Excerpt: Proteus and bougonia

Continuing to post selections taken out of context from large amounts of unfinished material collected for The Constellation of Man, a work of literature planned for three volumes. All selections were written by me since 2010. Some are unrepresentative. All remain in development, subject to change. —CPB


Proteus, the deposed god of the sea, could still see through its murky depths, and consorted pleasantly with sea-creatures, behemoths and monsters. Tales of Proteus relate his daily custom to cautiously wade from the water and sleep on the shore surrounded by briny seals, like a shepherd with his flock.

Those who found Proteus dreaming there, at the threshold of his domain, could try to seize him. One resourceful enough to catch the wise old man of the depths might obtain peerless counsel. Proteus could see the past and the future.

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The appearance of dread Proteus (lit. The Infernal Proteus) depicted in 1690.

But cunning Proteus was not easily caught. He came and went in secrecy, requiring considerable guile to approach. Once grasped, holding him was even more difficult. To avoid being pinned down and divulging his mysteries, Proteus would writhe, wriggle, and suddenly change into shapes as fearsome as a serpent or wild boar, as unexpected as a leafy tree, or flame, or a torrent of water. A hero would have to dismiss these distractions. Only to him would Proteus impart hard-won truths.

So it is with introspection looking into the unconscious. The other world seems alien, capricious as the tides, then vertiginous, bottomless to the lone diver immersed and falling. Probing the depths meets strange and powerful resistance. One might have to strive despite misdirection, like Proteus’ phantasmagoria, some threatening.

This wavy sea comes replete with forms, shapes, illusions, and appearances, and below, resources, profundity, beauty, and fear. It is alive with creatures of the imagination, and as many reflections of the one who looks.

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Inner Glow of Ocean Waves, Anne Macdonald, 2013

As slippery as dreams, Proteus changes shape to avoid telling what he knows—to those who aren’t both wise to fluidity, and steadfast. But he knows the depths of us, the unvisitable deep. Literal and straightforward minds that behave as solid ground expects are never so oracular. Obtaining answers requires an indirect approach, and the wit to know that answers take on many guises. [Compare the figurative language of esoteric symbols invented to capture spiritual experiences. Like dream meanings inferred post hoc—sparer than all the feelings and intricacies of a dream—symbols deployed after the event grasp at more significance than words can hold, a nonverbal reality on its own terms.]

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Menelaus binding Proteus, as depicted in 1574.

Wily Proteus resists, yet he is not unwilling. Proteus is there, waiting to be caught, ready to yield his knowledge to the one who needs it and prepares himself for it. The trial of Proteus tests understanding and courage. The hero who passes the test accepts the undersea with its difficult wisdom as his own domain for as long as the revelation lasts, much as meditative introspection can recognize the unconscious and embrace it, learning much. To the contrary way of thinking and fighting against oneself, that domain remains quite apart, antagonistic and alien. Homer tells us that when Menelaus is stranded for some time on his voyage home from the siege of Troy by ill winds, he is only able to sail on the sea once he takes stock of his situation by Proteus’ means, reconciles himself, and thus propitiates his gods.

Knowledge comes out of a great unseen unknown. At least that is how the upwelling appears to one who has become an outsider to the fabulous realms of suggestion. The hero is making a petition to render the uncontainable truth. And first, that one must embrace the mutable monstrum that bubbles up from an unfamiliar well. [The monstrum being both “monster” and “portent.”]

The paradox of the self asking knowledge of the deeper, unknown self is this: We must already have the hidden knowledge somewhere—for we are asking ourselves—and yet we do not possess it. That is, we have not yet managed to acknowledge or reconcile the precursor of knowing. Operating under conscious guises and limitations, we do not have easy access to the unformulated.

The case of petitioning the liquid unknown for concrete knowledge amounts to steeling oneself to recognize what one does already know, after some obtuse and unrealized fashion: what must be done, or, what one hardly wants to realize.

Homer has Menelaus master Proteus—with some difficulty, and divine help, typical trope of such stories—to tell him not only what he must do to finally return home, but also what he does not want to admit. He learns what has befallen his friends, comrades and family after the long voyage home from the siege of Troy: death, murder, betrayal, stranding, loss.

Tales of Proteus have him tell heroes how they can repair the harm caused by alienating a god or demigod by past sin they had never reconciled.

