book reviews


Daniel Defoe is the author most famous for Robinson Crusoe, an awful story not worth reading, but he also wrote an account of the great plague of London, which I recently read. This plague was apparently the Black Death, which is spread by fleas of a rat, so it attacks more effectively in summer and requires different prevention methods to influenza. Daniel Defoe wasn’t present in London when the plague happened (just as he never was stranded on an island), but instead wrote his account based on journals and other notes he obtained from his uncle. I suspect his account is not especially reliable, though I think he may have gained more raw material for his book than just that of his uncle, but it remains one of the few surviving accounts of the time, so it is worth considering, and in many respects this book shows us that the UK is making the same mistakes in dealing with Coronavirus that it made 350 years ago dealing with plague. Responding to pandemics is actually theoretically quite easy, though politically the necessary measures can be unpalatable; Defoe’s report shows us that the UK government has learnt nothing from 350 years of experience.

Ignoring the coming wave

One of the more common pieces of misinformation about Coronavirus is that the Chinese government hid information about the disease. This is far from true: in fact by mid-January the Chinese government was yelling from the rooftops about how dangerous this virus was, and trying to warn the whole world to be ready. On 23rd January they did something almost unprecedented in human history, closing a city of 12 million people to stop the spread of the virus. Nobody in Europe or the Americas bothered to listen to these widely-broadcast warnings, and in mid-February the pandemic spread to Italy, where it exploded. By mid-March the rest of Europe and the US finally realized – when white people were dying – that Chinese warnings were serious, but by then it was too late and the virus was wreaking havoc in the UK and much of Europe. The same happened in Defoe’s account of London. The plague was wreaking havoc in the Netherlands in the 1660s but action to stop it entering London was late and weak, even though everyone in Europe knew how bad it could be, and so in 1664 the first cases reached London. By summer it was widespread and killing thousands a week. The British government had been given plenty of warning but they let it in, and after it got in they did nothing to stop it.

Failure of Case Isolation

Daniel Defoe spends most of the book complaining about the policy of shuttering houses, in which houses with even one plague victim were locked shut and guarded by hired guards until everyone inside either died or recovered. He recounts many stories about the horrors of shuttered houses, and also the efforts residents made to escape, including burrowing through walls and attempting to kill their guards. This is the 17th century version of self-isolation, and just as with coronavirus, it did not work. Self-isolation in crowded living quarters – such as were common in London in 1665, and are common in London now – simply ensures that each case infects everyone in their house. It guarantees that the reproduction number of the disease is not the natural number of the virus, but the household size of the affected community. Instead case isolation, in which infected people are separated from the community, is much more effective to prevent the spread. For coronavirus case isolation was the standard response in Asia, which is why China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Thailand were so much better able to manage this virus than the Europeans. Defoe notes this failure, as we see here:

In 350 years the British have learnt nothing about how to handle a serious epidemic, to the extent that they have done worse than the government of Charles II. While the city of London in 1665 organized inadequate numbers of “pest-houses”, in 2020 they couldn’t organize any, and the epidemic raged in “shuttered houses”, which Defoe deplored (though for the wrong reasons).

The impact of austerity and poor choices

Defoe also comments on the city of London’s priorities about spending money. He notes that people need to stay inside, and in particular that many people who work on day labour (yes, zero-hour contracts are not new in the UK) cannot stop working without some independent source of money, and talks about the need for the government to support people’s housing costs. But he notes that the government was much less interested in supporting the basic needs of poor people during the epidemic, than they were in vanity projects after:

Clearly, priorities have not changed much in the 350 years since the plague. If only there were another political party with a coherent project to change the spending priorities of the British government, who could have been elected to government just before the epidemic hit…

The frenzy of reopening

We are now seeing Europe and the English speaking world reopen, with tragic consequences in the USA and, no doubt, similar disasters impending for the UK. In Victoria, Australia, there is a new wave of cases brewing after reopening, and here in otherwise-sensible Japan the government ended lockdown a week or two early and is seeing a resurgence of cases it cannot stop. Experience around the world shows that the only way to be safe from this disease is to strangle it until it is dead – as New Zealand and China did – and then to be hyper-vigilant about importing new cases. Any attempt to live with it will lead only to catastrophe. But in their eagerness to return to normal life the people of Europe and the USA have failed to understand this and are now beginning to pay the price. Defoe noted this strange zeal for life in the last stages of the plague in London:

We can only sustain so much isolation and restrictions and death before we go crazy, a fact that has not changed since the 17th century. It is incumbent on us, then, to make sure that those lockdowns and restrictions are worth it. Many countries have failed to do that, either by making the lockdowns ineffective (as appears to have been the case in the UK and many US states) or by opening just a little early (as happened in Australia and Japan). Defoe understood this; it appears that 350 years later the British government does not.

History repeating as tragedy

We all know the quote, and it appears that the UK government has failed to learn anything from 350 years of experience of epidemics. Defoe’s book isn’t very good and it has a lot of ascientific nonsense as Defoe tries to understand the plague in terms of divine vengeance or weird theories of miasma, but even with that poor fundamental science background the people of Britain in 1665 understood that infectious diseases spread and certain things need to be done. They made mistakes in dealing with the plague, mistakes that are to be expected given their limited scientific knowledge. But Defoe’s book also shows that the secrets of controlling infectious diseases aren’t rocket science and have been known to us for a very long time. To fail to apply those well-known and very basic principles in 2020, with all our wealth and resources, is just a ridiculous failure of civilization. There is no excuse for letting this virus overwhelm us, as it is now doing in the USA and Brazil and will soon do again in the UK and Europe. We know what needs to be done and have the capacity to do it; failure to do so is simply a tragedy, with no excuse or justification. And Defoe’s book shows that some countries are going to repeat the mistakes of hundreds of years ago, as if the governments of those countries have learnt nothing in all that time. It’s a disaster, that even the man who wrote a book as terrible as Robinson Crusoe could have predicted.

America is currently Having a Moment, and various historical works have been identified as having predicted or foretold her Current Predicament, including Sinclair Lewis in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. Since I am interested in tracing the cultural and historical origins of the Present Unpleasantness – and since I have already made the effort to read the US fascists’ utopian vision so you don’t have to – I thought I would give this book a go and find out how prescient it was. I was interested in seeing how much of the current trends in the Republican party had their roots in longstanding cultural phenomena that Americans themselves could identify, what mistakes they though the left wing opposition made to allow this to happen, and how they got out of it. Unfortunately, this book was largely a disappointment on all of these counts.

The book chronicles the rise of an all-American dictator, Buzz Windrip, as he first wins the presidency in an election and then proceeds to rapidly dismantle all America’s constitutional protections and political institutions on a rapid road to dictatorship. The story is told through the perspective of Doremus Jessup, editor of a small-town newspaper in rural Vermont, as he tries to first understand, then live with, and finally fight back against the regime of the Corpos, as Windrip’s party come to be known, and the struggles of his family and friends as they try to accommodate, collaborate with, or oppose the new order. Doremus is near retirement when the Corpos come to power, and is presented as the kind of soul of America or something (it’s not very clear); his viewpoint is given authority and superiority even though he is obviously a blinkered, naive man with a massive investment in exactly the system of capitalist exploitation that Windrip pretends to want to tame but ultimately takes over. He is a biased and self-serving narrator at best and, compared to the ideologically pure and driven characters at the centre of the Turner Diaries, very ignorant about how class and race interests drive American society. He is also, in the context of modern America, something of an anachronism. There is very little independent local media in America now, the entire media industry is now much more dependent on advertising revenue and corporate interests than it was in the 1930s, there is now a major mainstream media organization directly dedicated to promoting fascism in the USA[1], the editors of most major newspapers in the USA are now openly right-wing and happy to enable the kind of illiberal politicians that Windrip is modeled on, and it is highly unlikely that someone of his age and class position in the USA now would be “objective” or “open-minded” or have a balanced view about things like unions, which Doremus pretends to do in this book.

Doremus’s class position makes him a poor judge of Windrip, and a bad character through which to view the political realities of Windrip’s ascent to power. He doesn’t understand class politics, is completely ignorant of the racial character of American oligarchy, and is deeply wedded to an ideal of free speech and debate as valid tools for resolving conflicting social interests. He also has a sneering disregard for poor and working class people and is openly dismissive of people who go off the rails or live differently to a very straight and narrow vision of work and family. It’s really obvious why his handyman, Shad Ledue, hates him and why he is viewed with so little respect by the local fascists once they have America in their grip. Right to the end he seems to think that running a printing press and handing out a few pamphlets about how bad Buzz Windrip is will convince people in the grip of a fascist terror regime to rise up and restore democracy; and he genuinely seems to believe that America can return to its old settled system after Windrip is gone as if all the class and race conflicts that divide America will just disappear overnight – because fundamentally he doesn’t understand where they come from. The protagonists of the Turner Diaries don’t have any such difficulties: they have analyzed all of America’s situation on race lines and have a very clear idea of where it is going wrong and what is needed to fix it. Doremus is almost the perfect depiction of the stereotypical liberal that Twitter leftists despise, or the embodiment of the kind of squishy liberal Lenin would sneer at (or King would warn black Americans against). Wikipedia tells me this book is meant to be a satire, so maybe this choice is deliberate, but I’m not sure – the book ends with a paean to Doremus’s fundamental importance to the American condition, so I suspect it is meant to be lauding him while gently laughing at his more sedate personal characteristics. Whatever it is doing, it doesn’t work, and it is hard to have much sympathy for Doremus as the fascist regime closes its grip around him and the only effort he makes to struggle is against the ruddy crassness of it all, until it is too late and he realizes how he has been done in.

The book does find some interesting similarities with Trump in Windrip’s pre-dictatorial rise. He is supposed to be crass and lewd, a witty entertainer who is capable of bewitching people at his rallies (yes, he holds lots of rallies) and swaying skeptics with his folksy speeches and ribald style. He rises through the Democrats (who were the party of racists at that time I think), and some think of him as a communist because he promises to improve the rights of workers and the poor, with vague promises that Jessup is sure will never be delivered on; at the same time he is appealing to corporate oligarchs with promises of increasing their strength and control and removing the fetters on their business, and appealing to religious conservatives with a promise of a new American dawn. In this he is very much like Trump, who somehow managed to get away with being seen as more left-wing than Clinton (remember “Hilary the Hawk, Donald the Dove”? Or that primary debate where he somehow managed to convince otherwise Serious People that he was serious about healthcare reform?) When he gets into power of course he doesn’t deliver on any of this: the $5000 each household has been promised never materializes, unions are destroyed and all the oligarchs become his personal agents, in a perfect recreation of European fascism in America (perhaps we could call it Fascism with American Characteristics). Doremus seems to just dismiss this obvious fakery as typical politicians’ dishonesty, which is exactly why he is such a dupe for this shit. Another similarity between Trump and Windrip is Windrip’s slimy advisor Sarason, who is a bit of an enigma and is sometimes seen as the real power behind the throne, with some vague parallels with Stephen Miller. It also implies that Sarason is the real force behind Windrip’s politics, and Windrip is just a blowhard – this is exactly the same stupid and naive idea that gets people thinking Trump isn’t really serious about his racism, or that he doesn’t believe in the fascist stuff he’s doing. But this implication at least isn’t clear in the book, unlike in the Twitter feeds of modern pundits who are always so sure that Trump doesn’t really mean what he says. Windrip’s regime is also incompetent and chaotic, with senior leadership constantly changing and also fighting with each other for promotion and favours, and it’s just as corrupt as the Trump regime (more, obviously, once it gets full and unfettered control of all branches of government). Windrip has also written a book, which I guess is the same as Trump, who has a book written in his name.

