Review – Kilmer, “I’m Your Huckleberry”

Val Kilmer, “I’m Your Huckleberry” (2020) (read by Will Forte, George Newbern, and Mare Winningham) – Well, here ends my experiment in “nonfiction beach read audiobooks,” on the last day of August. The first one (the one about the New Hampshire libertarians and the bears) was pretty bad, the next two, Jia Tolentino’s essays and this memoirs by actor Val Kilmer, were pretty decent. Kilmer’s memoirs especially I could see reading on a beach, if I were a big beachgoer. I always liked Val Kilmer, as long as I’ve known about actors. He seemed cooler than the other action stars of his era. Him being in “Heat” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” favorites of my twenties, surely helped too. I also love his turn in “MacGruber,” which weirdly enough doesn’t come up in this book even though co-star Will Forte reads part of the book!

Kilmer was a Southern California brat who lived one of those charmed existences that scarcely seem real, that’s even got tragedies in it — a beloved brother dying young, issues with his dad — that grant the whole thing gravitas. He was, to put it simply, extraordinarily hot, charismatic, and pretty talented too, being the youngest actor admitted to Juilliard (or “the Juilliard” as he insists on calling it) at the time. He lived, in his own account at least, that SoCal ubermensch child of “nature” (that environment is about as “natural” as the phone I’m typing this on, but whatever) life, wandering the hills and beaches reading poetry, doing daredevil stuff with mountains and cars, loving girls and rock music, acting and making art. He depicts himself as an artsy rebel genius at Juilliard who wants to do “real” theater until Cher (ten or so years his senior) sweeps him off his feet and to a Hollywood film career, which is pretty hot shit for about ten or fifteen years.

This could easily be obnoxious but I found it charming. Kilmer’s a good storyteller and has a way with words (studying Mark Twain for the last twenty years probably helped). He’s self-effacing without denying his talents, charm, wealth, or insane luck. California, along with the South, stands as a weird civilizational antipode to my own New England, shrugging and smirking where we (and Southerners!) insist and glower. It’s not my way but I don’t read to have me mirrored back. That’s good, because Kilmer and I are pretty different, and being me I put a fair amount of that down to history and geography though the other differences are obvious enough. In everything, Kilmer is an artist. I admire that- that’s not me. The closest I come is writing, and for those of you keeping score, I consider myself a craftsman and not an artist.

Kilmer also puts the love of god, of god-as-love, at the center of his personal universe. I knew he was a Christian Scientist. I didn’t know what a big deal it was to him before I listened to this book. In our current era of science-denial threatening the world, Christian Science can look sinister, but I don’t think it deserves opprobrium as a pernicious creed, even as my own belief system is pretty far from it. They take vaccines; when Kilmer got throat cancer in the aughts, he had surgery, chemotherapy, radiation (though he says he did it more to reassure his kids- as far as I’m concerned, he’s a grownup, and if he’s not contagious he can decide his own medical fate). In many respects, Christian Science seems to be the apex point of a certain kind of idealism (mostly in the classical sense of the word- the power of idea over matter). Idealism deserves respect as part of our intellectual heritage and as an inevitable element of any but the most extreme materialist outlooks- I consider myself a materialist, but not that materialist.

Anyway! The point is, Kilmer sees everything in his life, even his tragedies and setbacks, as part of a larger divine scheme. “It’s not that everything will turn out all right- it’s that everything is all right,” he says at one point. This hasn’t led him to the complacency that one usually associates with that belief- he cares about things and people. He just thinks his caring is part of a divine scheme that all adds up to something. On a storytelling level, this goes a couple of ways. He’s unashamed of his failings and pretty honest about them, but hasn’t got the sort of self-examination a more critical outlook might encourage.

I can’t really say he learned anything in the book. He romances women from Cher to Carly Simon (he seems to dig older women and doesn’t chase young girls, a decent indicator for a Hollywood type) to Cindy Crawford to Daryl Hannah to his wife, Joanne Whalley, and loses them all. There’s zero bitterness there, a certain degree of wistfulness and gentle self-blame over the situation, and he’s still friends with a lot of them. He doesn’t really seem to consider why all of this happened, or how maybe he could change to avoid it- he just loves love and seems genuinely enchanted, in an admirable way, by beautiful, powerful women. He doesn’t think that much about how he came to be considered a “difficult” actor to work with, why his career went into a slump, or why compulsively buying New Mexico land just before a massive recession was maybe a bad idea. He relates these failings honestly (he doesn’t think the “difficult” thing is quite fair, and it sounds like it might be overstated from what a lot of his directors said). He just doesn’t really interrogate them, because they’re just part of a divine universe that is basically good, and because things have more or less worked out for him. He can’t talk much anymore, no longer romances starlets, but is making art and living life. The end.

