Ye Olde Curiosity Shop: a philosophical ghost story

On the waterfront of Eliot Bay, tucked beneath the “Alaskan Highway”, and a block before the beginning of Seattle’s famous Pikes Place Market lies a wayside boutique called “Ye Ol’ Curiosity Shop”. The shop is undeniably a tourist trap, tacky to the extreme, it is the type of place where a wandering tourist on the wharf might find a plastic snow globe of the city skyline or press a penny into a copper plate with the words “Seattle” on it. True to form, the shop specializes in pirate and mermaid-themed merchandise, even though, to my knowledge, no pirate has ever set sail on the sound and I am yet unaware of any local mermaid sightings, or even legends for the that matter. But “Ye Olde Curiosity Shop” itself has roots that go deeper than its exterior might imply, and it remains, to this date, a touchstone to my memories of the city that I now call home.

Ye Olde Curiosity shop does have a history, or at least as much of a history as an American West Coast city will allow. Founded by an Ohioan pioneer at the end of the Klondike gold rush, one J.E. “Daddy” Standely, the shop originally served as a clearing house for memorabilia, artifacts, and forgeries. Standely, himself a notorious indian trader (in both sense of the word), made a practice of obtaining, and often times manufacturing, relics that might be passed off on prospectors and tourists. In addition to his wheeling and dealing, the man was also an avid collector of rare items and made a po4-ye-old-curiosity-exterior-web1.jpgint of buying any number of oddities (fake or not) that passed through the Puget Sound region in the first half of the 20th century. To this day, many of these items still remain in the shop. No longer for sale, the objects serve chiefly as windows into the strange fare on offer by a snake-oil salesmen in early Seattle. Most prominent in this collection are two human mummies. Called “Sylvester” and “Sylvia” by the shopkeepers, the bodies were procured (and possibly mummified) sometime in the mid-1800s when such traveling oddities were at a premium and poaching bodies was not out of the question. No longer identifiable, the human remains now stand on display behind glass, serving as unofficial mascots of the establishment.

I remember encountering this macabre pair, while on a childhood vacation to the city decades before I lived there as an adult. Then – being about 12 at the time – I was keenly interested in collectible trinkets and oddities, and after completing a rather underwhelming tour of the neighboring wharf, I took a detour into the shop found my way  to “the main exhibit”, where Sylvia and Sylvester stood book-ending a 19th century harmonium and a section of a pacific-style totem pole.

Having never seenWASEAcuriosity10.jpg a “mummy”, I initially found the exhibit rather anti-climactic. These mummies, and indeed most mummies, do not look authentic. Regardless of how “well-preserved” they are in an archaeological sense, they seem less like dead people, and more like the stain of human likeness after all remnants of bodily and spiritual life have been blasted beyond recognition. I remember, there, trying to search for the humanity in the pair. Perhaps, I could piece together what the mummies must have looked like in life, adding on hair, muscle, and flesh in my imagination and until the figures looked like recently deceased corpses. The effort  proved to be futile, but as I lethargically ambled towards the exit, a visceral sensation seized my mind. I now find it hard to explain, but at that moment an image of the larger mummy, Sylvester, became immediately visible; not as a desiccated husk, or even as a recently deceased corpse, but as the man that he must have been once in life. And then it seemed as if there was an essence, as alive as any of the shop patrons, trapped within his dried and mangled form. An uneasy feeling took me as I exited the shop.

This vision persisted long into the evening tWoJmH.jpghat day, returning later as a nightmare. Though I only have a vague recollection of this, I remember that in the dream I had taken the place of Sylvester behind in the glass display, paralyzed, with a frozen gaze peering out across the shop. However, this time, something was very different. The image I saw before me was hardly the lively boutique I had experienced in my waking state. Instead, the patrons were frozen in place with glassy-eyed stares, and it was as if the entire outside world had been coated in a thick waxy pollution that robbed even the woodwork, earth, and outside sky of life. In the true nature of role reversals, just as my life had was now inside the mummy, the lifeless process of mummification had seized the rest of reality and drained it of its essence.

Even after this dream left me, my mind lingered on the fearful notion that what I had seen was prophetic and that this sort of living death in which all of reality is frozen in eternal lifelessness might  be what waits for all sentient creatures at the moment of their demise.

