Schooltree: Heterotopia

When I heard that Lainey Schooltree was composing a rock opera, I could hear my own inner Boromir at the Council of Elrond. It was as though I had just heard the news that the One Ring was to be brought to Mordor. 

One does not simply write a prog rock opera, Lainey. The black gates of the music industry are guarded by more than just Orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. And the great Eye is ever watchful. It is a barren wasteland. Riddled with Arianna Grande and DNCE and Beiber. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly!

Never one to back down from an epic musical calling, that’s precisely what she set out to do. Fortunately for us, she succeeded and Heterotopia is the prog rock opera you’ve been waiting for.  A project four years in the making, Heterotopia is a sprawling 100-minute epic which earns a place alongside Tommy, The Wall, or any other comparable effort you can name. Yes, it’s that good. 

Heterotopia is a sort of metaphysical Hero’s Journey mixed with gothic fantasy. It’s a pomo Alice in Wonderland meets Lord of the Rings by way of Neil Gaiman. It’s a story of a down and out singer named Suzi who is disillusioned with the music industry, but finds her reality shattered when she follows a 100-legged cat down a rabbit hole into an alternate reality called Otherspace. While in Otherspace, she discovers that she has detached from her physical form and may not be able to recover her corporeal self. Worse, Otherspace is slowly being overrun by an encroaching darkness which threatens to enter the physical world and Suzi finds herself faced with an existential choice.

As good as it is, Heterotopia walks a very interesting tightrope. It has a seemingly populist heart, but it’s counterpoised by an overall vibe of gothic gloom. It may be a difficult pill to swallow for those expecting the kind of ecstatic emotional peaks one might reasonably expect from a rock musical.  As a work of progressive rock, it’s an unmitigated triumph. Heterotopia is a cornucopia of musical riches for even the most rabid prog head. It has all of prog’s virtues and none of its vices. It has epic melodies, knotty riffs, angular rhythms, squiggly synth lines, dense harmonies, and plenty of odd metered nerdity. There’s also plenty of old fashioned arena sized, fist pumping rockage. None of it feels excessive, and all of it is ultimately subordinate to Schooltree’s impeccable instincts for songcraft.  It is short on any kind of extended improvisation, but when the guitar jam and synth freakout finally arrive, it’s some serious lighters-in-the-air shit. 

Schooltree’s prog bona fides are unimpeachable. She has clearly done her turntable homework. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is an obvious musical and thematic touchstone, but Schooltree hacks the prog genome and produces a refreshing and satisfying mutation of her own. Heterotopia reaches for the towering heights of Yes, Genesis, Queen, Supertramp and even deeper recesses of the family tree like Klaatu and Gentle Giant. I’m even going to second Jon Davis at Exposé by saying that Heterotopia bears some similarities to early Saga. One also detects the unmistakable DNA signature of Broadway musicals like Into the Woods and Jesus Christ Superstar coursing through its bloodstream. Musicals should be judged on the strength of the vocal storytelling, and Heterotopia doesn’t disappoint. Schooltree has an equal gift for the anthemic hook, the spectral vocal choir, and the spooky incantations of Dreaming-era Kate Bush. The songs are packed with hooks, but Schooltree always manages to subvert your expectations with a clever turn of phrase. The catchiness of the songs is offset by lyrics filled with ghosts, zombies, illusions, and pits of darkness. Schooltree is one of those artists who writes the most beautifully captivating melody or irresistible pop earworm, but when you listen to what she’s saying, the subject matter often belies the emotional tenor of the music.  

The drama of Heterotopia centers around Suzi’s quest to reclaim her corporeal self. In order to achieve this, she must confront the fallen queen of Otherspace, Enantiodromia. The mythological surface of the piece is merely a vehicle for some rather morbid existential ruminations over the nature of consciousness, death, and free will. By combining prog, epic fantasy, and abstract philosophy, Heterotopia has certainly sealed a trifecta of high concept artiness. There’s a Nietzsche reference or two to be found amidst the Foucauldian mindfuckery. The central theme seems to revolve around the line between reality versus illusion, and the extent to which the latter shapes the former. Prog has always been a platform for big ideas and epic narratives, and this conjunction of mythic storytelling and philosophical speculation places Heterotopia squarely within the canon of classic prog.  

All of which returns us to the unique position this work occupies.  Prog enjoyed a cultural moment back in the 70’s and, to a certain extent, the 80’s. Nowadays, progressive rock of this kind caters to a niche audience. The type of prog that Schooltree is offering will doubtless please the faithful, but whether this particular delivery system will move the meter beyond the prog laity remains to be seen. It’s a Hero’s Journey, but the metaphysics are pretty abstract and the tone is very dark. Beneath the patina of mythological fantasy, Suzi’s tale involves what appears to be a standard dramatic arc tracing her fall, redemption, and resurrection, but it remains strangely suspended in a state of perpetual discord. Even when it reaches its conclusion, it sounds triumphant and the music signals resolution, but you’re left with lingering questions. Suzi’s transformation is obviously meant to be a profound shift, but there’s something slightly underwhelming about it. This is where Heterotopia tilts towards postmodernism. Schooltree herself says that the central idea is that “reality is an illusion”, and this insight is supposedly what liberated Suzi to shape her reality. This is a fairly standard postmodern premise, and it’s an idea that has been explored pretty extensively in every corner of the artistic world for some time. 