But here the differences also become clear. Windrip’s book – and his speeches generally – are coherent, he is not a man sliding into dementia. Windrip didn’t run for office to cover up his tax fraud and to close off the tightening investigations into his Russian money-laundering, but to actually implement a full fascist program, which he does. Windrip is not enabled by a corrupt party, he doesn’t win senate or house and has to take power from them by imprisoning his political opponents “for their own protection”. Windrip is backed up by a huge and very well organized stormtrooper organization called the Minute Men who he deploys almost immediately to destroy all political opposition, including the Supreme Court – in 1935 America the political institutions are much less supine and partisan than they are for Trump, and Windrip has to destroy them rather than relying on them to do his bidding. Windrip is, in short, much more competent and organized and coherently fascist than Trump. He has a network of secret prisons and concentration camps set up pretty much immediately after dissolving congress, and after that he quickly completely reorganizes American life beyond recognition. So no, he’s no Trump.

The book is also strangely vague on the actual reasons for Windrip’s appeal or partial electoral success. What exactly about him do people like, and what about his appeal is so slippery that the supposedly all-powerful media organizations can’t see and counter? He promises everyone $5000 and the media point out that this is obviously bullshit, but everyone ignores them, and there is no explanation for how he hand-waves away all these problems in his platform or with his obvious slide into fascism. At the beginning a lot of people in Doremus’s circle dismiss the worst possibilities with the eponymous phrase “it can’t happen here” but nobody at any point bothers to explain why it can’t or why it did. The only clear “political” opinion that flows through the book is the scorn everyone in Doremus Jessup’s social circle feels for poor and working-class Americans, and the huge gulf between his class and theirs. Windrip appeals across this gulf to the “forgotten men” of America but the book cannot explain why this contempt is so clear (and can’t seem to judge it, except perhaps to gently rib it) and can’t explain why or how Windrip has seen it or how to manipulate it. It can’t really even say if this is what helped Windrip win – there is no analysis of what coalition of voters he built, who he appealed to, or how the vote worked out, so we have no idea how this supposedly vulgar and empty suit managed to pull off his coup. The centre of the book is strangely empty of any attempt at analysis. It’s just a story, and not very well told. Compare this with Orwell’s description of the collapse of the Republicans in Homage to Catalonia, or his explanation of the ideology of the Party in 1984; or consider Koestler’s description of the party and its ideology in Darkness at Noon. There’s just nothing to explain anything at the heart of the political events in this book. I was recommended it as a way to make sense of how Trump rose and won, but this is exactly the only part of the story where there is no information. In the end the book is as much of an empty shell as Windrip himself.

It’s also quite boring. It’s not particularly well written, aside from a few nice descriptions of Vermont countryside. The characters all have awful and weird names, and are generally insufferable. I’ve never read Dickens but I think this might be riffing on that style? In any case it’s just horrible and I can’t take them or their opinions seriously, nor can I care about their fates when they’re so stupid and vacuous and judgy. There is essentially little plot – Windrip wins, then there is some faffing around with watching America fall in line, then Jessup finally loses his shit (for no special reason) and writes a stirring editorial that gets him arrested (and of course achieves nothing); he is spared and starts to secretly work for a comically inept opposition coordinated from Canada; finally gets caught and put in prison; then is rescued improbably and ends up fleeing to Canada to recover before returning as an agent to America, when the story ends. Boring. Even when his son-in-law is killed no one seems to really get roused, and you just can’t get much energy to side with these characters. It’s all just weak. If a book was intended to make you side accidentally with fascists it would be this book when Jessup’s former handyman Shad Ledue gets the chance to lord it over scornful, contemptuous and patronizing Jessup (who thinks himself so good and decent).

As an example of this inspidity there is one section where Jessup takes it on himself to attend a Windrip rally before the election, during which he describes the violence of the Minute Men and the fervour of the crowd. In the audience he is almost beguiled by Windrip despite having seen his men beat up people outside (and knowing what is happening in Germany and Italy); he goes home without much further comment and doesn’t make any attempt to join any dots or inquire any deeper into what is happening to make this movement grow. He simply doesn’t have the critical tools to understand what is happening in his own country, and doesn’t have the curiosity to figure it out. He then writes an editorial that basically just boils down to “isn’t this guy and his followers a bit of a crass oaf, who could support that?” He is an empty shell, and the book doesn’t offer anything to flesh him out personally or politically.

So, this book is very boring and poorly written, with annoying and frustrating characters who don’t seem to have a clue or get one at any point in their political and personal journey. As an insight into America’s Current Predicament it is of little use, since it comes from a different time with different politics and it is, in any case, politically shallow and incurious. It lacks any of the passion and invective – or the insight – of its better peers from Europe and the UK. Attempting to understand what’s going on in America from this book would be a waste of time. There is no insight here, so don’t bother.


fn1: Which, incidentally, is why Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent is now irrelevant

I was very excited to discover Max Brooks, author of World War Z, has a new book out, Devolution: A Firsthand Account of The Rainier Sasquatch Massacre, and bought it as soon as it was released. It turns out to be excellent airplane reading (I went to Okinawa for a few days’ relaxation) and not so great night time reading, because it is a very disturbing and well-crafted tale. This is a review of that book, hopefully basically spoiler free.

The novel purports to be “found footage”, based on the journal of a woman called Katie who was part of a small alternative off-grid community deep in the wilderness outside Seattle. This high-tech community consists of a few rich oddballs living around a central common house, intended to recreate some kind of image of native American traditional community living while also merging the high-tech lives of the modern urban rich with sustainable living blended deep into the nature in which the community is embedded. There are only a handful of people living in this off-grid place, which is served by drone deliveries from Seattle, has solar power, methane fuel from human waste, careful insulation and water recycling, fiber optic internet, etc. It is serviced by one road that may get cut off in winter, and is intended to be completely self-sufficient once you factor in the regular drone deliveries. Katie and her husband are borrowing their friend’s home for a winter to reconnect or somesuch American bullshit, and as part of this conscious recoupling or whatever it is Katie is keeping an extensive daily journal of her thoughts and feelings (for her therapist of course!). The journal is supplemented by interviews the putative author of the book mixes in with the park ranger who found the journal, the family member who sent Katie and her husband to the shack, and a few newspaper or science articles. This is a bit of a challenge for Brooks to pull off since he has only really ever been able to write in one voice, a criticism I had when I read World War Z, but brave of him to try. The events are set in approximately now, obviously under a Trump presidency, with America involved in an intervention in Venezuela and already experiencing significant internal dissent, as well of course as the kind of anti-science and anti-public service cuts that characterize this particular period in American history. There is major civil unrest happening around Seattle at the time the story is written, which really makes it perfect reading for the current climate.

The first few chapters of the book are spent introducing the other characters and then the shit hits the fan: Mt. Rainier erupts, cuts off their path back to the city with huge rivers of lava, and wipes out just enough other local communities to create major chaos in the emergency response (which is already underfunded and incompetent). To make matters worse the community’s internet and cell connections are destroyed, and there is a strong implication that their drone deliveries are cut off because their drone took out a rescue helicopter. But this is just the beginning; as the characters are settling into the knowledge they may be cut off all winter and are going to have to get very creative with food, they discover something much worse: a small colony of Sasquatch (Bigfoot in the popular parlance) has been driven from their secret home in the slopes of Mt. Rainier by the eruption, and having had no food for days they settle on the people living in the little isolated community as their main calorie source. This is when the novel turns from a slightly ham-fisted exploration of rich urbanites’ insecurities and vanities to a rapidly escalating tale of survival horror.

Because this is a Max Brooks book the horror is interspersed with snippets of science and wisdom from various sources, so that we get a full and rich disquisition on the history of Bigfoot scares in the US, the possible genetic and evolutionary tale of the Sasquatch, detailed description of how primates hunt and kill each other and why, critical assessment of modern rich urban Americans’ obsession with anthropomorphizing and misunderstanding “nature”, and Max Brooks’s personal view of the role of survival and experience in shaping refugees’ lives in the US. These interludes are probably essential, because over the course of the middle half of the book he ratchets up the tension with excruciating care, taking us from hints of Sasquatch presence (stolen berries, a bad smell) to pitched battles in the middle of the community space. Because it’s found footage we, the readers, know approximately what is going to happen: we know that the whole thing is caused by Bigfoot and we know everyone dies. This, too, is frankly a relief – if you were sitting through the increasingly desperate and disturbing middle parts of the book hoping anyone would survive you would be close to an apoplexy by the end of this novel. The fact that it’s essentially an After Action Report means that we don’t get to find out exactly what happened to the author (since they can’t journal their own death) and so it enables Brooks to close off the whole story with a sense of mystery and a slight lack of fulfillment for the reader, which to me is perfect, since the story itself is so improbable and the possibility of anyone surviving so remote that leaving the fate of the group’s last member unexplained is a fitting end.

The strength of the novel is in this careful ratcheting up of pressure over its middle period, the growing sense of dread and impending destruction, and the reader’s helplessness as various members of the community completely Fail to Get It and make accordingly increasingly stupid mistakes. This is helped by the way that various characters either get it together or come undone as the intensity grows, though three of the characters go through changes that are too rapid and sudden to make sense (see below). Brooks supports this by quotes at chapter headings and a few interludes with references to other times in history or other peoples’ speculation about how events might have unfolded, which helps to get the reader engaged in the characters’ struggle even though they’re actually quite unpleasant people who you mostly just want to die. Which, of course, they do. Horribly. It’s quite satisfying but also very nasty, and although I’m not easily scared this book gave me the shivers by the time the tension reached its peak. This is good survival horror!

It’s not without its flaws though, primarily three: the pretentiousness and narrowness of some of the theorizing in the interludes; the clumsy and personally quite awful characters; and Brooks’s inability to diversify his writing voice.

The interludes involve a lot of speculation about science and evolution and group psychology and the conflict between humanity and nature that struck me as overly pretentious and often quite simplistic or weak. I also wondered if some of the facts Brooks presents are actually facts or just things he has heard and just accepted as true (I didn’t bother to check). This is a hallmark of his work in World War Z too (I guess worse in that book because fact-checking was harder back then and he probably had less support). I always read this kind of stuff as bar-room waffle, but it’s presented in this book as serious inquiry, and it’s a bit cringey (not very though!) Also he has this big problem of stereotyping cultures, which he does in the interludes and also in some of the character archetypes: one of the characters in particular is a survivor of the Yugoslavian civil war, a refugee of a particularly vicious part of it, and is obviously just Brooks’s stereotype of what a refugee from a war zone would have learnt about survival and human nature that has made them wise and resourceful and insightful, in a way that is a bit like if you could noble-savage a refugee. (Brooks always does this with Israeli soldiers, who also feature in the interludes in what I thought was the clumsiest piece of writing in the book). To be clear though I enjoy this kind of speculation and waffle even as I’m cringing, and somehow Brooks manages to pull it all off, which is why I guess I loved World War Z. I think it was a bit weaker in this book but it still really helped to pull the whole story together. The brief quotes and discursions on how and why primates kill each other, and how in particular chimpanzees hunt other primates, really sets the tone for the Coming Bigfoot Apocalypse, and serves as a forewarning of just how nasty the humans’ end is going to be; and when the humans start going primal it also serves to orient them as just another kind of primate cast back into a bigger evolutionary game. So though occasionally cringey and quite possibly wrong or distorted, these interludes work really well to establish the framework for the horror. That is vintage Brooks.

