Crime Fiction


No one sees him

There’s something otherworldly about the John Wick movies. Primarily a series of set pieces, with the story loosely connecting the parts together, they feel more like fairy tales than standard action stories, and that’s because they are: John Wick is a fey champion, and the world he moves in is not the human world, but a kind of wicked techno-faerie. Here I will explain the evidence that John Wick is a Changeling or a Fey Champion, and the world he moves in is not part of the human realm. There are minor spoilers in this post, so stop here if you haven’t seen the latest movie.

[Spoilers follow]

There is a scene in the third movie, Parabellum, where Wick and his most implacable foe come face to face in a huge railway station (probably I’m supposed to know which station this is but whatever). They come to a halt as they are about to fight because a conga line of small children is moving between them and for some reason they feel they mustn’t disrupt this line; but then after this line passes two of the enemy agents attack Wick from behind and he is forced to murder them in the middle of the station, in plain view of perhaps several thousand people, using knives, and it isn’t pretty and it definitely isn’t very well concealed, but no one notices. Of course when this happens in a John Wick movie you just shrug and go with the flow – you don’t care if ordinary people do or don’t see what is happening because you’re there to see John Wick kill his enemies with righteous fury and you’re not concerned about the collateral damage.

But if you think about it a little more, no one ever sees him killing people. In the second movie he walks along a big white underpass, firing off shots from a concealed weapon at the androgynous bodyguard of his enemy, and thousands of ordinary people shuffle past but no one notices a gun battle happening right in front of them. The same thing applies in both the second and third movies when he is attacked repeatedly by assassins in plain view after his excommunication and no one notices the brutal battles. At the end of the second movie there is a moment where he should be seen by ordinary people but they all just turn and walk away at a single command from Winston.

There is a never a time in the movies where ordinary human beings notice the huge battles happening in front of them. This is because they cannot see the agents of the underworld and don’t know anything about the High Court or its agents. Essentially the underworld (the crime network at the heart of the movies) is invisible to humans: it shares the same space but somehow the world of ordinary people and of the underworld does not overlap. The agents of the underworld can see humans but cannot be seen. They are, essentially, Fey.

There are many hints in the movies as to the faerie nature of the underworld’s members. Although the lower echelons work for money the higher echelons work for favours, bartering with each other in services. Individuals make blood bonds to each other which have a special currency (even depicted as a kind of coin) that trumps all other concerns. Each of the High Table’s members has a Champion, who is universally feared and serves his or her patron absolutely. The High Table’s members also have clearly delineated realms and a kind of aesthetic or sense connected to them, which makes clear that they are creatures tied to a place or a concept. The otherworldly nature of these high beings is even made explicit in the third movie, when the Director says to John Wick:

The High Table wants your life. How can you fight the wind? How can you smash the mountains? How can you bury the ocean? How can you escape from the light? Of course, you can go to the dark. But they’re in the dark, too.

This is as clear a description of Fey royalty as you could hope to hear.

John Wick himself is a mysterious figure, referred to by the Russians as the Baba Yaga, but in the third movie we learn he was adopted by a Russian crime gang connected to the underworld but managed to escape the underworld before the events of the first movie. From his interactions with the Director in the third movie it is clear that he was in some sense stolen from the human world; and from the first movie we know that he somehow escaped the underworld. This marks him out as a Changeling, another classic idea associated with faerie. His abilities are also obviously supernatural, but his sensibilities are human. It is through this character who stands astride both worlds that we learn about the faerie realm he has escaped, and of course we would not care for the troubles of this world if we were not introduced to it by a Changeling, someone part human in their origins.

The movies also reinforce this sense that we are watching a battle between the fey through their choices of setting. When battles occur in the presence of humans they happen in in-between spaces: underpasses, railway stations, night clubs, and other places where humans are themselves passing through and not in a position to stop and help, or to notice what is happening. The denizens of the underworld are never seen in places of permanent human occupation: they don’t fight or meet in human homes, or hospitals, or even hotels (outside the Continental): everywhere they interact with humans is transient, a place where neither people nor fey leave a mark or stay to pay attention to the surroundings. And when battles happen on fey land they occur in strange, tortured spaces that remind us of how otherworldly these people are: halls of mirrors, or John Wick’s journey into the literal underworld in the second movie, or strange businesses (stolen car dealerships, weird ballet theatres without customers), or art galleries devoid of human customers. The classic combination of these two phenomena is the Bowery King, whose palace is a strange place that exists in plain sight but is never noticed by humans, and whose subjects work in all the liminal spaces of human life, begging and passing unnoticed. He is like the classic model of the Goblin King, in a modern setting.

John Wick is a modern fairy story, with John a Changeling trying to leave the kingdom of his abductors but constantly drawn back into it because his power and his passion is irresistible to its denizens. He fights and kills for the chance to be free, but the strange politics of the fey world stops him from achieving the liberation he so wants (and so richly deserves). The real appeal of John Wick is not the violence or the set pieces, but the way it calls upon the faerie stories of our heritage as part of the story and the aesthetic. It is a peculiarly modern fairy story, and a remarkably original and creative work when you see it in this light: not as an action movie, but as a retelling of ancient myths.

The rule of law …

On 1st April this year the first protest march against the Hong Kong extradition law was held in Wan Chai. Ten years ago on that same day, 1st April, the London Metropolitan police murdered Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper vendor, at the G20 protest in London. They killed him on film, in front of thousands of citizens, by pushing him onto his face from behind and beating him with a baton. They then refused to help him, denied that they had done it, and refused to accept any responsibility until the film of the event was released. The day after his death the police attacked peaceful protestors at a candelight vigil to remember him, also on film. They lied about his death for days and found a corrupt coroner to do an autopsy, in a scandalous miscarriage of justice that took a year to be undone. Finally, after a second autopsy and an inquiry the police officer who killed him, PC Harwood, was found not guilty of manslaughter, and eventually dismissed from the police force. He was never convicted of any crime, and neither were the police who assaulted mourners at the vigil for Tomlinson. For weeks after the event the police and their friends in media organizations like the Sun, Daily Mail and the Telegraph maintained that demonstrators had prevented ambulance officers from reaching Tomlinson, when in fact the police had refused to provide first aid and the only help Tomlinson received was from protestors.

At the G20 protest in London – which lasted for 4 days – the police used aggressive “kettling” procedures, police dogs and horse charges. A total of 180 protestors were injured. While PC Harwood and the police who assaulted the mourners were never convicted of any crime, one demonstrator was sentenced to two years in prison for throwing a chair through a bank window.

Today in Wan Chai the protests against the Hong Kong extradition law continue, as they have done almost continuously since the events began on 1st April. During this four months no one has been killed, although the police have fired rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray at the protestors. Police in London 10 years ago also used batons and pepper spray, along with horses and kettling tactics. What have the Hong Kong protestors done, and how does it compare with the G20 protest?

  • They sprayed the Chinese for “chink” (支那) on the walls of the Beijing Liaison office, knowing full well that in mainland China this is a vicious racial slur
  • They broke into the legislative building and trashed it
  • They have repeatedly torn down the Chinese flag and replaced it with the former Hong Kong colonial flag, a reminder of a time when China was humiliated by a foreign power
  • They graffitied the graves of important historical figures in Hong Kong history with racial slurs
  • They attacked mainland Chinese people and chanted “go back” at them
  • They occupied the airport and railway stations, disrupting major transport hubs and interfering with the business of ordinary Hong Kong people, and deliberately disrupting the business of mainland traders near the border
  • They forced mainlanders to hand over their phones to demonstrators to prove they weren’t filming them

How many of those things did the G20 protestors do? And how many of those things did you see reported in the western press? I’ll wager you saw none of it, but if you read today’s feed on the Guardian about the demonstrations you will see all manner of cute little tidbits about all the peaceful and happy things the demonstrators are doing, told with a breathless tone as if it’s just a day out in the park and the first time the reporters have ever seen a demonstration. Breathless reports about how the demonstrators are cheered by passing citizens and told to “add oil”, reports of them using cute codewords to alert teams to raise umbrellas, pictures of decorated barriers, uncritical reporting of rival demonstrators as “triads”, reports from the airport of protest banners saying they can handle tear gas, talking about flash mob tactics with an approving tone and cute exclamation marks … it could almost be a picnic!