Well- who’s to say he has to learn anything? Didacticism is at least as much of an artificial trope as idealism or the idea that the universe is motivated by love. You can dispense with it if you can get away with it, and both in life and in memoirs, it appears Val Kilmer can (I do wonder if after a certain point, around the late nineties, it’s simply impossible for a big enough institution — a brand, a nation-state, a star — to truly go away no matter how screwed up and/or irrelevant they become… if so, glad the cut off included Kilmer). He tells a lot of amusing stories that become more amusing when you see them as coming from that American (and California) archetype, the innocent bullshitter: him and his idol, Marlon Brando, driving a director beyond the edge of reason on the set of “The Island of Doctor Moreau” with their weird acting ideas that, even if they were good (they probably were!) were probably impossible for the poor nose-picking schlub to apply, Kilmer backchatting a disrespectful Bob Dylan even as he professes his love for the overrated poet… all in all, a fun book. ****

Review – Kilmer, “I’m Your Huckleberry”

Review – James, “A Brief History of Seven Killings”

Marlon James, “A Brief History of Seven Killings” (2014) (read by various actors) – Jamaica! What a contrast between the image I was sold of it as a kid — the era of “Cool Runnings,” a movie I saw dozens of times and which held up relatively well when I saw it a few years back — and the complex, often harrowing realities one learns as an adult. I’ve never been and have no plans to go. I just mean that by and by, one learns it’s not paradise, that the people have complex and difficult lives, that one of the things it suffers from is the contrast between white desires/expectations and the universe of black thought and dreams that nation has generated itself… like Haiti, I guess, but there were never any heartwarming movies about a Haitian bobsled team.

Bob Marley plays an outsized role in the country’s tangled image (and image of self) – a transcendental figure in twentieth century music whose music, some of the purest pleasure you can find, both reflected and contrasted the mixture of grimness and beauty of his home, and his life. Did you know someone tried to assassinate him in his Kingston home in 1978? I didn’t, before I read this book! A novel that plays with history and journalism by a Jamaican writer who mixes literary and “genre” (this could be called crime fiction, and his latest is basically a fantasy novel), “A Brief History of Seven Killings” has a lot more than seven murders. Even if Marley avoided that fate (only to be killed not long after by a melanoma on a toe he refused to have amputated), the attempt on his life structures the action of the book.

This is a multiple-narrator novel, and different voice actors play the different narrators. Most of them start out as inhabitants of Kingston in the late seventies. Socialism and black revolution are in the air as the sort-of socialist Michael Manley is in office, but things are still stuff for most Jamaicans. Manley’s People’s National Party and the opposition Jamaica Labor Party (notice how nice and lefty both names sound! Different era) both strive for power by hiring gunmen in the various Kingston ghettos to deliver votes through corruption and violence, with emphasis on the latter. Wear the wrong color (drink the wrong beer! I’m told Heineken was the JLP beer and Red Stripe the PNP one) in the wrong neighborhood and bad things will happen.

Two of our narrator characters, Papa-Lo and Josie Wales, are JLP-aligned gunman chieftains. Papa-Lo, older and more paternalistic, starts sending out peace feelers to the PNP, in large part through Bob Marley, whose star is on the ascendant and who is only referred to as “The Singer” throughout the book. The young and hungry Josie Wales sees a path to power through keeping the violence going. Papa-Lo and the singer want to see Jamaica achieve real independence for its people and the instantiation of something like Rasta values (honestly a mixed bag but probably better than open kleptocracy) in power. Josie Wales aligns himself with outside powers — the Colombian cartels and the CIA — with other plans. He’s involved in the abortive Marley assassination, but survives the fall out by pretending loyalty to Papa-Lo and concentrating on making Jamaica a hub in the cocaine trade.

The coke trade and its consequences — all of them still tied in with Jamaican politics into the nineties — follow characters all the way to New York City. An ex-lover of Marley’s who fled to the city after witnessing the assassination attempt provides viewpoints into both Jamaican women’s labor minding very old and very young New Yorkers, and gets tied up when the crack wars invade her neighborhood. A journalist who started out writing about Marley for Rolling Stone and ends up writing about Jamaican “posses” and their propensity for ultraviolence — learned through ghetto brutalization, honed by CIA training and guns, accelerated by coke, its profits and its chemical effects — for the New Yorker has a harrowing experience with a new breed of gangster- slick, tied in to global capitalism.

All in all this was pretty good. A lot of characters, some sprawl, some visits from the ghost world that were good not great, crime, coke, the CIA, AIDS, sexism and homophobia, lots of interesting stuff. It probably could have been shorter, but hey, it covers a lot of time in the life of some interesting places. It presents something like the complexity of Jamaica and the way the dreams, nightmares, and realities of the place refract off of each other. One of the better contemporary literary reads I’ve read lately. ****

Review – James, “A Brief History of Seven Killings”

Review- Schulman, “The Gentrification of the Mind”

Sarah Schulman, “The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination” (2012) – This is a short, hard to classify book from an odd transitional era. Published in 2012, Schulman seems to have written the book mostly in 2008 and 2009, which I think we can call transitional years. Schulman writes in a number of disciplines: she is a novelist, a playwright, a historian, an intellectual of a kind you don’t get often these days, complete with serious political commitments. She was a member of ACT-UP (her latest book is a massive history of the iconic AIDS group) and is an organizer in the lesbian community.

I wonder why she isn’t more prominent than she is, given the breadth of her talents, and the high degree of insight and fine writing — conversational but precise, never patronizing — she must have if this work is any representation. Arguably, “The Gentrification of the Mind” is about why she isn’t better known, why less talented people are elevated in the cultural sphere, though she never puts it that way. She juxtaposes two phenomena: the mass death of gay people due to the AIDS crisis at the end of the twentieth century, and the gentrification of many cities, here understood as pricing out poor inhabitants of cities, and their cultures, to make room for rich people and a homogenized way of life.