Virgil says that Aristaeus, the pastoral god who devised beekeeping, sought a remedy for the mysterious demise of his bees. His mother the nymph Cyrene coaches him to surprise, grab and bind Proteus fast through his vicious changes—boar, tiger, serpent, lioness, flame, river. This Aristaeus does.

Proteus discloses that Aristaeus’ crime of pursuing the wife of Orpheus to her accidental death has had vengeance haunting him.

The ritual sacrifice Aristaeus then makes brings forth live bees, boiling from the stomachs of the oxen burning on the altars. Thus Virgil explains the provenance of the apicultural ritual of bougonia, the bovine sacrifice rumored to regenerate the hives with new bees, usually slaughter followed by burial, or covering with dung. One version specified formulaic steps for beating an ox to death, sealing it shut precisely, and walling it in for weeks.

Binding the terrifying faces of Proteus obtains more than the secrets of a seer. These are more than secrets. They are sorrows, shames and sins.

The seeker binds his doubts, aversions, and fears. He does not force the whole unconscious to his service, or tame the primal. This would misread the significance of this flavor and style, along literal lines preferred by rationalized symbolism. On the contrary, he forces his inner resistances but supplicates his inner pantheon, and old man Proteus embodies both.

With these strange littoral petitions, we enter into a domain of potency, ferocity, intensity, even savagery, at least in metaphors—enlisting the primal forces of the psyche and the vital forces of the body. Acting too tamely in the face of adverse primal obstacles means suffering passively, like stranded Menelaus first merely waiting for the sea to calm so he can sail home.

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Bugonia, Justin Gibbens, 2011

The sacrifice of bougonia makes a cruelly literal ritual of the figurative. Modern men would infer the theory of spontaneous generation, and analogy to flies swarming on rotting flesh. If it were rationalized, the hexagonal lining of the reticulum conjured bees by the principle of similarity to honeycomb. We work rather in the realms permissive of association here, casting out physical anchors as afterthoughts, and in myth, cast inner performances as named actors.

The hero seeks after rejuvenation. The seeker is conjuring primitive lifegiving out of himself once again, through forgiveness and reconciliation of the past. He honors and supplicates the deities of his unconscious with slaughter and immolation. He was the bull; he is the bees. He contains the advisor on his side; he contains the gods who were ill-disposed; he contains Proteus himself also.

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Excerpt: spirit as metaphor for sex (and vice versa)

Continuing to post selections taken out of context from large amounts of unfinished material collected for The Constellation of Man, a work of literature planned for three volumes. Some compositions are unrepresentative in style, subject, or themes. All remain under development, subject to change. All selections were written by me since 2010. —CPB


It is too literal to believe that the cilice is worn no longer [by modern and secular people]. It is too literal to believe that penitence, or mortification to suppress the concupiscence to commit acts of sin, are obsoleted when these words are left to grow unfamiliar and antique.

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Die Jungfrauen by Gustav Klimt, 1913

Of all acts of desire formerly proscribed by religious authority, and forms of hedonism still censured in spirit, lust troubles most intimately. Even after the most diligent corruption of the youth to mistrust the body has passed from common instruction, the taboo body lingers, and puberty makes it a stranger. One generation passes shame, secrecy, and silence to another. The next passes awkwardness and avoidance to another. Overcoming schooled inhibition requires touching again and again, talking again and again, practicing again and again.

Some of the most immodest or promiscuous remain firmly in thrall. To want to prove that transgression of a taboo is possible proves also that the taboo holds—at least enough to tempt, and has not been thoroughly overcome. To transgress compulsively, to reduce sex to mere performance of acts, is to forget the tabu indicates sexual physicality is holy, not merely forbidden. Along this line, we can learn more than an error from those who still condemn lust as a sin.

The dangers of leaving desires to seethe unreleased, leading to unintended perversions of libido, have been extensively described. Indeed, religious modesty hides more than flesh. Suppression perpetuates undercurrents of fiendish attention to sexuality, as well as anticipating sin from such preoccupation. It forbids an appetite and fulfills an expectation, a guilty loop.