You didn’t see any of that style of reporting back in the G20 protests in London. There was no breathless tone of approval, no reports on the cute things that everyone does at demonstrations to defuse tension, pass the time or relieve boredom. Western reports did not describe protest tactics with approval at how smart and organized they were, or talk about which passersby approved (they only reported disapproval). When protesters at the G20 wore masks to hide themselves from police cameras or pepper spray they were described as thugs or maligned as “black bloc”, not seen as innocent young people taking necessary measures to defend themselves from police violence. In the Hong Kong riots police attack protesters; in the G20 London protest “violence broke out”, the passive voice used to ensure the police did not take the blame. There were no lasers used by demonstrators at the London protest, but rioters in Hong Kong have fired lasers at police “to obscure their identity”, and the media have not reported this as if it might carry some risk of blindness for police. For weeks they have reported about demonstrators helping old men across the road, about their kindness to strangers, about the organized way they care for their town and each other. There was even some ridiculous footage of them cleaning up their rubbish. You didn’t see any of that at the G20 London Protest, even though it all happened (these things always happen at protests).

The underlying demands of the protest are also reported differently. The G20 protestors’ concrete demands for change – for a fairer distribution of the wealth that global elites have been stealing from ordinary people, for greater equity, for environmental action and action on global warming – were ignored, and the whole movement made out to be a seething mass of discontented socialists. In the Hong Kong riot the protests are always reported as being about the extradition law, even though their actions – the “Hong Kongers!” chants, the “go back” chants, the racial slurs, the equivalent of Pride Boys moving in the mass[1], the tearing down of the Chinese flag, the calls for independence – make it clear that a large part of this movement is not about that at all, but a demand for independence from China. They also completely misrepresent the law itself, presenting it as a law to extradite people to China when it is not that at all, and conflate it with things completely unconnected to the law (like the bookseller issue). There is also a constant breathless expectation that the police will turn more violent or the army will be sent in, even after four months of restraint and patience on behalf of the Hong Kong government that would never have been seen in the UK.

If the G20 protests had lasted 4 months, shutting down Heathrow Airport and the Tube and involving vicious attacks on European bank workers on the streets week in and week out, would the Metropolitan police have been so restrained? Considering that they murdered an unconnected civilian on the first day, and covered it up? No, I don’t think they would have. And rather than having the main media organizations wondering daily whether the police would escalate, by the time a month had passed outlets like the Times and the Daily Mail would be begging them to. Western media coverage of the G20 protest in London was shameful, and their pathetic acquiescence to the lies the police told about the murder of Ian Tomlinson was a deep stain on their profession. Now we have to watch them uncritically refusing to report anything bad about the Hong Kong demonstrations, and reporting them as if they were a fun family picnic for the simple reason that their government doesn’t like the Chinese government – and for reasons of good old fashioned racism, of course. Today, for example, the Hong Kong chief of AFP tweeted a claim that the Opium War was good for China, and doubled down on it when challenged. These people are responsible for reporting to you about what is happening in Hong Kong, and they don’t care about any truth or any balance at all.

Underneath all of this unrest in Hong Kong is another tragedy. The extradition law was brought to parliament after a 20 year stay because a Hong Kong national murdered his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan and fled the country, and because there is no extradition treaty with Taiwan he cannot be sent back to face justice. The story of that murdered girl and her family’s need for justice has been buried in the hyperbole about freedom and the rule of law, just as 10 years ago the truth of Ian Tomlinson’s murder was buried by a complicit, lickspittle press under an avalanche of lies and obfuscations. It is looking likely that the murderer of that Taiwanese woman will get away with his crime, just as PC Harwood suffered no legal consequences for murdering Ian Tomlinson. And in both cases the press will look the other way, forget the ordinary people that mattered, and offer up lies and calumny in the service of the national interest. They shamed themselves then and they shame themselves now.


fn1: It’s pretty well established that the 2014 umbrella movement had a nasty racist component, probably led by a movement called Civic Passion that is also present in the current demonstrations, and seems to be a little bit like a Pride Boys movement for Hong Kongers.

As sure as night follows day there has been another mass shooting in America, this time at a Walmart, where 20 people have been killed by a 21 year old white man who published a manifesto on 4chan. He turns out – shock – to have been a white supremacist who is concerned about Mexicans taking over Texas, and particularly worried about the possibility that it will flip Democratic (because Hispanics vote Democratic) and usher in an era of permanent Democrat rule (which is apparently a bad thing). You can find his manifesto here if you are up for reading this sort of stuff, and you can tell where he stands pretty quickly from his two opening sentences:

In general, I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto. This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.

This dude is not happy about Hispanics taking over his country, and he has a plan. He says he has read The Great Replacement, a theory espoused by the dude who wrote The Camp of the Saints (Steve Bannon’s favourite book) and he thinks he needs to take action to protect his nation from being overrun by foreigners. Most of his manifesto is classic white supremacist nutjob stuff, though remarkably lucid for the genre and (by Fascist standards) relatively well argued. On Twitter, however, he is getting some traction amongst concerned leftists because he ascribes some environmental reasons for his actions, and some people are hailing him as the first eco-fascist shooter. For example, William Black writes:

This suggests that he has an environmental motive for his attack, and needs to kill foreigners to make sure that only Americans can enjoy the fruits of America’s fragile environment.  In response, someone else suggests that hyping the threat of global warming may have been a mistake:

If the right is turning to eco-fascism then it will put a new slant on all their activities and give them a new wedge to use against opponents of fascism; it also signals that they may have seriously upped their game, since until now ineffectual bullshit flailing against the “Chinese hoax” of global warming has been their thing. But how true is it that this guy is an eco-fascist? And was he really worried about global warming? His manifesto is 2,359 words long, and this is his entire comment on environmental issues:

The American lifestyle affords our citizens an incredible quality of life. However, our lifestyle Is destroying the environment of our country. The decimation of the environment is creating a massive burden for future generations. Corporations are heading the destruction of our environment by shamelessly overharvesting resources. This has been a problem for decades. For example, this phenomenon is brilliantly portrayed in the decades-old classic “The Lorax.” Water sheds around the country, especially in agricultural areas, are being depleted. Fresh water Is being polluted from farming and oil drilling operations. Consumer culture is creating thousands of tons of unnecessary plastic waste and electronic waste, and recycling to help slow this down is almost non-existent. Urban sprawl creates inefficient cities which unnecessarily destroys millions of acres of land. We even use god knows how many trees worth of paper towels just wipe water off our hands. Everything I have seen and heard in my short life has led me to believe that the average American isn’t willing to change their lifestyle, even if the changes only cause a slight inconvenience. The government is unwilling to tackle these issues beyond empty promises since they are owned by corporations. Corporations that also like immigration because more people means a bigger market for their products. I just want to say that I love the people of this country, but god damn most of y’all are just too stubborn to change your lifestyle. So the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources. If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can become more sustainable.