Schulman acknowledges she isn’t a social scientist. She’s something else: a witness. She came up in pre-gentrification New York, in its art scenes and its struggles. She literally held the hands of dying young gay men, abandoned by their society and often by their families, only to see their apartments rented out for quadruple their value, to see whole neighborhoods — much of residential Manhattan — go from working class, poor, diverse places to bywords for anodyne luxury living.

Along with this gentrification of space, Schulman argues, comes the titular gentrification of thought. She sees the gay community as having traded its radicalism — the thing that kept it alive during the AIDS plague — for assimilation (there’s some brilliant and cutting depictions of Andrew Sullivan as the poster child of this process- I would’ve loved to have seen Schulman go after him in that interview they did in 1997). The idea that gay life represents an alternative to the values and ways of organizing life that compulsory heterosexuality seemed to have been lost in 2008, when the battle of the moment was the right for gay people to take part in the ur-heterosexual institution, marriage. This idea, that we can live differently from the way that’s sold to us, isn’t just a matter of sexual politics, though Schulman unabashedly depicts queer life as the flagship of the fleet of avant garde culture.

The irony here is that commentators often make an implicit or explicit link between gentrification and gay people- like the old real estate industry saw of “follow the fairies” for soon-to-be-valuable urban properties. It’s true that gay men (usually white, generally rich) often do get in on the ground floor of “up and coming” urban neighborhoods and aren’t always good neighbors to poorer, browner inhabitants. But that’s a symptom, not the disease- Schulman’s enough of a red to know that there’s too much money (assisted by too much government policy) to make gentrification purely a matter of culture. In many respects, the whole point of this process is plucking out a few gay people — your Andrew Sullivans, not long after the monoculture would prop up Ellen Degeneres as the acceptable lesbian — as props for its supremacy. What Schulman fought for was gay power, to save their own lives, for the community to determine its own fate and make a new world in the process, and that isn’t happening.

This is a passionate book, sad, angry, but hopeful, in that way of old militants who have taken a lot of knocks but keep fighting. It’s shot through with reminisces of her city, which could go wrong, bad wrong, the way people fetishize urban grime sometimes, but that’s not what she’s doing, and if she was, she earned it, she lived it. It’s not just bodegas and “feel” (though both enter into matters), it’s a matter of the availability of urban space for people without a ton of money. When that’s not available, art scenes become what they are now- playgrounds for the rich and fatuous. It needs to be cheap, and it needs to urban, to get any kind of real art scene- people need to be able to take risks, around other people doing the same. Between crippling rents (and tuitions, increasingly necessary to break into art, another stupid “innovation”), spiraling inequality, and the massive policing that comes with it, it’s just not there anymore. You don’t need to be a nostalgist to see that.

All this and more in fewer than two hundred pages! This made me think, a lot. Here’s two lines of thought I had. I’m heterosexual and it’s not my business how the gay community defines myself. As it happens, I think at the very least positing an alternative to family life as understood by mainstream culture is a good idea and worth doing (if nothing else, a lot of American-style “family values” material accoutrements — single family homes full of plastic crap with a lawn and multiple cars out front — are helping to cook the planet). But I’ve known enough gay men to know that many of them aren’t necessarily interested in all that. They’re not necessarily apolitical — they will fight for themselves, and their communities — but they don’t understand themselves as conscripted into a battle against fairly fundamental (-seeming?) social structures by virtue of their sexuality. Should they? Schulman might suggest they should. Well, that’s her business, I suppose, and theirs, not this hetero’s.

Second line of thought: a lot of my early leftist education came from reading The Baffler and other irreverent cultural critics of their sort. They injected materialism (and wit) into debates often sorely lacking it. Tom Frank and those (mostly) guys were deeply skeptical of the concept of subcultural resistance, the idea that the power of capitalism and other hegemonic forces could be meaningfully subverted by oppositional cultural practices. As an angry young nerd who always felt ill at ease with the subcultural identities I saw around me (including nerd identity), I ate that up. It’s funny- I don’t think Frank or any of the Baffler crew or the early Jacobin people or whoever I was reading at the time ever really got into the sexual politics of the thing. I’m sure if you asked them, they’d say they favor gay rights, as understood by gay people, and mean it. But they completely ignored the idea of a subculture challenging basic structures of our society in favor of mocking the spectacle of (generally, post-height-of-the-US-AIDS-crisis) absurd Burning-Man-esque cultural posturing by the comfortable.

I think Frank, if he was feeling frisky, would say he ignored the potential of pre-AIDS gay subculture because it failed, and would have failed, AIDS or no AIDS. Maybe I’m being uncharitable to the old guy. I figure Schulman would say because of AIDS, and the great taking of space (physical and cultural) from the commons that real oppositional culture once held, that we will never know what could have been possible had AIDS and gentrification not come around. Who knows? There’s an alternate history for you, but the “point of departure” — our government giving a shit about gay people and public health — is something of a lift, alas.