But more than cultivating obsessive attention, it also encourages another species of attention: a conscientiousness surrounding sexuality, hinted at by the concepts “purity” and “innocence,” an aura easily left behind when sexuality is rendered common and taken for granted. A purely utilitarian, matter-of-fact attitude toward sex would dispense with shame, anxiety, and bashfulness, and Eros too.

To actually encourage being present in the sexual act goes too far for those who worry about participation. Inhibited by shame, they are generally unable to obtain the fruits of such cultivation. These fruits are spiritual in a metaphorical sense of spirit, while the facilitating practice for present sensual, erotic, and ecstatic experience is—outwardly and physically—foreplay, sexual intercourse, and orgasm. They are too timid about that ritual to enter the temple’s Holy of Holies. No one can meet the god from a distance, performing self-conscious sex without abandon. No one honors Eros without fucking.

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Danaë by Gustav Klimt, 1907

Yet religious sanctity is of a kind with presence in the act, and not in total opposition. Those who still identify sex with sin at least intensify attention to sex, even though—and partly because—they are not supposed to. They know at least to impart significance to sex, and not demote a potentially profound neurogenic experience to a material interaction, or a biological drive. Preoccupation or obsession does heighten experience, despite unfortunate condemnation of the means of fruition and deemphasis of method. So do the various, overlaid religious frames treating sex as a profound, spiritual matter and not a mundane one.

Whereas, the alternate error of those called licentious is always to harvest, never to cultivate; that is, not to impart a neurogenic halo to the sexual acts, but to expend these occasions without reverence, and without intent to “set the mood” for any meaning beyond the obvious. This potentially reduces pleasure to expending the heightened senses of physicality, without attuning the senses for a broader neurogenic significance while they are heightened. Opportunities for peak experiences are lost.

That would also be the cost of coming to see sex as “simply biological,” the urgent need which one simply discharges, and gets back to something more important. One forms utilitarian relationships for this purpose, without emotional or spiritual attachments. One is too rarely struck, as by a lightning bolt, by an orgasm with meaning. One is too rarely shocked. Perhaps not at all.

It might be better not to lose the long-taught memory of shame, if this must be the price. Fortunately the price is paid unnecessarily by those who do. The mystique of sexuality need not be lost because the shame is lost, and because the moralizing has been, in its turn, lectured at, judged, and rejected.

Excerpt: excuses and criticisms for electing inferiors

Sometimes I accidentally write political science, in the context of trying to write more compelling literature. I say that only half-flippantly. Experience tires of what it knows too familiarly, you see. Besides, politics skips over many things I consider essential preliminaries, in order to arrive at loud, thoughtless disagreement that much more efficiently.

NB: Not written about current events specifically, but germane, and therefore I am posting it. I do not write about current events, per se. Current events tend to come back to the same things, again and again. I do write about those things.

Without further ado, an excerpt from work in progress:

When it became fairly apparent (to others) that in time, manifest inferiors would rule democratic republics instead of the best men (in any usual sense, moral or able)—as so often happens in present day, in the calculus of voting machines, mass media, party and political machines—they made excuses. Rationalizations, critiques, and theories proliferated, and they have ever since. Most have blamed technicalities of constitutional procedure, or electoral process, for these “wrong” results. Many have blamed an uneducated citizenry. Partisans blame opponents.

All these critiques come from ideological agreement, from those convinced of the rightness of democracy, or at least taking it for granted (a tenet without alternative), often from insiders in the political class.

They would never conclude, for instance, that corrupt bargains for influence promoting oligarchs and plutocrats among the political class describes an equilibrium of theoretical popular governance, no matter its design.

Insiders in particular would never interpret lack of intellectual competence among bureaucrats and politicians of the state as [suitable] avoidance of misspent, frustrated careers by competent people who have other ambitions and serve other masters. And the more enormous the bureaucracy, the more immune its unelected mediocrity to change by election of very few supervising officials, and their direct appointees.

An unusual critique from outside the consensus lamented a perversion of the natural order by the weakening effect of misguided egalitarian doctrines, from democratic, Judeo-Christian, and socialist origins, promoted with the effect, if not also the intention, that diminutive, weak men could overcome their superiors. Men had become sheeplike, or overly tamed.

This critique happened to agree with neo-aristocrats, oligarchs, and republicans alike that the many, especially the uneducated mob, were not to be trusted with the reins of government. Inferior men could climb up on their backs, to loud applause. Voting was a godsend to the ambitious political creatures whose talents lay in demagoguery, empty promises, fear-mongering, and other unscrupulous means.