It’s 270 words, or just over 10% of his manifesto. He commits almost that much verbiage to describing the weapon he’s going to use. This isn’t exactly Unabomber-level commitment to the cause is it? In his ecological dissertation he does not mention global warming or climate change, but only overuse of resources, with a reference to The Lorax (which I don’t think has any words to say about global warming). His screed is essentially Malthusian, not environmentalist, and his position is relatively clear: since political change to reduce waste and overconsumption is hard, we need to cull the herd. This isn’t a new position in right-wing thought, although obviously attaching it to an AK-47 is an unpleasant rhetorical escalation. In the 1990s Australia had a right-wing anti-immigration party, Australians Against Further Immigration, who worked from this exact position, and it’s been a fixture of European fascism forever. But it’s not the centerpiece or even a major part of his manifesto: It’s bolted on the end of his piece, as an addendum to his main concern, which is the Great Replacement. He devotes about as much space to complaining about the role of corporations in undermining American workers through immigration – this is a theme all through the first two pages of his writing, covering the issue of automation and Universal Basic Income and how the presence of low-paid foreign workers will mess up the society-wide response to automation that he sees as necessary – and much of what he writes has a lot more to do with the National Conservatism[1] of Hurley and Carlson than it does to do with any kind of eco-fascism.

It’s also impossible to imagine that an American conservative at this time would break so much with conservative orthodoxy as to endorse global warming as real. That would basically alienate you from your entire political cohort, and would be a poison pill for all your political relationships. Now that his social media are shut down it is impossible to glean his opinions about this, but it should be clear from recent American political movements that it is almost impossible to be an American conservative and accept the reality of global warming, let alone take it seriously enough to kill people over.

This man is not an eco-fascist, but that does not mean that eco-fascism won’t come to America in time. As the climate crisis deepens we can expect all high-income nations to experience increasingly difficult environmental problems, and since the USA is particularly vulnerable to global warming we can expect to see it hit harder and earlier than say Europe. You can be sure that when it becomes impossible to avoid acknowledging the problem the American right will find a way to blame all the years of inaction on the left and/or Jews, and will react with its customary lack of humanity or sense to deal with the challenges global warming creates. But before that you can expect a long period of denialism and increasingly brutal treatment of refugees, foreigners, and ultimately poor and black people within US borders as resource crises strike (probably starting with water). I have previously reviewed the foundational text of modern American fascism, the Turner Diaries, and noted the extreme nihilism and violence of their vision, and in that book it is very clear what the American right’s response to resource pressures will be. On the one hand it is clear that they are willing to burn the entire world down rather than compromise their racial purity, and their solution to extreme privation is to force white people to compete in a brutal and murderous competition to gain access to the limited resources available. So we can expect the American right to further exclude refugees and migrants, to become more vicious in their treatment of “non-productive” minorities within America, and to enhance these cruelties while continuing to burn the fossil fuels that are causing the problem; and when they finally accept that it is too late, we can expect them to pit poor whites against each other to determine who gets to survive in the burning times.  I doubt we will see anything as enlightened as a violent fascist overthrow of corporate polluters in order to preserve the environment for the white race. If you doubt me about that, read the Turner Diaries and ask yourself what the movement’s leaders would do, given they all consider that to be the ur-text for their movement.

We have a long wait yet before eco-fascism comes to America, if it ever does, but in the meantime we have a very real and very dangerous fascist movement taking over the country. Don’t look to some weird eco-fascist fringe for the threat to the future of America and the world: look to the Republican party, which is producing all the intellectual and rhetorical support for these terrorists, and looking the other way while the country burns. And don’t get distracted: their only real interest at this time is race, and they have their eyes on the prize even if you don’t. So stay focused, and do everything you can to beat these people back before they burn down your country and our world.


fn1: Good choice of name there boys, you’ll go far.

Grindelwald apologizes for his crimes

On the plane back from Bangladesh I made the mistake of watching The Crimes of Grindelwald, the latest instalment in Rowling’s exploration of the Potter universe. In this sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Grindelwald has escaped from imprisonment by the wizards in the USA and headed off to Europe to find Credence and begin to rouse a following of wizards who will help him achieve his goals. We follow Newt Scamander, Tina, Queenie and Jacob as they attempt to head off Grindelwald and stop him doing whatever he is trying to do.

I cannot give much more of a review of the movie than that because to be honest I didn’t have a clue what was going on in this messy and confusing story, and I was too incensed by a few details of the movie to care too much about the story anyway. What is Johnny Depp doing in this thing? Quite apart from the fact of recent revelations about his personal life, he is well past his use-by date and should be taken out the back of the studios and quietly put out of his misery. To be fair his performance as Grindelwald is better than pretty much anything else he has done in a long time, but this simply means it could have been replaced with pretty much anyone else. But I persevered! Only to find that fat ugly stupid boring Jacob gets his girl, because while in Hollywood every woman has to be stunningly good looking and have a flawless body and perfect make up and clothes, any fat dude in an ill-fitting suit with the personality of a wet blanket can pull any hot chick. There’s hope for you yet, Homer Simpsons of the world! Also, what happened to the sweet and happy Queenie of the first movie, that she makes a sudden Luke Skywalker-esque zig zag to amoral monster in the beat of an eye? Why can’t modern movie-makers figure this simple shit out? Or at least give us some hint of the change in personality that a much-loved character is going to undergo, so we can at least try and understand it[1]? So having overlooked Queenie’s monstrous change, I am left none the wiser as to what Grindelwald is really trying to do or in fact what his actual crimes are. Has he killed anyone yet? Has he actually done anything? Also, what’s with the incredibly complex and twisted family tale involving baby-swapping on the Titanic? Does everything have to have these super complicated antecedents? Can’t Credence just be, well, Credence? Does he have to be someone important? Is it something weird about Americans that everybody in their movies has to be a fucking Kardashian? Heaven forbid that a powerful wizard should just be an ordinary orphan boy (or worse still, a girl!) with nothing to recommend them except their own innate character and talent! Not that anyone in this putrid sequel had any character … even Scamander was a second-rate version of himself from the previous movie, and Tina and Queenie had lost all of the ethereal beauty and charm they had in the first episode.

So, really, this movie had nothing to recommend it overall and is a good reminder of why I skipped most of the Harry Potter movies. But it offers us a fascinating case study in the problem I identified in my review of Fantastic Beasts: This world we are watching is fucked up, and the sooner the Muggles burn it all down, hoist every wizard on a lamppost, and rid the world of their evil, the better. In my review of the first movie I noted that the magical administration seems to have brainwashed its participants and is cool with summary execution, and I also noted that there is a big inequality between muggles and wizards, that the wizards know about and are doing nothing to stop. In this movie the fascism of the wizards becomes even clearer. In addition to the summary executions of the first episode, we now learn that the administration has complete control of your travel rights and a wizard who travels without permission from the administration gets locked in Azkaban for life; we see that they have a well-organized and extensive secret police; we see that they have surveillance and control measures that they can apply even to famous intellectuals (i.e. Dumbledore) with impunity; and we see no semblance of due process for any of this. We also discover that they have strict anti-miscegenation laws – no one is allowed to love a muggle, and the punishment is terrible. Finally we learn that a lot of them think of muggles as inferior and not human, and want to exterminate all of them. Or, in the case of Grindelwald, exterminate most of them but keep a few around as cattle. So basically the wizards are running a parallel world to the muggles that is much much wealthier than the muggle world, could intervene at any time to make the muggle world much wealthier, healthier and better developed, but doesn’t want to and maintains a strict fascist administration that murders and imprisons anyone who opposes it or tries to help the muggles in any way. Dumbledore is in on the whole thing, and even people who break the rules (like Scamander) don’t do so out of any deep dislike of the system – they just break the rules because they want to have a fling in Paris with their American girlfriend.