I remember toying with this masochistic idea over the course of the years to come. Perhaps some this persistence owes to a certain amount of self-inflicted psychological morbidity common to teenagers, but aside from this, I found the scenario altogether plausible. I even found the motif repeated in the popular movie “American Beauty”, albeit their notion of this frozen existence was far more euphoric than mine. Gradually, my speculation evolved from a state of eternal living death to the even more terrifying notion that the mind, after cessation, would descend into complete sensory deprivation in full possession of all of its rational faculties. Lost in an abyss of meaningless, measureless tifear-buried-alive-a-and-e-tv-series-live-event-six-feet-under-strange-900x440.jpgme, that would consume the consciousness with madness. It was chilling to think that all humans, by virtue of their life, stood on the shores on an endless abyss that was destined to consume them entirely.

And even years later, I have found myself returning to these scenarios as a point of reference for the examination of the human condition. The reduction of the human brain to an eternal state of sensory deprivation, despite its terror, creates a platonic state pliable for philosophical questions. Certainly scientists have done sensory deprivation exercises for a few hours (resulting in euphoria) and for several days (resulting in depression, hallucination, and memory loss), but what would occur when such an experience stretched out to an indefinite time horizon. Might a mind reach some absolute state where its last memory was dismissed as delusion? And even after the mind re-emerged from madness would rationality be preserved?  Would even the self? These questions seemed altogether inscrutable and so I shifted to easier ones. If not FULL sensory deprivation, what about near sensory deprivation? A mind with access to a gentle binary input  but still in possession of its rationality. What might a brain without experience or memory do with such a simple but consistent input. And with this thought, my mind returned to the image of Sylvia and Sylvester encased in glass at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and I was brought, rather impulsively, to produce a new philosophical extension to my story.yeoldecuriosityshop_04.jpg

Suppose through some bizarre circumstance, Sylvia and Sylvester are not totally deceased but instead live in a state of rationality separated both from their memories of life  and any stimulus of the outside world. However, we might imagine that their darkness is periodically broken as each mummy experiences a mild electrical sensation whenever a human makes eye contact with their exterior form. Due to the age of the establishment and its popularity, the mummies’ eternal silence will be frequently punctuated by these tiny shocks. We could even imagine that the pair would welcome the sensations as miraculous wards against the emptiness that would otherwise consume their minds. In fact, in recognition of this centrality, the pair would likely deploy their rationality to the task of modeling the phenomenon. Of course, due to its regularity and repetition this task would quite tractable. The inputs could be fit with normalized statistics; paired with a cyclical model to account for daily variation, and a regression model to account for the changes in the shops popularity. With this such a model  the sensations themselves would become explainable, predictable, and even expected.  The mummies would have developed a complete and satisfactory explanation of their universe. One from which their mind never needs to be roused. And to this end, the sudden sensations of contact would seem less miraculous and more like expected happenings pouring forth from a fully specified set of equations. So, even though predictability has been achieved, a certain placidity of existence will have set in.

But then, apropos of nothing, an extraordinary event occurs. And just like my own experience 18-odd years ago, one of the mummies, Sylvester, is  beset by a sensory explosion, his mind is displaced and thrown jarringly into the universe of human observation. For a brief moment he is no longer in darkness and instead sees the lively bustling reality of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. Human communication, sensory perception, the sights and smells, all become immediately apparent to him. And for a moment he realizes the nature of his previous position and the confines of his former existence. But, these sensations are fleeting, and after a few brief moments, Sylvester is once more lowered into the darkness of his previous state. The revelation has departed, never to return again.

But what can Sylvester glimpse from this experience? One might think it might upset his reality, and upend the way he had formed his explanations earlier. Perhaps he might recast his limited sensations as something grander then he originally thought. He might realize that his incredible experience was a window to a much larger existence beyond anything he could have thought possible and that his mundane sensations were but a shadow of this larger life that he could only catch a the briefest view. But of course, in all likelihood, he might just as easily dismiss all of this. All previous thoughts, all his previous understanding of the universe, indeed his very model of existence was predicated on an observation occurring with consistency and repetition. The extraordinary experience that beset his senses in that one moment will not conform to that standard and its very singular nature would precludes its incorporation into Sylvester’s original model. As grand as the revelation , it cannot be recast as a data-point. And in fact will not even possess predictive power when it comes to the task of describing the mundane system of sensations that make up his ordinary existence. And so, as powerful and as important as it seems to us, this brief glimpse into a wider universe might be easily dismissed and cast into the dust bin of delusional mistakes that might beset a mind encased in eternal darkness.75569-004-3B260631.jpg

At this point, I am sure, my more astute readers will chuckle upon noticing that I have inadvertently traced the steps of one ancient Athenian in a torch lit cave. Nonetheless, for my own purposes, I have found this modern update helpful in its own right; not necessarily for its capacity to illustrate, as Socrates intended, the limitation of the human senses. But rather, and I am want to do, its ability to contextualize the teleology of the human mind.