However, none of these concerns detract from the heroic achievement of this record. There is a level of ambition and flat out artistic brilliance in this work that simply cannot be denied. If this sounds like your thing, buy it now

Perdido Street Station

If you have a taste for horror, fantasy, science fiction or just some virtuosic off-the-chain weirdness, pick up this book immediately.  Mr. Miéville has described his work as “new weird” and though it’s kind of dumb, I suppose it’ll have to do. What he’s doing feels new and original even if the influences are clearly evident. This is a next level genre mashup.

Squalid, gothic urban hellscape?  Check. Avian, insectoid and cactus humanoids? Yup. Bio-engineered mutants? Uh huh. A ghastly crime lord which would make Lovecraft squirm? Yes. A band of heroes embroiled in a tale of political intrigue trying to stave off apocalyptic doom? Got it. Dream eating moths which defecate psychotropic dung? Of course. Gonzo physics, chemistry, artificial intelligence, magic and some crazy shit about crisis energy? Sure. A dimension hopping spider which spews opaque riddle poems? Covered. Sentient mechagod which animates itself with junk from a scrapyard and speaks through a rotting corpse avatar? Got that too. Enough gruesome carnage to satisfy a rabid gorehound? Oh yeah.

Miéville’s imagination and storytelling gifts are dazzling. Perdido Street Station is overflowing with strange, vividly rendered characters and ideas. It’s the kind of material you could imagine being adapted for Heavy Metal. The cinematic detail Miéville brings to the world of Bas-Lag and New Crobuzon deserves special mention. The city is a character in and of itself and Mr. Miéville has succeeded in creating a fantasy cityscape which is simultaneously grand and squalid. 

Thematically, this book is essentially a meditation on choices and the impact our choices have on others. To a certain degree, it is also about the pursuit of individuality and the price you pay for that pursuit. Mr. Miéville’s politics are hamfisted, naïve, and cartoonish, but I’m not going to withhold my recommendation because it is such a flat out tour de force. Miéville is a self-professed Marxist, and he always manages to find ways to portray entrepreneurs and the pursuit of profit as morally degenerate. It’s dumb and predictable, but his novels are so good, it shouldn’t be a deterrence.

Childhood’s End

The classic status of Childhood’s End is well deserved because of its provocative ideas, but is not without a few glaring shortcomings. For all his attempts to bring scientific rigor and realism to the possibility of a visitation from an advanced civilization, the book requires a fair amount of disbelief suspension. Like 2001, Clarke uses this novel to present another vision of SF spirituality and human transcendence. 

The first two-thirds of the book are devoted to the arrival of a highly advanced alien civilization which aids humanity in eliminating war, poverty, illiteracy, and crime without resorting to violence or coercion.  Sounds cool, huh? Clarke doesn’t fill in too many details about how this is achieved and it’s fairly apparent that he doesn’t dwell on it for the sole purpose of moving the narrative forward. Since this is Arthur C. Clarke and he does really try to present scientifically plausible SF, this is exactly where I got hung up.  

The Overlords apparently facilitate this quantum leap in technological progress, but the book seems to sidestep the necessity of the entire planet freely choosing to mobilize for all of this global development. Where’s the incentive? Where’s the capital coming from? And how did communism survive? He uses the advent of this would-be Utopia to pose the question of what comes next after you’ve solved the problems of humanity. Do we become complacent slugs? Apparently, we do. With so much automated production and readily accessible plenitude, we lose our initiative.

This prompts a collection of artists to start a colony dedicated to creative arts because all this ready made life is BULLSHIT, man!

Kudos to Clarke for recognizing the ceaseless striving of artists, but it feels a tad too self-congratulatory. Artists aren’t the only ones who continually strive to better themselves. What about everyone else? 

All of this is prelude to the main point of the book; that Overlords were only here to help facilitate the next phase of humanity’s evolution. Our destiny lays in abandoning our corporeal bodies and merging with a mass consciousness that transcends time and space. It’s cool and heady stuff, but the whole idea comes across like SF, hippie-spiritual communism. Who really wants that? 

Oh, and the whole bit about the devil in religious texts? It’s just a reverse time loop, man. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Quibbles aside, it’s a fun read and Clarke channels a vision that is beautiful and majestic in its scale.

It’s also worth reading because this book has provided direct or indirect inspiration for shows like V and Earth Final Conflict as well as books like Contact.  It’s a pretty big deal in the SF canon.

Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America

In our present Age of Social Justice, study of America’s founders, if it’s being conducted at all, can be summed up in hashtags. The centuries of hard won wisdom which the founders sought to institutionalize through the creation of a constitutionally limited democratic republic are reduced down to a collection of puerile slogans.  The central propositions of individual liberty, property rights, limited government and equality under the law are routinely denigrated as a system of white supremacist, patriarchal colonialism by the academic intelligentsia. Of all our nation’s founders, the one whose entire legacy is increasingly subject to reductionist caricature is Thomas Jefferson. Thanks to a steady drumbeat of smug, ahistorical SJW revisionism from artists and academics alike, Jefferson is likely to be perceived merely as the guy who had sex with his slave to the average American. 