Nice people all round.

We also get to see that Grindelwald has seen the future and has seen that in a couple of years the muggles are going to go to war and develop new weapons (nuclear weapons and aircraft) that will make wizards look like chickenshit, and his proposed solution to this problem is the mass extermination of all muggles. When he reveals this information to his followers they gasp in horror at the “arrogance” of the muggles in developing such weapons. Nobody seems to put any thought into the possibility that the muggles wouldn’t have to lift a finger to produce anything like nuclear weapons if the wizards would just share their power to breach the laws of thermodynamics with those who are not lucky enough to be born magical. But such a solution would be a step too far – why would they share their wealth with inferior muggles when it’s much more logical just to wipe them out?

Also why am I watching this movie about a couple of servants of a fascist organization (Tina and Scamander) who are working hard to prevent a radical fascist splinter group of their fascist organization from enacting a global program of genocide to stop a movement of non-magical fascists who share exactly the same principles as they do? It’s fascists all the way down. It seems like the only way that this series could turn a moral corner is if we discover that actually Stalin was industrializing the Soviet Union for the sole purpose of exterminating wizards, the real enemies of global prosperity[2]. By the end of this I was cheering for everyone to kill themselves.

So that’s the problem with this movie: everyone in it needs to die. But the movie does give us something of an insight into how confused Americans (I guess; and Rowling, who is British) are getting about fascism. Grindelwald’s organization had obviously Nazi imagery – his thuggish aides wore obviously Nazi style clothes, he himself is suspiciously German, etc. – and his goal of exterminating all the untermenschen[3] is explicitly Nazi. But the organization he is in opposition to is also a straight-up fascist dictatorship, with far-reaching powers of surveillance and secret investigation, enamoured of torture and extra-judicial killings, who control every aspect of their citizens lives. And the organization he is ultimately scared of and trying to stop is also a Nazi organization[4], which will attempt to do all the things he and his opponents in the wizarding world want to do. Yet, the placement of heroes and villains in this movie in the traditional sense tells me that I’m supposed to be supporting one side in opposition to the other, which means I’m supposed to be supporting fascists who are trying to stop some splinter fascists from fighting some fascists. This is both terrible story-writing and also a sign that modern writers have lost their ability to understand Who are the Real Fascists. Usually stories about people opposed to fascists involve brave, good people who generally stand on the side of freedom and liberty – not Other Fascists. So either the writers have got a really vicious sting in the tail of this trilogy, or the writers have some kind of grimdark vision in which we all side with the fascists, or the writers have not got a fucking clue what a fascist is, and are so unmoored from a basic understanding of politics that they can’t any longer tell the difference between Fascists and Anti-Fascists. There are, we are led to believe, good people on both sides! Or at least on one side, which is a significant advance on “there were no good people on either side”, which was (I would have thought) the standard view of fascists fighting fascists until relatively recently.

My inference from all this is that the people writing this movie actually want us to pick a side, and just haven’t noticed that the side we’re supposed to pick is actually a fascist world government that executes people on a whim and imprisons you for life in a hellish prison with soul-eating demons if you have the wrong boarding pass. The writers are so politically ignorant that they don’t understand the difference between fascism and freedom, and/or are so used by now to the creeping fascism overwhelming their nation that they haven’t noticed that the things the magical administration does are deeply wrong. This is consistent with a lot of other warning signs we’re seeing coming from America at the moment: the fact that Elliot Abrams was defended by almost everyone in “serious” political journalism when a politician pointed out his history of treason and lying to congress; the fact that so many movies now have the good guys using torture and summary execution without any moral qualms; the fact that 23 Republican congressmen can vote against a resolution opposing hate because hate is now cool. I could go on. The moral collapse in the US (and the UK?) is now so far gone that the people who produce its propaganda can no longer tell the difference between themselves and the things that their nation once fought. And so it is that we get subjected to movies like The Crimes of Grindelwald, where we are asked to pick a side when all the sides need to die in a fire.

The only pure people in Rowling’s world are the muggles. They need to rise up and destroy the wizards, or at least enslave them, before the wizards try to exterminate everyone on earth. If we’re lucky that will be the sting in the tail of the final movie, but I doubt it. More likely, we’ll be cheering the fascist government as it beats its fascist splinter movement, and then stands back to watch as fascists burn Europe to ashes. And somewhere along the way the writers will assume that we have lost our own moral code, so that we think this hell makes moral sense. I never thought I would have to say this, but I think the fascists have won.


Other reviews you might be interested in

Why the Last Jedi is shit.

The problems underlying Rowling’s world.

Why Avengers: Infinity War is a bullying disaster.

Mad Max: Fury Road as a perfect political vision of ecofeminist violence.

 


fn1: Also a shout-out here to the way Rowling pissed away one of the fundamental parts of Voldemort’s back story with the Queenie-Jacob shenanigans. Apparently Voldemort is evil because he is the child of a union that was forced by love magic, and that’s why he’s a psychopath who doesn’t understand love. This is a super important message from the original books! So in this movie we see Queenie rock up with Jacob under the exact same spell, and it is just a passing gag, nothing serious, no reflection on her personality or on the nature of wizards. These moments – like the newfound hyperspace killer trick in Star Wars: The Last Jedi – undermine the seriousness and impact of whole story arcs in previous canon, and are a really fucking stupid thing to do.

fn2: I guess there’s another bridge-too-far story in which Hitler set up the Nazi Party as a movement dedicated to the destruction of wizards, but somewhere along the way the wizards used mind control powers to change its platform into exterminating other muggles instead, thus avoiding being identified as the real threat facing the world, and accidentally sparking the holocaust as a by-blow of their plan. This might seem tasteless, but what are the alternatives when you have fallen down the rabbit hole into a world where you are supporting fascists in their fight against splinter fascists who want to kill other fascists they consider inferior? It’s a kaleidoscope of fascists down here.

fn3: Sorry I don’t know the German word for “magically unendowed and therefore subhuman subhumans”

fn4: It could be said that because he and his little nazi mates are scared of nuclear weapons that they aren’t just opposed to Nazi Germany but to the technological achievements of all of muggledom, but we all know that this would be a weak excuse since the Nazis are blamed for world war 2 and when any movie hero or villain says that they’re trying to stop ww2 we assume that they are trying to stop the Nazis, not the Allies, because it’s the Nazis who started the war. So I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that his primary enemy in muggledom are the Nazis.

Dhaka by night

I’m currently on an extended work trip to Bangladesh, teaching a couple of intensive seminars on epidemiology and related topics in Dhaka. This is the second time I have come here, and I plan to write a separate post soon on my impressions of this country – there is a lot to say about it. For those of you who don’t know, Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country of 170 million people neighbouring India, and is very poor. It is currently ranked 136th out of 189 countries on the Human Development Index, putting it in about the bottom third of national wealth globally. Per capita GDP is about 1,800 USD, with huge inequality. Although the government of Bangladesh is angling to have the country ranked as a lower middle-income country it is still very poor, with no serious functioning health insurance system, limited skilled employment and a weak industrial sector outside of an extremely well-performing garment sector. Even the Tuk-tuks are imported from India. Bangladesh is something of a success story in health, outperforming expectations for its HDI and in particular making huge gains on maternal and child health. Nonetheless, life here is tough for all but its wealthiest residents. For example a basic garment worker job, which is a sought after thing here, pays about 80USD per month. I learnt this from my local colleagues, who are running a project on the health of these women, and I also helped interview a senior researcher position for a local organization, which was looking to pay a person with a master’s degree and several publications about $500 per month. It’s not a rich place! In particular there is a very large population of unskilled and/or illiterate young people, who are not able to engage in the garment sector or any higher-paid work, and for whom employment opportunities are limited. So it is that these people go to quite outrageous lengths to earn money, including some quite entertaining scams. Here I report on two, one of which I was told about and one of which I and my colleagues almost became entangled in.

