people you are with them – “winning hearts and minds” – through propaganda, aid, and fighting the guerrillas, then the insurgents would lose their popular base and collapse, thereby securing friendly rule.

Naturally, this perspective depended on the idea, common in social science at the time, that value conflicts – like between communist and liberal ideas of freedom – were pathological, or fraudulent- of course, liberalism (of the type practiced in Cold War America) was simply pragmatic and naturally right, and once that’s demonstrated to the villages of Southeast Asia, they’ll get that, the thought went. It also ignored the reality that the ruling regimes in most American-aligned developing countries had vested interests in preventing democratization or social reform on the village level. And there was always a wish-fulfillment element, of a peculiarly American – and peculiarly male – form at work in counterinsurgency. American virility, sapped by Eisenhower-era conformity and comfort, could be reestablished by going out and beating the communist guerrillas at their own game- going out into the countryside, getting your hands dirty digging irrigation ditches and building schools, getting in gunfights in the jungle, meeting some authentic brown folk and getting them to think you’re cool… one can only imagine the profile pictures this would have produced had OK Cupid been a thing back then. There are much more salient historical reasons for it, but it’s not entirely a coincidence that counterinsurgency came to prominence in part due to the interest of a president so invested in projecting intelligent virility that his dad hired prominent writers to help him do it- John Kennedy. It was Kennedy who established two bodies of people to promulgate his vision of rugged, ground-level involvement in Third World development and fighting Communists that symbolize the two sides of this vision: the Green Berets (the story goes Kennedy picked the hats himself) and the Peace Corps.

Taken together, what counterinsurgency represented – and still does, to a certain extent – is an effort to devise a new way to govern fractious societies under severe strain. It was an effort, put together by people who were not political philosophers in any formal sense of the term and who were mainly concerned with practical results, to develop a politics for the developing world. It was highly ambitious; liberals attempting to establish a new, permanent solution to the endemic problem of guerrilla war. Historically, it been dealt with through means that did not accord with Cold War liberalism, like massive retaliation against civilian populations harboring guerrillas, or dividing the people of a given insurgent country against itself (though, as we’ll see, both techniques found their way into the counterinsurgent toolkit). The Kennedy-era counterinsurgents (and, with a little less pizzazz, their contemporary inheritors) promised something new- a way to turn the problem of insurgency into opportunity.

People like Trump and other right-wingers (Kissinger was one by the time he was in power) who dislike counterinsurgency are right to distrust it- it is a very big and roundabout way to accomplish the goal of creating pliable client regimes. Leftists, of course, distrust it for a wide variety of other reasons, lead among them that it tries to reestablish American imperialism on a new, supposedly smarter footing. But the reason I got into it is because it’s an example of a way of governing – a governmentality, to use the fancy Foucauldian term – forming and evolving in response to both changes in ideas and the practical demands of a given situation. Moreover, it’s my belief that changes in counterinsurgency doctrine track alongside – and perhaps, in some cases, anticipate – changes in liberalism as a whole. Decolonization and subsequent waves of turbulence in the developing world stretched the ideological and governmental resources of liberalism to their limit. Tracing the adaptations both in counterinsurgency and in liberalism as a whole in response to these challenges offers a lot of useful perspectives on liberalism and its developments.

Probably the most prominent example of counterinsurgency as a governmentality is the Strategic Hamlet Program in Vietnam. Initiated under the Kennedy administration – that is to say, before the Gulf of Tonkin resolution introduced massive numbers of American combat troops, but well after the US had committed itself to defeating the NLF insurgency in Vietnam – in partnership with the Diem regime in Saigon, the Strategic Hamlet Program was initially envisioned as a sweeping reconstruction of South Vietnamese society. Starting with a few model villages in Binh Duong province, the idea was that peasants would move into new model villages- the Strategic Hamlets. These hamlets would have everything- irrigation, schools, clinics, the works. They would be fenced in to provide security against the NLF guerrillas. They would be run by village committees and political cadres from Saigon would promote popular participation. As people saw the opportunities the strategic hamlets provided, and as the zone around them grew secure from guerrilla attack, more and more strategic hamlets would be built, spreading out from the original zone. Soon, all of South Vietnam would be covered by these model villages, which would be an economic boon as well as a death blow to the Communist guerrillas. This was counter-guerrilla strategy as economic modernization method- and vice versa.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. The Diem regime did not care about village democracy or anything involved with consent from the peasants, and his troops brutally forced thousands of villagers from their ancestral homes, often burning them in the process. The Strategic Hamlets they were moved to were not yet built in most cases- Ngo Dinh Diem’s brother, Nhu, a nutcase who was placed in charge of the program, insisted that the peasants should build them themselves, to build self-sufficiency. Meanwhile, Nhu’s political cadre harangued the peasants about anti-communism and “personalism” (a weird ideological mishmash the Diems tried to sell as an alternative to communism and liberalism) and routinely stole from them. The peasants were naturally displeased and were actually more receptive to the calls for support that came from NLF guerrillas who had no issue sneaking into the Strategic Hamlets. Operation Sunrise ended within a few months, and while some Strategic Hamlets continued to go up, the idea of a constantly-expanding oil spot of secure model liberal villages in the Vietnamese countryside was quietly tabled.