The confinement to a living death of eternal sensory deprivation, holds a transfixing and terrifying power for a reason. That is that, it forces the function of rationality, and indeed personality, to confront an existence where its own nature is eternally futile. Inside a word free of sensation there is no substance to be grasped or dealt with, no experience that can be raged against or even embraced. And as such, any semblance of personality would be obliterated through contact with that gaping chasm of meaninglessness.

But might not something similar be said, for that mind so confidently in possession of a totalizing model of the universe? A model where everything is either predicted or dismissed as random deviation from that prediction? I used think that there was a massive distinction between this state and that total oblivion, but the thought because it seems this path is as sure an excuse to marry the human mind to an inertia it would have otherwise resisted. In other words, man’s rationality is no less defeated if it is swallowed up by simplicity than if it is swallowed up by darkness. And though we might find simplicity useful for prediction, it can become a jailer the moment it drives out the meaning of that prediction.

At one point in my life, I did think that the development of such a totalizing and simple model of the universe to be the goal of humanity. Of course like most moderns, the complexity and difficulty of obtaining such an end, masked its limitation. And since, I have come to see this project of as not only as impossible but also as foolish.

download.jpgHuman beings define themselves through their contact with raw experience. With surprise, with astonishment, with wonder. The points in time where we are want, or indeed must, toss out our previous modes and replace them with something higher and better. And whether we appreciate these jarring moments of discontinuity that interrupt our existence, they are indeed the key to our humanity. We do not maintain our own existence in anticipation of eternally repeating patterns, or an unchallenged life of stimulus and response. We exist for those moments when reality invades our minds stronger than ever before and tears those petty models asunder. Call them “miracles”, or if you prefer the modern neologism “black swans” ,but whatever we choose to call these moments, they etch the boundaries of our human recollection and personality. And I have long speculated that the true desire of mankind is to stand before this fountainhead of existential wonder, in full possession of our rational personalities.

I will stop myself before this essay diverts into spiritually, but I have to wager that most people, at any some moment of their lives have been taken back  by a strong impression that a person,  or even an object, before them is much more than the material that constitutes its physical existence.  They will then see something in that moment that contains a hint of the eternal, something that cannot so easily be tamed by our pattern-seeking and model-building brains, and something that calls them to a higher type of existence. I am certainly not the first thinker to speculate about how human existence might be much elevated if but we could go through our daily lives with these types of revelations intact in our conscious wills. But due whatever human frailty, they are fleeting. And men and women continue to gloss over these interactions with the transcendent, dismissing them as curiosities, like the human form itself, sitting lifeless among the myriad dross in a wayside city boutique.

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An Idea that Might yet Save America, a Modest Proposal

“Experts” can agree on one thing. 2016 is a populous moment in America. But really, this just means that our proclivity to complain about problems has momentarily surpassed our delusion that American leaders are interested in solving them.

But this perennial problem has been compounded. After decades of mindless culture and plummeting collective intelligence, the nation has finally descended into a state somewhere in between degenerative brain disease and Stockholm syndrome. And, like an intoxicated Titania stumbling towards an unsuspecting Bottom, our country has now fastened its gaze on a motley crew of senile-lunatics and conmen that we call Presidential contenders. It’s all the farce of an Elizabethan drama, with none of the comedy.

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Our collective delusions live on…

It would be one thing if this panoply of pusillanimous politicos had a single idea as insane as their hairstyles, but uniformly their proposals are the same microwaved earwax run through the anal-retentive strainers of every focus group this side of Jupiter. Want yet another round of tax cuts paired with entitlement expansions? How about more drone strikes? Oh – and get ready for a new round of health-care reforms, whether it’s Crazy Cruz-flavor, Hairbrained Hillary-style, or the patented “Yuge Trump” edition.