But to the traditional mistrust of demagogues, this critique added the [interesting] charge that the potential quality of men had been corrupted, not only by lacking education but also by excess of rote, mass education in uniformity, agreement, and passivity—in the name of equality and good citizens, instead of serving the more venerable, selective educational goal of cultivating a remarkable elite.

Other outsiders critiqued democratic principle not for its foundation upon the many, but for sanctioning and legalizing the might of the many—called mob rule in its informal guise—as though numbers excused or ennobled the exercise of power, and in this case alone, might makes right.

They saw no reason for surprise whenever democratic republics failed. For democratic institutions remained systems for assigning compulsory powers, not fundamentally unlike any ancient state for having devised representation, imagined “good government,” and forgotten the origins of governance in oppression by conquerors, caste, or class.

They summarized that history has always reflected a generally conflicted (if not inverse) relationship between attracting the best men and offering them power. Power to enforce one’s will instead, unsurprisingly, attracts those who cannot exercise any consistent restraint, or corrupts those who have power, including those born into it. Exercise of power for aggrandizement is rarely tempered, with difficulty, only temporarily, and somewhat against the natural tendency.

In fact the founders of modern constitutional republics were not unaware of this critique. Among them, skeptics of democracy as a positive good admitted they could not answer it, and feared it would prove correct. They were not naive enough to believe that men who acquired might would somehow cease to crown themselves right. They hoped that individual rights could find protection for a time, despite tyrants, oligarchs, mobs and demagogues.

Now, the context for generating this digression was: writing about right and might (the famous debate in Thucydides over the fate of the poor island of Melos crops up) as an unusual, applied way of writing about a distinction between the “neutral” descriptive function of idealized science, and the prescriptive, normative, or persuasive functions of value-driven fields such as ethics, or applied science (medicine, psychiatry, engineering), arts, or religion. In a nutshell, saying what happens is importantly, quite different from saying what should happen.

Talking about how those two purposes can either corrupt, or assist each other, is very important to the philosophy of science, to argumentation, to psychology, and to pretty much any subject that people have positions about, or try to understand. Half of political discourse is really about trying to blur the two. (The Athenians certainly do in Thucydides.)

So actually, this is a representative selection in a sense, not for its specific subject material, but because it came about from the larger goal of teaching and reconsidering fundamentals through novel illustrations. In this case, philosophy of science through the lens of political science, in particular, all the thinking surrounding right and might, might makes right, etc. I went off on the tangent above (it happens), broke off that piece, and here you are.

Redux

img_3154What? This blog isn’t dead, quite yet?

I’ve neglected blog posts for a long while, while I stuck to a policy of keeping my head down and working in secret on unpublished work. For years now, I’ve preferred not to be drawn into the trap of writing for other people, or serving others’ expectations.

Discipline doesn’t come as easily to me as I wish. Writers and thinkers crave audiences and attention as the least of their rewards.

But I spent so many of my early years writing for web publication and a “movement,” that finally writing books for nobody else, struggling alone in the process, was perhaps a necessary evolution in mindset.

As much as getting feedback plays into a compulsive reward system, it’s ultimately false, hollow, and a terrible practice for a philosopher to write reactively, which Twitter debates, or to a lesser extent, academic debates encourage.

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That lovely day.

Social media fans these flames like nothing else, so I quit most of it. I also hate what the petty-narcissism outlets did to the internet communities I once loved, so my aversion really only grew logically. Once the Face-commodifying clamped down on promotion by traffic throttling pages and posts, I had little use for swimming in their goldfish bowls any more.

img_2286I repeat, false. A lot of the racket is reassuring people of their own relevance, when in fact they are almost all obscure and powerless, or “along for the ride.”

Accepting the truth, that I would potentially be creating works for few to see, was the price for continuing to create what I consider “the necessary work” during this modern nadir of literature, intellect, and humanism, in the faith that “one day,” a receptive environment and opportunity would exist once again.

It’s the fancy of an Irish monk in the Dark Ages, perhaps, but why not. (I’m all the more inclined to double down on the Dark Ages analogy after reading Stefan Zweig’s memoir Die Welt von Gestern, recalling how the culture of Europe used to be.) At least I would let no one else, and nothing trivial set the agenda besides the integral needs of the work and the future.