The characters, when they’re not stereotypes, are just generically awful Americans. The lesbian parents of an adopted Bangladeshi child who’re so sensitive to her culture but haven’t figured out she’s Muslim (yeah right); the pretentious GRR Martin-esque anthropologist who’s a man-splainer and is wrong about everything; the mild-mannered vegans who can’t be convinced to harm an animal to survive; and Katie herself, the very perfect stereotype of a neurotic upper class white American girl. Ugh. They all need to die. You start the book knowing they’re going to die but you still can’t wait. It makes you wonder if Brooks designed them to make you want them to die, which may not have been a bad thing given how excruciating their ends are. But still, it would be nice if I could enjoy pop culture stories with actually nice characters in them! These characters go through rapid development over the story as the pressure of their collapsing civilization comes to bear on them but three – Katie’s husband and the couple who established the community – go through lightning-fast changes that don’t make sense to me. In particular the psychological changes in the owners hint at a much bigger back story to how and why they established the community, and in my reading of the book suggested some form of culpability or guilt for what happened, which Brooks fails to explore. This lets us down a bit, since some important characters just suddenly get slotted into new roles without any reason. I think this is meant to be linked implicitly to the concept of Devolution introduced in the title and the discussion of Sasquatch’s evolutionary niche, but that discussion is too tightly focused on the Sasquatch to work in the context of the humans’ changes until the very end of the book, by which time it is half-forgotten and buried under a frenzy of destruction and bloodlust. So some of these sudden transformations don’t quite work, but the new roles they get are great, so who cares, really?

Finally, Brooks’s inability to modify his writing voice lets him down again, so that everyone the curator of the story interviews sounds just a bit too close to Katie herself to be able to separate them from her. I guess Brooks isn’t aware of this problem, because if he was he might not write these kinds of curated multi-part interview/story novels, since it’s a recipe for having your own shortcomings found out. It doesn’t let the novel down in the end – I devoured this book like a Sasquatch on a psychiatrist – but it does stop it from being the pitch perfect masterpiece it could have been in the hands of a more capable prose-wrangler. Brooks is a great writer, capable of great plot and perfect timing, very good at establishing and changing mood and a very good judge of pace and tension, but this one thing he can’t quite get right.

Despite these flaws though this is an absolute barnstormer of a book. It is tense, gripping, vicious and callous, as all good survival horror should be, and it plays out perfectly. It’s a quick but incredibly absorbing read that will have you thinking back on it for days after, wondering “what would I have done” and “how would I have coped”, and marveling at the horrific monsters you would be expected to face. It’s an excellent addition to the horror genre for those with a strong stomach and iron will, and I strongly recommend it to horror fans and Brooks aficionados alike.

 

Watching the new Fantastic Beasts series, set in the Harry Potter world but outside of Hogwarts school, has made me aware of the horrible inequalities and vicious politics of the Harry Potter world. I have reported on how the first movie very starkly illustrated the lack of interest wizards have in the welfare of muggles, and the extreme inequality between wizard and muggle world that wizards actively work to maintain. In the second movie their disregard for the muggles bleeds into full exterminationism, and the central plot of the movie is revealed to be the battle between an evil guy who wants to exterminate all muggles and a plucky wizard who wants to preserve the status quo (although perhaps his main motivation is getting laid). In the second movie we also see how the politics of the wizard world is close to fascist, and definitely dystopian, and the wizards are subjected to a strict system of control and enforcement that seems to be largely built around ensuring they don’t reveal themselves to or do anything to help muggles.

In comments to the post in which I discuss this dystopian wizard world I attempted to discuss which kind of political dystopia the wizard world is, and after rejecting fascism and communism I settled on a colonialist model for the world. In this post I want to explain in detail how the politics of the Harry Potter world is explicitly colonialist, discuss the world’s repeated turns to exterminationism in light of this politics, and ask a few questions about how it is that a book in which we cheer for a bunch of colonialist bell-ends became an international sensation.

This post is going to be long, and will be structured something like this:

  • An introduction to colonial practice: Exploitative versus acquisitive colonialism
  • The proto-fascist structure of colonial states
  • The Muggle Protection Act and the politics of muggle exclusion
  • Why muggles are treated the same way as indigenous people in the Harry Potter world
  • The inevitability of extermination and the threat of muggle technology
  • Cheering on racists: How did we come to this?

In constructing this argument I will draw on background material from the Harry Potter books, some supporting material which I think JK Rowling published, and the events of the two Fantastic Beasts movies. I’m not a Harry Potter expert, so there may be mistakes. Anyway, here goes…

Two kinds of colonialism

When people think of colonialism they often think of the conquest and exploitation of India, which is seen as the canonical model of how a rich European state takes over and exploits a thriving non-European community. However, this is only one of two types of colonialism. For simplicity in this post I will define these two kinds as exploitative colonialism and acquisitive colonialism. In exploitative colonialism an aggressive and expansionist state invades and subjugates a weaker but technologically advanced state, destroys or co-opts its existing political structures, and runs its economy to its own exploitative benefit. Typically the state that the colonialist power invades is established, strong, with its own heirarchies, a thriving market, international trade and its own technological developments and progress. The model of such a state is India, but any of the South East Asian nations and also much of North Africa qualifies for this situation. In exploitative colonialism the cost of exterminating the locals, and the huge benefits of exploiting their existing markets and social structures, mean that exploitation is the best or possibly the only way for the colonial power to extract benefit from a people it considers its inferior. In contrast, acquisitive colonialism seeks no benefit from the people it overruns. In acquisitive colonialism the expansionist state finds a people who are technologically far inferior to itself, have a very small and dispersed population, limited or no international trade, and few markets it can intrude into. The only thing they have that is of value to the expansionist state is land and the resources locked in and under that land. Often their political systems are so alien to the conquering state that it cannot conceive of how to exploit them, and in any case the local economy is so small in comparison to the colonial state’s that there is no point in wasting energy trying to extract anything from them. Often these highly isolated societies are also vulnerable to diseases that the colonist brings, so exploitation will be highly destructive in any case. In acquisitive colonialism the costs of extermination are so low, and the benefits of exploitation so minimal, that the best outcome is to destroy the local community, drive it off of all profitable or beneficial lands, isolate it from the invaders and exclude it from all contact with or benefit from the invading society. This form of colonialism was practised in Australia, New Zealand and the Americas. The final goal of this form of colonialism may not have been the complete destruction of an entire race and culture, but it was most certainly the complete expulsion of these people from all profitable lands and their exclusion – generally on racist and eugenicist grounds – from all political and cultural interaction with the colonial state. This final stage is characterized in the USA by the reservation system, and in Australia by the mission system and the child abduction program. These acquisitive colonial states reached their nadir in the mid- to late 19th century and early 20th century, when they mixed their colonial ideology with scientific racism, but had a tail that trailed into the late 20th century, with the end of the explicitly exterminationist strategies probably marked by Wounded Knee in the USA and the end of the child abduction program in Australia in the early 1970s.

Of course neither of these kinds of colonialism perfectly enacted the goals they set out for themselves, partly due to conflicting political visions, partly due to changing circumstances, and partly because the goals cannot be pursued to their pure conclusion through the flawed and human agents of colonial repression. But that they did not, for example, completely exterminate the native American peoples should not be taken as a sign that American colonialism was not explicitly acquisitive and exterminationist.

The proto-fascist structure of colonial states

Colonialism extracts a heavy toll from its subject peoples, but it does not do so without also implementing an architecture of oppression and authoritarianism at home. Colonialist states explicitly structure their world view around heirarchies of human worth, defined in terms of race, class and gender, and the state and its supporters construct a network of social, political, economic and cultural forces to support and maintain these heirarchies. Within the home country of the colonialist state there is usually an extensive apparatus to control the poor, with institutions such as the workhouse and the prison, poor laws, debtor’s prison, and press gangs. Much of the British state’s early actions against sex workers were based on fear of the weakening influence of sexually transmitted infections on the colonial project, and the mistreatment of poor women and their children – including deceptively stealing their children and shipping them to the colonies to be used as cheap labour in the mission system and the homes of wealthy colonial families – is well documented, finally.

In the acquired colonial territories the state enacts vicious repression on its own lower classes, in the form of anti-union violence and the employment of terror organizations such as the Pinkertons to enforce its will. Where extractive industries in the acquired territories come into conflict with colonial labourers or encounter activism to preserve the environment or other public goods they react violently and with government support. Movement of non-indigenous people into indigenous areas is heavily restricted, and organizations that might represent the interests of indigenous people are suppressed. In the USA there was lynching of free Mexican workers throughout the south west, and in Australia in the 1960s the Freedom Riders were met with violence in their journey around Australia publicizing Aboriginal disadvantage. In the UK it was not uncommon to see “No dogs and Irishmen” signs on public accommodations, and at times in history it was not acceptable for white and indigenous people to marry or live together. In later years through programs like Cointelpro and the undercover police operations of the UK the state’s secret police worked assiduously against not only indigenous rights but also environmental and labour activism, animal rights progress, and any form of restrictions of the rights of the colonial state to extract full value from its stolen lands. In the USA this led to state and extra-judicial violence against indigenous people protecting their water rights, open suppression of land rights activism, and the use of prison and state power to restrict services to reservations to force acquiescence from indigenous activists and their non-indigenous supporters. The British state introduced transportation in the 19th century, dumping petty criminals and labour organizers from the UK into the badlands of its colonial properties and then pitting them against the indigenous residents, and punishing those who spoke out against these practices.

It is not possible to exterminate whole peoples, push them off their hereditary lands, and steal their resources without maintaining a violent state that represses all attempts at clemency or understanding. You cannot keep humans out of your polity without forcefully policing the boundaries of your polity, and requiring that your citizens stay strictly within it. Colonialist states are repressive, and build up structures of political and state control intended to ensure that their heirarchical and violent systems are maintained. There is a wide literature on the damaging political consequences of the exercise of state power in support of colonialism: George Orwell writes eloquently about its damaging effects in Burmese Days, and Katharine Susannah Pritchard describes the oppressive atmosphere of the frontier very well in Brumby Innes and Coonardoo. Henry Reynolds describes the violence of the frontier in The Forgotten War, and of course the Bringing them Home report details the racist underpinnings of the political order supporting colonialism in Australia. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds in New Zealand offer an unrelenting description of the colonial project in New Zealand, against an incredibly beautiful and peaceful backdrop. There is no reason for anyone in colonial societies not to know these things, but many of us do not.

Having established these outlines of what colonialist policy is and how colonial states enforce it on both their colonized victims and their citizens, let us move to the world of Harry Potter, and examine how the wizard world treats muggles.

The Muggle Protection Act and the politics of muggle exclusion

The Muggle Protection Act is a law passed in 1992 to protect muggles from magical accidents. It was part of a broader body of legislative and scholarly work on maintaining the veil of secrecy between the muggle and wizard worlds. It may be just a coincidence, but most colonial states have a law akin to this. For example in 1869 the Aboriginal Protection Act was passed in Victoria, which amongst other things restricted “where people could live and work, what they could do and who they could meet or marry”. Similar restrictions and guidelines were published in the wizarding world, for example the three volume Laws of Conduct When Dealing with Muggles, or the cultural (but not legal) stigma attached to marrying muggles. It appears, from Queenie’s behaviour in The Crimes of Grindelwald, that it is not possible for her to marry Jacob Kowalski or even to have a relationship with him, which is why she has abducted him and charmed him to come with her to France. That suggests that in 1920s America at least there was some kind of restriction on muggle-wizard relationships, or at least they were only considered acceptable in extreme circumstances. It is also apparently the case that the ministry of magic attempted to remove certain books from school libraries if they depicted relationships with muggles or were overly sensitive in their reporting on muggles.

The politics of muggle exclusion becomes much clearer when we investigate Dumbledore’s history of activism on this subject. In a letter to Grindelwald on the topic, this scion of liberal wizard politics writes

Your point about Wizard dominance being FOR THE MUGGLE’S OWN GOOD — this, I think, is the crucial point. Yes, we have been given power and yes, that power gives us the right to rule, but it also gives us responsibilities over the ruled. We must stress this point, it will be the foundation stone upon which we build. Where we are opposed, as we surely will be, this must be the basis of all our counterarguments. We seize control FOR THE GREATER GOOD. And from this it follows that where we meet resistance, we must use only the force that is necessary and no more.