Frankly, it has been obvious to everyone with a neckline unbruised by their own sphincter that these endlessly propounded policies don’t work worth a hill of beans. Everyone has a different take on why, but for my two-cents, it is nothing less than political cowardice. Our leaders don’t really have the gumption to take on new ideas, so instead we get ever more grandiose versions of the same tired tripe. Surgical strikes not working? Let’s have carpet bombing! Don’t like Medicaid? Well, let’s expand it to everybody! Social security not solvent? Oh well, I guess that will have to be the next generation’s problem.

But there are indeed simpler solutions available to leaders with more robust constitutions. We don’t need confiscatory tax rates, we don’t need to slash regulations and entitlements, and we don’t need draconian new immigration policies.

We just need to ban birth control.

Or, at least ban birth control for people who make over $200,000 a year. For the rich,  illegalize it all! Abortion, the pill, condoms, the sponge, it all must be sent into the cleansing fire of reform. Let the contraceptive-flames blaze ever higher!

Trust me. If you want a path to the golden unicorn-filled fields of true equality, if you want America to once again climb the silver-lined mountains of national greatness, this is the only way. It’s time to loose the latex from the laps of luxury and pry the pill from the palates previously occupied by silver spoons. Yes, that means you Koch BrothersGeorge Soros and Bill Clinton, don’t think I’m letting you off the hook!

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Perhaps only for those of modest means…

But seriously, let’s take our nation’s problems head on. Do you want growth? Do you want generous and solvent entitlement programs? Do you want an unending era of American innovation and military dominance? Well then we need more young people and that means more children. And who better to have said children than those with the ample resources to raise a new generation? Heck, we already know from Tiger Woods and Amy Schumer that the copulation habits of the wealthy can hardly be contained. Take a bite out of their contraception cache and watch the progeny of the prosperous pour forth faster than cocaine from Lil Wayne’s duffle-bag unzipped at customs. I bet the economic boom on baby products alone will be a driving force in our economy within the month.

And that doesn’t begin to cover the cultural benefits. How many times have you heard about the impossibility of balancing work and family life?  Well, this is because contemporary corporate culture is designed by billionaires who are uninterested in raising more than a single designer baby. But, those mindsets will be forever banished by my new policy. No more Sheryl Sandberg books labeling a 70-hour workweek “leaning in”, more new Sheryl Sandberg books about balancing the demands of corporate leadership with a family life that includes 5 kids. And need I mention the likely surge in demand for hyper-educated Mary-Poppins style super nannys? Employment crisis be gone!

But before I get carried away, I will admit that there are some drawbacks. I am certainly not looking forward to Kim Kardashian becoming the next Octomom (though I suspect she will name her new children East West, South West, Due West, Key West, Best West, and Kanye West West). The government would also need to implement extensive enforcement to keep the contraceptives out of the hands of mistresses and other unorthodox outlets. But I believe that this too might be overcome with zealous policing, improved paternity tests, and child support laws ramped up on steroids. In the end, philanderers like Bill Clinton may well have a bumper crop of bastards in tow; but they could always be put to work on Hillary’s campaign.She would appreciate the help at this point.

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Sorry Richie, no rubbers for you.

But I can already hear the whining from the naysayers- “It’s not faaiirr….muh social justice!”

I will be blunt here. This policy IS justice, or at least as close to justice as a political proposal will get. In fact, banning contraception for the rich, is the only solution that stabs at the great hearts of modern hypocrisy. Hypocrisies that persist, no matter how our media tries to ignore them.

The first great hypocrisy is that our perennial efforts at redistribution – be they taxes, regulation, inflation, or confiscation – never really upset the position of the powerful. This is because our current elites do not depend on liquid assets. They store their privilege in social networks, education, and other intangibles not easily seized by authorities. Taking wealth – true wealth- away from the powerful is near impossible in our era of global capital, and privilege can only be undermined with the cooperation of the privileged themselves.

But what better way to voluntarily lighten the entitlement of our elites than afflicting them with their own fecundity? No birth control means bigger families and bigger families mean diminishing-returns on privilege. An Ivy League might accept one family member as  legacy, but ten? Get ready to buy Yale a new football stadium, Daddy. And as 2-centuries of British comedy as well as the career of MC Hammer attest, nothing drains a bank account like a pack of perfidious poor relations. An endless supply of grasping grandchildren is enough to send even the most flush silicon valley billionaire running to his private chambers to count the family doubloons. If that isn’t poetic justice, then I don’t know what is.

