Redefinition Politics – An Incomplete Rhetorical Dictionary

“China’s chilling plan to use social credit ratings to keep score on its citizens”, a CNN headline from October 2015 reads. The article describes the Chinese state’s plans to use data from surveillance along with scoring algorithms to analyse – en masse – the credit worthiness of its population. China’s stated goals sound legitimate enough: a “lawful application of credit information and a credit services system” with a goal to “use encouragement to keep trust and constraints against breaking trust as incentive mechanisms, and its objective is raising the honest mentality and credit levels of the entire society.”

Of course, setting up a credit rating system is not an unusual activity for an industrializing nation and the credit system in America is instantiated for exactly the reasons expressed by China’s State Council. Nor is China unusual in setting up a credit system under their Central Bank (e.g. Spain, Ireland).

The reporting in CNN’s article makes the plans to factor social media postings and relationship circles into credit scores sound literally Orwellian – they even use the word:

“The State Council plan, for instance, mentions rumor-mongering as an example of behavior to be sanctioned.

It is this part of the plan that has led many commentators to describe it as an Orwellian tool of individual control.

They may well be right — the Chinese state has continuously sought to expand its power to intervene in the lives of their citizens.

It is where the hard power logic of state survival and political stability intersect with a tendency towards social engineering with roots both in Socialist and Confucian thought.”

CNN completes their article by referring to the global trend towards social control through surveillance – they tacitly include the US – with “In that sense, perhaps the most shocking element of the story is not the Chinese government’s agenda, but how similar it is to the path technology is taking elsewhere.”

Yet the article only makes vague references to this global trend – and then only with feel-good techno utopian sidelines toward Silicon Valley. The article does not mention that online surveillance of social media content and relationships is already factored into United States credit scores.

CNN makes a wink at the tendency of the United States and the broader West to use social engineering to control their citizen’s behavior, but excludes direct references to state actions, preferring instead to talk in broad strokes about Silicon Valley.

CNN did not mention the Social and Behavioral Sciences Initiative within the Office of Science and Technology Policy to deploy “Nudge Units” which use behavioral engineering to affect large scale civil behaviour. They do not mention that the Cass Sunstein approach to policymaking – of using psychological nudges and incentive systems – is now the predominant legal view in the US judicial system. They don’t mention that to affect this, he was made the head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which oversees all of US policymaking and regulation for the White House.

Cass Sunstein is known for suggesting the government actively and anonymously infiltrate civilian discussions online to fight rumor-mongering. He is also known for eloquently expressing in his book The Problem of Free Speech that in “light of astonishing economic and technological changes, we must doubt whether, as interpreted, the constitutional guarantee of free speech is adequately serving democratic goals.” Indeed one of Sunstein’s core suggestions for the state is that it employ a tax or discredit – public or otherwise – to citizens who engage in online rumor-mongering.

Wikipedia summarizes his accolades: “A study of legal publications between 2009 and 2013 found Sunstein to be the most frequently cited American legal scholar by a wide margin.”

Compare the coverage of the emerging Chinese credit system with this story run recently by the Washington Post. “The new way police are surveilling you: Calculating your threat ‘score’” did not only fail to make front headlines but was published under “Public Safety.” The article is littered continuously with images of police officers posed in heroic, gentle gestures:

Fresno Chief of Police Jerry Dyer inside the Fresno Police Department’s crime center. (Nick Otto/For The Washington Post)” – Credit to the Washington Post

In defiance of palpable use of surveillance and social media scoring directly for “real time” law enforcement, the article contains absolutely no mention of Orweil. Every example in the article of how the police use the technology is positive or speculatively positive – the article even opens with how surveillance is used to identify that a suspect in a domestic case has social media ties to gang members.

Missing is any reference to the Fresno Police Department’s track record of misconduct, including harassment and excessive use of force. The Post article is perhaps made more interesting by the recent extremely bizarre death of John Lang, who accurately predicted the time of his death and collected video and records of what he was certain was Fresno police harrassing him with street surveillance and monitoring his online messaging. Whether murdered by the police in Fresno or not – these systems of continuous monitoring have deep and predictable psychological consequences that unquestioningly led to Lang’s lack of personal security.

The consistent theme across the ‘threat score’ article is that these powers are necessary for public safety. That the surveillance systems are legitimate and only very speculatively subject to any abuse. In one of the few paragraphs that suggests that these systems are controversial the Post writes:

“But the powerful systems also have become flash points for civil libertarians and activists, who say they represent a troubling intrusion on privacy, have been deployed with little public oversight and have potential for abuse or error. Some say laws are needed to protect the public.”

– The Washington Post Article (emphasis ours)

Not only does the Post neglect featuring the actual arguments of activists and those concerned with human rights against warrantless law enforcement – they cast what they phrase as a marginal opinion as mere concerns with ‘privacy’.

Jacob Appelbaum, one of the developers of the online anonymizing software TOR, was featured briefly in the Edward Snowden documentary “Citizen Four.” In twelve words Appelbaum provides a crisp and damning response:

What we used to call liberty and freedom we now call privacy.

Bulk and warrantless surveillance, scoring systems, pre-crime and ‘real time’ crime enforcement are concerns over fundamental freedoms, constitutional and human rights: but are covered by establishment news as ‘privacy concerns’.

The differences in the phrasing between the article on Chinese credit scoring and US threat scoring belie their content.

Somehow credit scoring systems in China that behave the same way they function in America are written in ominous overtones. At the same time, the deployment of surveillance systems developed by our military for the control and occupation of foreign territories into hundreds of districts and cities across the United States (the article only mentions New York, Seattle and Houston) receives praise and quiet rationalization. The articles never mentions that political parties have been targeted by these surveillance systems along with both presidential candidates and peaceful civilian protest groups (including Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter).

But far more insidious than persistent double standards in fundamentally biased media is this issue of redefined political terminology. During the Snowden global surveillance disclosures it was difficult – and it still is – to find any broadcaster that would put “mass surveillance” or “surveillance” at all in headlines. Instead broadly across CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Fox and other major outlets referred to the act of collecting, processing, mining, scoring and reporting on everyone’s private conversations, daily routines and political activities as “Bulk Collection”. To this day if you search for the two disparate terms you will see a definitive divide that isolates the major US news networks from the independent and international media.

This redefinition is startlingly common inside the American political space. Within the past year or two, what used to be called non-interventionism has recently been relabeled as new or neo-isolationism; as though Americans who are against non-defensive warfighting somehow want to isolate America completely from the world, absent all global trade, foreign assistance, travel and information connectivity.

The term populism is now primarily used as a pejorative to refer to knee-jerk snap decisions by uninterested and unintelligent populations rather than its original intended meaning of bottom-up grassroots democratic participation and accountable leadership that is held on transparent record to plebian inspection.

Socialism and Communism have for generations in America meant nothing at all similar to either structures of government or aspirations toward effective distributive ownership. Elements on the right of the spectrum in the country gleefully refer to the liberal policies promised by a possible Clinton administration as ‘socialist’.

Even the term democracy has suffered. Under the cover of the National Endowment for Democracy the United States military has overthrown elected representatives from countries with fair and able democratic processes to install dictators and juntas – infamous examples from the mid-twentieth century include Guatemala and Chile – and modern examples of election fixing include the Malaki administration in post-invasion Iraq and the ironically named “Operation Uphold Democracy” in Haiti.