Anyway- this guy who uses “urban space” mostly to sit at pubs, drink beer, and read books (and not that many of them “experimental,” though I’ll look up some of the neglected works Schulman champions here), who avoids the theater, and who would love to save a baby seal in front of Christina Hendricks, picks up what Schulman’s putting down. If nothing else, the culture, especially literary culture, that we’ve got is so damned tired (and complicit) that it’s hard for me not to connect with a historical theory of why that might be. It does seem like a real oppositional politics — as material as it is cultural, fiercely both in the teeth of some vulgar materialist grumbling — is coming about, including challenging not just family structure but our ideas of gender, too. We probably haven’t ended the Great Gentrification, like Schulman maybe thought we did in the shadow of the 2008 recession, but we’re working on it. I plan on reading more Schulman! She bids fair to be one of the greats of our time. *****

Review- Schulman, “The Gentrification of the Mind”

Review- Nozick, “Anarchy, State, and Utopia”

Robert Nozick, “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” (1974) – Yeah, ok, other than eventually getting to von Mises, I’m done trying to read these libertarian hacks for the time being. I read right-wing writing (Nozick would probably object to the classification but fuck him) for a number of reasons: the “know your enemy” thing, the ways in which their writings can illuminate certain historical dynamics, the insights they sometimes contain, sometimes they just turn out to be enjoyable. I suppose the closest Nozick gets to any of those is the “historical dynamic” bit. Namely, between him and Rothbard and, one gets the feeling, many of their liberal interlocutors as the midcentury Consensus era cracked up and we enter the hungover last third of the twentieth century, you get a general impression that a white guy with a degree could just say anything, any words out of his mouth, and get a publishing deal, tenure, and loads and loads of attention.

Because that’s all any of this is. It doesn’t help that it’s technically “analytical” philosophy. At its best, analytical philosophy tries to get to the root of truth as rigorously as possible. I don’t get a lot out of it, even at its best, but I get what they’re trying to do. But applying it to politics is a dicey proposition, and when a hack trying to leap over his old friend (who also did analytical political philosophy) to make a plutocrat-friendly version of objective political truth… just no. Nozick was friends with liberal godfather John Rawls and wrote “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” specifically to counter Rawls’s “A Theory of Justice.” I don’t know if they exactly became blood enemies as a consequence — neither seems like the kind, and also apparently white middle class people just thought personal betrayal was cool in the seventies? — but there it is.

“Anarchy, State, and Utopia” isn’t even an especially elegant construction (Rawls, no prose artist, has his old pal beat by miles there). The closest thing to a through line is the Lockean state of nature. “Let’s just do that again!” Nozick insists. There’s a bit more to it- he opposes the state of nature to Rawls’s “original position,” where if you don’t know how you’re going to be born, you’d prefer to be born into a society that is relatively just, equal, and humane. But what of our RIGHTS, Nozick insists, specifically our property rights, that Locke somehow divined from… somewhere? The state of nature stuff was fatuous enough when it was happening, between Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, whichever other cosseted Enlightenment guy dreaming up the natural man in his cozy study. How is anyone going to do that post-Darwin? How is anyone going to look at nature and be like “yeah, there’s a human-based normative order here, let’s just do that!”

(And don’t at me about indigenous societies or social darwinism. Indigenous societies often managed (still do manage, where colonial capitalism hasn’t dispossessed them) natural resources very well (not exactly batting a thousand but pretty good), but my understanding is that most of them, pre-contact anyway, didn’t understand “nature” as separate from their societies in the Enlightenment/romantic way Europeans came to do. And social darwinists romanticize nature as much as anyone. They just do it in a nasty, adolescent boy way. They look for norms that aren’t there, too.)

Nozick also tries to dispense with Marx by smugly proving that Marx and Marxists understand value via market valuations- a granddaddy of the “you criticize capitalism yet you buy products, interesting” gambit. What kind of an own is that? For one, it completely ignores the concepts of use value and exchange value, which should not be obscure to someone taking on this subject in the seventies, it’s not some “young Marx” marginalia, it’s right there in Capital. For another… so what? The idea isn’t that markets are always wrong informationally, or even necessarily morally/existentially. The idea is that it’s a rigged fucking game because of historical structures and always will be until those structures are overthrown. Somehow Nozick bridges this into “proving” that workers aren’t exploited by their employers profit-taking? Fuck knows. Fuck this. It’s one of “The Sopranos” better jokes that they have a lame snitch reading this book. *

Review- Nozick, “Anarchy, State, and Utopia”

Review- Herman and Chomsky, “Manufacturing Consent”

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media” (1988) – 2021 probably wasn’t the ideal time to finally get around to this classic of its time and place on the American left. That’s not to say that “Manufacturing Consent” is a bad book, or irrelevant. It’s neither, though it is a little bit dated, as in it’s a book about the media written before Tim Berners-Lee did his thing and invented the World Wide Web.

I guess it would have been interesting to have read this A. before I developed as much media savvy as I’d eventually collect (not saying I’m super-savvy, just that I have the standard awareness of media manipulation of any millennial) and B. before Noam Chomsky (do people talk much about Ed Herman? He’s first on the bill on this title, for what it’s worth) became the elder statesman/whited sepulchre of the anglosphere left he’s been for some time. I guess he’s been in that role for long enough that I’d have needed to pick this up when I was a teenager, but that would not have been impossible- teenagers do it. As it stands, it’s kinda weird reading this and realizing how central to the left this sort of criticism — that the institutions in power are hypocritical and don’t follow their own stated purposes — would become, how ineffective it would be, and how long it would take to try another game plan.