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Poor relations, the bane of privilege

And that brings me to the second great hypocrisy of our age. It is a fact that the poor never shared in the sexually-liberated utopia promised by the birth control pill. This has been obvious to anyone who’s perused the demographics of fatherlessness and suicide among America’s lower classes in the last 40 years. In fact, it has taken all the intellectual power of our academy to ignore that plain truth.

Effective birth control depends on lifestyle choices and upward mobility. In short,  you need stability to effectively contracept and this is something that the poor have never had access to. Observe that not many rich people need Planned Parenthood and don’t expect Mark  Zuckerberg’s daughter to ever be in danger of single-motherhood. The sexual revolution was a project of the privileged and -short of sterilization (reversible or otherwise)- there is really no way for poor people to participate.

But before my brief allusion to sterilizing the poor causes the followers of Peter Singer to spontaneously salivate, could I point out the last and possibly most delectable irony of my simple solution? It would -for once in human history- invert the pattern of wealthy people dictating to the poor, the structure of family life.

We’ve seen this a thousand times in the 20th century. Between the forced sterilizations of India, the one-child policy of China, and the recent campaign to shove birth control pills down the throats of Africans, elites have have never once tired of forcing their reproductive preferences on the impoverished. But perhaps it’s time to turn the tables. The wealthy can check their privilege, punt their progesterone pills, and ante up to a lifestyle where they’re no longer in complete control of their reproduction. It might be vindictive, but it certainly smells like fairness to me.

And don’t feel too bad for those rich people. Given the populist rage brewing across the globe, we might be doing them a favor. Who knows, this radical measure might be the only stopgap to a complete revolution, and, in condemning the wealthy to a life of caring for toddlers today, we might be sparing their necks from the guillotine tomorrow (though from my understanding this might only be a marginal improvement). Still, as their descendants multiply, those same scions might be at a loss for what to do with such a great number of children. A difficult question indeed. But if things ever get too confusing, I suppose they could always eat them.

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The terrible lizards of times past, and those yet to come

Childhood memories are difficult to pin down, but one that still remains vivid was my early love of dinosaurs. Of course a childhood fascination with dinosaurs is not unusual, but the distinct image of “the dinosaur”- depicted universally in dinosaur-themed paraphernalia through the 80s- is difficult to explain to those born after 1991kong9. Long before Jurassic Park introduced realism to cinematic dinosaurs and well before revised scientific images added feathers and contours to make them distinctly animals, depictions of the ancient beasts vivified their Greek name. They were terrible lizards. Ravenous, dimwitted, cold-blooded, and above all primitive, “the dinosaur” existed as a nothing less than a primordial monster. Between the lethargic herbivores and unceasingly ravenous carnivores, there was nothing about the creatures that wasn’t rampant, unconstrained , and dominating. Less some animal that lived a long time ago, more a demon from a chaotic age that might not even exist in our epoch of reason without contaminating it with its own primordial nature.

One image in particular persists in my mind as an icon of what “the dinosaur” once was in the popular imagination. It is a painting of a late-Jurassic battle between an allosaurus and a brontosaurus. Depicted in a children’s book of dinosaurs, the image was nonetheless more gruesome than anything I had encountered as a young child. Even now, looking at the image as an adult, it is brutal. As the allosaur talons cut into sauropod’s flesh, streams of blood trickle down to the swamp and the gentle giant sways in agonizing throws. There even seems to be a sadistic joy in the countenance of the carnivore.

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The caption originally included beneath the picture only added to the scene’s poignancy. Stuck in quicksand, the sauropod had been overtaken by an allosaur, a predator it could have otherwise fended off with ease. Though unable to escape its doom, in death the brontosaurus had collapsed and crushed its assailant. Thus, the futility of the scenario was further underlined. The agonizingly cruel death of the brontosaurus was mirrored seconds later by the ironically cruel death of the allosaurus. There was nothing that justified the fate, it existed as a product of the futile prehistoric world.

I have found myself reflecting more and more on such futility, not the least when contemplating our country’s current political situation. Sure enough, there might be much in the way of a comparison between the image of two fighting prehistoric beasts and the prospect of a Hillary vs Trump race this Fall. Perhaps, a more apt analogy yet might be the opportunistic and carnivorous Trump sinking his teeth into the immobilized and bloated body of a Republican establishment (probably only to be later crushed under that establishment’s decaying husk). But still, a more disturbing comparison is on my mind.