The prevalence of these leftist cartoons is exactly what makes Kevin Gutzman’s new book about Jefferson such an essential read. Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary is a tour through Jefferson’s thought. Specifically, it highlights what distinguishes him from other national founders and why he lives up to the designation “revolutionary”.  These core ideas include federalism, freedom of conscience, colonization, racial assimilation, and the establishment of the University of Virginia. Gutzman’s exhaustively researched book gives us a portrait of a true Renaissance Man; a man whose depth of genius extended beyond his corpus of political thought and spanned every discipline from architecture to anthropology and archeology. As wonderful as Gutzman’s reading of the Jeffersonian record is, it also illustrates the myriad ways his legacy has been overrun, hijacked and discounted. 

The first section of the book focuses on the Jeffersonian idea of federalism, and the various ways he fought for it throughout his political career. Federalism is more commonly known as “state’s rights”, but Jefferson’s concept was even more radical than the narrow construction to which we’re presently confined. For Jefferson, it meant that the federal government was strictly constrained by the powers enumerated in the Constitution and that anything that was not expressly within federal purview would redound to the states. He stood by this principle throughout his political career, and it put him at odds, often acrimoniously, with Federalists like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. From his stinging rebuttal to the Hamiltonian Bank Bill to his opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts, what emerges is an unbroken line of thought which distinguishes Jeffersonian federalism. Time and again, Jefferson appealed to a strict construction of the Constitution. Specifically, he emphasized the power reserved by the States enshrined in the 10th Amendment, whether to enforce federal law. It might be easy for the modern academic to take Jefferson’s stance towards the Missouri Crisis as an endorsement of slavery, but it should be viewed as evidence of his steadfast adherence to this principle.

Though Jefferson formed what are technically the ideological roots of the modern Democratic Party, I am doubtful you’ll find a single modern progressive who subscribes to the belief that the Constitution is to be strictly constructed or that federal power should be constrained in any way.  One need look no further than the treatment Neil Gorsuch received in his confirmation hearing to see how the Left views a strict reading of the Constitution. 

His defense of federalism during the Missouri Crisis dovetails into the subsequent section which explores his equally fervent belief in freedom of conscience. Just as he believed the federal government had no jurisdiction over an individual State’s sanction of slavery, he fought just as hard to ensure that the State held no power to compel thought of any nature. Especially in matters of faith.  

Any modern progressive who’s championed the separation of Church and State owes a debt of gratitude to Jefferson. Gutzman chronicles the numerous pieces of legislation penned by Jefferson which actively severed the State’s ability to compel any form of Christian teaching or ritual. Jefferson’s ultimate legislative triumph which culminated his thought and enshrined the church-state separation was The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

Jefferson’s insistence on severing Church and State didn’t go down so well with some of the more devout Americans.  Like the hysterical tantrums of the contemporary progressive Left, New England Congregationalists voiced their opposition to Jefferson’s candidacy in 1800 in the most hyperbolic terms. If you took Timothy Dwight’s paranoid rantings and replaced the Biblical references with the Left’s infantile memes bemoaning the demise of Democracy, the net result would be the same. Opposition to liberty never changes, apparently. Only the slogans. 

The purge of all things Jeffersonian from the historical record is easily understood. The current Social Justice Cultural Revolution is pathologically fixated on slavery, racism, and all forms of oppression real and perceived. Many prominent historians have revised their positions on Jefferson downward as PC sentiment rises. Besides being a slave owner, Jefferson held some views which were rather controversial. His advocacy for human liberty was seemingly completely at odds with being a slave owner. It’s easy to look through a contemporary lens and condemn him for holding these views. Gutzman doesn’t sugar coat Jefferson’s thought, but he takes a more even handed approach than his contemporaries.

Jefferson’s written record indicates that he held views that were, in fact, supremacist in nature. With respect to the emancipation of blacks, Jefferson viewed colonization as the preferable alternative to integration fearing that America might see a Haitian-style slave rebellion of its own. He contended that blacks stood a better chance of achieving the type of self-government for which he fought within the context of an ethnically and culturally homogeneous society rather than a mixed one. In this respect, Jefferson was a sort of proto-Richard Spencer.  

Gutzman takes the view that Jefferson’s thinking on this topic was unenlightened and that blacks, by and large, view American ideals with respect and forbearance. I believe he is largely correct, but I am also inclined to believe that the Ta-Nehisi Coates’ of the world will continue to exploit Jefferson and his legacy to fuel their own grievance industries. 