That’s not really to blame Chomsky, or this book (though some of his public pronouncements over the years have been less than helpful). Chomsky did his bit. He’s a linguist, and a highly influential one, and his social science background shows, in this book and elsewhere. He proceeds in a very orderly fashion, insists that calling mainstream media “propaganda” represents a social scientific “model” to be used like other such constructs, and his fervor, when he lets it show, is the fervor of a man of reason and order confronted with the ways that power wreaks hell on both, both in the world at large and in the discursive sphere, where truth is supposed to emerge. None of these are necessarily unreasonable stances to have in the world. But there’s an extent to which they constituted bringing a legal writ to the Warsaw ghetto uprising. It’s not even a words-versus-actions thing- his words, to the extent they’re calculated to inspire action, would cause actions that aren’t super helpful, and this became more and more evident as time went on.

But, hey, he’s a scholar, and he did his thing, and it’s all stuff worth knowing. Did you know that the media raises hell about about a Solidarity-aligned Polish priest getting killed by the cops (all of whom were tried, convicted, and imprisoned) but had relatively little to say when American-backed death squads murdered the Archbishop of San Salvador, tortured, raped, and murdered nuns (including Americans), and killed numerous priests (and no one was punished for any of this)? Well, now you do! And on and on the book goes. It feels quaint now, the way you had to manipulate a few elite institutions (ironically, there’s fewer of them now with corporate consolidation, but many more small players with relevant impacts because of the Internet) to get over, when he talks about TV networks preferring to air documentaries about birds and the Italian Renaissance over hard hitting political news. It’s a whole new world, but many of the rules apply- money talks, so does access, and slant is probably more most journalists’ job than anything like “straight” reportage. If anything, the changes in the thirty-plus years since this book came out reinforce his points about propaganda. It’s almost as though most of those changes just happened to benefit people with money and power! ****

Review- Herman and Chomsky, “Manufacturing Consent”

Review- Neiwert, “Red Pill, Blue Pill”

David Neiwert, “Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us” (2020) – Dave Neiwert has a possibly unique reputation in antifascist circles- he’s a liberal, a “lib” who is skeptical of militant antifascism, but all the serious antifascists I know admit, without any grudging, that he knows his shit. He’s been following the far right for years, does good research, and doesn’t go beyond the research (for instance, into having a great many opinions about antifascism that he expounds upon, as many liberals do with less basis).

His new book is about conspiracy theories and there’s good reason why. It’s goddamned everywhere and anyone my age or older has had the creepy experience of watching conspiracy theory migrate from the drolly amusing margins of life to the center. It’s especially hard on liberals, who put so many chips on the idea that a rational, informed public can steer public life without much in the way of dangerous mucking about with power structures. The rise of Trump and QAnon is like a zombie movie turned real to them. Hell, I’ll admit, I’m not so far from liberalism — or maybe just the idea that the sort of irrationality and fanaticism you now see cropping up in the Trumpist/QAnon/antivaxx/CRT-panic formations is a “those people” thing, something for the South or abroad, not a thing that would affect New Englanders or people who remind me of New Englanders — to be unable to relate.

Among other things, Neiwert makes an interesting point- conspiracy believers have undertaken virtually every mass casualty attack in western countries for the last twenty years. Incels, “white replacement” Nazis, he doesn’t mention them but ISIS guys usually believe conspiracies, too. That’s a relevant fact, but Neiwert doesn’t push it too hard- after all, more and more people have been drawn into the world of conspiracy theory (not talking about thinking something is fishy with the Warren Report or that Epstein didn’t kill himself, but hardcore world-organizing conspiracy theory) and most of them don’t do any violence. We could also point out that when you leave the twenty-year cutoff, mass shootings seem orthogonal to conspiracy thinking- I’ve never heard that the Columbine killers or other school shooters of that era were particularly into conspiracies, for instance.

Mass shooters are the tip of the iceberg. Since conspiracy theory lurched towards the center of right-wing politics, conspiracy theory can do even greater damage when it winds up behind the wheel of policy. Immigration, climate change, the basic administration of justice and basic governing functioning… as the Republican Party enters into a dynamic where it needs to feed its conspiracy-mad base more and more red meat, who’s to say how much can get thrown into a cocked hat by conspiracy-inflected thinking?

And this is where Neiwert slips up, and where his liberalism, no impediment to seeing the problems of the right, trips him up. Advice on trying to deprogram your conspiracy-minded family and friends dominated the last part of the book. It’s fairly sensible stuff about being empathetic but firm, giving them alternative stuff to believe, dealing with underlying hurts, etc. You can see why people whose relatives have been stolen from them by Fox News and Infowars would want that advice. But it isn’t a meaningful political solution. Neiwert even grants that it’s dicey enough as an individual solution. But it seems to be what liberalism offers.