At this point in 2016, a significant amount of commentary has comprised of “experts” castigating this election’s descent into coarseness and violence as “unprecedented”. More historically-minded pundits have been quick to point out that this might be better characterized as a throwback to a type of politics historically common in 19th century, but long since out fashion. While rare in our modern advanced age, the narrative goes,  2016 is a temporary lapse into a violent populist mode, likely never to be repeated again. But even as I am assured that our politics will momentarily return to their mundane pattern of stale choices and consistent growth, I am troubled once more by a vision of “the dinosaur”.

There was one way that the antediluvian  depictions of “the dinosaur” were accurate. There was a certain insight in the visions of unfeeling titans battling in the shadows of dimly-lit volcanoes. For all their manifest inaccuracies, the old pictures captured a truth neatly hidden away in our modern understanding of living creatures, ancient or otherwise. The truth is nothingimg9006.jpg less than the fact that animals, in their natural element, embody all the cruelty and callousness of the universe that spawned them.

It is easy to forget that when most of our interactions with animals are filtered through the lens of domestication, science, or art. The subtle censorship of the textbook encourages us to think of animals as dissected specimens, just as our experiences with domesticated companions encourages the view that they are anthropomorphic furry humans. But these fictions are paper thin, made obvious in any encounter with a wild animal. The cruelty of animals is one of the truest things about them because their violence is a product of the Darwinian forces that shape every moment of their natural lives.

Nature has a demonic element in its core, and it is a nature that humans share, no matter how our culture tells us otherwise. In modern times perhaps Nietzsche did the most to remind us of this base reality. But it was a fact well known to the ancient Greeks. Even the medieval craftsmen were aware of this chaotic nature in man and beast, and carried it forth in their depictions of animals and wildmen. Could the 20th century popularizers of  dinosaurs have unwittingly rediscovered this oft-forgotten truth?

This brings me back to our present political reality. Although I am not one prone to alarm, there is indeed a reason to be unsettled by auspices hinted at in the rise of Trump, Putin, and ISIS. Regardless of what we might be tempted to think, these actors are not historical anomalies, the persistence of our civilization is. And while it might be true that our present crop of strongmen are passing,

v0033596 (1)so too is the long illusion of continuous progress and ever-increasing economic growth that sustained the previous order. We are in a dying era and everyone, left, right, and center feels the foundations shifting beneath their feet.

It is fashionable to talk of the advancement of human civilization and the spirit of the age. But wise philosophers have long known that Olympian edifices are built upon the bones of the chaotic giants. In fact, the truly wise have known that the giants are not dead, but merely sleeping. When we hear the rumbling of their disquieted slumber, we might be reminded that on any given day the demons of the ancient world may rise in rage against our modern illusions. Because, whatever part of our own lives are folly, their hunger for dominance is real.

I struggle with expressing this sentiment, mostly because I am aware how unoriginal it is. As such,  I hope to close my speculation with words from the poet W.B. Yeats, who said it best of all.

Three By Chesterton

I recently recorded three of my favorite essays by G.K. Chesterton.

First “A Piece of Chalk”, a reflection on the little ironies in creation.

Second, “On Man:Heir of All Ages”, Gilbert’s perspective on the inheritance of history and religion.

Lastly, “The Medical Mistake” where Chesterton famously answers the question”What’s wrong with the world?”

The Mirror of the Arbitrary Standard

Still fresh off the campus PC-wars of 2015, a recent article from the New York Times highlights Mizzou’s new approach to teaching academic race theory. A key quote illustrates the tenor:

“And then there was Dr. Brooks, a 43-year-old African-American who teaches “Race and Ethnic Relations” and challenged the students to think about race through the prism of sports. He offered a gentle explanation of the Williams/Sharapova discrepancy: “Maria is considered a beauty queen, but by what standards of beauty? Some people might just say, ‘Oh, well, she’s just prettier.’ Well, according to whom? This spells out how we see beauty in terms of race, this idea of femininity. Serena is often spoofed for her big butt. She’s seen as too muscular.”