The United States renaming of the ‘War’ Department to the ‘Defense’ Department is indicative of its use of the terms security and defense. The definition of National Security, as officially descibed by the first National Security Presidential Directive NSPD-1 to mean “the defense of the United States of America, protection of our constitutional system of government, and the advancement of United States interests around the globe. National security also depends on America’s opportunity to prosper in the world economy.” By strict application of the term, National Security means invasion of another country or rigging of financial outcomes as easily as it means defense of national borders.

The recent Senate report on the CIA torture program, which is still over 80% redacted due primarily to fears of popular outcry, lists the least controversial of what the state had insisted on calling ‘enhanced interrogation’ rather than torture: forced rectal feeding (without medical need), rectal ‘exams’ with excessive force (leading at least one prisoner to rectal prolapse), mock executions, repeated drowning and resuscitation, weeks long sleep deprivation, and stress positions including forcing detainees to stand on broken feet.

Similar to ‘enhanced interrogation’ is the terminology used for propaganda: ‘strategic communications’ and ‘public diplomacy’.

The combination of terms makes following political debates exhausting and confusing. When Clinton described her relationship with Wall Street by invoking National Security, did she mean to say that her policies are intended to underwrite and guarantee the prosperity of the stalling American global economic system? Or did she mean that she will protect Wall Street from another physical attack? Or is there some financial interest the United States has overseas that Wall Street will help the state to obtain?

We can’t blame the Huffington Post for compiling a (not really that good) list of articles under the umbrella category “weird politics” or the National Council of Teachers of English for giving out yearly Doublespeak Awards. Politics have to be weird when talking about national security means financial interests, defense means unprovoked invasion,  when peace can mean war and isolationism means trade and diplomacy; and when public safety nets like unemployment, minimum wages, and health care are labeled communist when communist countries around the world broadly don’t have them (and capitalist countries broadly do).

This weird politics is redefinitional politics – a form of public discussion that can’t be effective because its terms are either vacuous or actively antithetical. Redefinition politics will feature as prominently this election year as “populism”, “isolationism” and “identity politics” but it will be so hard to parse that pundits and talking heads will generate twice as much doublespeak as it takes to unwind the first.

Pizza, birra, faso (1998)

Crime, just like any other job, divides people into classes. If you’re at the top, if you’re a Goldman Sachs banker, you can steal hundreds of billions of dollars, and the President will declare you above the law, and invite you into his cabinet. If you’re a small time drug dealer, on the other hand, you can probably get a life sentence for selling a few grams of cocaine. Pizza, birra, faso by the Argentinian filmmaker Adrián Caetano tells the story of Pablo, Frula, Magabom, and El Cordobés, four petty criminals in their late teens who live in Buenos Aires, a glittering metropolis full of violent, third world slums, and hopeless young men going nowhere.

Pizza, birra, faso opens with what at first looks like a carjacking. El Cordobés, named after his hometown, and the asthmatic Pablo, push their way into a taxi cab, and rob a businessman at gunpoint, taking his wallet, and leaving him on the side of the road without his pants. Later we find out that it wasn’t a carjacking at all, but an inside job, that the cab driver works with Pablo, Frula, Magabom, and El Cordobés to fleece rich customers out of more than their fare to the airport. He also cheats the four young men out of their cut of the robbery on the pretext that Cordoba lost his cool and shot out the front tire of another taxi cab during the getaway. For the cabdriver, robbing his lackeys isn’t as dangerous as you think it might be since he maintains strict control over the guns, handing them out before the robbery, collecting them when it’s all over. Pablo, Frula, Magabom, and El Cordobés, on the other hand, are at the very bottom of the criminal hierarchy, a Darwinian world where thieves rob other thieves, and where penniless young criminals like themselves are dependent on sponsors even to get the opportunity to do a job.

All they get for the trouble is enough money for pizza, beer, and cigarettes.

 El Cordobés, if not the leader, then certainly the most sympathetic member of the group, has a pregnant girlfriend named Sandra, a young woman who comes from an abusive family, and who shares space in a squat with El Cordobés and his friends. After Pablo, Frula, Magabom, and El Cordobés, out of desperation, rob a legless street musician, and she winds up getting arrested for their crime, Sandra decides she’s had enough. She moves back in with her violent father, and tells El Cordobés she won’t see him again until he gets a real job. There is, of course, no chance in the world that El Cordobés could ever get a legitimate job, but for Sandra the idea of going straight becomes a Utopian dream of escape. For El Cordobés, on the other hand, the dream of escape is all about setting himself up as head of his own criminal organization, committing a robbery without the help of sponsors. He dreams of pulling off one big heist that will give him enough money to take Sandra and his unborn child out of the slums of Buenos Aires to Uruguay, where, presumably, his criminal past won’t follow him.

“Promise me you won’t commit any more robberies,” Sandra tells El Cordobés, and he, reluctantly and dishonestly, agrees.

Nothing the four young men try on their own works out. They try working as pickpockets, but what little money they earn is lost when Pablo has an attack of asthma during an escape from an angry mob. They have to pay the doctors at the emergency room. They find another partner in crime, a young man named Rubén, who has access to guns and an old Ford, but the car breaks down after they rob a fancy restaurant, and they wind up losing all their money to a police officer, who demands a bribe in exchange for letting them go. Finally they decide to rob their old boss, the cabdriver who cheated them out of their earnings in the beginning of the movie, to take his car and his guns by force, and then do another job at the nightclub where they are regularly denied entry and insulted by the doorman.

The night before, El Cordobés meets Sandra at her parents house, and gives her two ferry tickets to Montevideo. Earlier, he had made up a story about how he had an honest job driving a cab, and now he lies to her that he’s made enough money to get them both to Uruguay at long last. You can tell Sandra doesn’t believe him, but she, like her boyfriend, is in a desperate straight. Her father’s started beating her again. Of course the robbery at the nightclub goes wrong. Nightclubs always exchange a lot of cash, but they also have armed guards. What’s more, the police are already looking for Pablo, Frula, Megabom, and El Cordobés. There’s a shootout. Frula and Megabom die. El Cordobés is shot in the stomach.

The final twist of Pizza, birra, faso is so subtle you might not notice it, but it suddenly illuminates everything that’s gone before. Throughout the film, Adrián Caetano has shown Pablo, Frula, Magabom, and El Cordobés in a sympathetic light. Considering that we see them rob a legless street musician, this is no easy task. Now, in the final minutes of his life, El Cordobés manages to reach Sandra, and hand off the money they got from the nightclub. Suddenly we realize that, petty thief though he is, El Cordobés is actually a noble soul who was born into an impossible situation, that he has the will to struggle through the pain of a fatal bullet wound to the stomach to reach the ferry, that he’ll do anything to give his unborn child a chance he never had.

“Did you keep your promise?” Sandra asks him, knowing that he didn’t.

“No,” he answers truthfully, and by doing so, hints that, perhaps, he did.

SPOOKS: a dystopia (2014)

SPOOKS, a self-published novel by the pseudonymous writer E.M. Quangel, is a roman à clef about the world of hipster journalism centered around Vice Magazine. That SPOOKS is effective satire is attested to by the way one of its targets, the “artist, activist, writer and entrepreneur” Molly Crabapple, has recently gone out of her way to “dox” Quangel, and try to get her fired from her job. While Crabapple argues that she outed Quangel as an act of spontaneous outrage over Quangel’s views about the civil war Syria, I wouldn’t be surprised if SPOOKS also had something to do with it.