Not to be a broken record, but I’ll stake a claim: it’s about power. What will break the grip of conspiracy? Maybe stuffing every Fox News casualty’s mouth with gold could do it, reassure their anxieties, but A. certainly not for all of them and probably not for enough of them and B. The pricks they vote in won’t let us do that until we have enough power to actually overthrow them. Really, I think, especially given the linkages between conspiracism, authoritarian politics, and authoritarian cultural strains (there’s also an “authoritarian personality” supposedly, and I can believe it, but that’s not my field), there needs to be an alternative pole of power that can command allegiance, respect, or failing those, silence. It doesn’t have to be the silence of the censor: the sullen silence of knowing you’ll be laughed at for your challenge will do it, at least keep the conspiracists on the margins where they belong. And if you have that kind of power, you don’t need to worry that your whole setup can be knocked down by a senile ex-game show host and his febrile fans. That’s what we need- to the extent nice conversations with your chud relatives can help build that, good. To the extent they can’t, well, we know where to drive the old cart and plough. ****

Review- Neiwert, “Red Pill, Blue Pill”

Review- Rothbard, “Power and Market”

Murray Rothbard, “Power and Market: Government and the Economy” (1970) – I remember being a baby grad student and setting out to read various important German philosophers: your Kants, your Hegels, your Nietzsches, your Heideggers. My enjoyment and comprehension values varied, but between being a historian and, I figure, being an American, I could never get fully “into” them because it just felt like people saying words out of their mouths. I’m not a scientist, I don’t demand data and scientific method from everything, but I guess I just prefer there to be some more backing to the things people say than that it sounds good. Ironically, given his reputation and some of his other statements, Nietzsche was the one who got closest to being at all empirical, with his early career in classical studies. I’ve gotten something out of all the philosophers I’ve named, especially as I got older and realized that everyone, explicit or not, has some sort of non-empirical basis on which to launch their empirical investigations. I came to think that there’s a degree to which the human capacity for thinking these things at all indicates that such things are worth thinking. Our ability to abstract and imagine the infinite points to something more than empiricism can answer for, even if I generally prefer to make my way with the solid groundings of citations and paper trails.

I thought of this while reading Murray Rothbard, and to a lesser extent other libertarian thinkers recently. Rothbard would probably hate being compared to most of these guys, especially Hegel, cast in Rothbard’s day as the arch-philosopher of the dreaded state. I tend to think Hegel et al would return the favor. To me, this is no “both sides” business. At its worst and most abstruse, the continental philosophical tradition (as opposed to contemporary continental philosophy, more of an industry than anything else) represents people bringing their best lights to difficult and essential aspects of what it is to be human. What Murray Rothbard and his cothinkera represent is a wretched provincial charade of the same thing, taking the portentous stakes, philosophical excuses to not bother with the empirical, and pretentious language of the philosophical enterprise to affirm utter crankery… though it’s somewhat of an insult to cranks, some of whom don’t wind up just saying “whatever I imagine rich people to want” over and over again as though it’s capital-T Truth.

In this book, a portion of his 1962 masterwork “Man Economy, and State,” Rothbard practices what he calls “praxeology.” Have you not heard of that? Well, that’s probably because it’s not a real thing. Austrian School economists dug it out of the corpse of classical learning, isolating a bit of Aristotle here and various others there, to create a basis for understanding the world based on “human action,” defined as purposive, goal-oriented, and if not perfectly-informed than reasonably-informed. From this axiom, you derive other axioms, and go on your merry way. “Power and Market” is axiom after axiom after (strawman) objections to axioms he likes followed up axioms disproving the objections. That’s it. He will occasionally throw in a cherry-picked empirical fact, but not often.

Rothbard is both an outlier and something of a bridge figure in the history of libertarianism (it makes sense that libertarians would have bridges to outliers of thought- if only they’d stay there). He went a lot farther than most libertarians did in terms of denying a government role in pretty much anything, including securing a sound currency or maintaining a common defense. All that can be privatized, too, Rothbard insists, making him the father of “anarchocapitalism.” Of course, we know “ancaps” these days by their tendency to join forces with outright fascists, and we know why- because ancap is feudalism with extra steps, and that’s more or less what a stable fascism would degenerate into, Himmler’s fatuous little rural volks-deutsch daydream. Did Rothbard know that? Did he care? Does it matter? To the extent I understand Rothbard’s trajectory, it was one long process of getting back at his neighborhood- he was a conservative geek, a bowtie dipshit from the beginning, which didn’t make him popular growing up in the thirties and forties in Jewish neighborhoods in New York. He had acolytes but he didn’t seem to have friends- he busted up with Ayn Rand, for instance, when neither one would bend the knee to the other. He wound up plonking himself down with neoconfederates and Holocaust deniers at the Mises Institute in Alabama and there he stayed til he popped his clogs in 1995.

For all he was a weirdo, like I say, Rothbard was also a bridge, specifically between the stormy continental pessimism of much of the original Austrian School economists like von Mises and von Hayek and what would become American libertarianism. It might be hard to remember now that it got its lunch money took by resurgent fascism, but libertarianism used to be an optimistic creed. Sooner or later — probably sooner — everyone would see that the free market was the way to go. It was implicit in everything from technology to pop culture, politics just had to catch up. As for Rothbard’s role in all this, let’s put it this way: at his gauziest and dumbest, von Hayek would never have made the sort of promises Rothbard makes for what would be possible if the government would just cease existing. “Good government” was not an oxymoron for libertarians or many other neoliberals before Rothbard. In characteristic American style, various hustlers like Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan and whoever else would use aspects of the privatization-mania Rothbard philosophized to pry apart the public sector, without giving away a scintilla of power. Ancaps could screech but they should have cheered- this is what they were for.

