Thursday, January 12, 2017

Cowboys And Nazis; Alt-FanFic

Men In Black and Brown

I watched both HBO's Westworld and the second season of Amazon's Man in the High Castle with deepening ambivalence. Formally, I found both productions entertaining and visually exciting; real pleasures to watch. The casting, acting, cinematography, sets and costumes are the best any fan of scifi could hope for. And while I could nit pic some of the writing choices, my misgivings about both shows are political. Because of our political moment, shows about mega-rich rape tourists and a Fascist ruled America ARE disturbing. But the problem with both shows isn't their subject matter, it is that they treat their subjects like fan fiction - they uncritically except the exact fictions that crony-capitalists and white nationalists want and need to believe about themselves - the fictions our current kakistocrats want and need us to believe.
To be clear, I am in no way using "fan fiction" as a derogatory label. I enjoy fanfic and have even written some - but the way fanfic works best is when it is in agreement with the fictional world it is set within. Both Westworld and Man In The High Castel are based within fictions - the fictions of the "supermanager" and "master race" - fictions that buttress, rather than undermine oligarchs and racists. I am not arguing that the makers of Westworld necessarily believe in, or in any way support oligarchy over democracy, or that anyone the production of Man In The High Castle are white supremacists or antisemites. But as actual American Nazis-wannabes Sieg Heil President-Elect Donald Trump, and as we look forward to an ever growing divide between the super rich and everyone else, the fictions these programs embrace over-write real facts - facts unfriendly to the worst - and do so at a time when we all need to be at our most critical.
Kinder Animateur

A lot of criticism of Westworld has focused on the rapey (and at times, straight up rapist) violence and sadism, as well as the Abrams/Noland fetish for bewildering mystery - all of which, there is plenty. But the aspect of the show I found most disturbing was the world we never see, the off-screen world we are left to imagine. In his book TrekonomisEmmanuel Saadia is a sort of Plato's Cave-anthropologist. He uses the evidence of what we see on-screen in the various Star Trek series in the same way Plato's prisoners interpret the shadows cast on the wall before them. In this half light Sasdia tell us about the economics of the off-screen universe - mentioned, sometimes glimpsed, but never really seen - a non-zero-sum world of infinite abundance.

“Quite reasonably" Saadia writes, "Star Trek predicts that once poverty is overcome, whatever the means or the process, most of the behaviors and pathologies that usually follow in its wake will disappear. Hunger, crime, war and most forms of social turmoil will be disposed of. Having grown up in a world where material want is unknown, a thing of the past, Federation citizens can be productive, satiated and unconcerned by death, at peace with themselves and with the universe. No wonder they cruise around the galaxy like Bodhisattvas.”
Fordism vs Trekonomics