And so, I’ve spent years comparatively offline. I quit spending time and effort writing “extra,” disposable stuff, like posts, tweets, comments, or caring much about them. I went silent on current events and political issues.

I quit publishing anything independently, on the web or in print. I quit worrying about getting books published at large, corporate houses. I broke with commercial goals, as well as audience-building promotional goals, that inevitably influence thought and writing, ideas and art, far more than today’s creators of media really understand. I put some promising, arguably-essential manuscripts for “compromise” books on the back burner, mostly. I hope to get back to them.

I’ve spent years now almost strictly on quietly developing a project that’s meant to be more magnificent and challenging than anything else I’ve done, or tried to do. That is saying something, given that one of those other, back-burner books is a fresh look at philosophy of mind and a new personality theory in light of contemporary insights from cybernetics and anthropology.

I have no idea how the upcoming work will get to anyone’s eyes or hands. There’s been a strange freedom in not worrying about that, and just creating something amazing and important, free of constraints, and asking: what does that look like? I’ve been working in obscurity, almost in secret, as I can. Hardly anyone has seen any incomplete bits. Out of context, I don’t think the scope can be understood by anyone. Envisioning the “whole” is frequently enough beyond me, honestly. Such is the ambition of the literature that I feel needs to be created, so that it exists for the people who realize they need it.

I guess I’ve strewn many indications of intent around in other content in the past, without any real intention, as though I had bread crumbs to leave in a trail. (In fact, I was still inventing the bread and still am.) For instance, in here:

Pioneering advanced ideas and techniques among those who lack more fundamental ones is not possible. The unfortunate mis-education of our times—to ignore some important things, misunderstand others, and particularly to fight against oneself—remains a terrible and broad obstacle in the way of human progress. Those who have somehow escaped serious mis-education or clawed their way back out of brainwashing are as scarce as hen’s teeth, far fewer than those who believe they have.

I aim to address the problem seriously, almost from the ground up, by supplementing available modern resources for self-education and holistic education (Bildung). This new work will be my answer to the challenge of reorienting any enterprising reader so that change can happen for him or her, despite unlucky mis-education. Of course, my goal is not merely remedial, so I have also labored to refine insights at the cutting edge of self-knowledge and understanding.

And follow this link for strong hints. An excerpt:

It is not an exaggeration to state that once the most important books with the greatest, deepest, densest powers to influence and change minds at their roots could not have existed as anything else besides religious works of prophets, seers, and philosophers. Other books argue over words at the surface, which often seems more safe. Essentially the ambition to engage more deeply would have been known as a religious, mystical impulse rather than a psychological, scientific one.

Now there is an extraordinary opportunity to bring more to bear on the multifaceted problem of understanding and developing the mind deeply and thoroughly

Also, there was the video rambling journal that announced the probable final title, early this year: The Constellation of Man. Since then, I’ve put the work I’ve been able to do into figuring out the book and not into more or better video journals—not yet. Since then, I also have virtually finalized the titles of the volumes, and apportioned the themes of each—but that’s a pretty cool angle I think, so I won’t spoil it now.

img_2192Also last and least, the occasional cryptic artifact of work-in-progress, on a mostly hedonic, gourmet-and-travel Instagram feed.

However, to return to the matter at hand: all things must change lest they calcify. I’m bored with not publishing. I miss the motivation of preparing work to show, on occasion. That’s nothing new exactly, and I’ve still resisted for the reasons of avoiding corruption, stated above. But now I’ve had years to learn “discipline”also—not referring to work habits so much as a different way of thinking about the work that’s perpendicular to the grain, in independence of motivation.

I’m seriously considering reversal of my policy; I’m considering excerpts of work in progress. Would showing prematurely spoil the work?  How important is it for no one to see my magnum opus before it is complete in its entirety?

Some of the least important parts are the ones I’m most likely to show. Some tangents make fine essays on their own. These are the sorts of digressions that may be edited out in any case, because The Constellation of Man is not a book of essays at heart.

On the other hand, I’ve learned that usually, the one person who gets the work-in-progress is the writer. Showing drafts of work rather than the perfected version confuses people who aren’t used to trusting or imagining where the potential is headed.