In the end, though, I go back to the book itself and it’s structure. What this “praxeology” business reminds me of is a more pretentious version of what you often see in vernacular philosophizing, including the thought patterns of conspiracy theorists and “sovereign citizen” types, some of whom have vaguely anarchocapitalist notions already. You start with a few things you see around you, and apply a set of mental operations to them. If you come into it with a paranoid and/or anti-authority streak, anyone pointing out that your system has some holes in it is just trying to suppress you and your ideas. The reasoning itself that Rothbard followed in his praxeology reminded me of nothing so much as the “lessons” in “Supreme Mathematics” practiced by Nation of Islam offshoot commonly called the Five Percenters. They like to improvise on various axioms and numerological concepts to come up with “science,” a sort of Kabbalah developed by black kids in the depths of the inner city, the playgrounds and the prison yards. To the best of my knowledge, though, praxeology has never inspired music as good as the Wu Tang Clan, and the Gods and Earths haven’t contributed as much as libertarians have to our current mess, nor do they screech like tea kettles about how their method is the only rational method. I know which I prefer. **

Review- Rothbard, “Power and Market”

Review- Ironside, “The Last Girl Scout”

Natalie Ironside, “The Last Girl Scout” (2020) – This fucking ruled. It’s two hundred years after a mid-21st century nuclear war! Some shit is still fucked — heavily nuked areas are still radioactive and have “roamers,” zombies more or less, products of biowar weapons, roaming around — but civilization has rebuilt in some areas. One such is the Ashland Confederated Republic, a communist federation of survivors in Kentucky, Tennessee, and parts south (until you get to the “exclusion zones” around nuked-out Birmingham and Atlanta… I guess they didn’t bother with Nashville? It’s ok). Across the Ohio River they face off with the Blacklands New Republic, a white supremacist fascist state. You might wonder why survivors of an apocalypse would, a hundred years later, decide to take up early twentieth century ideologies, complete with trappings (the Ashlanders still debate about Trotsky; the fascists have Arditi and often use Italian or German phrases). Well, post-apocalyptic (or generally futuristic) atavism has been a thing in scifi forever, with monarchies, feudalism, the Wild West, and god knows what else coming back after the bombs fall- so why not ideological struggle circa 1937? I dig it!

Natalie Ironside, an IWW organizer, doesn’t mess around, and her main character, Magnolia “Mags” Blackadder, is a commissar, the supposed avatar of communist evil. But this is a state where communism works, more or less, and the commissars are there to ensure the rights of soldiers (keeping those pesky officers in line) and in general be kind of wandering Jedi of the revolution. Mags is young, her family got all fucked up in a famine, she’s a transwoman, and she lives for her work- advancing the Revolution and fighting fascists. She’s sent on an impossible mission- crack The Citadel. Deep in the “Exclusion Zone” in the Acela Corridor, the Citadel shines bright with the sort of technological salvage the communes could really use to up their automation game and advance towards utopia. It also shines with menace- few who have tried to take the Citadel have ever come back. Except for Ohio Nazis (“I fucking hate Ohio Nazis”)- they’re going to the Citadel and coming back. It’s ominous.

First, of course, Mags needs to gather a team. There’s the Prof, her old professor at the academy who knows Old American tech. There’s Connor, whose wife was horribly killed by a vampire (there’s vampires) last time out to the Citadel. There’s TJ, who they kind of pick up at an anarchist bar along the way, but they seem cool? And most importantly, there’s Jules. Jules is a renegade fascist Arditi, a transwoman and survivor of harrowing abuse at the hands of her former co-fascists. She labors under a crushing weight of trauma and guilt. She and Mags meet up and it’s love at first sight. They talk trauma and fuck all the way from the anarchist zone of the communist state (there’s some amusing insults back and forth between anarchists and communists but they work together in the crunch) in the Appalachians to the Baltimore suburbs where the Citadel waits.

There’s a few different kinds of action in the book and Ironside handles them all with aplomb. There’s a lot of fights, both “unbalanced” horror-style violence — her vampires are genuinely scary — and action-movie style fights dealing with unfriendly bandits and fascists. There’s also a lot of emotional relationship talk! Having read a lot of military science fiction due to Reasons lately, I’ve read a lot of both lately — your military scifi always has dudes thinking about love — and I think Ironside ranks with the best of them at military action and beats them all hollow on the relationship stuff. She comes out of the fanfiction scene and this is self-published, and if I’m being honest I think it could have benefited from professional editing — it gets repetitive — but not at the cost of Ironside’s style (hell, you ever listen to people talk relationships? Or politics? It’s repetitive!). It works quite well as stands.