While you don’t have to be familiar with the feud between the upwardly mobile Crabapple and the communist Emma Quangel to appreciate SPOOKS, it helps to be familiar with social media. In fact, the more addicted you are to Twitter, Facebook, live streaming, or Instagram, the better you will understand Quangel’s novel, which grounds its dystopia in the class conflicts that get carried over from “real life” to the Internet.

SPOOKS is set in Brooklyn in the not so distance future. New York in the year 2031 is a more extreme version of the New York of Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio. Just having a place to sleep costs most of your monthly income. The police are a heavily militarized, occupying army. For a recent college graduate lured to Brooklyn or Manhattan by the promise of an upwardly mobile career path and an active social life, all the good things about the big city are tantalizingly close, yet unreachable to anybody without a trust fund or the right connections. Caroline, an underemployed, over-educated writer of 25, has three masters degrees, works 14 hours a week at Starbucks, and lives in a 50-square-foot micro-apartment on Atlantic Avenue.

Probably the best thing about SPOOKS is the way it dramatizes the false promise of the Internet. Social media is not democracy. It is an illusion of democracy, a world dominated by a small number of well-connected players with ties to big corporations and to the military industrial complex. The more time Caroline spends online, the shittier her life gets, or rather, to be more accurate, the shittier her life gets, the more time she has to spend online to make it bearable. One day she attracts the attention of a social media star named “Amanda Abbey,” a thinly fictionalized Molly Crabapple. Abbey invites Caroline to a “burlesque show” then offers to read some of her “long form writing.” After a brief perusal of Caroline’s work, Abbey convinces her friend Dan Hemingway to hire Caroline as a contributing editor at a new publication called Dilettante, an “edgy” new publication that’s funded by individual subscriptions to its writers.

Suddenly, Caroline’s life improves. She gets to live in a real apartment, not a 50-square-foot box, has access to good food, even wine, which in 2031 is far beyond the means of all but the most privileged, and, above all, to an active social life. Caroline, who chooses to ignore how Amanda has chosen her more because she’s young and attractive, because she’s an effective salesperson, than because she’s a good writer, becomes a big time social media star and alternative, left journalist. Eventually we realize that she’s not a real journalist at all, but a minor, and unwitting cog in the national security state. Earlier in the novel we had learned that Caroline had a degree in “Security Studies,” was $2,236,781.38 in debt for student loans, and had unsuccessfully applied for jobs at the CIA and the NSA. Her reporting, which involves wearing “Spectacles,” a more sophisticated version of Google Glass, will be familiar to anybody who’s followed the development of “live streaming” through the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements. Caroline provides an unfiltered look at the story, but her subscribers, and, more importantly, the police and the various national intelligence agencies, can also monitor her. Eventually her “reporting” seems more like snitching than journalism.

Soon we learn that Amanda Abbey, and the various hipster journalists around Dilettante, are anything but real journalists. Rather, they are upwardly mobile opportunists acting the part of left journalists for fame, high-salaries and access to the rich and powerful. If you argue that “well, that’s what real journalists are”, you would be correct. Quangel just takes it to its logical conclusion. Why hire cranky old men like Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather when you can hire pretty young girls who will double as prostitutes? Eventually Caroline gets an “opportunity” to visit a “CIA black site,” a trip that’s as tightly manipulated by the US military as the “embedded” corporate media was manipulated in Iraq. While Caroline learns the truth about CIA blacks sites from one of her “trolls”, a young man who uses the codename “Peter Parker,” Quangel makes it clear that even if Caroline had tried to do any genuine reporting, it would have been impossible. She’s not a journalist. She’s an actress.

To me, the last quarter of SPOOKS, which ventures into the same territory covered by the classic film The Manchurian Candidate, reads more like an exclamation point than any further development of the plot. Quangel has already done such a good job of showing the upwardly mobile left media to be populated by opportunists and frauds, that it almost seems beside the point. Why would the United States military even need to put a character as shallow and venal as Caroline through an elaborate, and costly, series of paces designed to manipulate her into reporting what she would have probably reported of her own free will? But perhaps I’m just not being cynical enough. The United States military has so much money, and so much control over the corporate, and the alternative corporate media that it all becomes a game for them after awhile. What’s more, the military industrial complex, which is both highly familiar to the average American — a lot of people serve in the military — and yet operates undemocratically and in secret, has to wage a constant battle against reality, to stage a long running and ongoing public relations campaign to justify the amount of money they spend and the number of people they kill.

What better spokesperson for the military industrial complex than an easily duped “leftist” journalist just as eager for money and access as anybody at Fox or CNN?


before there were prints on my fingers
—-or nails to clutch or a
——————name for any of it,
when my hair was still shifting
—-and waiting to hatch from
——————-an uncooked skull,
when i did not have an unbent
—-spine, there was a red and
space between the rows of empty seats
—-and you were coming there and
————————-i grew legs
when you stepped
—————on my feet

the whole world began when
our empty eyes turned
full of each other.

Late Victorian Holocausts (2000)

The recent debate over Germany’s decision to legalize publication of Mein Kampf is a sobering reminder that no book should use the word “holocaust” lightly, especially in its title. From the end of 1942 until 1945, over six million Jews were herded into concentration camps where they were systematically exterminated for no reason other than their ethnicity and religion. It shouldn’t have surprised anybody. Most of the war crimes that the Nazis eventually committed in Eastern Europe had already been laid out in the poorly written but ideologically toxic autobiography Adolf Hitler wrote in 1925, but there is book that has been responsible for even more deaths than Mein Kampf. Worse yet, this book is taught to undergraduates at major universities all over the United States by tenured professors who believe that it is still valuable for educating future leaders on how our society should be run. I’m talking of course about The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith.

Ever since its publication in 1776, the Wealth of Nations has been an ideological blueprint for genocide. In 1847, when a potato blight killed over a million people in Ireland, the British government under Lord John Russell not only refused to provide relief for fear of upsetting the “free market.” It exported food back to England. Even worse than the Irish potato famine of 1847 was the “Great Famine” that, between the years 1876 – 1878, left southwestern India in a state of apocalyptic desolation. According to the most conservative estimates, 5.5 million people died, and it was probably closer to 10 million. Similar to his earlier counterparts in Ireland ,and out of a fanatical devotion to the “free market,” Lord Lytton, the British Governor General of India, exported food back to England while refusing to provide relief to the starving Indian peasants, who were dying by the millions. To this day among the Indian people, Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton, who was quite possibly addicted to opium, and almost certainly demented, is known as “The Nero of India.”

I can already anticipate your objections. Sure, the British Empire committed crimes all over the world, especially in India, where it pitted Hindus against Muslims, destroyed the native textile industry, and overtaxed the poor to fund the “Great Game” against the Russians in Afghanistan. The behavior of the British government in Ireland was inexcusable, but still, you argue, none of this can be compared to the Holocaust. The “passive resistance” of Mahatma Gandhi, which eventually worked against the British, would never have worked against the Nazis. The Third Reich was a singular evil. The British Raj was just another empire. As bad as he was, Lord Lytton didn’t actually set up a system of industrialized system of mass extermination for people he considered to be an inferior race.