This is a classic model of white man’s burden. Consider, for example, this minute from the colonial secretary of New South Wales to the Legislative Assembly, 1883:

HAVING carefully read the two reports by the Protector, the various letters and articles which have appeared in the newspapers on the La Perouse blacks, and the report of Messrs. King and Fosbery on the Warangesda and Maloga Mission Stations, the opinion which I formerly held is confirmed, viz., that much more must be done than has yet been done for the Aborigines before there can be any national feeling of satisfaction that the Colony has done its duty by the remnant of the aboriginal race.

Later in this note (which can be found as a reference here), we can find in the report of the NSW Aborigines Protection Association the following charming indication of how many people in 1881 felt about Aboriginal people:

As usual in inaugurating an effort of this nature, the Association had some obstacles to surmount through misrepresentation and apathy. It was said that any attempt to better the condition of the blacks was labour in vain; that they were such irreclaimable savages, and so devoid of ordinary human sympathies that no hold could be got over them ; and that they were dying out so fast that no good end could be served by trying to civilize and educate them.

This is very close to the way Grindelwald or Voldemort think about Muggles; indeed, without having access to it, one could assume that Dumbledore’s reply to Grindelwald is a reply to a sentiment such as this. Certainly there is a movement in the wizard world – epitomized by Grindelwald and Voldemort, but also expressed through pure-blood fascists like Malfoy – that the wizards have the right to rule over muggles, that no consideration should be given at all to muggles and that purity of blood is essential. Indeed, the entire language of blood status in the wizard world exactly mirrors the language of racial heirarchies in colonial societies, and policies championed by pure-blood fascists are very similar to those proposed by people like A.O. Neville in early 20th century Australia. The similarity of language and intent is striking. Effectively what we see here is one side of an ongoing debate between wizards about whether to completely ignore or even exterminate muggles, or to keep them excluded from wizard society but act where possible for the good of the muggles when doing so. In the Harry Potter books we see this debate manifest as a violent conflict between Voldemort on one side, and Dumbledore and the children on the other, in which we side with Dumbledore and his white man’s burden, rather than the exterminationist Voldemort.

The Muggle-Indigenous parallel

Of course, one might argue that this colonial vision cannot be shared between wizards and European colonialists, because wizards are not stealing anyone’s lands. They don’t need to interact with muggles at all and they’re simply maintaining a peaceful distance. But this is not the case at all. Muggles are a constant burden to wizards; muggles are in the way. Whenever wizards show themselves around muggles – whenever they attempt to be on muggle land or in muggle spaces as wizards – they risk violence, and the entire architecture of wizard secrecy was developed in 1683 in response to violent encounters between muggles and wizards. In the colonial project Indigenous people are also in the way, because they occupy land that the colonialists want, and attempts to use that land incur Indigenous anger and violence, so the simple solution is to push them off. Perhaps they could have come to some arrangement to share the land, but why would they bother with people so far beneath them? And why negotiate when essentially you do not believe that Indigenous people are using the land at all? This logic of terra nullius makes it an injustice to the colonialists to have to negotiate with their inferiors for access to land they don’t believe the indigenous people are using or need. A very similar situation applies to the wizard world: wizards cannot openly use muggle land or public space without incurring violence, and so the muggles to them are just a nuisance. They have nothing to gain from interacting with muggles, and consider themselves so far above muggles that negotiating with them is a waste of time, and so they try to separate their societies. To this end they establish a complex system of laws that they enforce with extreme violence (towards wizards who violate them) and obliteration (of memories) for muggles who stumble across their existence. It is also clear from the books that even liberal wizards don’t think twice about interfering in the wellbeing and livelihoods of muggles if the muggles’ presence causes them even a moment’s inconvenience. Consider this story from Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince[1]:

There was no doubt that Mrs Cole was an inconveniently sharp woman. Apparently Dumbledore thought so too, for Harry now saw him slip his wand out of the pocket of his velvet suit, at the same time picking up a piece of perfectly blank paper from Mrs Cole’s desktop.

‘Here,’ said Dumbledore, waving his wand once as he passed her the piece of paper, ‘I think this will make everything clear.’

Mrs Cole’s eyes slid out of focus and back again as she gazed intently at the blank paper for a moment.

‘That seems perfectly in order,’ she said placidly, handing it back.

Here Dumbledore, ostensibly a champion of muggle rights, simply screws with a woman’s mind and creates a future disciplinary issue for her, just because she is “inconveniently sharp.” Her situation or needs are of no importance to her at all – he simply dismisses her intentions and free will, and tricks her into not doing her job, with all the consequences that entails.

It is inevitable that at some point in this history an impatient or particularly arrogant wizard is going to advocate for the next step from this inconvenient co-existence: exterminate them and take their land. This is what Grindelwald wants to do, keeping alive perhaps a small number for some as-yet-unclear purpose. It is also part of Voldemort’s goal, although he also appears to want to reshape wizard society as well. Perhaps he realized that rebellion against the system of muggle protection boards and secrecy statutes was not enough, and to properly settle “the muggle question” one needs to also change wizard society so it is less squeamish about what needs to be done. This would make him no different to the people arguing against the Aborigines Protection Association in Australia in 1881.

The parallels are obvious: an inferior race interferes in the goals of wizards by being in their way on land they could be using for their own benefit. So the debate becomes: do we tolerate them and do our best to rule with good intentions, avoiding harming them as much as possible; or do we exterminate them for our own convenience? All of the Harry Potter plot – and especially the plot of the new Fantastic Beasts series – concerns the resolution of this debate. It’s the classic debate of the colonial era, with magic.

Extermination and the threat of muggle technology

The slide towards extermination is inevitable, and the imperative to do so becomes obvious in The Crimes of Grindelwald, where we begin to realize that there are too many muggles, wizards can’t control them forever, and because they haven’t already completely destroyed their society, the muggles are developing their own technology. Grindelwald shows a vision of the future in which muggles have nuclear weapons and it becomes painfully apparent to the gathered wizards that the game is up: if the muggles get that technology, they are the equals of wizards. That one vision by itself is enough to convince at least half of the wizards to switch sides. Queenie switches sides, with the promise of no moral constraints on how she will be able to deal with muggles. The implication for Queenie is that she can have Jacob – but what does that mean for the other wizards in the room? Murder? Slavery? It’s not clear but the implication is not good. The moral implication of this in the context of this colonialist model of wizard-muggle interactions is obvious: because they didn’t exterminate them and disrupt their culture sooner, the wizards have allowed the muggles to flourish and become independent, and now they are a threat. The wizards should have learnt from the human playbook, and done the job properly from the start. Grindelwald – and, perhaps, later Voldemort – will do the job properly!

The moral implications

What should we as readers take away from this collection of stories? I tried googling to find out what others have written about this topic, and although I found some interesting questions and debates on colonialism in the stories, I could not find anyone tackling the obvious racism of the wizard/muggle divide and the horrifying language of colonial racial hierarchies in Rowling’s lexicon of blood purity. I found an article from an academic, Magical Creatures and How to Exploit them, about the colonial politics of wizard’s attitudes towards non-human magical beings. I found a question on Metafilter (wtf!) about whether the wizards bothered to stop colonialism when muggles did it to each other, with the obvious implication (since it happened) that wizards from all the countries on earth sat back quietly while muggles of one country enslaved and exterminated muggles of other countries. This is an interesting question that makes the central interventionist debate in Black Panther look kind of pissy, but it doesn’t address the issue of how wizards view and treat muggles. The entire issue seems to have just slid under everyone’s notice.

I think this is a strong indictment of how western societies view our colonial past, and also a really depressing example of how much indigenous peoples’ voices and cultural history have been excluded from western culture. We didn’t even notice as a series of books in an obviously, openly racist and colonialist setting swept the world by storm. A huge amount of ink has been spilled on her description of native American wizards, but nothing has been said about the colonized nature of muggle life, and the fascist society that rules over them and is planning to exterminate them.

There is nowhere in the original series of novels or in the movies where the author makes a judgment on this, or leads us to believe that she even sees this issue (indeed, in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them it is unclear whether we’re even meant to think the summary execution of Tina is bad). It is possible to make stories of this kind with a little more moral nuance than we see in Harry Potter. For example, in his Culture series, Iain M. Banks makes it very clear that there is something slightly wrong about the Culture, and especially about the behavior of the Contact section. In Consider Phlebas we are obviously meant to sympathize with the Culture’s enemies as they race to find the Mind, and in The Player of Games the planet that Gurgeh intervenes in is set up as almost comically evil with the specific intent of posing a moral question about interference. The decisions that the main characters make leave them scarred and cynical, and sometimes set them against their own society. In the movie Avatar the colonial conflict has a clear moral framework and we end up switching sides midway through. There is no point in any of the multitude of books, movies and associated stuff where any wizard character of any kind rebels in any meaningful way against the colonial system, or even questions it. The obvious implication of this is that we’re complicit with it, as readers – we are asked to go along with it, and we do!

This leads me to ask a few questions about the series, its conception and its reception, which I have not been able to answer:

  • Did J.K. Rowling intend this series to be a discourse on colonialism, or did she invent this entire apparatus out of whole cloth?
  • Has anyone noticed the racism of wizard society and its colonialist parallels, and has Rowling responded to that?
  • Is there any young adult literature where the good guys are embedded in and supporting a society as openly fascist as the one that Rowling writes about?

It is disturbing to me that this series is about a group of children defending an overtly authoritarian society from a fascist takeover, in which two separate storylines describe bad guys intending to exterminate most of the human race on racial grounds, and we are supposed to cheer on the “good” colonialists who are protecting a “good” society which controls the minds, bodies and souls of 6 billion people because of their infinite inferiority, and maintains a deeply violent and illiberal social order in order to protect that colonialist project. I cannot remember any book I have ever read in my entire life (except perhaps Starship Troopers, but for obvious reasons my memory of that is dim) in which the society the good guys come from is so deeply evil, and yet we are so blithely expected to cheer along the main characters as they defend and support that society. Looking back on it now, I feel as if I have been indoctrinated into a vicious and disturbed cultural order, raised in it just like the children in the books, and only when I was presented with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them did I finally realize that the society I had been cheering for needs to be torn down root and branch.

Conclusion

The society of the Harry Potter world is best modeled as a colonialist society in which an elite of extremely powerful people lord segregate themselves from a mass of muggles who they exclude from the riches and benefits of their own society, on explicitly racist grounds. This society has developed an intensely authoritarian and illiberal system of government to control the wizards and ensure that the colonial order is reproduced, and is happy to use violence and imprisonment in a soul-destroying prison to maintain that order. Exterminationist ideology bubbles up repeatedly in this world because it is inevitable that a society which views 6 billion people as worthless interferences in its daily activities will eventually decide that the convenient thing to do is murder all of them, and the need to do so becomes pressing when people realize these supposedly useless muggles will get nukes. We the readers are supposed to cheer on the agents of this authoritarian society as they defend it against a fascist, exterminationist incursion, without ever questioning the underlying principles of this social order, the author never shows any sign that she intends for us to question the moral framework of her series, and no character ever seems to question the fundamental evil of it all.

Of course this doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the series, and it’s certainly an interesting political project. But it says a lot about the state of our society that this became popular and that the political underpinnings of the work have never been questioned, or indeed that the explicitly racist framework of the stories has not been repeatedly attacked. Obviously it’s good that millions of children enjoyed a hugely popular book that is enjoyable to read and introduced a whole new generation to the joys of reading and the creative brilliance of literature, but I really hope that in future we as a society can do better than this.


fn1: Itself a deeply disturbing name, when you think about the history of phrases like “Half-blood” when applied to indigenous peoples.