Dhaka city centre, with metro works (I think)

The Elephant Man

I took a few hours after work this week to visit a tailor that my colleague Doughty S recommends. This tailor could make me a tailor-made suit, three shirts and a pair of trousers for a mere 170 USD, so is probably worth the two hour slog I had to endure to get there, and the 3 hour slog home. Did I mention that traffic in Dhaka is insane? Traffic in Dhaka is literally insane. It’s exhausting, depressing and soul-destroying, a problem of many cities in developing nations, and about this I will write more in my report on Bangladesh. At one point, driving relatively fast for the time of day, we passed an elephant standing by the side of the road, eating grass from a building site while its rider lounged about atop its broad back. It wasn’t huge as elephants go, but it was still big and more to the point I have never in my life seen an elephant just ambling along in public doing its thing. So I naturally declared “elephant!” and tried (and failed) to get a photo from the car that was suddenly and perversely actually moving for once.

My colleague Doughty S informed me that this elephant wasn’t a working elephant in the sense that it lifts and carries and drags things like an elephant should; rather, it was an essential participant in a money-making scam. Basically the dude on top of the elephant will manoeuvre it in front of your car, forcing you to stop, and then refuse to move the elephant until you pay him. Since it’s an elephant, you probably aren’t going to try and hit it; and if you’re in Dhaka traffic you probably won’t be able to outmanoeuvre it; and you can’t reach the dude to punch him since he’s on an elephant. It’s really a quite foolproof way of extorting a bit of money from passing motorists. So the scam unfolds, but on this occasion we were fortunate enough to be on the opposite side of the road, so no elephant extortion came our way.

Doughty S also told me that the same people who ride the elephant also sometimes have a box with a snake in that they threaten to curse you with unless you cough up some money. But I think we can all agree the elephant scam is way more elegant.

The Sand Gang in action

The Sand Gang

This is a devilishly cunning plan that seems worth far less than the effort and risk required to pull it off, but you have to admire the chutzpah of its architects. I spent two days at a resort town, Cox’s Bazar, during the break between seminars, to unwind a little and get some beach air. Cox’s Bazar is a kind of peninsula, with a single road heading south along the beach side, and over a line of hills the Rohingya refugee camps. The Rohingya fled violence in Myanmar to camps near Coxs Bazar, and there is now a huge industry of aid groups and Bangladesh army tending to their needs[1]. Most of the aid workers stay in Coxs Bazar, and every morning they drive along the road south to the camp. However, recently the government closed a 200m section of road near the hotels for repairs, and now there is no road south from the southern part of the town. Rather than head north and around, the aid workers drive onto the beach in their white SUVs and use the beach as a short cut, as do all the locals who live in the southern stretch of Coxs Bazar. It’s ridiculous that there is only one road and that it has been closed now, but this is Bangladesh so everyone just rolls with the punches.

So, when our time came to do a little beach tourism our driver took us onto the beach – me, Doughty S, his wife and child, in a rundown old van without seatbelts, along the beach and up to the part of the beach where we are to rejoin the road – where we found a couple of cars bogged down, and a queue of cars waiting to get up the hill. You can see the scene pictured above. We sat here for perhaps 10 or 15 minutes waiting our chance to drive up the hill but it seemed every time we tried to gun the engine and go up the hill someone let a tuk-tuk down in front of us, or someone cut in, or a group of people got in our way. Doughty S got out of the car and went up to direct traffic, and we watched as various cars floundered and then got pushed up the hill of sand by gangs of eager men. Eventually a gap appeared, our driver took a risk, and even though a woman in a sari and a tuk-tuk nearly cut us off we gunned up the sand hill, the driver throwing the car left and right with ferocious energy until we bounced up a huge lump and onto smoother, firmer sand, then onto the road where Doughty S rejoined us.

Doughty S reported to us the real story of the floundering cars: a kind of local syndicate of young men had set up a scheme where every time a car attempted to take the hill at speed someone would step in front of it, or they would direct a car coming in the opposite direction into its path. They made sure that children were the ones stepping in front of the car, so that it was guaranteed to slow down, though not so carelessly as to make it stop entirely. Its power gone the car would then hit the bank and flounder, and then the men would offer to push it out for a small fee. The fee was about 30 taka (30 cents or so) for a Tuk-tuk, up to perhaps 100 taka for a car like ours. Many of the drivers were not locals or were not used to driving on sand, and were easy marks; somehow the UN vehicles were never affected by this scam, and neither was the military truck that was just rolling away when we arrived. They obviously knew how to select their targets. Doughty S also told us some drivers suspected the sand gang had sabotaged the road to start with, undermining the sand bank.

Dhaka traffic comes to the bazar

By the time we returned from our tourism trip, the sand gang had also managed to expand to the other slope near our hotel, where I witnessed the traffic jam above. When you see a picture of Bangladesh traffic it is important to remember it’s not just a throng of cars; it’s also a cacophony of horns, because everyone uses their horn all the time for everything, and even the small jam pictured above was raising an enormous racket. Needless to say, we jumped out here and walked the rest of the way to our hotel.

Libertarian dreams

There is a cyberpunk air to Dhaka, in the sense that there is no smooth and ordered government-run system and everything is a chaotic mesh of competing businesses and money makers. There are no traffic lights or traffic police, no road rules, most of the time not even any lanes, and in the chaos of the traffic it’s every man for himself. With a weak state and a populace with limited work opportunities and not much money there is a big atmosphere of scamming, grift and graft. Funnily enough despite this lack of oversight no enterprising soul has managed to set up a toll road, or offer some advanced business plan that can cut through the dust haze and klaxon roar to somehow make money distilling all this essence of chaos down to pure profit. It just remains barely controlled chaos, mostly held together not by profit motives so much as by the common decency people usually show each other despite their situation. It’s a bit of a cliche to tell libertarians that if they want a world without a government they should move to Somalia or something, but I think for your everyday Bangladeshi worker that’s pretty much what they face: undiluted libertarianism. Out of pocket payments for healthcare and rubbish disposal, a completely uncontrolled transport system with very little public investment, a government sector where everyone accepts that services are purchased not given, and some dude with an elephant making a living (of some dubious kind) by extorting motorists. This is the reality of unimpeded libertarianism: the elephant man and the sand gang. If you want to see where it takes you, come and enjoy the traffic in Dhaka… but look out for the elephants!


fn1: The Rohingya are a sad story but I don’t get the impression that anyone here resents them. The Bangladesh army set up camps early, and have done what they can given their resources, and the town is generally welcoming of the aid workers and happy to take their money. Bangladeshis I speak to are universally proud of the social harmony in their country, “unlike India,” and don’t consider for example Hindus or tribal people (who apparently live around here) to be lesser people. The government wants to send the Rohingya back but seems willing to not force them while they are still at risk, and although it’s not a pleasant situation everyone seems to be doing what they can. I wonder if the Rohingya have elephants …?