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Clash of the Standards

There has been some push-back on this piece from the right-leaning side of the blogosphere. Indeed there is much to criticize. Dr. Brooks’ assertions are the all-to-typical progressive pablum, eternally oblivious to the realities of marketing and what the general public want in advertising icons. At the end of the day, most evidence suggests that marketers cater to preexisting desires rather than injecting foreign ones into their subjects’ subconscious. If there is a legitimate critique of the reigning “beauty standard”, it will have to start on a much deeper psychological level than the salary differentials between two tennis stars.

But there is a much broader problem in this “dialogue”. The title claims that it is a “blunt” conversation on race, but there is nothing blunt about it. This is the standard “question your assumptions” line that is trot out by progressive teachers who think they understand deconstructionism but don’t. The nature of deconstruction is that it never stops. Since the perspective assumes that there is “nothing but the text”, it will eventually reduce all arguments to mere words. It is the universal solvent that cannot be contained.

In the future, historians will doubtless attribute the current popularity of this intellectual approach to the insular nature of the academy. In short, campus progressives only feel comfortable using such deconstruction-style tactics because they are confident in their unshakable monopoly within conversations on race and society. The second the monopoly is broken and the non-progressive deconstructionist enters the conversation, all meaning disintegrates and no progress can be made.

For instance, Serena Williams’  body type is indeed disadvantaged under our society’s “arbitrary standard of beauty” which prioritizes subtle curves over muscular angles. But is not Maria Sharapova also disadvantaged by an equally arbitrary standard called The Rules of Tennis? Tennis, by construction, advantages tall players with muscle and long limbs who can slam the ball across the court. A relatively petite woman, like Sharapova, can’t compete in this regard and probably never will. But once we question this standard, why do we even care about Williams or Sharapova at all? We are left only with words, not a meaningful exchange.

I have long wondered how our the modern millennial college grads, educated in such a selectively ideological environment, would react once entering slightly less homogeneous urban areas. My recent experiences have not been encouraging. Where in college my progressive friends had been radical idealists, they now think in terms of power and control. Oddly enough, I found that this phenomenon similar to the attitude I encountered when interviewing members of the fringe alt-right community. No one seemed much concerned about morality or hypocrisy, they just wanted their side to be the one in control of things.

I worry that we may have educated the first generation that actually believes expediency to be the sole value in life. But, perhaps this is my own pessimism. The unsung saints of this age may indeed be too meek to be noticed prominently. But wherever they are, I hope they are considering careers in higher education.

A Late Encounter with the Enemy

There has been much written about the inexplicable emergence of Donald Trump as the Republican frontrunner in 2016. Not surprisingly, people want an explanation for his popularity. It’s not simply that Trump is a dark horse, it’s that neither his campaign nor his constituents line up with what is considered conservative. A Trump victory at this point might upend the entire political balance, perhaps even creating a new ideological force in American politics.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames

Trump lives…..

One article that has gotten all too little attention is Michael Brendan Dougherty’s piece on a late political activist’s influence on the Trump campaign. That activist, a man by the name of Sam Francis, advised the 96′ Buchanan campaign to make a wholehearted appeal to nationalism in order to further woo the then unaffiliated white working class. A strategy that was ultimately rejected by Buchanan himself. Says Dougherty:

To simplify Francis’ theory: There are a number of Americans who are losers from a process of economic globalization that enriches a transnational global elite. These Middle Americans see jobs disappearing to Asia and increased competition from immigrants. Most of them feel threatened by cultural liberalism, at least the type that sees Middle Americans as loathsome white bigots….

What is so crucial to Trump’s success, even within the Republican Party, is his almost total ditching of conservatism as a governing philosophy. He is doing the very thing Pat Buchanan could not, and would not do. And in this, he is following the advice of Sam Francis to a degree almost unthinkable.

It’s a good explanation of the Donald’s appeal. But the presence of Sam Francis’s ideas in the Trump campaign – paired with strange tweets by Trump himself – have much darker implications for state of white identity in America than might be gleamed from Dougherty’s article.

Almost a decade ago, as part of an early college interest in fringe ideas, I came across Francis’s name associated with the then emergent “paleocon” movement. At that time older conservatives like Pat Buchannan were looking for a platform to advocate protectionist and isolationist ideas, contrasting the then dominant neocons. However, Sam Francis took that project one step further.

Working for far-right publications such as the Occidental Quarterly, Francis advocated a wholesale return to ethnic and racial monoculture. Part nostalgia, part crypto-racist tirade, Francis became known as a stepping stone between conservatism and racial nationalism. By the time I came across his work in 2005 he and his like-minded contemporaries had formed a small but prolific online band. This was the beginning of what would later be known as the alternative right.