Art note: This is a ledger drawing, art drawn on a school exercise book or some other workaday paper, which is a part of the historical record left behind by indigenous Americans after the end of their independent communities. This one is a drawing by an unknown Kiowa artist, which I took from the Wikipedia entry on ledger art.

Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable: The Experience of Class is a book that, in many respects, is about me. Hanley was born on a working class housing estate in Northern England in 1976, which makes her three years younger than me, and unlike most of her peers she left her working class origins to become middle class, by dint of getting a university education and a middle class job – just like me. In this book, Hanley describes the challenges of getting from there (the working class housing estate in 1980s Britain) to here (her current middle class position and lifestyle), and the challenges of living middle class when your upbringing was working class. Both aspects of this story are very important to me: escaping the bonds of working class life is a kind of cultural version of getting into orbit, requiring a huge personal effort and risk to get a single shot at hitting escape velocity, but the journey doesn’t end there. Getting into a new class, whether stolid middle class or some internationalist transcendental state, is not necessarily enough to free you from the old bonds of working class culture, and you can spend a long time – for me, perhaps a decade or more – feeling like a stranger in a new land, and even after you become to some extent familiar with the rules of your new world, you still feel like a fraud, and you still are stalked by this fear that it can all be taken away from you in an instant, that you’re just there on sufferance.

Hanley describes the social, cultural and spiritual challenges of both stages of this journey in rich and stunning detail in this book. She does not just describe the general challenges, though, but pinpoints specific, stunningly accurate details about the process that speak so powerfully to me of my own experience that it feels as if she has reached out from the pages into my own memory, and crafted an explanation for feelings and memories that I couldn’t pin down and understand until she shaped them. In both the general issues and in these details, she captures the essence of Britain’s class problems brilliantly.

On generalities, she describes the social and cultural barriers to a proper education for working class people in Britain, both those imposed on the class from outside (such as sub-standard schooling, economic barriers to progress, the difficulty of getting into grammar school for working class people) and those imposed on the working class by the working class – things like the way that working class children punish any of their own who show too much interest in school, the way that working class families don’t push their children to achieve or don’t consider the possibility of sending them to better educational opportunities (like grammar school) outside of their own experience, and the punishing assumptions they have about their own limited futures. For example, in describing the general atmosphere of working class culture in Britain in the 1980s, Hanley writes

Casual violence – symbolic, domestic and public – was endemic in the place and times in which I grew up. Casual racism was part of the fabric of daily conversation. Casual cynicism pervaded: a consequence of casual exploitation and casual displacement, which fed into people’s souls and manifested in their treating everything like one great frigging joke, because that’s how they felt they’d been treated their entire lives.

She follows this with a discussion of one of the motivating factors underlying this atmosphere, loss:

You may wonder what led to this collective conviction that there was no point. It might be argued that another primary aspect of working-class experience, a feeling which most defines a certain way of being in the world, is loss. Loss is everywhere: the loss of optimism as experience victory-laps hope; the loss of loved ones too soon to war, workplace accidents or to ill-health; the loss of a sense of home, going back generations as families move repeatedly in search of relief from poverty; the loss of close ties as families are broken up in a similar way by moves down south, to America, Canada, Australia; and the loss of a sense of place as families attempt to remain rooted in a changing environment, such as when a local works that once employed just about everyone in the area closes down.

This really struck at my own understanding of growing up poor in Britain – we were always moving looking for a better job or opportunities, then our family ties were broken by moving to New Zealand (and then Australia), and finally my older brother was taken from us by the state because of his continued involvement in crime, no doubt partly because his constant sense of dislocation stopped him having any sense of responsibility to the community he was victimizing. Hanley’s description of the economic, cultural and educational environment of England in the 1980s is exactly how I remember it, and her piercing insight into working class culture of that era really closely mirrors my own.

On the details, Hanley has a remarkable ability to isolate small incidents and moments that bring to life the challenges of trying to grow out of working class culture, and trying to get an education that will matter in an environment that is so inimically opposed to anyone standing out, as well as so committed to its own failings. For example, she describes a simple moment in her day like this:

While working in the library I go downstairs to Greggs to get a cup of tea … In the time takes to reach the bottom of the staircase I overhear a total of two sentences: one, by a woman speaking into a phone, is ‘FUCK OFF about your rizlas, I don’t wanna hear it,’ and the other, from a young man to a young woman, is ‘I can’t hear a FUCKing thing you’re saying with you walking ahead of me.’ My bones turn to glass again and I remember that often things do seem terrible just because of where you are. I’m thrown back into a world of ignorance and everyday violence – and if that sounds extreme, you needed to hear the way in which those ‘fucks’ were said: the desperation and life-fatigue of the first and the casual aggression of the second.

This is such a perfect, crystal clear description of an ordinary moment in the working class world that it might have been grabbed straight from my own everyday life. And it’s a reminder of how hard it is to operate in a different world – a world where people only swear when they’re surprised or angry, and never with the same venom – that you didn’t grow up in and have no familiarity with. Somehow you have to negotiate an entirely new set of manners and norms you don’t know anything about, at the same time as you’re still traumatized by and accustomed to an entirely different set of behavior that marks you out as trouble to everyone else.

This switch in background and norms is hard to adjust to, but it’s made even harder by the discovery of how much you were being held back from, and how much your own class is despised. Early in the book Hanley observes

The interesting thing about entering the middle class is that everything you have known is turned on its head. You go from being invisible to society, and yet at the same time the object of constant scrutiny and mistrust, to being at once anonymous and in possession of a voice. You are trusted to get on with things, and encouraged to go on endlessly about the way in which you do them

Everything about this sentence speaks so clearly to my own experience of growing up a working class boy and then stepping out to middle class life, and the different assumptions and expectations that are made about and of you when you are in one group compared to another. These changes can be like a slap in the face sometimes, in those moments when you realize just how much you were being denied. For example, when I first attended university – my big chance to step out of my class, though I didn’t realize it then – I was surrounded primarily by the children of the wealthy middle class in Adelaide, and I was shocked at the casual wealth of their lives and their casual assumptions about their rights and what they could and couldn’t do in public. These same middle class children refused to believe my achievements in high school, which were far superior to any of theirs, simply because my presentation as a poor kid from the country did not match their stereotypes. These children who had sailed through high school to an assumed berth in university, with the minimum of effort because their high quality schools ensured they got a good education and they had been groomed for progression from birth, were unable to comprehend that in my struggle to escape a terrible school I had worked hard every day and as a result got vastly better marks than them and won coveted awards – simply because of where I was from and what the signifiers of social class attached to me said about my potential. Eventually, of course, as I became more comfortable with the middle class world, I stopped wearing my working class history on my sleeve – changed my clothes, moderated my accent, dropped the swearing and rough language – and people stopped assuming limits to my achievement based on where I was from. Once I became more comfortable navigating the particular landscape of middle class life, people started assuming I was one of them, and a new world of opportunities and possibilities opened up to me.

But as comfortable as you become, you never truly forget or overcome that upbringing, and in discussing this Hanley brings up a recurring image that I think very well describes the crippling limitations the working class places on itself: the wall in the head. This is the barrier you build inside your own soul that stops you properly appreciating, and properly navigating, the middle class world you have entered. It can manifest in little ways, like an unwillingness to spend more than a certain amount of money on certain things, or in big ways like a fear of debt or an inability to manage money the way rich people do. It can also stop you grabbing opportunities that your peers take for granted, because it holds back your confidence and makes you timid about your own possibilities, and I think (Hanley doesn’t say this) in some ways it acts as a kind of PTSD, making you subject to a kind of existential fight-or-flight syndrome that makes you fearful of change and easily cowed into not taking risks. This is also part of the second trait of people who have moved up, which Hanley identifies: a fear that it will all be taken away from you in a moment and that you are living in your new, freer world on borrowed time. I think I still carry this fear inside me now, and I think most who have risen out of poverty to the middle class carry this feeling inside them. It can be a positive reminder of how far you have come, but it can also be a whip that strikes to stop you taking risks, or doing things that other middle class people do, because of a fear that you might be pushing your luck. This, for example, is why I did not travel in most of my 20s, even though most of my middle class peers had. Too risky!

Hanley manages to combine this political and economic analysis of the conditions facing the working class with an almost anthropological understanding of how these conditions manifest at a personal level to give a really engaging and powerful description of the process of social mobility, and its consequences for those who are able to climb the ladder. She combines her own insights and stories with the work of a wide array of sociologists who have studied class, in particular a book by Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy, that describes the same phenomena in an earlier age, from a similar standpoint. In updating this book for the modern era she incorporates more pop culture, and I guess tells stories that are more relevant to people like me. But in weaving all this together she tells a story that is almost perfectly about me, and I guess about people like me. It is the first time I have ever seen anything about the experience of poor people taking advantage of social mobility, that combines a sensitive and genuine respect for the class she has left with a scathing criticism of that class, without blame or sneering. For that alone, this book was like an awakening for me, the first time I ever thought that my experience of fighting so hard to become a scientist was unusual or challenging or rare, and exactly what forces I had to overcome to do what I unthinkingly did when I was just 17 years old. There are, of course, some differences – she grew up in the industrial north while I grew up in the rural southwest, and she never had the good fortune to migrate to Australia, a country that determinedly set out to make sure that the economic and political barriers to social mobility were lowered considerably (at least for my generation). Australia doesn’t have the same class structure or the same rigid divisions as Britain, and it’s possible that for people who were born and raised in Australia this book has nothing to say. But for someone like me, with an experience grounded strongly in British class barriers, this book was a powerful and eye-opening attempt to describe my own life story – an amazing experience for anyone who sees their story told by someone else, in a sympathetic and detailed account of their own life that mirrors yours. It’s the first time it has ever happened to me, and I will always be grateful for it.

The book does have some flaws, and for me the main one is its poor structuring. The book as a whole and the chapters within it don’t really have a strong introduction/body/conclusion structure, so that at times it comes across more as a rambling series of anecdotes rather than a coherent story. Some chapters end abruptly without anything resembling a review or conclusion, leaving you wondering exactly what Hanley was trying to say, and then the next chapter doesn’t really flow from the previous one, starting almost on a completely separate topic without any coherent structure. For me this was not a problem, since I was reveling just in having my story told, but for someone reading from a more dispassionate or disinterested perspective it might render the book far less readable than it might otherwise have been. Also, for someone reading from outside the class – i.e from the perspective of a middle class person who might influence policy – the lack of coherence might conspire to hide any possible conclusions that can be drawn about what needs to be done. This is particularly problematic when combined with the book’s other main flaw – its lack of recommendations. I would have loved to have seen a conclusion that gives concrete ideas about what needs to be done to make social mobility easier, political and economic recommendations on the one hand for weakening the stultifying grip of Britain’s class culture , and on the other hand a kind of self-help guide for those of us who have managed to climb the ladder. I don’t know how we can climb that wall in our head (or break it down) or how to escape that cloying fear of failure that haunts us, and I wonder if Hanley does either – but if she does, I’d love for her to have shared it with me. These flaws mean that while the book may be a powerful explainer for those coming from inside the experience, and potentially a powerful guide to understanding barriers to social mobility for those in other classes who are trying to break them down, it may only provide a limited guide to what can be done, and may turn off others who aren’t already approaching the problem with a sympathetic ear. Coming from inside the story, I can’t really say how much damage these two flaws do to the book’s overall mission, and I hope that they aren’t too overwhelming for other readers.