Recently Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar announced that she will be running for president, only to be confronted with reports that she is a nasty boss. The media are avoiding calling it bullying, but the reports are bad and suggest that she is genuinely terrible: throwing things at staff, making them do personal chores, humiliating them publicly and terrorizing them personally. Until 2017 she had the highest staff turnover of any senator, and rumours suggest she was warned about her treatment of staff by a senior colleague. This is bullying, plain and simple, and these actions should be called bullying. Her defense has been that she’s a “tough boss”, and others have suggested that she is just “demanding”, but throwing things at staff and humiliating staff publicly is not “tough”, it’s abusive.

Besides the obvious moral failings of bullies, there are three important reasons why a bully should not be nominated for, or run for, and certainly not become, president.

  • Bullied staff are bad staff: When you’re bullied you avoid reporting mistakes, you bury issues you know will trigger your boss, you avoid communicating with your boss, and all communication and information is carefully managed and manipulated to ensure it doesn’t trigger the boss. This means that errors compound and grow, the boss only hears what they want to hear, and decisions get made on the basis of what the boss wants, not what is best for the organization or what is right. Many people will claim that they wouldn’t behave this way if faced with a bullying boss but I can assure you from experience: Everyone does. Bullies run dysfunctional organizations, and often ultimately destroy those organizations.
  • Bullied staff are vindictive staff: If Klobuchar is a bully and she wins the nomination, you can bet that all through the general election there will be a constant dribble of negative reports about her, as her staff try to stop her from becoming the world’s top bully. This will hamper her effectiveness and ultimately risks Trump winning.
  • Bullies do not play well with others: There is only one way to stop a bully’s bad behavior: smash the bully. The only way to restrain a bully is with power – it is the only language they understand. Bullies always punch down and suck up, they have a natural power to understand where power lies and who uses it, and they don’t collaborate or cooperate with peers or weaker people. This is bad at school but it’s monstrously dangerous in a nuclear-armed and powerful nation. This shouldn’t be a difficult thing to see – we can see how Trump doesn’t play well with others, and he’s obviously a bully.

Public responses to reports of Klobuchar’s bullying have largely ignored these points. This Washington Post article, for example, starts with the question “does it matter?” and finishes with this pearler:

If you think about it, the problem with [President] Trump is not that he’s a crappy boss, it’s that he doesn’t get along well with peers and with the people he needs to work with to get legislation passed … I’m not sure the job of being president is a job of management in the sense of being a CEO, but frankly as I see it, it’s about convincing people to do what needs to be done.

This is exactly why Trump being a bully is a problem: he can’t get along with his peers because he has a history of bullying and attacking them, and he can’t convince people to do what needs to be done because they refuse to cooperate with such an outrageous arsehole. These things are all linked!

On Twitter another response I have seen to these reports is that it’s a double standard, that no man has been subject to these complaints and that it’s just another way of bringing down a “tough” woman (with the addendum if she were a man she’d be called “tough” but because she’s a woman she’s “unreasonable”). I am sympathetic to these arguments and I can see that if Klobuchar were just tough she might well be derided as unreasonable, but that is not what is happening, and conflating the reports with “tough boss” is wrong. Furthermore, it’s not a double standard: reporters were reporting on Sanders’ mistreatment of his staff in 2015, Trump’s bullying was well known and well reported on, and Tim Kaine (Clinton’s VP pick) made Trump’s bullying a central part of his address at the Democratic National Convention. While it’s true Sanders didn’t get hauled over the coals for this, it’s true that in a lot of other ways coverage of Sanders was ludicrously biased (he’s not a Democrat, for example, but he was taken seriously by the Democrats wtf), and the broader issue of how poorly the media handled Clinton’s candidacy is about way more than this issue – and largely unrelated, I think. The fact is that Trump’s bullying was widely reported on, as was his sexual assault. It’s just that a lot of Americans didn’t care, only watch Fox News, or were too stupid to understand how to check the candidates before they voted.

Of course it’s possible all the reports about Klobuchar are lies, but I doubt it. I haven’t bothered investigating in detail because it’s not worth my time – Harris is going to win the nomination, so it doesn’t matter what Klobuchar did – and because if Klobuchar does win the nomination it doesn’t matter, since she’s obviously better than Trump. But the fact that this comes up now shows the importance of a simple principle: At all levels of society, at all times, we have to confront and beat down bullies, and we need to always be aware that a lot of people love and support bullies, and we need to confront and deal with them too. I will talk about the importance of this at a more prosaic and local level: the US role-playing scene known as the “Old School Renaissance”, or OSR, where a major figure in that scene has recently been uncovered as a rapist and a shocking bully and power abuser.

Zak S and the personal politics of bullying

Zak S is a major figure in the OSR, who runs the Playing D&D with Porn Stars blog and has been involved in a great many OSR projects, especially Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Zak S has been involved in the OSR since about 2009, when he started the blog, and in his early days was well enough behaved. He occasionally commented here in 2009/2010, before he discovered he had bigger fish to fry, and then I lost interest in the OSR and stopped paying attention to the recycled junk they produce for many years. But somehow in Twitter I stumbled upon a report that Zak S’s porn star players – who, it turns out, were all his lovers as well – have started posting reports on Facebook about how he raped them and abused them for many years. He was apparently a gaslighting, emotionally manipulative abuser, since probably about the time he started blogging. As it stands at the time of writing two women have reported similar behavior and abuse, and it seems pretty unlikely that this is some kind of political campaign. The truth is out and it’s not pretty.

I was not surprised, because Zak S is an obvious bully. He has been bullying people for years, with help from a coterie of vicious internet allies, and has been an incredibly disruptive presence in the OSR. Multiple producers of OSR content and various bloggers have had to bow out of the whole scene or disappear because of his behavior; in 2016(?) a group of women marched out of the Ennies in protest at him winning prizes (they walked out on political grounds; aesthetic grounds would have been sufficient!); he was banned from one of the big forums (RPG.net I think) with an epic post listing his behaviors that I can’t now find; and various people have taken sides over his behavior over the years. It’s no surprise that a man who showed the kind of public aggressiveness and rudeness he showed should turn out to be a manipulative rapist, because bullies only listen to power, not to moral claims, and rape is a crime of power. But by the time this came out he had managed to leverage his vicious public behavior into a role as a “consultant” on D&D 5th Edition and some kind of advisor to Vampire: The Masquerade[1]. He had also ingratiated himself with Lamentations of the Flame Princess to the extent that he is one of their main contributors, and was involved with various other OSR/DIY gaming[2] outfits. Somehow this thoroughly unpleasant man had managed to become popular with a lot of people despite his repeated public bullying of weaker figures. How did this happen?

It’s instructive to compare the response of some people to this news today with the way they defended him for years. People have known about the claims about Zak S and they defended him, over and over, for years. They repeatedly dismissed any criticisms of his behaviour as lies, slander, “social justice warrior” posturing, jealousy, conspiracies, or people being delicate snowflakes. But all the criticisms were true, and all the defenses were the usual bullshit that the enablers always give for bullies. The reality is that a lot of people in the OSR were willing to side with Zak S and supported or defended his behavior when they realized that he was going places. They didn’t dissociate quietly from him, they didn’t refuse to support him, they didn’t confront him – they actively defended and encouraged him. Now they’re all acting ooooh so surprised that he’s a rapist and that all the tactics he deployed online were deployed to devastating effect in his personal life, and a lot of them even now are trying to back out of responsibility by claiming it’s a social media storm, or blaming the women or pretending that they were blinded by political considerations. It’s all bullshit: these people were the sycophants to the bully. Just like every bully in school has a gaggle of hangers-on who applaud his every tawdry move, the leading lights of the OSR clung to Zak S. They hung on his every word. Even now Raggi at Lamentations of the Flame Princess is waiting to see how everyone reacts before he makes comment, because that’s the kind of coward he is. The rest of them are trying to pretend that they had no clue – no clue! – that this guy who had been banned from multiple forums for abuse, who was a known sock puppeter, who broke every social norm and paraded around like the Sun King on Meth, was completely unknowably bad. How could they have guessed? They could not have known!