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Sam Francis, a founder of the alt-right

At the time it was community of refugees: people who had grown up appreciating the solidarity, familiarity, and racism (through not the rank bigotry) of an earlier white America.  To the followers of Francis, the United States had been betrayed by the 1965 immigration act and could only be restored by its total reversal. How this was to be accomplished was never addressed. And while these people certainly weren’t skinhead Nazis, their contempt for non-white and non-Western immigrants was palatable.

Truth be told, I found this movement fascinating in a dark way. As a millennial educated in a progressive public school, I had been warned of evil white racists dedicated to excluding minorities. In the real world these maleficent forces were ever absent. But here at last, in a bizarre corner of the internet, were the true enemies, the racists against which all multicultural piety had been raised against. Like an old soldier stationed in a remote garrison finally catching sight of the enemy’s banner, I found arguing against the alt-right perversely exhilarating.

However, as a nefarious adversary to multiculturalism, the movement was somewhat underwhelming. Certainly the alt-right had its intellectuals, some were even talented. But those who could think and write seemed pathologically obsessed with “race realism” -the idea that racial groups have distinct and immutable physiological differences. Not unlike the modern new-atheists, alt-right thinkers were ever convinced that they had “cracked the code” and unmasked the fraud of modern liberalism. While congratulating themselves on being “brave enough to see the truth”,  they underestimated the uncertainties in the science and over-estimated its potential impact on modern society.

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 A late encounter with the enemy…

But the fledgling alt-right movement had bigger internal problems yet. Composed mainly of old baby-boomers, the community was aging fast. And while each of the cohort thoroughly denounced laws they saw as leading to America’s decline, they didn’t seem to have a single plausible policy proposal. Later that year, when I heard Sam Francis had died, I considered the movement all but ready for the dustbin of history.

More fool I. Now, a decade later, the movement is alive and thriving. The very web communities I wrote off as aging and stagnant in 2005 are, in 2016, filled with enthusiastic young voices using real names and faces to espouse explicit racial nationalism. Some can even write societal critiques that are genuinely thought provoking . Whatever happened to the alt-right, its decline was my own wishful thinking

Of course, it is always hard to gauge the relative popularity of an online community. As seen from Tumblr, it’s all too easy to mistake the ardor of core members with general political strength. But as the Trump candidacy has itself demonstrated, America seems ripe for such a movement. The alt-right knows this and ultimately the Trump campaign might be just the beginning of a larger crisis in white American identity. Contemporary liberalism ignores the phenomenon at its peril.

At this point I can hear the objections from my more level-headed readers. Why should we worry about this fringe movement? Won’t discrediting such explicitly racist ideas be easy in the modern progressive age? Well, to tell you the truth, I am not sure.

Fundamentally, the power of the civil rights movement derived from a core moral appeal to egalitarian justice. It was the Christian principles laid out in King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail that forged America’s commitment to integration and its subsequent rejection of racism and white ethnic nationalism. But such old-fashioned moral infrastructure has now been deliberately undermined by generations of progressive identity politics. When appeals of to specific racial interests become explicit, can poorer whites be long maintained in the belief that their own group interests are illegitimate?

Even the language used to identify bigotry has been fundamentally cheapened. Under white-privilege theory, the definition of “racist” now seems to include most every person of European descent. Not surprisingly the term no longer has the same impact. Even I find myself reacting to it less and less. When I was young a “racist” was a person who maliciously harmed his fellow citizens, today it’s the frat boy down the street who threw an insensitive party on Cinco de Mayo. As when an antibiotic is overused, it is only a matter of time until a resistant strain emerges.

We have a tendency to believe our own propaganda. As such symbolic preparation for an old enemy is often misguided and fundamentally ineffective. As the French discovered about the Third Reich and the Chinese discovered about the Golden Horde, highly publicized defensive structures have a tendency to be naive. The idealistic demonization of a foe prevents the very understanding necessary to confront him in reality.

I shouldn’t overstate the case. Even in its reinvigorated form, the alt-right is a disorganized trainwreck. Yet, looking at it again, it’s hard not to recognize it as a malignant tumor steadily growing in one of modern culture’s largest blindspots.

We should be vigilant. If careless liberal America might yet be shaken to its core by a late encounter with the enemy.