Another popular lamentation actively cultivated by the progressive grievance machine is the treatment of the Native American population at the hands of the Founders. Jefferson’s views towards the Native Americans were oddly contrary to those he held towards the black population since he believed them to be equal in mind and body to the white man. Though it will doubtless do little to assuage the merchants of American antipathy, his policy was hardly the agenda of genocide that you’re likely to hear from the more hysterical voices. Jefferson held that Native Americans had a “right of preemption” against other nations which entitled them to acquire or dispose of property rights through contract or, if necessary, war. Native Americans eventually assimilated American values which were due in no small part to economic and agricultural policies enacted by Jefferson. However, the eventual dispossession of the Native American land is also directly attributed to Jeffersonian doctrine. Just as with the black population, one wonders whether the lamentations of cultural destruction which emanate from Native American activist circles will ever be put to rest.

Thomas Jefferson’s quest to expand primary and higher education through the creation of the nation’s first university was largely geared towards the preservation of republicanism, creating civic cohesion and building what he described as a “natural aristocracy”.  Reading what he wrote about the importance of public education, his rhetoric bears at least a superficial resemblance to progressives like Horace Mann or even Bernie Sanders. Jefferson believed that true populist republicanism could only be preserved through a general elevation of public knowledge.  Needless to say, public education is now an unchallenged article of faith amongst the electorate, but Jefferson didn’t share the progressive belief in the institutions as the engines of human perfection.

Jefferson’s views towards the education of young girls will not endear him to the feminist intelligentsia.  Nor would his insistence that the UVA ethics professor teach the proof for the existence of God curry favor with the atheist crowd.  What mattered to Jefferson is that education serve the greater goal of building a civic minded youth culture. 

Is Yvette Felarca the type of public educator Jefferson envisioned best equipped to instill an appreciation for republicanism? Is the Black Femininities and Masculinities in the US Media course offering at UVA building the type of “natural aristocracy” for which Jefferson hoped? Or is it building a different kind of aristocracy?

Dr. Gutzman’s reading of the Jefferson legacy is the antidote to the hegemony of the Ron Chernows and Doris Kearns Goodwins of the world. As much the elite might want to consign the Jefferson legacy to the #SocialJustice Memory Hole, Gutzman’s book reminds us that Jefferson’s thought is hardwired into America’s genetic code. Jefferson was not a saint nor are his ideas beyond criticism or reproach. But that shouldn’t preclude a vigorous reexamination of his record and a reappraisal of his ideas in an age of ever expanding state power and the overwhelming dominance of PC multiculturalism. If anything, the Jefferson legacy leaves us with questions. Can a genuine republican nationalism be created in a multicultural society?  Is it even possible to forge a multicultural, Jeffersonian style republicanism when the progressive intelligentsia have an ongoing incentive to foment antipathy towards American thought? I, for one, am hopeful that this book is the catalyst for that discussion. 

  

Miss Sloane

Risible, idiotic, ludicrous, cartoonish, and deeply partisan are a few of words that come to mind in summarizing this utterly loathsome Jessica Chastain vehicle, Miss Sloane

As the titular character, Chastain portrays yet another progressive, feminist power fantasy packaged as an indictment of the lobbying industry. Both the film and the character can be best described as an attempt to fuse Annette Bening’s principled lobbyist, Sydney Ellen Wade, with the ruthlessness of Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood. Exhibiting a typically hyperbolic level of comic hysteria, would-be moral indignation and faux virtue that are standard features of Hollywood agitprop, the film presents Elizabeth Sloane as a lone, fearless crusader who dares to challenge the gun lobby, but pays a steep price. 

Like The Big Short, the film is trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, it presents the lobbying industry and the politicians they serve locked in a symbiotic Gordian Knot of compromised ethics. The lobbyists are unprincipled mercenaries who simply work for the highest bidder, and the politicians are equally craven, self-interested careerists who are driven by the vagaries of public sentiment. On the other, it is most definitely portraying one side of the political equation as ultimately principled.  Sloane enters this snake pit of moral relativism and plays the game on its own terms in order to fulfill one unassailable, unalloyed moral good: gun control.  

The film opens with Elizabeth Sloane being prepped for a congressional hearing which has been convened to investigate her possible violations of Senate Ethics Rules. Under heavy questioning from John Lithgow’s laughable caricature, Congressman Ron Sperling, our would-be Machiavellian heroine lays out her credo:

Lobbying is about foresight. About anticipating your opponent’s moves and devising counter measures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition. And plays her trump card just after they play theirs. It’s about making sure you surprise them. And they don’t surprise you.

The film flashes back to the meeting which took place seven months prior to this hearing which set the chain of events in motion. The senior partners of her firm set her up with the head of the most powerful gun rights organization in the country. They recognize the deficit in appeal their cause has with women. Since she never gets tired of winning, they want Elizabeth Sloane to Make Gun Ownership Great Again for the female electorate. Sloane may be a mercenary, but she has SOME PRINCIPLES, dammit! She’s not going to just take any paycheck. She laughs in his face, and defects to the competitor firm with her cadre of #WOKE, #DIVERSE junior associate millennials in tow. 

With steely resolve, Elizabeth orchestrates a strategy to win the passage of the Heaton-Harris Amendment which would mandate background checks for gun purchases. This eventually leads her to a televised debate with her former colleague arguing the merits of the bill. This is where the film cudgels you over the skull with its progressive editorial. The debate is a cringe inducing piece of propaganda which portrays Sloane carving her opposition to pieces, overwhelming him with seemingly airtight logic, and unequivocally holding the appearance of the moral high ground.  As Pat Connors, Michael Stuhlbarg has the dubious distinction of being this week’s hapless conservatard who manages to bypass every substantive argument with a facile variation on MUH CONSTITUTION. Chastain takes obvious pleasure in rebutting every claim with ever escalating moral indignation as her #WOKE team cheers on the brutal #PWNAGE she dispenses. 