Well they’re lying. Bullies are nothing without their enablers, and the enablers always crawl out from under their rocks when they see someone who might be going places, someone who they can suck up to for some benefit, even if it’s just the vicarious coolness of being around someone who is “popular” – and even if that popularity is just other morally backward people like themselves cheering the bully as he hurts others. That’s what happened with Zak S, and now we’re watching all these people come to terms with the fact that they spent years helping a rapist and a bully get popular and famous in their sordid little scene.

That’s what happens when you don’t confront bullies. That’s what happens when you stand by while they act like shitlords, and tear up the communities that welcomed them. Every single one of us has a personal responsibility to confront bullies and to drag them down, to shame them and humiliate them. If we all did this from the very beginning there would be no Zak S’s, no Klobuchars, no Trumps – they would all have learnt that it doesn’t work, and they would have stopped. But too many people make excuses, say that Zak S is just confrontational, that Klobuchar is tough, that Trump says what he means and means what he says, and ignore what is really happening. They let it pass, and then someone genuinely weak and helpless – someone like Mandy Morbid, Zak S’s girlfriend, who has serious disabilities and is a foreigner in America – has to finally break everything and make the stand that everyone else could easily have done years ago. The burden falls on the weakest, the victims, instead of on people like Raggi from Lamentations of the Flame Princess who could have sent Zak S a very strong message years ago by telling him “fuck off Zak, you’re a fuckwit.” Instead of years of humiliation for being a fuckwit, Zak S got years of support and ennoblement, and learnt repeatedly that there is no penalty for being evil.

Not everyone can stand up to bullies. Bullies know power, and often their victims have no power to say no. But bullies always seek the powerful for approval and support, and they know how to accrue power, social and financial resources, and the kinds of capital that protect them. If you control that power, those social resources, or that capital, then the responsibility is on you to attack those bullies. If you have money, a steady job, love, physical strength, tenure, stable and supportive networks – it is your responsibility to confront these people and tell them to fuck off. You may fail or they may try to hurt you but if you don’t it comes down to this – a disabled sex worker crying for help on facebook, anonymous staffers having their stories dismissed in the national press because they’re anonymous cowards, victims of Trump U taking him to court in a fevered national election environment – vulnerable and scared people, risking everything to tell the rest of us what we already knew. But if every day those of us with power and position used that power and that position to tell these people how they are wrong, and to take away their power to do wrong, then those vulnerable people would not have to risk everything to warn the rest of us about what is coming.

The responsibility to smash the bully lies with you, not with anyone else. And if we all use that responsibility, if we do what we should do, then the bullies will never thrive, and the world will be a better place. Or we could be like the cowards in the OSR, and achieve some measure of temporary fame by sucking up to a known bully.

The choice is yours.


fn1: I have always hated Vampire, which is a classic attempt to tell the story from the bully’s perspective, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that they would be attracted to a bully and a rapist.

fn2: “DIY gaming” appears to be some sort of euphemism for “we do D&D”

 

The new documentary Fyre, available on Netflix, describes the events surrounding the collapse of the infamous Fyre festival in 2017. The collapse of this festival gained worldwide notoriety because the festival was billed as a super luxury elite event full of models and influencers and famous people, which only the very rich could afford, but which ended with the “elite” guests having to camp in the dark in emergency response tents and eat soggy sandwiches before they fled home. It was covered extensively in the media and was often covered as a kind of disaster for the instagram age, a festival as fake as the world we build on social media, and a moral story about the collapse of truth in an era of influencers and instafame. It was a particularly attractive FUBAR because it involved rich people being scammed out of their money for what on its surface appears to be a completely vainglorious and shallow status symbol event.

I think a lot of that narrative was either untrue or a pernicious interpretation of the evils of social media. This documentary goes some way to helping to clarify what really happened and helps us to understand who some of the real victims and real villains were, but I think ultimately it fails because it does not go far enough or deep enough, and to some extent it is complicit with the scammers. It has three key flaws: 1) it fails to really contest the accounts of the organizers; 2) it does not give much of a voice to the guests; and 3) it does not offer any deeper commentary on the social media aspects of the SNAFU. I want to talk about each of these three problems and give a little opinion about what this festival tells us about social media and scams, again returning to my old saw that there is nothing new about the evils of social media, and no special skills are required to understand and deal with the problems social media creates.

First though I would like to say that although this documentary is flawed it is worth watching: it will give a much more detailed understanding of what happened and help to put the events into their proper perspective. I did not know, for example, that the organizer of the festival had been involved in a previous scam with all the same players; that a website and twitter account started to debunk the festival long before it happened; and that a great many of the attendees were not the super rich. Some of these points are not really clarified or explored properly in the documentary, but if you watch carefully and pay attention you can see these facts.

The first problem of the documentary is that it is highly dependent on footage of the entire project planning that was taken by the organizers themselves. I don’t know why they filmed themselves but it appears that the boss of the whole thing, Billy McFarland, has something of an obsession with filming his work – even at the end of the movie when he is on bail and living in a penthouse running a new direct mail scam he is filming himself doing it, which is weird. But it seems to me that in order to get this footage the documentary makers had to treat many of the organizers with kid gloves, which gives many of them the opportunity to provide self-serving and I suspect highly biased accounts of their own responsibility for the disaster. Four figures in particular – Carolla the financer, an old guy who has backed Billy McFarland for too long and has 30 years’ showbiz experience, the key guy responsible for logistics and the key guy responsible for booking acts – are up to their necks in the scam and it’s just not believable that they weren’t part of it. When one of them says that Billy would keep going away and finding new investments, it’s obvious that he is scamming new investors and they must know – and sure enough it turns out that he has been lying egregiously in documents to investors. Other people not so close to Billy were quick to get out when they realized the shitstorm that was coming, and one guy who saw right through it was able to get direct photos of the development of the festival and could clearly see it was going to be an omnishambles, yet these four couldn’t see it? Some of them, in particular Carolla and Ja Rule, were involved in Billy McFarland’s previous business, Magnises, which was clearly and obviously a scam, so it really stretches credibility when they tell the documentary makers that they didn’t know what was going on and kept not seeing the wood for the trees even when it was really clear what was going to happen. It’s very clear that Billy McFarland has a powerful effect on these people and is good at keeping them disoriented and confused, and he is always ratcheting up the chaos and demands so that they don’t have time to get clear-headed perspective on the damage he is doing. It is also really clear that he has found typically devious ways to keep them entangled in his dramas so that not only they but a lot of people who depend on them will be damaged if they back away; but these people have been around Billy McFarland long enough to know that this is his shtick, and to find ways out. There is a story in here about how incredibly dangerous people with personality disorders are when they have access to money and authority; but there is also a moral tale about the importance of not enabling these people, and of ultimately being willing to take the risk of walking away from them. This documentary shows in the end that when you enable the disordered leadership in order to protect those around you, all you really do is set those people up for a bigger fall when the narcissists’s schemes finally collapse. There’s a definite cautionary tale for Trump’s America in this documentary, but unfortunately by not properly challenging the stories of Billy’s fellow travelers the documentary fails to draw the proper lessons about the dangers of sticking with a leader with personality disorder.