Hmm.

How Not to Argue: Begging the Question

Pretending that no debate exists or is possible between reasonable people may be my least appreciated debate tactic, because it’s such a cheap trick. It’s a moralistic trick as well as a fault of argumentation. And yet it draws in third parties on your side, which is really the whole point of being unfair to your opponent(s) in these cases.

Let’s take an illustration that I’ve seen quite often, an argument, well more of an assertion, that consists of complaining about the rude, mean people who just don’t play along with the approved terminology of “political correctness,” which simply means “being polite,” as far as you’re concerned—that’s “you” the hypothetical complainer. (NB: This is just an example of a tactic promoting a position I’m neither arguing for, nor against, at least in this post.)

Is the cheat quite clear, here? It’s the deeply disingenuous pretense that those people already subscribe to the same interpretation of “political correctness”: that it simply consists of politeness. They aren’t debating anything in that case. They’re simply misbehaving. So you-the-complainer don’t have to listen to their opinion, and you’ve pretended away the debate.

Of course, in reality, the debate is about whether “political correctness” is more about thought policing, than mere “politeness.” Those who think the former don’t share the same premise, and they (actually do) dispute yours. THAT is what the debate is about—NOT about how impolite those people therefore are, under your moral judgment, for violating your terms of “political correctness.” What PC stands in for, operationally, is the whole debate. And in fact, let’s briefly note that using this end-run tactic supplies a supportive, albeit anecdotal point to the “thought-policing” side!

No matter what you personally think is irrelevent, and that isn’t the point at the moment; it should still be possible to engage in a debate by admitting it exists, NOT by pretending it is already resolved and people who disagree with you are all bad people. That eliminates the agency of others entirely and insults their intelligence.

Of course, SOME people who disagree may behave rudely in their manner, besides. This is entirely beside the point that denying their substantive disagreement by dismissing it, and presuming the matter resolved, is fallacious argumentation* that proves nothing… except that there is more than one way to be rude.

Rinse and repeat for climate change, and a batch of other hotly contested issues. Be fair to your opponents’ positions, and be sure you’re representing them adequately. If you can’t debate the best possible version of their position, it’s because you have something to learn from it after all.

* The original referent of “begging the question” is the logical fallacy of petitio principii, a form of circular reasoning. There is also an aspect of an ad hominem fallacy at work in this case.

Trump: Fascist in style, as well as substance

Dave Weigel reports:

“Sal Russo, the longtime Republican strategist who co-founded the Tea Party Express PAC in 2009, came to Nevada to back Cruz. He used some downtime to attend Trump’s Monday night rally on the Strip, which packed nearly 10,000 people into an arena, eight times more than had ever attended a Cruz rally in the state. “I’ve been to a lot of rallies,” said Russo. “I’ve never seen anything like this one. He would say something — ‘punch that guy in the face!’ — and the veins would be popping out of people’s necks.”

Victory for Trump in Nevada: one more step (three in a row now) to electing a fascist in style, as well as substance.

(The substance of fascism has already been building up to some kind of crescendo, if you’re knowledgable about fascism in policy—ratcheting since the era of Mussolini and FDR actually, not just since 9-11. I would argue that the style of fascism has been building since 9-11, too.)

Trump continues to lead dramatically in polls, and shows the ability to draw voters from every standard polling demographic. Unless something strange occurs, he will be the nominee at this rate. So a celebrity billionaire may be the exception that proves the rule, that an outsider with grassroots support usually cannot break through firewalls of party rules, cheats, and intended hurdles set up by the establishment to crush alternatives they view as insurgencies, like the candidacy of Jeffersonian Ron Paul.

If Trump continues to be able to attract throngs at this rate, in fact, he can become President, by motivating angry people to vote who hadn’t necessarily before. And then of course, he will wield the great and terrible discretionary powers that have been assembled over many years by politicians who fancied themselves in charge, and not a loudmouth real estate mogul populist. Obama’s executive order precedents, for example, will be a way for Trump to get around Congress.

It does not help that his likely establishment opponent in the other party is a thuggish operator, a conniving but incompetent criminal, a warmonger bought off by warmongers, and thoroughly corrupt—the first female gangster in the White House, if you will. Hillary Clinton is unpopular with many civilized people outside the usual party-machine voting blocks, and unlikely to motivate great numbers in her own right.