Actually that’s exactly what he did.

When Lord Lytton sent Sir Richard Temple to the famine afflicted Deccan he left him with strict instructions to put saving money ahead of saving lives. Temple, who had actually saved hundreds of thousands of lives during an earlier famine in 1874, and almost lost his career as a result, decided never to make the same mistake again. In 1876, he was the model of a modern laissez faire ideologue. He not only set up famine relief camps that made the Victorian workhouse look humane by comparison — you had to do hard coolie labor on less than 1500 calories a day, fewer calories than inmates received at Buchenwald — he required them to walk at least 10 miles from their homes even to be considered for admittance. The goal, as George Monbiot points out, was to “reduce the surplus population.”

When an El Nino drought destituted the farmers of the Deccan plateau in 1876 there was a net surplus of rice and wheat in India. But the viceroy, Lord Lytton, insisted that nothing should prevent its export to England. In 1877 and 1878, at height of the famine, grain merchants exported a record 6.4 million hundredweight of wheat. As the peasants began to starve, government officials were ordered “to discourage relief works in every possible way”(2). The Anti-Charitable Contributions Act of 1877 prohibited “at the pain of imprisonment private relief donations that potentially interfered with the market fixing of grain prices.” The only relief permitted in most districts was hard labour, from which anyone in an advanced state of starvation was turned away. Within the labour camps, the workers were given less food than the inmates of Buchenwald. In 1877, monthly mortality in the camps equated to an annual death rate of 94%.

While the hundreds of million people killed by British imperialism and free-market capitalism are still widely known in India and in the “third world,” and used to be discussed in Great Britain and the United States, they largely disappeared from our consciousness during the Cold War, where our propagandists set up a Manichean distinction between the “free world” and communism. Most Americans know all about the 20 million people who died during the Great Leap Forward Famine under Mao and the Holodomor under Stalin, but I doubt 1 in 20 has ever heard the name Sir Richard Temple or Lord Lytton.

Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis probably won’t do anything to change that. Davis is one of the most important American writers on the left, but he’s no Bruce Catton or Shelby Foote. He’s not a great narrative historian with a fair for telling stories who can force consciousness of these appalling events back into the minds of the English speaking world. This is not a book aimed at the general reader. It was tough going for me, and I know Nineteenth Century history. Davis is trying to do a lot in 397 pages, but his intention is not write popular narrative history. Published in the year 2000, three years after the massive El Nino of 1997, Late Victorian Holocausts is an attempt to synthesize history and climatology, to interpret three massive waives of drought/famine in the Late Victorian era in light of the new understanding of ENSO, El Nino Southern Oscillation, that we have gained since the 1960s. For Davis, the leftist attack on the British Empire I opened this essay with would be crude and reductionist. It doesn’t take into account the confluence between the Great Famine and a massive El Nino in the late 1870s that destroyed subsistence agriculture, not only in India, but all over what is now known as “the third world,” causing a worldwide death toll of 20-30 million people. On the other hand, Davis would also argue that the view of the traditional defenders of the British Empire, that the “Great Famine” was caused by climate and only climate, is just as reductionist and simplistic.

“Is is bad climate or bad system,” Davis quotes a Chinese historian as saying, and comes to the conclusion that it’s both. What happened in the late 1870s, then twice in the 1890s, was a temporary climate shift caused by El Nino that created the conditions for a worldwide disaster at the precise moment when Europe and the west were strong arming the “third world” into imperial capitalism. Millions of people died in India in the late 1870s, not only because the El Nino caused the monsoon to fail, but because the destruction of traditional Indian society by the British Empire had also destroyed the ability of people to respond to the failure of the monsoon. Millions more died in China because the Qing dynasty had been so weakened, first by the Taiping Rebellion, then by a British and French invasion, that they could not maintain the “ever normal granaries,” the system of relief the dynasty had administered so effectively the century before. It was truly a worldwide disaster, or, rather, two worldwide disasters that, working together, permanently reduced the global south to a standard of living far below the global north. It’s a grim story, all the more terrifying because, as Davis makes clear, it’s not over yet. While we don’t fully understand how the temporary shifts in climate caused by El Nino will be affected by the permanent shifts caused by man-made global warming, we can probably count on future disasters that will make the “Great Famine” of 1876 to 1878 look like child’s play.

Late Victorian Holocausts is not only an angry reappraisal of the crimes of the British Empire. It’s a sober warning about the future.

The Year of the Inside-Outsider

It’s easy to take the media repetition that America’s 2016 election year is “the year of the outsider” to heart. It even sounds like what we need in an election cycle: something truly different. Sources ranging from PBS (“Will 2016 be the year of the political outsider?”) through The New York Times (“‘Outsider’ Presidential Candidates Prove Competitive in Fund-Raising”) – even the Christian Science Monitor (“Revenge of the outsiders: Why 2016 presidential race is breaking the mold”) and all the way to Fox News (“…Outsiders rule 2016 GOP field…) have all deemed this year notable for ‘outsider’ candidates.

PBS, for example, highlights Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson – presuming these to be evident examples of political outsider status. Fox news discusses Trump in relation to Biden (when Biden was still suspected he may announce) and to Hillary. The Christian Science Monitor has a similar list: Fiorina, Carson and Trump – though they include Sanders (as many others do). The New York Times spends its time mulling over how much money everyone was able to raise – implicitly condoning this as a measure of political legitimacy – and even imply that Cruz should be considered within the ranks of the outsider.

We’re told of our intervening outsider candidates… that Donald Trump means business, that Ben Carson means business, that Carly Fiorina means business and that Bernie Sanders means business. With redundant headlines and repeated catchphrases, 2016 is the year of the outsider that means business and can raise money.

The list of outsiders (in non-scientificly determined order similar to media frequency): Trump, Carson, Fiorina, Sanders and Cruz. (O’Malley hardly gets mentioned as an outsider?) Yet somehow even this most qualified list of outsiderness contains:

  1. A billionaire who nearly ran as a running mate to President Bush in 2000, did run for president and planned presidential campaigns in at least three other years. A billionaire who came within a few points of President Obama in voter polls during the 2012 election. A billionaire who makes sweeping contributions to political campaigns he does not run in, including hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to the Clintons – who attended his wedding reception. A billionaire who is a deputy cadet out of the New York Military Academy and is receiving campaign contributions from the US Department of Defense.
  2. A Republican Party darling, appointed a national advisor to President Bush in 2004, former Fox News analyst and Republican moral voice – former cadet coronel – with campaign contributions from high finance, the US Army, and the US Air Force. A national advisor formerly on the board of Kellogg.
  3. A wealthy executive and near former running mate to president McCain who worked for the CIA and was appointed by the Secretary of Defense to (among other things) recommend staffing changes inside the DoD and within the Pentagon. A former wealthy executive (‘homestating’) Republican Senate Candidate for California, an executive who ruled out running for Senate again to give President a shot instead. A former-CEO that has a net worth likely exceeding a hundred million dollars and sees regularly yearly salary of over $1 million and still receives campaign contributions by Lockheed-Martin, Goldman Sachs and other large players in investment banking.
  4. A Senator who has been running for office since 1968: who had the-to-be President Obama campaign for his Senateship in a race also supported by the chairman of both the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee. A senator who shares an economic intellectual neoliberal center alma mater with current President Obama and Milton Friedman. A senator who was cofounder of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, representative for Vermont within the House of Representatives, and married to the a director of the Vermont Economic Development Authority.
  5. A Senator who prepared testimony for the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton, provided private counsel for John Boehner, was a domestic policy advisor to former President George W. Bush, assisted building this presidents legal team and campaign strategy, and was part of the leadership of the US Supreme Court cases that led to the Bush victory in the Florida election recount case. A Senator that recruited now Chief Justice John Roberts for the Bush Republican campaign, was associate deputy attorney general for the Department of Justice and directory of policy planning for the Federal Trade Commission. A senator who was Representative of Texas for the Supreme Court for four years, and who is married to the former director for the Western Hemisphere on the National Security Council (under then National Security Advisor Condolence Rice) and an early retiree from financial investment management for Goldman Sachs.