The collapse of Fyre festival was a social media spectacle that was turned into a morality play about millennial idiocy by the media, but it’s worth bearing in mind that there were real victims of this farce. The documentary makes a good case for the low-paid workers of the Bahamas and the businesspeople who were left out of pocket on the island by the scammers, but it does not put much time into the feelings and experiences of the guests who paid to come to the festival and got scammed. It even manages to broadcast Billy McFarland’s point (made through Ja Rule) that nobody got injured or died. Nonetheless, the people who attended this festival turned up to an island far from home and got dumped on a fake beach in the dark with nowhere to stay except damaged tents with sodden mattresses, barely any food, and no idea what to do to get home. A large number were locked inside the airport without food and water for a night while the authorities tried to figure out a way to get them off the island. The fact that they were rich beautiful people doesn’t lessen the fear and hardship that they had to endure for a day or two while they found a way out of this scam – they were poorly mistreated. The documentary finds a couple of customers who were willing to speak on camera about their experience, and it uses a bit of social media footage of other victims, but it does manage to build up an image of these people as wealthy people who were paying for an elitist experience. It even shows a clip of a beautiful girl (possibly one of the influencers who was supposed to get free villa accommodation, though the documentary is careful not to reveal who the people in the social media clips are) saying that the “private” plane was “worse than the lowest class in economy”, which makes her seem kind of snobby from her tone. On twitter today I have been seeing people saying that what these people were really paying for was exclusivity, buying an experience that no one else could have, but I did not get that impression from the documentary: they were pretty clearly paying for the experience of a party on a beautiful beach, and paying for a luxury experience. Everything was marketed as a luxury experience and that’s what the guests were paying for. They weren’t necessarily driven by a desire for exclusivity. After all, they knew lots of other people were going to be there and fundamentally, like with any festival, wanted to go there and share the experience with those people. Any music event is never about exclusivity – you go to live events so you can share the experience with other people. But worse still, this documentary slides over the possibility that actually a lot of people weren’t that wealthy, and had actually been scammed out of real hard-earned money, not disposable income. You can’t tell from the people they interview, or from the prices they display on the documentary screens, but the lowest price tickets were between $500 and $1500. It’s not beyond a person on a normal income to spend a large chunk of their savings on this festival, so that they can have this experience. Looking at the people on the social media footage the documentary shows, and judging by their clothes and reaction, a lot of these people were not throwing away a casual weekend’s cocaine money to drink champagne off models’ tits in an exclusive villa: they were dumping a large portion of their hard-won savings on a chance to enjoy their favourite music in a geodesic luxury tent on a beautiful beach. Now, I have experienced a really enjoyable music festival on a secluded beach (the San-in Beach Party), and it really is a very nice experience, and to do it in luxury on a beach in the Bahamas is something that a lot of people would consider worth burning their savings on. It’s well-established that millennials, knowing they can’t afford a house or a stable retirement, choose to spend what limited savings they can scrape together on experiences like this. No matter how much David Brooks might sneer at their ephemeral spirit, it’s no reason to scam them of their hard-earned cash. That’s not exactly Robin Hood stuff is it? But by carefully avoiding investigating these peoples’ backgrounds, and not trying to do any deeper investigation into who went and why, the documentary falls into the usual traps that bedevil any attempt to explore modern youth culture, and makes it seem once again like a bunch of entitled millenial trustafarians got what they deserved.

Finally, the documentary does not properly explore the central role of social media in the debacle, and what the implications of that might be. The Fyre festival’s initial hype was built up by a bunch of influencers – perhaps 400 – all posting a picture of a blank orange tile to their instagram accounts at the same time, with a link to the Fyre page, where people could see videos of these influencers cavorting in the sea. It was a masterfully done advertising campaign, that used the viral power of instagram and other social media to multiply the value of each user’s post. But let’s not be coy about how this worked: they sank an enormous amount of money on this advertising. The documentary reports that the top girl in the influencer group they gathered, Bella Hadid, was paid $250,000 for that one post. They set up a website that was basically just a collection of movies, and then through a very well designed visual campaign they got a lot of people interested in their product. The documentary reported that in the aftermath of the Fyre farce the US government introduced new rules for social media stars, requiring them to indicate when they’re being paid to advertise product, and the documentary suggested that their behaviour had been duplicitous. The documentary also suggested that they should have done due diligence on the product they were selling, but this point was rebutted by some of the people involved who pointed out – fairly, I think – that these girls are models not scientists, and it’s not their job to vet the quality of a good they’re paid to advertise – that’s what regulatory authorities are for. Fundamentally what happened here is that Billy McFarland paid them to market a scam that neither they, the buyers, any of the contractors in the Bahamas, or apparently any of his colleagues, recognized was a scam. I don’t think under these circumstances these girls are the first people who should be blamed.

More importantly, none of what this advertising campaign did was new. It girls have been around since Audrey Hepburn (Holly Golightly was a classic It-girl), and in the era of the big people magazines girls like Paris Hilton were huge news, without ever making a single social media post. The fact that you can be an it-girl on Instagram doesn’t change anything, and although Bella Hadid is more ubiquitous in the feeds of her followers than Paris Hilton might have been, she is no less ubiquitous in popular media than Paris was. I am old enough to remember the Paris Hilton era, and let me tell you, there is nothing that Instagram could teach her about how to get rich and famous by being nothing and doing nothing. Yes the Kardashians’ famous-for-fame-itself lifestyle and business model is repulsive, but so was Paris Hilton’s. Similarly the problem of these girls advertising products without announcing they’re paid: it may shock my younger reader(s) to learn this, but a mere 20 years ago all the Hate Radio stars in Australia – Alan Jones, John Laws, that repulsive dude in South Australia, and the racist pig in Western Australia – were all advertising products all the time on the radio without telling you they were paid. They had a conversational tone in which they told you personally that they used this car oil, and never once mentioned that this conversation was paid for. This scandal blew up in the late 1990s and you should have seen the entitled whining they did when they were forced to admit on air that they were paid to make their endorsements. Now as far as I know, the late 1990s was approximately 60 years after the widespread adoption of radio. So it took approximately 10 times as long for the authorities to wise up to payola on the radio as it did for them to crack down on these pretty young things on Instagram. I’m sure that their haste to crack the whip on those girls has nothing at all to do with their age and gender … and of course all the top 40 charts and bullshit rankings on MTV and radio charts are still completely bought and paid for by the music industry, but we should worry that occasionally a model will slip in an unannounced endorsement on Instagram… No, as I have said before, the problem here is not social media – it’s you. Indeed there were even social media accounts dedicated to revealing the truth about Fyre but they didn’t take off – because nobody cared about the truth. If you cannot tell that a party on a remote island in the Bahamas where you get to cavort with models in a villa with a private plane for a couple of thousand bucks is smoke and mirrors, you won’t be saved by seeing that scam advertised on tv instead of Facebook. And if a slimy con artist decides to lie to you that he has villas for 5,000 people on that beach when in fact there are no houses on the entire island, it doesn’t matter if he does it on TV, Instagram or a message written in the sky – he’s a liar and a con artist, and the problem is that he lied. Unfortunately, while this documentary does make clear much of the way in which he built his lies, it also glosses over the simple fact that the world is full of liars and rubes in favour of the easy lure of social media panic, and schadenfreude at rich people getting duped.

So, watch this documentary if you want a more detailed account of that fateful party and the garbage fire it became, but don’t let yourself be fooled by the easy targeting of social media and rich entitled millenials. The story of Fyre is as old as the story of liars, and our natural faith in the honesty of our fellow humans. Whether you lie to someone’s face, on tv, on Instagram, or on stone tablets, a lie is a lie: and Fyre was a bonfire of stupid, vicious lies that left a lot of people hurt. Let’s hope we’ve all learnt from it, and that this documentary will help us all ensure it does not happen again.

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