Proponents of democracy as a positive good in itself are going to have trouble accepting this, but the mob (most voters) love a strongman, as long as they think he is “theirs.” They always have. That’s where successful dictators come from; not from some unpopular military junta, but from genuine popularity, like Caesar or Napoleon or Hitler. The usual historical outcome of democratic institutions within a powerful (centralized) state is that “the people” entrust their futures to a strongman who suggests he will overturn the elites they hate.

My fellow dissidents in America, it’s time to follow the wise example of Robert Higgs and give serious, pragmatic thought to an exit strategy. (Dr. Higgs, among the greatest living intellectual critics of the state and an expert on American authoritarianism, has already moved to Mexico.)

On Satire

Some comments on utilizing satire for social criticism (I think I’m qualified, having taken the genre to heart enough to write a 600-some page novel replete with it):

Listen to the wise words of absurdist-satirist presidential candidate Vermin Supreme, who was asked whether he wouldn’t have to raise taxes to fulfill his campaign promise to provide free ponies to everyone in America: “No, they’re free ponies.”

Satire of political economy is difficult when many genuinely think no further about economics than what they want, right now—and not at “what is not seen”* as Bastiat put it—but I think Vermin’s (feigned) assured refusal to get the question really nailed it. Vermin Supreme knows how to speak to, and for, (many or most) modern Americans.

Unfortunately, satire has no way to reach the people who don’t get it. It’s an unfortunate general weakness of social satire that the people who most need to get the joke are the people at whose expense the joke is made. Therefore it flies over their heads.

I remember much the same thing with the militarism of the movie Starship Troopers; those who found it just an enjoyable, thrilling action film romp (and those who didn’t, but also thought it had nothing much to say to them) are those immersed, naively, in a culture of normalized nationalist and imperialist propaganda.

Robocop had the same problem with becoming visible as satire to a generation raised on both absurdly violent films and cop-as-hero legends propagated by mass media. (Even recently, it’s unabashed in prolefeed like the CBS show Blue Bloods.) The mythology of police righteousness is only just now (I think?) becoming distinguishable, foreign and strange enough to be noticed—and potentially rejected—by a large number, instead of perfectly normal to the culture, and invisible as propaganda.

I love the genre of satire from an artistic standpoint and it can be very difficult to separate that affection from adequately, realistically measuring its effectiveness. I believe George Orwell, the writer of my favorite satire, had much the same problem. His favorite books included Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, and he felt drawn to expressing his own criticisms of automatic thinking (“the gramophone mind”**) collaborating with authoritarian impulses, in this form above others. It’s certainly entertaining to those who slyly get the joke, but remarkably impenetrable to those who do not.

Orwell’s intended preface to Animal Farm, rejected by the publisher, reflects some of his own ambivalence about satire. For there Orwell felt the need to render in explicit prose some of his intention, instead of letting the book speak for itself.

Personally, I know that I have benefitted from reading the implicit, humorous, artful criticism of satire all the more in the context of reading such trenchant, direct, and explicit statements and analyses, also.

Satirists generally forget that many of their audience lack education in the points necessary to understand the attack, and to fully benefit from the art of satire, much as abstract visual art speaks more (and more emotionally) to those who have some familiarity with its prerequisites. It’s no coincidence that the satirical novel evolved alongside the literary form of the essay.

PS. I’ve said so before, but I just want to append that an additional difficulty with satire is that inventing fictional exaggerations as means to mock reality becomes more and more challenging when extreme and absurd realities are already playing out. How do you skewer an intelligence chief who built himself an Enterprise bridge as a control center? How do you mock Trumpish narcissism?

* Examples of “what is not seen” (because these factors are invisible, or only appreciated on a delay, or on alternate possible timelines):
impositions upon other individuals and groups, opportunity costs of various relative priorities, financial costs and other unwanted and unforeseen outcomes like bureaucratic/state empowerment, loss of individual autonomy, decline or replacement of competitive services, and legal/regulatory burdens, and finally, alternate methodologies for actually obtaining desires besides demanding them by political dispensation, which may not actually work.

** “For all I know, by the time this book is published my view of the Soviet régime may be the generally-accepted one. But what use would that be in itself? To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.” — from Orwell’s intended preface to Animal Farm