I was recommended this book on the left wing blog Crooked Timber, in a post by Chris Bertram, who turned to it as part of his attempt to understand Brexit. I don’t know how much it would help with this but I think it definitely provides a strong insight into how people in the working class experience class, and how hard it is to escape. I have written before on this blog about how I think social mobility is not the solution to inequality that many people hope, and have instead suggested we need to make all work rewarding and dignified. Hanley seems to have absorbed the same lessons from her own experience of changing class, writing in the conclusion of the book

I hope that by using elements of my own experience I have illustrated some of the shortcomings of a political narrative that places the onus for social mobility – for ‘getting out’ of the working class and into the middle class – on to individuals, rather than making it possible for everyone, regardless of occupation, to live comfortably.

I agree with her on the importance of this, and I hope that in reading this book others – especially from those classes that actually influence policy – will see how challenging it is to be ‘socially mobile’, both in taking the chances offered and in living with the consequences, and will rethink the way British society is organized to stop people at the bottom living comfortably, and to force them to climb so high and so hard to get out of the class they’re in. It’s not exactly a manifesto for revolution or social change, but I hope if more people read this book they will come to understand through its eloquence and insight just how hard they make things when they demand that everyone in the working class be respectable, and the impossibility of making Britain a better place by social mobility alone.

Mushroom man on the spit!

Mushroom man on the spit!

I just finished reading episode 1 of this entertaining and weird manga, called Dungeon meshi in Japanese, by Ryoko Kui. It’s the tale of a group of adventurers – Raios the fighter, Kilchack the halfling thief, and Marshille the elven wizard – who are exploring a dungeon that is rumoured to lead to a golden kingdom that will become the domain of whichever group of adventurers kill the evil wizard who has taken it over. The story starts with them having to flee a battle with a dragon, which swallows Raios’s little sister whole. She manages to teleport the rest of the party out of the dungeon in an act of self sacrifice, and they decide that they should go back in and save her from the dragon. They could wait and resurrect her from its poo, but they decide they would rather go in, kill it and cut her out of its belly (dragon digestion is very slow). No answers are forthcoming to the question of why she can’t just teleport herself out as well, or how she will survive in a dragon’s belly, but I’m sure the reasons are clear.

Anyway, because they left all their gear and loot behind when they fled, they would need to sell their armour and weapons and downgrade in order to make enough money to buy supplies for the return trip. Also they don’t have time to go back to town and get more stuff. So they decide to go straight back into the dungeon and live on a subsistence diet of whatever they can gather and kill in the dungeon. This is particularly appealing to Raios, who has always secretly wanted to eat the creatures he kills (when he tells them this, Marshille and Kilchack decide that he’s a psychopath, but they ain’t seen nothing yet …) Off they go!

They soon run into a dwarf called Senshi who has spent 10 years exploring the dungeon and learning to cook its monsters. Raios has a book of recipes but Senshi tells him that’s all bullshit, and teaches them to cook as they go. Senshi has always wanted to eat a dragon, so he offers to join them and help in their quest. Thus begins the long process of returning to the deepest levels of the dungeon, one meal at a time …

The food chain, in the dungeon

The food chain, in the dungeon

This manga is basically a story about a series of meals, with some lip service to killing the monsters that go in the meals. It starts with a brief description of the ecology of dungeons, which sets out a nice piece of Gygaxian naturalism, along with the food pyramid suitably reimagined for mythical beasts, and gives us a tiny bit of background about the dungeon crawling industry, which is so systematized as to be almost industrial in its scope. Once we have this basic background we’re off on a mission to eat everything we can get our hands on: Mushroom men, giant scorpions, giant bats, basilisk meat and eggs, green slimes (which make excellent jerky apparently), mandrake, carnivorous plants and ultimately a kind of golem made of armour. In the process they make some discoveries about the nature of the beasts – for example, Marshille discovers that you can use giant bats to dig up mandrake and that a mandrake tastes differently depending on whether you get it to scream or not, and the golem is actually armour that has been animated by a strange colony of mollusc-like organisms that are excellent when grilled in the helmet or stir-fried with medicinal herbs.

Giant scorpion and mushroom man hot pot

Giant scorpion and mushroom man hot pot

Plus, we get recipes, which are detailed and carefully thought-out and also slightly alarming. For example, for the mushroom man and giant scorpion hot pot (pictured above) we get to see the team slicing open the body of a mushroom man, which is kind of horrific. The final meal of this issue, the walking armour, is particularly disturbing, since the crew basically sit around in a room plying mollusc flesh out of the pieces of an empty suit of armour, then grill them, except the head parts, which they cook by simply sticking the entire helmet on the bbq and waiting for them to fall out as they roast. It’s made clear that the armour is operated by an interlocking network of separate mollusc-things that have some kind of group sentience, but then once they manage to drag some out of the armour they slip them into a bowl of water and declare happily “they drowned!” Really it’s just like eating a big sentient shellfish. i.e. completely disgusting, in a disturbingly fascinating way.

Each recipe also comes with a disquisition on its nutritional benefits (and the importance of a balanced diet), along with a spider diagram showing the relative magnitude and balance of different ingredients (in the bottom right of the picture above, for example). In some cases special preparation is required – the green slime needs to be dried for several weeks, but fortunately Senshi has a special portable net for this task, and a green slime he prepared earlier which the crew can sample. In other cases, such as the basilisk, medicinal herbs of various kinds need to be included with the meal, which sadly makes it impossible for the reader to make their own roast basilisk, lacking as we do the necessary ingredients to neutralize the poison in the basilisk after we catch it. There are also tips on how to catch the ingredients – the basilisk has two heads for example but only one brain, so you can confuse it if you attack both heads at once – and some amusing biological details too. For example, it is well known that chimaera made from more than two animals are not good to eat because they don’t have a main component of their structure, while chimera of just two animals – like the basilisk – will adopt the taste and general properties of whatever their main animal is (in this case, a bird)[1].

In addition to the rather, shall we say, functional, approach to non-human creatures, the story also has some quite cynical comments on the adventuring business. During the encounter with the carnivorous plant, for example, they find a half-digested body. They feel they should return this body to the surface, but just like climbing Everest, they don’t want to go back up till they reach their goal, so instead they leave it in the path for a returning group to deal with. Realizing this might cause someone to trip, they arrange to hang it from a tree by a rope in what is, essentially, a mock execution, and then they go to sleep underneath it (Marshille, unsurprisingly, has bad dreams). To counter this cynicism Marshille acts in part as the conscience of the group, spinning on her head in rage at one point when they suggest eating something, and refusing outright to eat humanoids, but she is usually overruled and then forced to admit that yes actually this meal is quite delicious. Marshille seems to be the stand-in for the reader, since she generally expresses the disgust that the reader is likely (I hope!) to feel, and also gets things explained to her obviously for our benefit (this comes across as very man-splainy, since it’s the male fighter telling her how the world really is, but since she spends most of her time responding in apopleptic rage, it’s bearable).

Beyond its cynical but loving commentary on the world of dungeon crawling, its fine recipes and detailed exposition of dungeon ecology, this book is also a careful retelling of a staple of Japanese television entertainment – the cooking variety show. Anyone who has spent more than about a minute in Japan will have noticed that Japanese television is heavily dominated by variety shows about food, and a common format is for a group of stars and starlets to go to a remote town and sample its local delicacies. Usually this happens in rural Japan, though it can also often be seen in overseas settings, and it always involves a brief description of what is special about how the food is prepared and the ingredients obtained, and then a scene where everyone eats it and says “delicious”, and if there is a starlet involved she will be the one asking the questions while an older person (usually male) explains things to her. So this manga is an almost perfect recreation of that format, except with adventurers instead of starlets and magical creatures instead of standard ingredients. Also, the food shows usually don’t go beyond saying oishii over and over, but in the book we get more detailed expressions of the nature of the food, its texture and taste, which is just great when you’re talking about a humanoid mushroom.

Part RPG dungeon crawl, part variety show, part ecological textbook, this manga is a simple, pleasant read with an engaging story and two entertaining characters (the dwarf and the elf). It’s a really good example of the special properties of manga as a story-telling medium, since the entire idea and its execution would be almost impossible in short story or novel form, but is really well-suited to words with pictures. The pictures give it a more visceral feeling than if you were simply reading a short story about a dungeon cooking show, but the manga format gives I think more detail to the food and science descriptions than you would get in a TV drama. It’s a great balance, and an entertaining read. From a non-native Japanese perspective, it has the flaw that the kanji don’t have furigana (the hiragana writing by the side of the kanji which makes them easy to read), so it takes a while for a non-expert reader to get through, but it doesn’t have the heavy use of slang language and transliteration of rough pronunciation that you see in comics like One Piece, which makes them almost unreadable to non-experts. In general the grammar is simple and straightforward, though sometimes Senshi’s speaking style is overly complex and he uses weird words. In some manga, and especially in novels, the sentences are long and complex and very hard to read for slow readers, but here the sentences are short and straightforward, and the language is mostly standard Japanese. I found I could read in ten page blocks without too much difficulty, using a kanji lookup tool on my phone (I use an app called KanjiLookup that enables me to write them with my finger, which I’m not very good at but a lot better at now I have read this whole manga). After about 10 pages I get sick of constantly referencing the app and put the book down, but it’s not so challenging that I gave up entirely, probably because of the simple language and the short sentences and the very clear link between what is being said and what is being depicted. So as a study exercise I recommend it. As a cookbook or a moral guide, not so much …

 

 


fn1: Actually I’m pretty sure the “basilisk” in this story was actually a cockatrice.

This weekend I read the Turner Diaries, a famous and influential right-wing apocalyptic insurrection fantasy written in 1978. I picked up this nasty little piece of racist literature because of the recent events in the US, thinking to get a bit of background on the white nationalist terror threat in the USA, but I was amazed reading it by the similarities in ideology, vision and practice between US white nationalists terrorists and “Islamic State” (ISIS). In this post I want to review the book and explore some of these similarities.

Background: Don’t try this at home

The Turner Diaries were written in 1978 by William Luther Pierce, founder of a white nationalist organization called the National Alliance, and quickly became an inspiration for many white nationalist terrorists. The most striking influence was on Timothy McVeigh, whose truck bombing of a federal government building in Oklahoma City in 1995 almost exactly mirrors the first major action described in the book, but the Diaries also inspired many other people: the Anti-Defamation League has a page on the Diaries that charts their widespread influence in the white nationalist movement. I first discovered them in my early twenties, when I had a lover who grew up amongst Australia’s neo-Nazis, and although too young at the time to understand their politics was familiar with much of their iconography and inspirations. For many years the book was on sale at a famous alternative bookstore in Melbourne, Polyester, though I imagine it’s unavailable now if the warning on the internet archive version is any guide:

Ownership of this book might be illegal in the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. You must be at least 21 years or older in order to read this book because of the sexual and violent content. Parental Discretion is Advised!

Fortunately it’s not illegal in Japan as far as I know, and really easy to read on a smartphone, so a few hours later here I am better educated and definitely more disgusted. I read this book so you don’t have to, kids.

The book is the literary equivalent of found footage, purporting to be diaries from a revolutionary war in the USA that were found about 100 years later, and cast light on central events of the time through the eyes of an activist who rose to legendary status in the movement through his sacrifice. It is short, and has that property of narrative coherence and good pace that makes it a page turner (or, I guess, in the modern era, swiper) even though its characterization is shallow and its story devices occasionally ridiculous. No one in this story is likable – and trust me, until you read what these people think and are willing to do, you really haven’t plumbed the depths of what unlikable means – but the plot will keep you involved in their horrid schemes and potential successes even while you are mentally urgently in need of serious disinfection. I guess this is why it was popular with the kind of “visionaries” who blow up kindergartens

The diaries describe the actions of members of a racist insurrectionist movement called “the Organization” that starts off small and ultimately takes over the US and then the world, using a mixture of terrorism and then nuclear warfare. To give an idea of the vision that this book describes:

  • Once they win the USA they solve “the Chinese problem” by nuking everything between the Urals and the Pacific Ocean, creating what they call the “Eastern Wasteland”
  • They don’t have a racial model based on heirarchies and slavery, as the Nazis did: anyone not white is killed across the whole planet. There are no untermenschen here, just white people and dead people
  • They “win” their battle with the US government by starting a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, leading to the destruction of most major cities in the USA and the death of upwards of 60 million people, but they consider to be a worthwhile sacrifice

Being found footage, this book has parenthetical notes describing the “past” depicted in the book: this includes a note telling the reader what “negroes” are, since this race has been exterminated from the entire planet. The book also has a couple of chilling asides in which the diarist describes Nazi Germany as good and decries the fact that they were stopped in their project. It also has a vicious scene where every mixed-race, non-black and non-white person in California – i.e. every Asian, every American of southern European descent, every native American and anyone of dubious heritage is marched into a canyon and murdered. This is racial purity of the most extreme form, and make no mistake: this was the visionary novel that America’s white nationalist terrorists were inspired by.