Ultimately, neither the Americans nor the South Vietnamese could see that alongside all of the logistical difficulties (to say nothing of rights violations) in their scheme, there was a very basic bad assumption- the assumption that the NLF was some foreign element to the South Vietnamese peasantry. It’s possible to overstate how popular the guerrillas were in South Vietnam – after all, it was a long, brutal war – but at the end of the day, the NLF was the closest thing to a form of genuinely popular political organization as existed in South Vietnam, certainly more so than the feeble efforts to create similar movements for the Saigon regime. As often happened in these situations, as the system collapsed, the Americans blamed the South Vietnamese and vice-versa. Soon enough, the greatest backers of counterinsurgency strategy in both countries – Ngo Dinh Diem and John Kennedy – were both assassinated, and a new stage of the war began.
Alongside the Strategic Hamlet project, the Phoenix Program is probably the most prominent Vietnam-era counterinsurgency project. Began in 1967 – five years or so after the failure of Operation Sunrise and several years into the effort to win the Vietnam War with conventional American ground troops – the Phoenix program was dedicated to “neutralizing” the organizing cadre of the National Liberation Front. Run by mixed teams of Americans and South Vietnamese, Phoenix entailed the assassination and imprisonment of tens of thousands of civilians suspected of being NLF members or sympathizers. Understandably, these crimes catch the eye of most commentators on the program- which, it’s worth noting, none of the American coordinators, like future CIA director William Colby, were ever punished for.

Phoenix was part of a larger umbrella program called CORDS, which stood for Civic Operations and Revolutionary Development Support. The “Revolutionary Development” phrase is a holdover from when the South Vietnamese regime tried to depict itself as a sort of nationalist revolution, unlike the (supposed) Moscow/Beijing-puppets in the NLF. Run by longtime American defense bureaucrat Robert Komer, CORDS encompassed a vast array of projects- censuses, military advisors, aid programs, refugee resettlement, agricultural assistance, youth and sports programs, efforts to encourage NLF defectors, and more. Many of the things that strategic hamlets were supposed to were handed over to CORDS to run, as they could, catch and catch can across the South Vietnamese countryside… alongside, and often feeding into, the massive surveillance, assassination, and prison infrastructure of the Phoenix Program. As it turns out, if you want to get a read on the population – if you want to find out who the troublemakers are so as to eliminate them – embedding yourself in the bodies providing social services to the population is a decent way of doing it.

Here we see, rather than nation-building creating attractions which win the loyalty of the people, nation-building creating an information grid which through which to render a population legible, so that the occupying power can remove threatening elements. Now, all stages of counterinsurgency involved both- the strategic hamlets existed in part so the South Vietnamese government and the Americans could know where peasants were and what they were up to, and the various aid programs CORDS oversaw were meant to be effective at their stated purposes. But the shift from the strategic hamlets to the Phoenix program entails a shift in terms of how the Americans viewed the purpose of the South Vietnamese state- from a promoter of development for its own sake (which would guarantee security) to a body where all of its actions, including development programs, existed to feed the eye – and maw – of a security apparatus. Komer always represented himself as a bureaucratic fixer, first and foremost, and under his watch American counterinsurgency strategy shed much of its (notionally) socially constructive elements and focused instead on bureaucratic functioning and the other techniques of making the organization function. In many respects, the means of counterinsurgency displaced the ends as a matter of focus- or perhaps the means became the ends in a way. Of course, CORDS couldn’t win the war either- Komer blamed it on bureaucratic woes and South Vietnamese indifference, though NLF documents later revealed that Phoenix worried them more than any other strategy the Americans tried.