The alma maters of this ‘outsider’ group are: Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford University, the University of Chicago, Princeton University and Harvard. Every one of our outsiders are Ivy League.

In what way do Senators, Billionaires and former employees of the Department of Defense count as ‘outsiders’? Why, when the majority of these candidates either currently hold office or have run for president in the past, is this an outsider year? Why do former possible running mates and organizers of previous presidential campaigns count as outsiders? Appointees to leadership positions advising US Presidents?

Maybe it’s not because this year features ‘objectively’ outsider candidates – but ‘relatively’ outsider candidates that are more on the outside than is usually seen in a United States Presidential election?

The presidential race in 2008 included Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, Bill Richardson, Jim Gilmore, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Tom Tancredo. The presidential race in 2000 had Herman Cain, Pat Buchanan, Ralph Nader, Donald Trump, and Steve Forbes. These candidates either were and are considered political outsiders or would be if we applied the criteria applied to our outsiders this year.

Pat Robertson (media mogul) ran against (actor turned governor) President Reagan’s reelection in 1988 along with (reverend) Jesse Jackson. We need to remember that during the 2008 presidential candidacy President Obama was considered, celebrated for and outwardly branded a political outsider.

If candidates who have previously served as officials, appointees, electoral managers – as appointees by Presidents and Secretaries of Defense – if Billionaires and Executives and Senators and Moguls are outsiders – why is this year the year of the outsider?

But let’s say that this year really is special. That now, more than ever before, there are candidates outside the innermost sanctum of the Republican and Democratic Parties that have a chance at winning. Let’s say that’s true. What would it imply about the American political system that all of our ‘outsider’ candidates are Ivy League graduates with significant histories inside the state? How would we have to adjust what we consider – what it would even then mean – to be an ‘insider’? And why did we take only having a choice between two insiders lying down?

No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)

Sometimes getting beaten in a war can be good for a country’s soul. I am convinced that losing in Vietnam was one of the best things that ever happened to the United States of America. The sense of humility that came out of getting stomped by a third world country prevented us from going fascist until after 9/11. It was also good for American cinema. Until Hollywood returned to making jingoistic crap like Forrest Gump and Saving Private Ryan in the 1990s, it made a few sincere, if ultimately flawed attempts to come to terms with the Tet offensive, the Battle of Khe Sanh, and the cadaver connection.

It’s just too bad Hollywood in the 1970s and 1980s never had a genius on the level of Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa’s early masterpiece No Regrets for Our Youth is the film that Francis Ford Coppola and Oliver Stone probably wanted to make, but never quite had the audacity to pitch to United Artists. What makes Not Regrets for Our Youth such a magnificent act of artistic integrity is how Kurosawa defied, not only Japan’s fascists and militarists, but also the American occupation. While it’s true that the Cold War would not quite begin in earnest until 1948, it was also clear that the alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union was already at the breaking point. For a director still only in his mid-30s to make a film that transformed a Soviet spy, basically the Japanese Alger Hiss, into a romantic hero was to risk not only his career, but quite possibly his life.

First the historical background.

In 1931, the Japanese staged a “false flag” incident at a railway line owned by Japan’s South Manchuria Railway near Mukden. It was no 9/11, but it was an “inside job,” a small-scale bombing that caused no significant damage, but served as a pretext for an invasion of northern China. Much like 9/11 enabled George W. Bush to ram the Patriot Act through Congress, the “Manchurian Incident” also allowed the Japanese ruling class to mount a fascist crackdown at home. During the “Kyoto Incident” for example, a liberal law professor named Takigawa Yukitoki was suspended from his post for teaching that the judiciary had to consider the sociological roots of social deviancy before passing sentence. He was fired outright after a student and faculty strike called for him to be reinstated.

In the late 1930s, a communist journalist named Hotsumi Ozaki managed to work his way into the highest levels of the Japanese government. He began to pass classified information to the Soviet spy Richard Sorge, whom he had known since the left-wing American writer Agnes Smedley introduced the two men back in 1930. It’s really difficult to overestimate just how much the world owes to Hotsumi Ozaki, who most Americans have never heard of, but who quite possibly did more to defeat Hitler than an entire army group of American and British soldiers. Even though he, and Sorge, were executed by the Japanese government in 1944, they died knowing they had helped Stalin to beat Hitler at the Battle of Moscow.

Ozaki learned that Japan wanted to avoid a war with the Soviet Union, and let Sorge know of it. This information proved to be of uttermost importance for the whole history of the Second World War: after Sorge relayed it to Soviet command, Moscow transferred 18 divisions, 1,700 tanks, and over 1,500 aircraft from Siberia and the Far East to the Western Front against the Nazi Germany during the most dangerous months of the Battle for Moscow, one of the turning points of the whole war.

The screenplay for No Regrets for Our Youth seamlessly weaves the story of Hotsumi Ozaki into the earlier story of Professor Takigawa Yukitoki and the Kyoto Incident. It opens with Yukie Yagihara — the daughter of a university professor played by Setsuko Hara — on a picnic with a group young men. Anybody who knows Hara from Late Spring or Tokyo story will be surprised by her character, who’s a privileged flirt, closer to Olivia Dandridge in John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon than she is to Noriko Somiya or Noriko Hirayama. During the picnic, an idyllic outing which is harshly interrupted by the sound of gunfire in the distance, we also meet two of Yukie’s suitors, Itokawa, a get along by going along careerist played by Akitake Kôno, and Ryukichi Noge, a fiery young leftist played by Susumu Fujita. After Yukie’s father, a liberal academic and a fictionalized version of Professor Takigawa Yukitoki, is suspended from his post for speaking out against the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, Noge organizes a strike by the faculty and students. It not only fails — Yukie’s father is fired — Noge is arrested and sentenced to four years in prison.

Meanwhile Itokawa — No Regrets for Our Youth unfolds over a timespan of 12 years — is working his way up through the judiciary of the Japanese government. Itokawa isn’t a bad guy, and certainly doesn’t come off like a fascist, but Yukie despises him. Once, after Noge “called her out” for being a shallow liberal, and Itokawa had taken her side, she turned to Itokawa and said “all he did was tell the truth, something you’re incapable of doing.” Yukie’s father, no longer able to teach law, finds a second career doing pro-bono work for the poor. Yukie, in turn, moves from Kyoto to Tokyo, where she takes a series of low-status jobs, secretary, flower arranger, clerk at a shipping company, all the while pining away for Noge. They meet again after Itokawa, now a “public prosecutor,” and convinced that Noge has mended his ways and disavowed his leftist politics, arranges for an early parole, his smug satisfaction after telling Yukie hinting that he’s more concerned with getting out of the “friend zone,” or at least with proving that Noge isn’t the hero everybody thought he was, than he is in keeping an eventual communist spy in prison.