It also has some ridiculous plot devices, such as the silly idea that the white nationalist Californian enclave is able to start a nuclear war with the Soviet Union but doesn’t itself get nuked back to the stone age.  But for analytical purposes, I’m willing to overlook these slips in the interests of understanding exterminationist ideology.

The Diaries’ Similarities with ISIS

The Diaries have certainly stood the test of time, in that some of the scenes described in them have been enacted by various terrorist groups over time. Obviously they have a striking similarity with the Oklahoma bombing, since they inspired it, but that is just the start of their inventiveness. Other similarities include:

  • The Organization detonates a huge bomb on September 11th that kills 4000 people and leaves a part of a city burning for several days
  • They attack a newspaper they dislike, culminating in killing its editorial writer [at his house, not the offices, but I think the similarities should be clear]
  • They deploy a dirty bomb to render a major power station inoperable
  • Beheading is one of their favourite tactics once they become operational in the field

The tactics described in the Diaries also have specific commonalities with ISIS tactics. In addition to the beheadings, they are very fond of filming executions and broadcasting them:

That’s where we were taking the big-shots to be hanged: the well-known politicians, a number of prominent Hollywood actors and actresses, and several TV personalities. If we had strung them up in front of their homes like everyone else, only a few people would have seen them, and we wanted their example to be instructive to a much wider audience. For the same reason many of the priests on our lists were taken to one of three large churches where we had TV crews set up to broadcast their executions.

This is a new, very modern phenomenon in mass murder, which we see from ISIS a lot. Government regimes like to hide their massacres, but terrorists need to broadcast them. Note also the choice of targets: not agents, technical staff and those who are implacably ideologically opposed to the force, but people whose actions and lifestyles represent a moral transgression. States kill people who threaten them materially, or fit into a category of useless people conveniently-scapegoated; modern terrorists murder people who have symbolic value, but who might otherwise be valuable. Their ideology doesn’t care whether you could be converted to the cause and used, because it is far more interested in making a spectacle out of punishing you for your transgressions.

These transgressions, note, are racial, or derive from crimes against race that the “criminals” didn’t even know were illegal until the new order swept over them – just as many of ISIS’s victims didn’t know they were doing anything wrong until ISIS arrived. On Monday you’re a tobacco salesperson, on Tuesday you’re a criminal about to be executed. This is ideological purity at its craziest.

Descriptions of cities “liberated” from racial miscegenation by the Organization also seem eerily similar to what we have heard of ISIS territory. They are depopulated, full of dead bodies, and struggling to find food and basic supplies, often for weeks, as the Organization is tiny, rules by terror and doesn’t have the manpower to maintain security and distribute food. It has also made clear that it isn’t interested in capitalism or markets, and its activities are completely disruptive of any kind of economic activity. At one point – having nuked much of America – the Organization’s enclaves are so desperate for food that they cannot take in even white survivors. Here is their solution:

In Detroit the practice was first established (and it was later adopted elsewhere) of providing any able-bodied White male who sought admittance to the Organization’s enclave with one hot meal and a bayonet or other edged weapon. His forehead was then marked with an indelible dye, and he was turned out and could be readmitted permanently only by bringing back the head of a freshly killed Black or other non-White. This practice assured that precious food would not be wasted on those who would not or could not add to the Organization’s fighting strength, but it took a terrible toll of the weaker and more decadent White elements.

Welcome to your racially-pure wonderland, honky… The similarities between this desperation and the desperation we are told is common in ISIS-held areas is noticeable. These people think they hold the key to the promised land but their millenial rage has so destroyed the world around them that they cannot help their own.

The “terrible toll of the weaker” alluded to in the above passage is another common element of ISIS and Organization tactics, though it points more to a moral than an organizational failing. Both organizations have an ideology of purity so extreme and powerful that they have developed a position of harsh judgment on almost everyone they are supposed to be helping. It is very clear in the Turner Diaries that the Organization considers the majority of white people to be stupid chumps who have brought about their own decay, and they are responsible for their own bad position through a lack of racial awareness. Although salvation of the white race is their aim, they don’t have any sympathy or compassion for individuals. The Diaries’ putative writer and his girlfriend at one point manage to ambush four black men and two “white sluts” with them, and kill all six, even though two are white, because those two have degenerated – no effort is made to explain to them how they have transgressed against a code they didn’t even know existed. This is early in the book; later this scales to the complete destruction of New York, the white population of which is dismissed because it allowed itself to be miscegenated. There are several passages in the book that justify this in terms of both racial survival and moral laxity: only those white people who can show they are able to “wake up” to the sick and insane racial fantasies of the Organization are guaranteed salvation, with the rest only offered salvation where it is convenient. This is very consistent with ISIS’s extreme ideology, which both punishes people for any kind of minor past infractions against a strict religious standard, and treats Sunni adherents as cheap collateral in its war goals: those who didn’t think to get enlightened and join ISIS are expendable, because they don’t have the purity and commitment that would justify any effort to spare them.

Finally, there is a similarity in targets. In addition to newspapers and politicians, the Organization targets actors and actresses, supreme court justices, and conservative politicians. There are multiple passages in the book railing against conservative politicians, who are racist but not willing to make the extreme steps necessary to see in the new world order. This is similar to ISIS, who consider Hamas and the Islamic Brotherhood to be apostates for considering the use of democracy or negotiation to achieve their aims. The Diaries have an early scene where a cell member is revealed to be “merely” a conservative: they execute him because he doesn’t support their nihilistic form of revolutionary activity. Later on, too, they have to fight a military enclave in Washington State that is run by “conservative” military folks, who want to restore the constitution: they deal with such anathema in an appropriately brutal way. All rival political ideologies, no matter how similar to theirs in goals, are judged impure and dealt with in the same vengeful and exterminationist way. The battle between the Organization and “conservatives” (and libertarians!) in the Diaries is similar to that between ISIS and al Qaeda. There is also a striking similarity in attitude towards people who share the Organization’s broad beliefs but were willing to compromise in order to get rich – these men get very short shrift, and strike me as very similar to the way some of the Sunni sheikhs were treated by ISIS.

The eternal terrorist

This would be simply fanciful rhetoric, except that the Diaries have inspired serious terrorists, and are very popular amongst white nationalists: they represent a real and genuine expression of the vision and goals of the white nationalist movement, which is also the oldest terrorist threat in the USA. The KKK, the original white terrorist movement, formed during the reconstruction era and was around until the end of the civil rights movement, only to be replaced by the network of arseholes that produced Timothy McVeigh. Since then the movement has subsided, and seems to have collapsed into just lone wolf idiots, but historically it was the greatest threat to American domestic security for 100 years. Now a similar movement of nihilistic, destructive purity has arisen in the Middle East, with similarly apocalyptic and violently exclusionary goals, and most analyses of this phenomenon are treating it as if it were unique. My reading of the Turner Diaries suggests that it is not unique at all: it is actually a sadly derivative form of terrorism, just terrorism, with the same ideological framework as white nationalism, and remarkably similar targets. Of course it has been more successful than white nationalism in the USA, but that’s because it sprang up in a situation closely resembling chapter 25 of the Turner Diaries rather than chapter 1.

I don’t know what produces this apocalyptic vision of society, and this antagonistic understanding of the causes of society’s problems, but it looks to me like a lot of terrorists hold it in common, and that people as vastly different as Baghdadi and Turner can have a very similar vision of who their enemies are and how to deal with them. It must be something very common to the human condition, and I don’t know what should be done about it, but my reading of the Turner Diaries, and my understanding of their influence, tells me one simple thing: ISIS aren’t new, or alien to western experience, although we might like to think so. They share a lot with the dark heart of our own racist past, and maybe if we look back there we can find ways to stop these movements from happening in future. Maybe the enemy really is us.

 

Oh, they have a Grue...

Oh, they have a Grue…

My friend gave me a copy of Ready Player One to read on the plane back to Japan, but my airline tricked me into flying a 777 without reclining seats or accessible reading lights or wi-fi, so I didn’t get to finish it till today nor did I realize how enormously popular it is until I randomly googled it. It’s a really good book, but has some really irritating flaws, so here is my review.

The basic idea of the story is simple and powerful, and I’m surprised it took so long to be written. It’s set in a dystopian near future (where, for once, the effect of climate change is stated and assumed throughout the story), where the world economy is slowly falling apart but there is a new virtual reality internet called the OASIS, where people can spend basically their whole lives escaping the boredom and horrors of everyday life. This world is fully interactive using haptic gloves and suits, so a kind of addictive experience (fortunately the author doesn’t use this silly idea of internet addiction), but it is also huge, a kind of galaxy of many worlds where almost anything can happen. The designer of the OASIS has died, but instead of leaving a will he has left behind his fortune, plus the title to control the company that designed the OASIS, as a prize in a complex game that, when the book starts, no one has won. This idea is patently ludicrous: the OASIS is the most important technological development in human history (as an example, our lead character receives his education through the OASIS and it is clearly a superior education to any physical school) but its developer has left the deed to the thing for any random gamer dickhead to take possession of. We’ve all seen what gamers are like – would you want the world’s biggest and most important company to be controlled by them?

And it is clear from the book that it is gamers who will take the prize, since the prize is a complex series of challenges based entirely on computer games. In order to crack the puzzles one needs to be an exceptional gamer; but worse still, all the clues to the puzzles are drawn from 1980s nerd and teen pop culture, so in order to find the clues one needs to be deeply invested in such execrable crap as The Breakfast Club and Highlander. One also needs to be a genius with 1980s arcade games, possibly the worst games ever invented.

As a result of this plot device, the book is a constant pastiche of 80s references, and the characters are the kind of losers you hated in first year university, who quote Monty Python in place of social interaction, and think going to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show is the height of cool. Worse still, the characters in this story are the worst kind of computer game winners: they may not be able to get laid or interact with actual human beings, but in the OASIS they’re unbelievably, perfectly good at everything. Worst of all is our hero Wade, who when challenged is able without any appreciable effort to get a perfect score in pacman, and wins a contest (based on a computer game) that the next best competitor took five weeks of constant striving to win. He’s also capable of hacking international corporations, quickly hacking the system to create a new identity for himself, and making leaps of intuitive faith about obscure 1980s game and video references even though he was never part of the 1980s culture and only understands these things from studying his hero. He is, of course, also stunningly good at PvP first person combat games.

In short, he (and his three colleagues) are at a Harry Potter level of unrealistic character development. Mixed with all the worst traits of the nerd world, and an urgent need to prove how smart they are. Reading about these kinds of people is annoying!