This repurposing of the state – away from instantiating a vision and towards surveilling and optimizing the present composition of a population – that CORDS entailed echoes with other changes in liberal governance techniques at that time, in the crucial decade of the 1970s. Monetarist economics, with its tight focus on the money supply, came to displace Keynesianism and its gauzy social focus. Behaviorist social science argued that policy realms as distinct as policing, social work, and healthcare policy pull back from a more holistic (if often enough patronizing) social understanding of their task and calibrate themselves according to an overarching, quantifiable behaviorist logic. All of these took the same turn counterinsurgency did under Komer- the displacement of the ends of a given social vision by an obsessive focus on technocratic means. Of course, this meant that the means developed an ends all their own, as we’ve seen with the political results of notionally objective economics, social science, etc. In short, counterinsurgency, as reconstituted during the end of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, came in line with other governing techniques that would become part of the toolbox of the neoliberal school of governance that would replace the welfare state liberalism or soft social democracy that ruled over much of the west after the Second World War.

It’s too much to say that counterinsurgency is neoliberal, even for that oft-abused term (and even as paid contractors – like the ones that set up the Human Terrain Project, which attempted to embed anthropologists with combat units in Afghanistan – become increasingly prominent in contemporary counterinsurgency war). But neoliberalism, at its most basic, entails modeling society after one of the means by which the end of production and distribution is sometimes achieved- the market. Counterinsurgency, once it shed or at least partially retracted the more ambitious welfare-state overtones of some of its earlier iterations, fit in well with this scheme, dedicated as it was to constructing means by which to render societies legible and pliable. There’s a lot of room for communication between neoliberalism and counterinsurgency, just as there is between the logic of markets and that of security.

In theory, I could continue this story, down into Reagan-era counterinsurgency interventions in Central America (which became pro-insurgency, when the US started supporting some very pro-capitalist insurgents of its own, the Nicaraguan Contras) down to Petraeus more-or-less jacking Kennedy-era counterinsurgency, claiming he invented it, and getting hailed as a genius by conservatives and liberals alike. But we’ve gone on long enough, and the source base isn’t really there to write history about that stuff just yet. Moreover, to tell the truth, I’m just a teeny-tiny bit sick of grad school – and with it, my dissertation topic – and am really sort of just gutting it out to get the ball over the goal-line or whatever the proper sports metaphor is. But one thing I don’t think I’ll ever be sick of – knock on wood – is tracing the ways people create sophisticated bodies of thought with wide implications when what they think they’re doing is winning a war, or selling a product, or getting a laugh, or whatever else. I thank you all for not getting too sick of listening to me play show and tell with the results on my birthday.

2017 Birthday Lecture- The COIN of the Realm

Review- Marks, “Fire Logic”

Laurie Marks, “Fire Logic” (2002) – The word I find myself reaching for to describe this fantasy novel is “mature.” It has a very mature outlook on relationships, not denying the passions of its youthful protagonist, Zanja, but also depicting studied, thoughtful portraits of older characters, addicts, people from different and rival cultures. Marks doesn’t indulge in the lengthy worldbuilding of a lot of other fantasy writers- if anything, she errs on the other side, making the rival Shaftal and their Sainnite occupiers less distinct than might make sense. But that’s probably part of the point- Marks depicts well the spiraling violence of an insurgency/counterinsurgency situation, and concludes that Shaftal and Sainnite should put aside their differences and learn to live together on the same land. I get that, I guess, but maybe being an old insurgency student myself I can’t help but think that the Sainnites invaded Shaftal and it’s on them to rectify the situation, possibly by exiting. But anyway- Zanja is not from Shaftal, but from a tribal society living nearby (which the Sainnites eventually massacre in the sort of war crime that doesn’t exactly make you agree with Marks’s peacenik agenda… unless it does, I guess). She’s trained as a diplomat, and is a fireblood- here, many people are imbued with magic from one of the four classical elements. Zanja’s fireblood makes her intuitive, lightly precognitive, as well as willful and fickle. She falls in love with an earth witch who’s addicted to a Sainnite drug, and gets involved with the Shaftal resistance to Sainnite rule, before she begins to see the futility of the situation and its conflicts with her life and those who are close to her. Marks writes decent early-modern (they have gunpowder but only for pistols?) action scenes and her depictions of same-sex relationships seem to me to hold up well now, and must have been a revelation for 2002. Sometimes, her maturity and restraint get the better of her and the narrative drags somewhat as characters go back and forth over their assorted agonizing decisions and efforts to heal. There’s worse things to drag down a narrative, but it made reading more of a slog than it needed to be. ***’

Review- Marks, “Fire Logic”