Initially disappointed over the idea that Noge has now becoming a conformist and careerist bootlicker like Itokawa, Yukie soon learns that the truth is very different. Noge is in fact, running a research institute that serves as a cover for his work as a Soviet agent. Neither the Soviet Union nor communism are ever mentioned in No Regrets for Our Youth, but it’s not really necessary since Noge’s resemblance to Hotsumi Ozaki would have been perfectly clear to any Japanese viewer in 1946. Suddenly Yukie realizes that Noge had been right all along, that her father, well-intentioned liberal though he was, had never been willing to go far enough, to call for a revolution against the fascist government. After she and Noge are married, they begin an idyllic, and all too brief, romance. Even though he refuses to tell her anything about his work, it’s clear he’s involved not only in passing information about the Japanese occupation of Manchuria to the Soviet Union, but in organizing a communist resistance movement against the fascist government. When Yukie suggests going into hiding, he fatalistically tells her that the secret police know exactly who he is is and can arrest him anytime they want. Noge, like any good anti-fascist, resists, not because he thinks he can win, but because it’s the right thing to do.

“In tens years the truth will come out,” he tells her, “and the Japanese people will thank us for what we’ve done.”

Noge, true to his prediction, is arrested by the secret police, and murdered in prison, but he has already inspired one convert, Yukie’s father, no longer a wishy washy liberal, and determined to defend his radical son in law in court before he learns of his death. It’s at this point that Yukie comes into her own, becoming, as Dennis Grunes points out, Kurosawa’s first great Samurai. Even at 26, Setsuko Hara is already the great actress she would be for the next two decades. Anybody who thinks little Daisy Ridley from The Force Awakens is a strong female hero needs to see No Regrets for Our Youth. The the last 30 minutes make you wish the Star Wars franchise had ripped off this film instead of Kurosawa’s later The Hidden Fortress.

Yukie, determined to honor the memory of her husband, does so in the only appropriate way you can honor a communist hero. She joins the class struggle, disavowing her bourgeois privilege, and moving in with her dead husband’s mother and father, both working-class farmers who have been ostracized by their community as the parents of a spy. Suddenly Kurosawa changes the way he lights Hara to reflect her own personal transformation. In the first half of the film, while she was still Noge’s helpmate, she was portrayed as a wispy heroine from a romantic novel, the light and shadow reflecting the longing she felt inside. Abruptly, she becomes a militant communist heroine, the camera now filming her from below, the aesthetics suggesting Soviet socialist realism instead of bourgeois domestic drama. Together, with Noge’s mother, and in the face of the town’s hostility, she helps get the rice crop planted, almost dying of exhaustion in the process. After local fascist thugs destroy their rice paddies, littering the field with threats and right-wing propaganda, the two women start all over again, like Sisyphus pushing the rock back up the hill after it rolls down, and eventually bringing Noge’s father, who has been a hollow shell of a man ever since his son’s death, back to life.

“The war was lost but freedom was restored,” a placard says at the end of the film, probably reflecting a more optimistic view of the American occupation than history would justify, but clearly expressing Kurosawa’s relief that the fascist government had been taken down. No Regrets for Our Youth ends with Yukie’s father back in his teaching post, now thoroughly radicalized, giving a speech to a new generation of law students in memory of his son-in-law, whom he now realizes that, according to the Buddhist tradition, was the teacher who found him when he was ready. Academic freedom has been restored. The fight for socialism will go on.

A Personal State of the Union

(Disclaimer: I am not currently, nor have I ever been either in or eligible to nominate myself for the office of President of the United States of America. Warning. endorsement, irrelevance? Take that biographical scrap as you will.)

It could be argued by a person far more eager to troll than myself at this moment (perhaps my troll-libido will surge again in the morning…who’s to say? just keep reading folks…) that the only honest art movement was Tromp l’oeil, and honest then only for its name; the French that’s most often translated as “Fool the world.”

It could be further argued the most disingenuous art movement was realism, existing now as it did then as it will continue to exist until it reaches its apex strain in the encyclopedic: as the inverted fantastic that transports the reader into the terrain that’s extravagant for its having been scrubbed of the dirty layer of fantasy that in life itself is inescapably audible as the hum of the nervous system.

And so, society, having triumphed over the industrial problem of supply and having failed miserably in parsing the subsequent problem of distribution faces (of course! quite reasonably!) an increasingly broad survivor’s guilt. The bourgeois revolution Marx foresaw came and went; if I’m old enough to remember the specific day the page 3 headline “Food production no longer enough to feed entire human population” made its way as a seeming curiosity to the front pages of various news websites, then so is most of this website’s readership. The endless clawing at the nebulous golem of the hipster had significance but not the significance that was presumed; the reason why no one could accurately or specifically say what the hipster was, why the shape of the hipster kept shifting and continues to shift, why the most prolific writers denouncing the emergence of the hipster always had to first cite their own credentials as not being such; anyone and everyone was suspect; the specter of privilege dangled everywhere, half-foreskin half-hang nail; the hipster could cover such ground because, of course, the hipster never truly existed-the hipster was our own confused self-loathing at blowing it.

And I mean, come on guys. We really blew it.

The major unconscious trend in art, the thing currently considered kitsch that has such broad reach as to come to define our epoch to future generations through sheer force in numbers, is the object that’s one thing but aware it looks like another. Expensive sugar candies that look like rocks or watches or audio cassettes; spools of thread laid out to look like the Mona Lisa, large heavy metal sculptures meant to resemble weightless balloon rabbits tied together at childrens’ parties; phones that look like hamburgers; post-it notes on a wall that look like Super Mario, Jesus Christ reconstituted from an obscure artist’s piss; it’s a schema of novelty that seems reluctant to wear off.

This formula strikes the audience in two ways I can discern:

  1. Haven’t we all wished at one point or another, or even worse expected from ourselves only to inevitably be disappointed, that we could actually be anything we wanted to if we put our minds to it? Could do any job, could fulfill any role, could make our parents, coworkers, employer and acquaintances get along entirely without friction if we could contort all the messy specifics of our self into the perfect interchangeable part?
  2. Haven’t we all had that awful consumer regret upon having bought something simply that it wasn’t something else? Having realized we could’ve bought something else, not even sure we really would’ve wanted to purchase that something else but having that nagging regret eat away at you that you didn’t get to live out every possible opportunity even where logically to do so would require simultaneous conscious coexistence in many multiple infinities?

And so the thing that is also the other thing speaks to the small and selfish anxiety that we failed in not becoming literally anything other than what we are and in the broad sense that the most tangible possibility of utopian society the species was ever in grasping distance of passed it by. Is it even fair we should be anxious about this? We were never in the position to decide. To our collective misfortune, in our reality only one person was ever allowed to be Henry Kissinger; Ronald Reagan; Enrico Fermi; Margaret Thatcher; Norman Rockefeller; and so on and so on. I presume none of those golden ticket grabbers constitute any part of the collective we/us that is writing/reading this article; a pity. With great power comes great responsibility and all that other stuff from Russian literature that popular comics chewed up and spit into our American mouths as mere babes…

Oh what to do…what to do..