Saadia argues that "the citizens of the Federation... are a fundamentally alien species, but not because of some of them sport a blue­ish skin tone or pointy ears. They are alien because they were born and raised in a radically different, even foreign environment." That "foreign environment" is the off-screen political message of Star Trek, that it is "quite reasonable" to expect poverty will be over come, and that prosperity can be shared by all. (Full disclosure, Saddia is a good friend - someone I know IRL - and he used an image of my art for his book cover.)  My favorite part of Trekonomics is Saadia's discussion of poverty and abundance, which I found especially compassionate, and is worth quoting at length:
A world without even a hint of poverty or economic scarcity literally changes its inhabitants' brains. When watching Star Trek, one easily forgets what poverty truly is and the kind of toll it takes. For poverty does not only consist in economic hardship. It is not just a matter of money or accounting. The debilitating effects of financial distress go well beyond limited spending power. Poverty breeds uncertainty and anxiety. It occupies your every waking thoughts and it even sneaks into your dreams. It ties you down and prevents you from planning for the future, because you must worry first and foremost about meeting your immediate needs and those of your family. You might not make the rent, or you might have to choose between the rent and skipping several meals. You are constantly faced with bad choices, it is exhausting, it is scary, it is back­breaking. Poverty creeps into all aspects of your existence, from parenting, education and opportunity to social relations, the incidence of chronic disease, violence, life expectancy and even, love. It has been shown that the many stresses associated with poverty have a direct and measurable physiological impact on children's brain development. They also tend to rob people of their capacity to make rational economic decisions. In places where poverty is prevalent it reproduces itself and gets passed on from one generation to the next. Getting into poverty is considerably easier than getting out of it.
I would add only a clarification, that the citizens of the Federation do not owe their alien Bodhisattva-like natures to being rich, they owe it to the total absence of poverty - the two are entirely different. That isn't fanfic, that is supported by reality, by statistical facts.
Willoughby and William
In his book, Capital in the 21st Century, the French economist Thomas Piketty made a compelling case for a global wealth tax by assembling massive historical data sets on wealth inequality, but also by making references to 19th century literature. To play cowboy and Indian, is also to play Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac. It is to imagine yourself on a tiny frontier of a very particular world - one of tremendous wealth imbalance:
Notwithstanding the extravagance of some of their characters, these nineteenth-century novelists describe a world in which inequality was to a certain extent necessary: if there had not been a sufficiently wealthy minority, no one would have been able to worry about anything other than survival. This view of inequality deserves credit for not describing itself as meritocratic, if nothing else. In a sense, a minority was chosen to live on behalf of everyone else, but no one tried to pretend that this minority was more meritorious or virtuous than the rest. In this world, it was perfectly obvious, moreover, that without a fortune it was impossible to live a dignified life. 
The fantasy of the West is the fantasy of "making one's fortune", "the self-made man", of escape from "a patrimonial society characterized by a hyperconcentration of capital, in which inheritance and marriage played a key role and inheriting or marrying a large fortune could procure a level of comfort not obtainable through work or study." This is exactly the world we see shadows of in Westworld: William is a perfect Balzacian or Austenian striver. He is visiting the park with his future brother-in-law, Logan. William works, and is poor, Logan owns, and is rich.
Attribute Matrix
While Piketty warns against political instability, showing that we are are headed toward even greater wealth and income disparity than those which presaged the French and Russian revolutions, He doesn't make the case for why inequality is bad for all of us. Five years before Piketty published Capital, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett - both are experts, not in economics, but instead epidemiology - published, The Spirit LevelIn it they describe the relationships between income inequality and a whole range of health and social problems. These aren't ideological arguments they are making. They aren't philosophers, valuing equality arbitrarily as a presumed good - these are epidemiologists, their findings based on statistics. The most startling conclusion Wilkinson and Pickett reach is that growing inequality not only effects the very poor, it effects the very rich.

This is an amazing idea: if you are a rich person in a country with a low gini coefficient, like Japan, you and your family are more likely to live a longer, be healthier, and less likely to suffer from mental illness, violence, or obesity.  While if you are a rich person from a country with a high gini coefficient, like the USA, the opposite is true. Depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, and narcissism are all higher in unequal societies. Illegal drug use, death from alcohol abuse, and Pickett points to the UK's "epidemic of self-harm in young people" - grim - but not inevitable. As she explains:
Almost all countries in the Western world have seen big rises in income inequality over the past few decades… Those rises aren't due to some natural phenomena, they’re a result of political choices; they’re a result of the grip that Neoliberal economics took hold as a model for how we construct our economies - how we do capitalism. And the thing is, is that the people who put that model together, they didn’t know about the links between income inequality and health and social problems. They thought a rising tide would lift all boats, and that actually the economic model that they were proposing was going to lead to increased prosperity for for all. They were wrong, but they did it from a position of ignorance, the data were not available then. We are in a different place. We know. We know that their model didn’t work, and we know know that inequality has a causal effect on health and social problems. We can see it being lived out in the bodies and minds and feeling of our young people every single day.
Rapey Narcissists
What kind of society supports an amusement park for the mega wealthy, that caters to their desire to kill and rape? The Westworld theme park is a luxury. One that its visitors believe are better than the real world they live their daily lives in. William, and the other visitors we meet are their societies' most wealthy and privileged  citizens. Yet, just like the most wealthy and privileged citizens of today's United States, William and his fellow park visitors are more likely to experience high levels of status anxiety, expressed as narcissism and sociopathy, to suffer from drug dependence and obesity.