However, the challenge is also intoxicating, and the growth of the relationships between the main characters – and the challenges they face in solving the puzzle – is really compelling. Although I didn’t like any of the characters, I soon found myself really wanting them to survive and really engaged with the story. It’s a tense, tight, well-told tale with several unexpected twists and turns, and much of the setting is a range of magical or technological fantasy worlds that make it a fairly unique mix of real world and fantastic tales. The magical world much of it is set in (the OASIS) seems very unrealistic, but it’s also a stimulating and interesting vision of how the future could unfold if the technology were available. If you can put aside the constant, mostly lame, references to the 80s, and the really boring and annoying way in which the characters are almost perfect in every way relevant to their quest, it’s an exciting and enjoyable romp through a very well realized  image of the future of society’s relationship with the internet. I strongly recomend this book for gamers and those interested in visions of the future in which communication and internet technology trumps manufacturing and off-world exploration – it’s a fascinating and exciting story with an excellent ending! If you have any interest in virtual worlds, and enjoy watching ordinary people get it wrong and then somehow struggling through to get it right, then I strongly recommend this book!

 

The science fiction magazine Strange Horizons has published an interview with Iain M. Banks, apparently part of someone’s PhD project (what a cool PhD!) in which he gives a scathing and in my opinion brilliantly accurate critique of Foucault:

The little I’ve read I mostly didn’t understand, and the little I understood of the little I’ve read seemed to consist either of rather banal points made difficult to understand by deliberately opaque and obstructive language (this might have been the translation, though I doubt it), or just plain nonsense. Or it could be I’m just not up to the mark intellectually, of course.

This is exactly what I’ve thought of the little Foucault I’ve read: a few interesting points, hammered home over and over again in incredibly pretentious and overbearing language. I would add that I have partially the same criticism of Chomsky’s political works: in my view Manufacturing Consent is a brilliant book if you read just the first 3 or 4 chapters, and after that it’s just repetition of the same point. The difference of course is that Chomsky’s writing is not incomprehensible and deliberately opaque. In my view, the value of Foucault’s ideas is significantly undermined by the pretentiousness of his presentation, and Banks summarizes it perfectly here.

Banks also nails Freud:

I suspect Freud’s theories tell you a great deal about Freud, quite a lot about the monied middle-class in Vienna a hundred-plus years ago, and only a little about people in general

In my opinion, psychology as a discipline is limited by its subject matter, which is the inner life of middle class women a hundred years ago (and more broadly, middle class people now, and mostly Americans at that). A friend of mine observed about a psychologist at his work that “she has never said anything that wasn’t self-evidently obvious basic stuff, dressed up in psychobabble,” and in my experience in drug and alcohol research psychologists were too busy looking for individual causes to notice the very obvious fact that drugs are addictive, and society is fucked up. The limitations of psychology, in my opinion, can be best summarized by this simple fact I have observed over many years of working with psychologists: if you meet a person with a PhD in psychological research [not clinical practice] you can diagnose instantly their psychological disorder by asking them the topic of their thesis. It tells you a great deal about them, and only a little about people in general. Note that the full passage from Banks in this case also likens Marx’s techniques to Freud’s, putting Marx at no higher an intellectual level than Freud. In your place, Karl.

There’s a lot of other interesting stuff about Banks’s approach to the Culture in that interview, but I thought his frank opinions about these theorists tells us a lot about him as a theorist and ideologue. He doesn’t care for obfuscation and pretension, and he is not misled by psychobabble. Perhaps in that we can see some of the reasons why his books were so popular, and he was respected in both mainstream fiction and science fiction. His death was truly a huge loss for science fiction, and by extension for the literary world generally, though the literary world generally is too busy loving Foucault and Freud to notice. More fool them!

Popular perception of Tolkien’s world-building efforts seems to be that they were the product of a determined and methodical visionary. I think this perception arises because his worlds are so detailed and carefully constructed, so complete and internally consistent, that it’s impossible not to imagine that they were constructed systematically out of a guiding vision. However, reading Dimitra Fimi’s Tolkien, Race and Cultural History I have been given a very different insight into Tolkien’s world-creation process, as a jumbled, complex series of reworkings of different visions, stemming from differing and sometimes conflicting political goals, and coalescing around an accidental publication timetable. One also gets the sense that by the end of this creative process Tolkien himself was having difficulty understanding exactly how he approached it, and what his ideological and aesthetic purpose was. The book also helps us to understand how Tolkien’s creative process changed along with the creative fashions of the time, and shows the many ways in which Tolkien’s world-building was closely linked to the changing aesthetics of his era. Here I would like to give a brief overview of how his world-building proceeded, and the ultimate somewhat chaotic way in which it coalesced into a final (publicly) static form.

From inchoate faerie-lore to political vision

Tolkien’s first works were not about Middle-Earth at all, but poems and stories about faeries and goblins. These stories and poems had youthful naivete and a close connection to the fascination with faeries that British society was still enjoying at the end of the Edwardian era. His pre-war poems draw on the popular image of small, flitting woodland creatures of that time, and nothing in them resembled the creatures of his later world. By the end of his creative process Tolkien was saying in letters that he had “always” hated these Edwardian faerie imaginings, but this is clearly not the case in his unpublished and published early works – an interesting example of the author having a vision of his youthful self that is at odds with his own work. As the faeries of the Edwardian era were crushed under the wheels of the first world war (and some classic faerie hoaxes), Tolkien’s own work grew darker and more adult, with faeries changing to gnomes that eventually became Noldor, and who would become the original speakers of the elven language that he originally developed as a fairy and then gnomish tongue. From this mish-mash of faerie lore, combined with his language work, the original Silmarillion began to form after the war, but it went through many revisions and gradually became more mature and complex as the faerie transformed into elves. However, its form was heavily dependent on Tolkien’s political vision, and the content also changed with the development and subsequent atrophying of his political goals.

Middle-earth as a revolutionary Catholic project

Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and also a romantic (in the aesthetic sense), somewhat out of time and place in a protestant England becoming increasingly materialistic. During the end of the Edwardian era, in the pre-war years, this conflict between the increasingly materialistic and scientific modern England and its pastoral romantic past came to the fore in many aspects of its political and artistic culture, and indeed the fanciful beliefs in faeries was one example of a kind of pastoral revivalism occurring in increasingly urban and industrial England. Tolkien was no doubt affected by this romantic revanche, and in the pre-war years he and his friends joined together to form the Tea Club/Barrovian Society (TCBS) which had as its goal “to drive from life, letters, the stage and society teh dabbling in and hankering after the unpleasant sides and incidents in life and nature.” They envisioned England “purified of its loathsome insidious disease” by their works. At this time Tolkien was building his elvish language, and he appears to have envisaged a connection between England’s faerie past and the moral character of Englishness: he seems to have imagined faerie creatures as teaching morality and aesthetically superior ideals to humans in the mythology he was building at this time, and he saw his stories and poems about faerie as an opportunity to proselytize the TCBS ideals publicly. This puts a strange conflict at the heart of his work, because at this stage his language works and some of his stories include strong hints that his Middle Earth was built from a Catholic vision – his language included many specific terms for Catholic religious ideas and ritual objects, and a major part of his stories was inspired by a particular old English world for Christ. Here he was stuck, I think, because faerie are obviously not a Catholic idea and he was forced to reconcile these faerie “teachers” of the romantic vision with his Catholic ideals. At this stage his Middle Earth was incomplete, and he appears to have solved the problem by taking a step towards dividing the world into a period of myth and a period of near history. This step also appears to have been influenced by another of his ideological goals at this time: the recovery of an English mythology.

Tolkien’s English nationalism

Tolkien was open about his desire to build a “mythology for England,” and he admired similar efforts conducted elsewhere, most especially the Kalevala, which was a fabricated ideal of Finnish nationhood that was instrumental in forging modern Finland. Part of this project required the discovery or construction of myths for England, and indeed of a differentiation of English from British. The concept of “Englishness” is of course a joke, a fantasy of racial purity that has no grounding in science or history, but Tolkien liked to labour under the impression that he had some kind of identifiable racial “stock,” and that everyone else in England did too. At the point where he was writing The Hobbit and fiddling with multiple revisions of his world, Tolkien was still impressed by ideas that linked language and racial heritage, and he appears to have still subscribed to ideas about the inherent moral characteristics of different races (we will come back to this in a subsequent post, because Tolkien’s ideas about race seem to have been complex and to have changed a lot in the inter-war period). So early visions of his world included attempts to build a kind of tutelary lore for the English, which as part of the intended proselytizing of the TCBS would lead to the promulgation of ideals of Englishness in the same vein as the Kalevala instilled a unified concept of Finnishness in the Finns.

Unfortunately the Great War pulverized the Edwardian sense of romance out of the British population, and as the TCBS grew up their cynicism overwhelmed their desire to action; by the time the Hobbit came out their activities were largely just correspondence to each other, and Tolkien’s visions of Englishness and romantic revival, though preserved in his aesthetics and his written works, appear to have lost their overtly political impetus.

The Hobbit and the consolidating influence of publication pressure

After the war Tolkien’s world went through multiple revisions, and he kept adding, changing and recreating it, generally in a more adult and cynical direction. However, simultaneously he wrote and published The Hobbit, which he did not appear to have originally envisaged as a core part of his story – even his invention of Hobbits themselves appears to have been something of an afterthought. However, after its success he was put under pressure from his publisher to write more about Hobbits, and so the Lord of the Rings began to take solid form. But with this open publication of a part of his world some elements of it were cemented in place, and all of his vision now had to be built so as to be consistent with the position of the events of The Hobbit in its history. Building on The Hobbit meant constructing a story for adults, with all the conflict and realism that entails, that would be consistent with both the events of the Hobbit and the deeper past of his world. At this point, he had to consolidate the material of his world building and it is only at this point that we see the final form of his world, which we must remember had been built slowly in multiple conflicting revisions over 20 years. Thus it is that we see hints of many different aspects of earlier ideas: his English nationalism drawn in through the three different races of Men; his Catholic revolutionary project through the story of Feanor, a much-diluted version of earlier distinct attempts to create a specific vision based on a specific word in an Anglo-Saxon poem; his division of Middle Earth into eras of myth with flat worlds and pre-history with a spherical world; his placement of Numenor as a western Island, originally conceived of as England but with this visionary role for England diluted over many years of rewriting; his construction of Middle Earth as approximately European geographically, as legacy of his idea of the creation of mythical prehistory for England. All of these sometimes conflicting strands of thought, ideology and aesthetic were tied together not by a clear uniting vision spanning 20 years, but by a series of conflicting aesthetic, political and religious goals that waxed and waned over time, competed and complemented each other, and were deeply influenced by the political, religious and aesthetic trends of his era, as well as by the major political events that shaped Tolkien’s early years.

Understanding how Tolkien’s political and religious ideology shaped his aesthetics and his world-building is useful for better understanding the conservatism, racial theories and political ideals behind his books. For example, many people seem to like the idea that the One Ring is emblematic of technology and its corrupting influence on the world, but I don’t see any hint of this in the ideology underlying the world Tolkien built, and Fimi’s book (which I’m nearly finished now) hasn’t mentioned this idea at all – it just doesn’t seem to fit in with what Tolkien’s stated ideals and goals were (or with those we are able to infer). Similarly, defenders of his work against accusations of racism like to quote Tolkien saying he opposes allegory, perhaps as some kind of evidence that he doesn’t have any political goals underlying his work; but this goes against his own repeated statements of political and religious intent. The man formed a club that intended to use aesthetics to change the ideology of Britain – he was a very political writer! And his politics, or at least the way it interacts with his aesthetic vision, seems to have been both aware of outside political trends and ideals, and to have changed continuously over the period that he wrote his two major books and The Silmarillion. I think this background to the creation of his stories will help us to understand where the racial theories in his world fit in both the social backdrop of his era, and in the context of his own public and private statements on race, as well as his political and ideological goals. In my next post I will look at how his views on Englishness and religion, and his understanding of the politics of his era, may have affected the racial theories in his story – and how Tolkien’s views on race themselves changed as he wrote

 

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