David Bowie Was Probably Worse Than A Rapist

When I was an undergraduate at Rutgers University back in the 1980s, my favorite book was probably Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. Made into a film in 1971 by the Italian director Luchino Visconti, it told the story the last days of Gustav von Aschenbach. A renowned German novelist in his early 50s, Aschenbach, who is suffering from writer’s block, has come to Venice to get back in touch with the wellsprings of his creative imagination. Instead, he develops an obsession with a teenage boy, a Polish aristocrat on holiday with his family. Death in Venice isn’t a “coming out” story. Visconti was openly gay, and Mann certainly “gay curious”, but Aschenbach is heterosexual. Tadzio, the Polish teenager, does not represent a suppressed homosexual impulse finally liberated by the necessity of coming to terms with writer’s block. Rather, he is the unattainable aesthetic ideal an artist follows until he can no longer find the strength or discipline to pursue his calling. At age 50, Aschenbach has come to the end of his creative life. “There is no impurity,” the dying Aschenbach recalls a colleague saying as he watches Tadzio play on the beach, “so impure as old age.”

So why was I as a 20-year-old so fascinated by a novel about a middle-aged German novelist dying of cholera in early-Twentieth Century Venice? I was of course neither middle-aged nor gay, but I had reached puberty in the late 1970s. The late 1970s, which I now recognize to be final sickly years of the counter culture of the 1960s, were a terrible time to be a adolescent boy. Rock n Roll had long since abandoned the radical, utopian dream of the New Left and the anti-war movement, and had given way to pure hedonism and decadence. Nevertheless, the music industry, which was thoroughly rotten and corrupt, had still retained its rebellious glamour, it’s “cool,” its air of revolution. Just because a particular form of art is dying, doesn’t mean it can’t also throw up brilliant individuals on its deathbed, and the 1970s saw the breakthrough of some of the greatest rock musicians of all, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Joe Strummer, Freddy Mercury, and of course, David Bowie.

David Bowie, like Michael Jackson and Madonna, had essentially conquered old age, the plague that destroyed Gustav Aschenbach. The problem was in how he conquered it. Thomas Mann, who saw deeply into the rotten heart of capitalist civilization, understood the process that would eventually drive Michael Jackson insane. Towards the end of Death In Venice, the wellsprings of his creativity now completely dry, and painfully conscious of his middle-aged appearance, Aschenbach visits a make up artist, an almost Satanic figure who, like Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeons, promises to restore his youth. It doesn’t work. Aschebach emerges from the make up studio looking, not like a 20-year-old, but like a painted clown. What undoubtedly gifted musicians and song writers like Michael Jackson, Madonna and David Bowie, tried to do in their art was to replace the normal aging process with the immortality that comes with changing your act in response to a changing marketplace. For Thomas Mann, the idea that you could restore the creativity of your youth by reinventing yourself was fraud. For Jackson, Madonna, and Bowie, it was the gimmick that won them fame and fortune beyond their wildest dreams.

Madonna was a mediocrity who benefited from breaking into the music industry at the beginning of the MTV-era, but Bowie and Michael Jackson were geniuses who could change their style as easily as taking off one mask and putting on a new one. As soon as the culture changed, either of them could come up with a new act that not only made them money, but allowed them to express themselves in a way nobody had ever imagined. Michael Jackson went from child-star to MTV super-star. David Bowie went from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke. The price that Jackson paid for his drive to remain youthful well into middle-age is well known, racial self-hatred, self-mutilation, pedophilia, and finally early death. We had all thought David Bowie had escaped, that he had gotten away with it, had defied the aging process, and remained vital until his death at the age of 69. More critical observers realized that he hadn’t. Irvine Welsh, in his novel Trainspotting, spoke of Bowie as just another rock star who had “it” when he was young, but lost it in middle-age. A few honest fans recognize that he hadn’t done anything particularly memorable after the early 1980s, but fading away into the mediocrity of old age had been the least of David Bowie’s problems.

If everything in this interview is true, David Bowie should have done prison time for statutory rape.

“Next time Bowie was in town, though, maybe five months later, I got a call at home from his bodyguard, a huge black guy named Stuey. He told me that David wanted to take me to dinner. Obviously, I had no homework that night. Fuck homework. I wasn’t spending a lot of time at school anyway. I said that I would like to go but that I wanted to bring my friend Sable. She was dying to fuck Bowie. I figured that she would sleep with him while I got to hang out and have fun. At the time, Sable and her sister Coral were both dating Iggy Pop, spending time at the home of Tony DeFries [then-manager of David Bowie and Iggy] up in Laurel Canyon. People there were so high all the time — Quaaludes, heroin, whatever. In the limo ride to the Rainbow, Sable said, “If you touch David, I will kill you.” I didn’t think she was kidding.”

If Lori Mattix, David Bowie’s 14-year-old “lover” is to be believed, Bowie did more than commit an indiscretion. He didn’t just get drunk or get high at a party and unknowingly fuck a young girl without asking for her ID. Fully sober, he sent his bodyguard to procure a child for sex, and it wasn’t only Bowie. It was Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger, and just about everybody else in the corporate music industry. Michael Kaplan’s interview with Lori Mattix illustrates the sickness at the hear t of the corporate music industry in a way perhaps not even he understands. If David Bowie had been a fat, 50-year-old banker in Thailand paying for child prostitutes we’d be calling for him to be sent to the guillotine. If he had been a 25-year-old sergeant in the United States Marine Corps who stood by and watched under age girls being procured for sex for visiting diplomats, we’d be calling for him to be sent to Leavenworth. The fact the he was talented, charismatic rock musician shouldn’t excuse it. In fact, it makes it worse. David Bowie, and every other rock musician who participated in group sex with under age girls, perverted their art, exploited children, not only physically, but spiritually. They seduced an entire generation of Late baby Boomers and early Gen-Xers into worshipping idols, into looking to corporate mass culture, instead of to themselves, for enlightenment.

If Lori Mattix argues that her sex with David Bowie was consensual that’s part of the problem. Lori Mattix is now a woman well into middle-age, still arguing that drugging and raping 14-year-olds is not only acceptable, but “beautiful.” She comes off like a member of a cult, her morals, even her ability to think clearly, having been destroyed by the corporate mass culture she worships, and by the idea that once, as a young girl, she had access to the rich and powerful. It’s likely that if David Bowie had stood up and denounced the sexual exploitation of children in the early 70s, it might have been the end of his music career. Even gifted, talented performers can be replaced. But let’s not think we don’t have an example of someone who stood up and did the right thing, not only at the cost of his career, but of his life. In the 1960s, when Malcolm X realized his mentor Elijah Mohammed was sexually exploiting children, he broke with him and denounced him publicly.

“They’re afraid that I will tell the real reason that they’ve been — that I’m out of the Black Muslim movement, which I never told, I kept to myself. But the real reason is that Elijah Muhammad, the head of the movement, is the father of eight children by six different teenaged girls, six different teenaged girls who were his private personal secretaries. Four of them had one child apiece by him, two of them had two children and one of those two is pregnant right now in Los Angeles with his third child. The one who first made me aware of this was Wallace Muhammad, Mr. Muhammad’s son and it was their fear that if I remained in the Black Muslim movement, and this came into the knowledge of their followers that they would leave him and follow me. So a plan was immediately set in motion to take me down, put me out and the statement that I allegedly made…or not that I allegedly made, I did make it… the statement that I made about Kennedy was used as a pretext to take me down, but in reality, it was because I had come to New York and told Joseph, the captain in New York and the secretary and the minister in Boston about these children that Mr. Muhammad had and it was that, that right there was the real reason for my being out of the movement.”