To believe in Westworld, you must believe in an off-screen world dominated by an economic elite that craves the freedoms and privileges of the wild-west, a future drenched in a nostalgia for 19th century Manifest Destiny. - that is a future drowning in 19th century inequality. Westworld is meritocracy fan-fic. Ford and the other supermanagers featured on the show are super-humanly capable. One can assume that they deserve salaries hundreds of times higher than the butchers, Felix and Sylvester - whose employment, we are told, is precarious at best.
Men In Black

The myth of the individual entrepreneur as inventive genius is one a near-majority of American voters seem to believe already - but its a myth, one that isn't backed up by research or statistics. Call it a secular prosperity theology. For the believer, the best world is one where there is someone to look down on, the more the better one presumes. A hierarchy of contempt where citizens look down on immigrants, where whites look down of blacks, men look down on women and the old heap contempt on the young. At the top of the heap is the narcissist who enjoys contempt for all.

The myth of meritocracy over-writes the reality, that of the Rentier - an increasingly permanent class of inherited wealth, whose capital "rent" earns more money than any form of human labor possibly can possibly hope to match - so even supermanagers like William will need to marry into wealth. It is the reality that the myth of the frontier offered an escape from in the 19th century, but in Westworld, is inescapable. 

The Westworld amusement park is what the Nazis referred to as Lebensraum - or virtual Lebensraum. Instead of "living space" for nationalist folk, it is territory for corporate sociopaths and narcissists to play out their fantasies. While I squirmed watching the oligarch fanfic of Westworld, more troubling still is the fanfic of Man In The High Castel. There is, even seventy-odd years after they were soundly defeated, still an air of infallibility and power around the Nazis; the Autobahn, the speed and ferocity of Rommel's Blitzkrieg, the power of the Nazi ideology to motivate fanatic loyalty. This version of history is most alive in genre fiction (and the History channel), where Nazis uncover the Arc of the Covenant, hide on the dark side of the moon, build planet destroying weapons, or, most recently, conquer America. These scifi Nazis are cruel, but efficient; monstrous, but capable; evil, but unblinking in their zealotry.

