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.

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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.