The fact that the progressive Left are the true moral and constitutional relativists who want to criminalize gun ownership is not exactly a secret. Every single one of Sloane’s rebuttals reveals the calculating sophistry that the Left has used to erode the perception of inviolability the Bill of Rights was meant to convey. It’s just like getting a driver’s license, and no one thinks drivers license mandates have destroyed individual liberty!  It’s just like fugu chefs in Japan who have to train for seven years!  We’re living in a different world from the one in which the Founders lived!  Get #WOKE, conservatards!

The Bill of Rights was, in fact, meant to delineate the boundary of individual liberty over which the government may not trespass. The Second Amendment follows the First because it is an inherent recognition of the fragility of liberty. The 2A places the responsibility of upholding liberty in the hands of every citizen. It is a recognition that stewardship of liberty cannot even be fully entrusted to the nation state. It is not a license for homicide. No quantity of laws will ever deter the homicidal maniac from committing homicide. No quantity of bureaucratic oversight has ever prevented a single act of mass gun homicide. If laws make the purchase of firearms too onerous, it only makes a bigger black market for firearms. It also incentivizes the sociopaths to enter into government and law enforcement positions so they can enjoy the cover of legitimacy. Gun control simply consolidates gun ownership in the hands of the State layered over with a vain hope that it will affect moral choices. The Left’s entire case is a gigantic appeal to emotion, and none of this enters Stuhlbarg’s argument.  He just gets to be Sloane’s intellectual roadkill in order to serve the greater goal of confirming the bias of the audience.  

The film tries to add some complexity by showing the amphetamine popping Sloane going off script during the debate. In a heated moment, she likens the defense of the 2A to being analogous to Christian opposition to gay rights. The #WOKE millenials are left slackjawed when she reveals that her colleague, Esme Manucharian, was a survivor of a deadly school shooting without consulting her beforehand.  Once Esme is outed, she becomes the public face for gun control. The tables turn when her life is threatened by a paranoid gun nut, but she is saved by a civilian who was carrying a legal concealed firearm. Good guy with a gun stops bad guy with a gun. The film tries to present this citizen vigilante as a national hero who is showered with media coverage, BUT THIS NEVER HAPPENS IN THE REAL WORLD NO MATTER HOW OFTEN IT HAPPENS. 

Elizabeth Sloane can be added to the ever growing list of feminist fantasy stereotypes. She’s driven, but she’s ultimately propelled by a sense of moral certitude. Her moral relativism is justified because she’s striving to uphold a higher moral absolute. She’s willing to allow her hypocrisy to be exposed only so she can expose the hypocrisy of The System©. And of course, real female power reaches its true apotheosis by Reforming Democracy®.

It’s also another example of feminism’s supremacist tendencies by portraying her as better than all of the male characters at every level. Even if Elizabeth Sloane is morally compromised in some way, she’s still better and smarter than every man in the film. She’s can even detach the need for emotional fulfillment from sex! She doesn’t need no m*n! 

Miss Sloane is just the latest installment of Hollywood’s partisan political agenda and pathological desire to flatter progressive pretensions of moral and intellectual superiority.  It undoubtedly sees itself as a rebuke to The System©, but I doubt that anyone outside the media echo chamber and the target audience sees it that way. 

Hidden Figures

Picking up where The Imitation Game left off, Hidden Figures arrives to crank the Hollywood virtue signalling dial to 11. Instead of a gay, British computing genius who helps the government, we get three black female math geniuses who help the government. Or to use #WOKE parlance, “womxn of color”. By most media accounts, Hidden Figures is a factually accurate account of the lives of three of NASA’s Human Computers: Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Even if it boasts historical accuracy, the screen adaptation reeks of social justice grandstanding and narrative building. 

On the one hand, it’s great that this story is being told and the world can appreciate the critical contributions these women made to the American success in the Space Race. On the other, it is intensely irritating to watch a film whose political agenda bludgeons you over the head with every scene. This is a film that desperately wants you to walk out of the theater determined to dismantle “white supremacy” and “smash the patriarchy”. This is a film that seems blatantly calculated reinforce the omnipresent feminist narrative that women are socialized to be excluded from math and science. This is a film whose every line of dialogue seems customized for HuffPo headlines and #WOKE Twitter. And of course, this is yet another film which portrays women as paragons of pure poise, unshakable composure, boundless intelligence, unassailable virtue, and competence in every facet of life. 

The film kicks off the #RACISM narrative right off the bat. Our three heroines are stranded on a rural road as Dorothy Vaughan repairs their stalled automobile. A police officer pulls up to inquire about their condition, and naturally, he’s a belligerent, racist oaf who treats them with suspicion and contempt. Setting up a behavioral pattern that will define virtually every interracial interaction for the remainder of the film, the police officer is disarmed and bewildered to discover that they’re NASA employees. And like mathematicians and engineers and shit! Check your privilege, RACIST!