The first time I can remember this fictional image of the Nazis questioned, was as a high schooler, in an afterward by the scifi author David Brin, for his novella, Thor Meets Captain AmericaI've been thinking of David's words a lot in the past few weeks, it's worth repeating in full:  
The parallel-world story is another mainstay of SF. It explores the old question: What would have happened if…? If a fly buzzing above a bowl of soup had dipped too low, getting caught, disgusting a Roman centurion, who took his wrath out on an underling, sending him out on an extra patrol, which detected Hannibal's army in the Alps early enough to catch it far from Rome… You see the point. Sometimes we like to frighten ourselves. The most frequent what if seems to deal with alternate realities in which the Nazis won World War II. Something about that loathsome possibility just invites a horror story. Trouble is, I never could believe it. Mind you, Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle is a classic, a great work. But its premise—that an early assassination of Franklin Roosevelt would have led to an inevitable Axis victory—is hard to swallow. They were just such schmucks! I mean, it's hard to think of any way a single altered event would have let the Nazis win their war. They would have needed an entire chain of flukes even to have a chance. In fact, it took quite a few lucky breaks for them to last as long as they did, and to have the time to commit such atrocities.
Nazi Meth, Meth-Nazis
The absurdity persists however. Even David, who rightly calls then schmucks, sees the Nazis as benefitting from lucky breaks. In his new book Blitzed, the journalist Norman Ohler describes a Reich, fueled not just by lucky breaks, or a powerful ideology, but instead by euphoria:
National Socialism strove for a transcendental state of being as well; the Nazi world of illusions into which the Germans were to be enticed often used techniques of intoxication. World-historical decisions, according to Hitler's inflammatory text Mien Kamf, had to be brought about in states of euphoric enthusiasm or hysteria. So the Nazi Party distinguished itself on the one hand with populist arguments and on the other with torch parades, flag consecrations, rapturous announcements an public speeches aimed at achieving a state of collective ecstasy... The idea was to replace politics with a state of social intoxication.
Ohler argues that the social euphoria didn't last however, it was quickly replace by stronger stuff - branded "Pervitin" - aka methyl-amphetamine; the Nazis were meth-heads. While Nazis sold themselves as purists, outlawed "seductive poisons" and even executed drug addicts, they were encouraging secretaries and shop clerks to take Pervitin as a "confidence booster and performance enhancer", and were even selling house wives chocolates laced with the stuff.
I just finished Blitzed, and am undone by Ohler's truly alternate history. In an interview Ohler explains the Blitzkrieg had nothing to do with brilliant strategy, or Nazi soldiers' will to power:
Well, [German historian of the Third Reich Hans] Mommsen always told me not to be mono-causal. But the invasion of France was made possible by the drugs. No drugs, no invasion. When Hitler heard about the plan to invade through Ardennes, he loved it [the allies were massed in northern Belgium]. But the high command said: it’s not possible, at night we have to rest, and they [the allies] will retreat and we will be stuck in the mountains. But then the stimulant decree was released, and that enabled them to stay awake for three days and three nights. Rommel [who then led one of the panzer divisions] and all those tank commanders were high – and without the tanks, they certainly wouldn’t have won.
Like WestworldMan In The High Castel treats Nazis myth as its text, giving the Nationalist Socialists a future they could never have achieved. Of all the perverse images in Westworld of sadism, and Man in the High Tower of a Nazi dominated America (practically the shows' raison d'etre), it was the image of an elderly Hitler dying peacefully in bed that I found the most hideous, most unforgivable, and most profoundly unbelievable. It was the myth I can't find it in myself to forgive.
Old Meth
But its not just Nazi myths the show leaves intact. In the original story (which turns on the image of Modernist abstraction), there is no heroic resistance, no underground. In Philip K. Dick's, truly subversive imagination, it is Americans' myth of themselves that was exposed. Dick's story wasn't about the myth of Nazi greatness, it was about what great Nazis we'd make.

No matter how ugly our political moment, Kate Pickett makes a point that is worth holding onto: The levels of inequality we are at now are already unsustainable, and that the reason to fight inequality is public health and public good, but Thomas Piketty is right too, closing the gap between the rich and the poor is also a matter of civic survival - the growing gap demonstrably endangers our democracy, it is poisoning our shared civic life. America's crony capitalism and drug fueled nationalist euphoria will implode just like the Nazis did, and for the same reason. The Thousand Year Reich imploded inside of a decade, not because of American courage, but because the entire Nazi project was hair brained, the dream of meth-head resentment.
Such schmucks


  1. Just a reminder - I am not interested in hosting anonymous comments on this blog. I find it cowardly. If you want to make comments - either critical or supportive - please do so as yourself.

  2. That is funny that someone else had these same thoughts.

    I had the privilege when I was younger of taking a class that was taught for a period by Joseph Campbell. I had always been interested in Myths.

    But after spending nearly a decade in the 70s/80s studying Myth explicitly, as it is expressed globally, rather than just reading the myths themselves, I began to see everything through that prism (What do people need to believe in order to believe this?).

    In that perspective, The Man in the High Castle and Westworld are more than a little frightening.

    Thanks for the look into that.