Malcolm X was a hero. David Bowie was probably worse than a rapist.

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom (2012)

For an ignorant American like me, to begin the study of Chinese history is a bit like going back to the Age of Exploration. There are entire continents yet to be discovered. There are ethnic groups, nations, and monarchical dynasties every bit as complex and varied as the Normans, the Saxons, England, France, the Stuarts and the Romanovs, all of which you need to spend years studying just to learn the basics. There are cities the size of New York and Chicago you’ve never heard of. It’s taken me 50 years to learn the history of the United States and Western Europe. Oh Satan, take my soul. Give me immortality. It would probably take me another 100 years, which I don’t have, to learn the history of China.

The “Taiping Rebellion” — a problematic term for reasons I will shortly discuss — was the largest and bloodiest civil war in history. According to conservative estimates, when it was all over, anywhere between 20 and 30 million people were dead. To put matters in perspective, that’s 20 to 30 times the causality rate of the United States Civil War. Stephen Platt is a good writer, but he’s no Shelby Foote. He tries his best to stuff 14 years of a civil war that had battles bloodier than Gettysburg or Antietam, generals as innovative as Grant or Lee, and sieges and massacres that make the Battle of Atlanta look like touch football, but it’s basically impossible. So there are times when Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is rough going. Even though it’s written like a popular, narrative history, and doesn’t assume you have even an intermediate level of knowledge about Nineteenth Century China, the subject is so massive that reading it is like drinking from a fire hose. For a novice like me, to write even a basic review is to do little more than show my ignorance.

But here goes. From 1644 to 1912, China was ruled by a monarchical dynasty know as the Qing Dynasty. During this period the “Chinese” royal family was not Chinese, but, rather, Manchu, a formerly nomadic people most ethnic Chinese considered culturally inferior, uneducated barbarians. Even though the British royal family is German, not English, and Marie Antoinette was Austrian, not French — a fact that would play an important role in her eventual execution —there’s really no equivalent in Europe to what the Qing dynasty was in China. To be completely honest, I don’t understand enough about politics in Nineteenth Century China even to begin to explain the differences, but I suppose it has something to do with how the Chinese — unlike the British or French, who value money and power — value education above all. The Manchu, uncouth barbarians though they may have been, never tried to interfere with the the system of civil service examinations based on the Confucian classics that had formed the basis of Chinese civilization since before the time of Periclean Athens. To become a member of the Chinese elite meant passing a series of examinations that led either to great respect — and wealth and power — or disgrace, and even madness. It was a bit like taking a supercharged bar examination. If you did well-enough, you became, not a mere lawyer, but a philosopher King.

It’s fitting, therefore, that Hong Xiuquan, the inspiration behind the Taiping Rebellion and the “Heavenly King”,  failed his civil service examinations not once, or even twice, but four times, eventually having a nervous breakdown, and a series of visions, after which he converted to what can best be described as his own mixture of evangelical Protestant Christianty and ethnic Chinese nationalism. Like all successful revolutionaries, Hong Xiuquan was one part genius, another part madman.  In 1853, after a little under a decade preaching to “God worshipers” among the Hakka — a subgroup of the Han in the Hunan province — Hong managed to conquer Nanjing, one of those Chicago-sized cities I had never heard of, massacre. To give you an idea of the scale of Hong’s rebellion, his Han, ethnic Chinese followers, massacred 20,000 Manchus — killed as many people who died during the entire French Revolutionary Terror in one day — and it was only the beginning. For the purely secular mind, Hong comes off pretty well. After all, the historical Jesus, who believed his was the son of God, turned over a few tables, and promptly got crucified. Hong, on the other hand, who believed he was the brother of Jesus, led one of the greatest revolutions in history. He came within an inch of destroying the Qing Empire before his movement was finally defeated by a combination of Han conservatism and the often inept yet ultimately decisive intervention of the British and French.

If you think the term Taiping Rebellion is a misnomer, you would be correct. Shay’s Rebellion was a rebellion. Paris in 1968 was a rebellion. The Prague Spring was a rebellion. This was a revolution. It’s only called a “rebellion” in the Enlish speaking world because the British, inspite of the fact that they marched on Bejing and destroyed the Qing emperor’s Summer palace, eventually decided to intervene on the side of the Manchus. This is a common form of propaganda, the reason Southerners call The United States Civil War “The War Between the States” or “The War of Northern Aggression” instead of “The Slave Power’s Secession.” It’s the same reason we say “The Glorious Revolution” instead of “The Protestant Coup.” It’s why it’s the “English Civil War” and the French “Revolution” or the American “Revolution” instead of the American “War of Independence.” For the Manchu emperors in Bejing, and their eventual British supporters, the capital of the Taiping “Heavenly Kingdom” — a nation that would last for almost 15 years and eventually inspire Sun Yat Sen’s nationalist movement in the early Twentieth Century — was nothing more than a nest of pirates, bandits who deserved, not the kind of honorable surrender Lincoln granted Lee at Appomattox, but to be executed on sight, which they often were. Yet no mere rebellion can field armies of 300,000 men — three times the size of either army at Gettysburg — unless it has the potential to build a new civilization on the ashes of the old one.

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is dominated by two figures. The first is Hong Rengan, Hong Xiuquan’s cousin, the Prime Minster of the Heavenly Kingdom, and a visionary intellectual who tried, in vain, to form an alliance with the British Empire, as well as modernize, and Christianize China. The second is Zeng Guofan, a Confucian scholar — unlike Hong Ziuquan he passed his civil service exams on the first try — and a brutal reactionary genius without any formal military training who became, arguably, a better general than Grant, Lee, Von Moltke or Napoleon himself. Almost by accident, he propped up the corrupt, exhausted Qing Empire, then tried, in vain, to retire. Guofan could order the mass execution of 8,000 helpless prisoners without blinking an eye, but unlike Napoleon, he really had no stomach for war. He preferred his books and his study. To watch the dual between Hong Rengan and Zeng Guofan is to watch a natural revolutionary defeated by the backward conservative people he tried to inspire rallying behind their oppressors. It’s to examine how a skillful counterrevolutionary, one who understands deeply his country’s traditions and weaknesses, can keep a bankrupt system in place, long after it’s ceased to be viable. Indeed, while Guofan would buy the Qing Dynasty anther 75 years, its fall was inevitable.

Above all it’s to watch the bumbling, yet treacherous British Empire stop the progress of history cold, and only for their short term economic interest. Indeed, after utterly destroying one Qing Army, marching on Bejing, ransacking the Summer Palace, and making overtures to the Taiping leadership in Nanjing, the British under Lord Palmerston then Lord Russell did an about face, and decided to save the Manchu dynasty, much as they had saved the Ottomon Empire the decade before. The reason? After the United States Civil War broke out in 1861, the British government, finding themselves short of raw cotton, yet unwilling to recognize Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy, decided that the moribund Qing Dynasty was their best bet to keep the trade cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong open to the west. I suppose, therefore, you might say that 30 million Chinese died to save the United States, but for China it was only putting off the inevitable.