There’s so much more, even in the first part, that I can’t give due consideration to — a friendly early 2000s hipster girl vampire (kind of a Marceline type)! Kaiserine/Nazi vampire experiments brought stateside by Operation Paperclip AND involving a gay WWI vampire romance that goes bad because one vampire becomes a Nazi and the other a Communist! A fascist prison camp/bordello for transwomen! Terrible revenge! Tac nukes! — and it’s just a hell of a lot of fun.

And then there’s the second part! If I’m being honest I think this could have been a separate book. It’s rare when I want more of a novel, but I wanted more of this one. After the Ohio fascist plan revolving around the Citadel goes up in smoke, the fash say “yolo” and try to bulldog the Ohio River anyway, just as a meeting of the Soviets is happening! The Soviets are doing the math and are realizing — except for some lame Stalinoid class reductionists — that they need to take these fash sons of bitches down. They can’t coexist. They’re expanding in the west against the Indigenious portions of the Republic. Who knows when they’ll find some other superweapon? They can’t do “force against force” — there’s more people in the fertile Ohio farmland than in the rocky Appalachia soil — but they can subvert the fash from beneath (which I like because it’s the fascists’ straight up worse nightmare). But the fash strike first! Mags, Jules, a new lover of theirs, and some of the rest of the old crew are sent into enemy territory to help light up the kindling under the fash’s asses.

This is also overstuffed with cool shit — fash vampire long-range raids to take out artillery! Guerrilla action! Inter-fash political bullshit! Commie spies using their control over the illicit cigarette and coffee trade to smuggle arms to the gay underground in fash cities! Forgiveness and revenge! More emotions talk! — to the point where, like I said, I would’ve liked to see it as its own big book. But it’s cool as is.

If I hazard a criticism beyond the editing/structure, I’d say that in the action, she could use to vary up the patterns of setback and victory a little. Ironside has made clear that she is not telling stories of dystopia, even with all the terrible shit that happens in the book and it’s background, she is telling stories of hope. We can build back better, together- we can be who we are and find love and peace. That’s cool! I would say it creates a pattern wherein we are frontloaded with tragedy — setbacks in the action and revelations of terrible trauma for the characters — and backloaded with victories. That’s fine as a first-level pattern. The victories feel earned. But I think she could heighten the tension and drama by having more setbacks and more contradictions — in the process of achieving victory —. She’s got the characters with depth for it, and the knowledge; clearly, she knows her stuff about politics, war (something tells me she’s followed the news out of Syria), ecology, etc. But, hell, when she wrote a book this fun, she can do her own thing. It’s been a long time since I “geeked out” over fiction, but here I am. *****

Review- Ironside, “The Last Girl Scout”

Review- Corey, “Babylon’s Ashes”

James S.A. Corey, “Babylon’s Ashes” (2016) (narrated by Jefferson Mays) – Well, the two Coreys (“James S.A. Corey” is a house name for two dudes) decided they’d do space Tolstoy. They even make it explicit in the last chapter, with one of their characters reading and expounding on the old Russky wife-hating sage. Indeed, they bring back pretty much every viewpoint character from the previous four books who aren’t dead, and a few more besides, to give their take on the goings-on.

And what ARE the goings-on? The Solar System is fucked after the last book, when a coalition of Asteroid Belt extremists and shady Martian-colonist naval officers blast the fuck out of Earth with asteroids. Without Earth, ecological collapse threatens the system. There’s an alien gateway that can get people to other solar systems out by Neptune, but the extremists control it. Like I said, it seems the Coreys got sick of the “Alien”-esque workaday space world last book and decided to apocalypse it. That wasn’t a great move, but was somewhat interesting. Now they need to clean up their toys and get them somewhere else. They spend hundreds of pages doing it! And it’s not that good, or that interesting.

The many viewpoint characters give you a bunch of looks at the world of the Expanse, but that world isn’t interesting enough to sustain the weight. It’s not bad, and it can definitely sustain good action, like in the first three books. But when interest has to come from the details of the world, it’s not enough. The Coreys don’t make anything that original or interesting. The closest is the Belters, which is good as they’re the pivot of the whole thing. A space-bound culture raised on stations, ships, and asteroid, they have kind of a proletarian thing (exploited by Inner Planets) and kind of a nationalist thing and kind of vision of everyone being space-based? It’s fine that the movement is confused. Movements are often confused. But the Belt, it’s people, and it’s politics don’t feel real enough to sustain the action or my interest that much, especially as a movement willing to get behind a genocidaire who also destroyed their lifeline, ie the Earth (the rest of the system has not been meaningfully terraformed). This is because Belter politics are a grab-bag of features of demotic politics and nothing coherent. It doesn’t scan. Martian and Earth politics and society are even less fleshed out.

All of this would be forgivable if the action delivered, but it doesn’t. It’s scattered and confused, and the Coreys take time out to deliver little homilies on “human nature,” how we’re “tribal” — lot to be said about the resurgence of that adjective in recent decades — and greedy but things are still worth it and anyone who tries to radically change things is bad, blah blah the usual. I don’t like normal Tolstoy that much. American pop scifi Tolstoy is hard to take. Eventually they go out to the alien gate and there’s a fight in the gate and it’s fine, people are gonna expand into the galaxy but the Belters will get some stuff etc. I’ve been told the one that comes after this is better, and the blurb I read shows some promising surprises, so we’ll see. **’

Review- Corey, “Babylon’s Ashes”