The rest of the film seems designed to set up variations on this scene.  In other words, three #STRONG, #INTELLIGENT Womyn of Color suffer one racist indignity after another, but eventually get to show the dumb white supremacists what they’re made of. Dorothy Vaughan is passed over for a promotion despite doing the work of a supervisor in the West Campus computing pool. Mary Jackson is denied an opportunity to advance as an engineer because she can’t take continuing education classes at the segregated school. Katherine Johnson is treated like shit even after she’s assigned to the elite corps of mathematicians working on getting a manned spacecraft in orbit. 

Hidden Figures wants you to believe that it’s “smashing stereotypes with its fearless portrait of WOC”, but it only can do that by building new stereotypes and straw men of its own. With the exception of Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison and Mahershala Ali’s Jim Johnson, all of male characters are racist dolts, faceless functionaries or power hungry bureaucrats. Even John Glenn can’t catch a break from the ever vigilant feminists at Bustle who bust him for calling Johnson a “girl”. Kirsten Dunst fares no better as the utterly unsympathetic West Campus supervisor, Vivian Mitchell.  She has the thankless role of being the token white, female racist who has to repeatedly deny advancement to the heroines due to budget cuts or obscure rules. BUT WE REALLY KNOW WHY SHE’S SHUTTING THEM DOWN, DON’T WE? 

The bulk of the film centers around Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine Johnson and her ascent through the ranks of the mathematics team responsible for the Friendship 7 mission. Upon her arrival, the film sets up the predictable racial tension as she is greeted by a roomful of silent white, male stares. It doesn’t take much to anticipate the trajectory the film takes, and there’s barely a surprise throughout its length. With the predictability of the mathematical equations Johnson calculates, you can anticipate every single dramatic cadence. As Paul Stafford, Jim Parsons is yet another two dimensional cardboard cutout who’s only job in the film is to bark instructions, enforce bureaucratic protocols, and marvel at Johnson’s genius when she shows him up. Costner is mildly sympathetic as the gruff department head who places his trust in Johnson’s ability. Naturally, he also gets to be the White Knight who makes the “smash white supremacy” meme literal by destroying the segregated restroom sign with a crowbar. 

There are numerous points which require varying degrees of suspension of disbelief, but one of the biggest is Johnson’s relationship with her three daughters. Johnson is a widow for the first half of the film, and the only caregiver is her mother. Her daughters are extraordinarily well behaved, happy and show no signs of discontent being separated from their mother most of the time. Johnson’s male counterparts have to phone home to their wives with the bad news that the Soviet launch of Sputnik will require that NASA redouble their efforts, but the one person who’s consistenty burning the overtime candle is Johnson. SEE SEXISTS? ALL THAT NONSENSE ABOUT MEN WORKING LONGER HOURS THAN WOMEN IS HATE FILLED PROPAGANDA! WOMEN CAN SHOULDER EVERY BURDEN WITHOUT A MAN AND THERE ARE NO CONSEQUENCES. 

To the film’s credit, they emphasize the central role that religious life played for the black community during that time. Social graces, manners, respect for elders and being well dressed are values which are consistently upheld in religious circles. The events of the film predate the Great Society and the destruction of the black family it wrought. Henson’s character is courted by Ali’s Jim Johnson, so the film is actually willing to portray marriage as a positive virtue. 

I doubt there’s much discussion of it in #WOKE media, but the film touches a third rail of racial politics: the correlation between race and IQ. Charles Murray continues to be raked over the coals for The Bell Curve, but the film is portraying a phenomenon that is, in fact, pretty rare. You’ll find plenty of hand wringing in progressive publications and government websites over the shortage of African-Americans graduating with STEM degrees. The film clearly wants you to point the finger at the reliable boogeyman of #SYSTEMIC #RACISM, but the hard truth is that very few African-Americans are pursuing STEM degrees. The Hollywood and academic elite undoubtedly believe that putting forward nothing but positive stereotypes will bolster self-esteem in the black community. It may make for a great circle jerk of self congratulations, but reduces filmmaking to SJW propaganda. 

Sadly, the film is also a pretty obvious bit of government propaganda. Don’t get me wrong. I remain enthralled by the possibility of spaceflight, but one simply cannot underestimate the symbolism that NASA, and by extension, this film represents. Spaceflight is largely viewed as the last remaining frontier of human achievement which can only be realized through the infinite benevolence of the State.  The government wants to preserve a monopoly on this realm of endeavor because it needs to preserve some area of aspirational idealism in order to keep people distracted from all of the horrible shit it’s doing. If people continue to hold the belief that the government can be used to confer an endless array of Public Goods, then no one is happier than the politicians. 

One of the biggest ironies of the film is the disconnect that presently exists between the contemporary radical wing of racial justice activism and the film’s open celebration of the MLK Civil Rights legacy. While the film lionizes the breakdown of Jim Crow laws, the collegiate safe space crowd openly EXTOLS racial segregation as next level #SocialJustice. 

I wanted to like Hidden Figures, but Hollywood seems pretty intent on prioritizing political virtue signalling over making good drama lately. Everything about the film is expertly crafted, but it sinks under the weight of the agenda it’s carrying. Fences appears to be a film portraying the life the ordinary black father, but what are the chances Hollywood is going to make a version of this movie for hidden black men? I know which side of that bet I’m on.  

Dark City

Alex Proyas’ 1998 masterpiece, Dark City, may draw easy comparisons to The Matrix, but it deserves to be evaluated on its own terms. Both films deal with the idea that there is a deeper reality beyond material appearances as well as the possibility that there are malevolent forces actively shaping your perception. Both films also give you a protagonist who cracks the code of the reality with his own powers which threatens the controlled order of the world he inhabits. While The Matrix was ultimately a story of the Chosen One who liberates the huddled remains of humanity, Dark City is a story of a man who discovers that the essence of his humanity that could not be controlled made him stronger than his captors. 

Playing the role of John Murdoch, Rufus Sewell awakens in a bathtub suffering from amnesia. To his dismay, he discovers a woman brutally murdered lying on the floor of his bedroom. Fleeing the scene in a panic after receiving a phone call from a mysterious Doctor Schreber, he barely escapes discovery from a trio of ghoulish looking beings known as The Strangers.  When the clock strikes midnight, the entire city stops and all its inhabitants fall into a state of hypnosis except Murdoch. This state of hypnosis is induced by The Strangers using a psychokinetic power called “tuning” which allows them to reshape the city and the lives of its inhabitants. Pursued simultaneously by Inspector Frank Bumstead under suspicion of multiple murders, Murdoch is able to escape the clutches of The Strangers by tapping into his own ability to tune. Murdoch tries to recover his memories by reaching out to his torch singer wife, Emma. Murdoch’s ability to tune threatens the control The Strangers exert on the citizens of Dark City.  He seeks to return to Shell Beach, the beachside town he believes to be his home, and unravel the mystery of Dark City before The Strangers catch up with him. 

Dark City belongs to a venerable tradition of SF films which explores the essence of identity, free will versus determinism, the effect of time and memory, and the value of our connection to the past. Given the escalating tensions in neuroscience over the role of biological factors and the nature of consciousness itself, Dark City’s emphasis on the latter theme places it a notch above The Matrix. Through tuning, The Strangers possess the ability to shape time and space, but they imprint people with stolen memories in order to discover what makes humans tick. The Strangers’ mentality can be viewed as a classic representation of collectivist materialism. With Doctor Schreber’s coerced assistance, they distill human experience into chemical combinations. Despite their apparent superiority, The Strangers cling doggedly to the belief that by continuously reshaping the physical, social, and even biochemical conditions, they can mold humanity to fit their desired ends. 

The Strangers’ manipulations of reality also serve as a metaphor for the myriad ways in which globalists, social scientists, and technocrats have intervened in human affairs in the present world. Ultimately, the film is an affirmation of the existence of a sovereign individual consciousness and the ability to exercise free will, but it shows you how difficult it is to develop an awareness of Self. Not only does Murdoch struggle to recover his connection to his own past, he must work equally hard to rip away the veil of deception that has been carefully constructed all around him.

Dr. Schreber: I call them the Strangers. They abducted us and brought us here. This city, everyone in it… is their experiment. They mix and match our memories as they see fit, trying to divine what makes us unique. One day, a man might be an inspector. The next, someone entirely different. When they want to study a murderer, for instance, they simply imprint one of their citizens with a new personality. Arrange a family for him, friends, an entire history… even a lost wallet. Then they observe the results. Will a man, given the history of a killer, continue in that vein? Or are we, in fact, more than the sum of our memories?

The Strangers are one of the most chilling representations of an alien dictatorship I’ve seen on film. They share a collective consciousness, but they have no individuality. It is a society of abject servitude to the hive mind. They possess advanced scientific knowledge, but they’re so imprisoned by scientific thinking, they’re completely insensitive to the ways they’re destroying the lives of their subjects. Morality and ethics are absent from their existence. 

In contrast to the messianic nature of Neo and his quest in The Matrix, Murdoch’s heroism is purely the result of his desire to attain meaning and discover the truth of reality. By asserting his individuality and claiming ownership of his own thoughts, it had a ripple effect in the other characters. He instinctively knows that the love he shared with his wife and his connection to Shell Beach were the only things that gave his life meaning and purpose. 

Stylistically, Dark City is a visual tour de force. The film effortlessly updates Metropolis‘ German expressionism with a lush 90’s gothic film noir chic. The overall color palette is suffused with black and other dark tones, but it is not devoid of rich, vivid colors. Visual, stylistic, and thematic references to its forebears abound. Vertigo, Blade Runner, City of Lost Children, Total Recall, and The Crow can all be detected within Dark City’s DNA. 

Dark City is a film which borrows very liberally from other films, but stands alone on its own terms. We continue debate the acquisition of truth amidst a sea of self-interested media elites, the extent to which we’re influenced by our past positively or negatively, the consequences of the endless parade of would-be social scientists peddling postmodern abstraction as policy, what role neuroscience plays in shaping happiness, and what quantum mechanics suggests about human consciousness. Dark City’s themes speak to each of these issues, and its relevance has grown in proportion. Not only does it stand very tall in the SF cinematic canon, but in the annals of all film. 

Marxism: Philosophy and Economics

If it weren’t for the fact that his ideas resulted in the deaths of around 200 million people, I’d be inclined to tip a hat to the fact that Karl Marx managed to create what amounts to the world’s most durable secular religion. Because I’m old fashioned and happen to regard an amoral, genocidal and totalitarian ideology as…you know…a net negative on human welfare, I can’t really do that with a clear conscience. Marxism is so destructive, yet its appeal remains undimmed by the failure of communism. It also remains seemingly resistant to criticism. If one has any intentions of engagement in the battlefield of debate, you’re going to need to fortify yourself with heavy intellectual artillery. Since it is such a cancerous blight on humanity, opponents of Marxism are well served by understanding its architectural underpinnings. Thomas Sowell’s analysis of the entire system, Marxism: Philosophy and Economics, is an essential step toward that end.

Marxism is the apotheosis and the backdrop of the ideological Left. It is a framework which can be recycled and repurposed in order to justify any expansion of political power. More importantly, it provides a critical ballast of narrative that infuses the ideology with a sense of moral urgency and historical struggle against an omnipresent capitalist boogeyman. It can absorb and accommodate new social phenomena (e.g. transgenderism, queer and race “theory”, etc) as well as the latest pseudoscience (climate change, etc) because it is pseudoscience all by itself. Marxism is a seemingly evergreen ideology because it is a theory of history, economics, and sociology wrapped in the rhetoric of equality and justice. It bakes moral outrage into its premises, but considers all moral transgression a necessary but transitory phase in an inexorable, dialectical historical progression towards a society of classless emancipation. In other words, it possesses all the features of religion, but still maintains an appearance of intellectual depth and scientific legitimacy.

How socialists view Marx

This is your brain on Marxism.

The basic propositions of Marxism are easy to grasp, but the system itself is deeply layered. It is propelled by an emotional immediacy and a certain internal coherence that makes it especially resilient to attack. Defenses of Marxism take one of four forms:

  1. You don’t understand Marxism.
  2. (Choose communist state) wasn’t what Marx intended.
  3. Marxism (i.e. socialism/communism) has never been properly attempted.
  4. There’s nothing wrong with the ideology. It fails because of capitalism, bad people, etc.

The latter three defenses are demonstrably false, but Sowell’s book is particularly useful in rebutting the first claim. True believers ascribe a quasi-mystical depth to Marxism that is apparently unattainable to luddites who aren’t sympathetic to his thought. There is something to this claim. Besides the sheer volume of his corpus, Marx presented his work, Capital in particular, as an unfolding dialectic which would unmask the bourgeois appearance of reality and reveal its true essence. Sowell emphasizes two hurdles that this approach presents to the layman. First, Engels himself cautioned Marx that his dialectical approach would potentially be misunderstood. This is telling since his magnum opus, Capital, is an excruciating slog. Further, Marx’ own writing suggests the possibility that he never intended to be understood fully and was simply laying traps for his critics. The latter possibility should be considered since Marx enjoys a reputation among his acolytes as some kind of prophet or mystic whose depths can only be divined by dutiful study at the feet of #WOKE college professors. Any philosopher whose work produces so many fiercely divided opinions over what its True Meaning was may not have ever intended to be fully understood in the first place. The only result that mattered was that he succeeded in building a cult of personality machine for himself and for generations of followers who’ve taken up the ideology.

Oh look. We’re still debating whether or not Marxism works.

Marxism must be judged by the results it has produced in the world and the actions of its adherents. Revolution by violent means, strict demands for ideological conformity, and complete subordination of the individual to some self-appointed elite have been the consistent hallmarks of every attempt to implement this ideology. When the written record is examined, it is rather easy to see how the ideas correlate to real world outcomes. Fortunately for us, Sowell breaks down Marxism’s festering carcass so that its fetid anatomy can be examined.

Rather than delivering a polemic, Sowell spends most of the book analyzing each component of Marxist philosophy in a dispassionate, scientific manner. Lest you believe that Sowell’s political leanings have biased him against the ideology, just keep in mind that he spent 25 years working on this book and earned an advanced degree from Harvard on this very subject. By systematically stepping through each aspect and sourcing his argument from the original texts, Sowell distills Marx to his essence without building straw men. The book reveals the central pillars that bind the entire philosophy with Sowell’s trademarked clarity and precision.

Sowell analyzes the full arc of Marx’ career, and he is very honest about the many inconsistencies, failures of logic, dubious elisions, cop outs and ideas that were never fleshed out. Delineating where Marx ends and Engels begins is a problem rarely discussed by doctrinaire socialists and academic apologists, but Sowell is careful to point all of these things out while cautioning the reader to consider the larger context of his work.

PHILOSOPHIC MATERIALISM

Marxism belongs to a philosophical tradition known as materialism. It is a philosophy which posits that there is no spiritual reality and all that exists is the material world. Not only does this view consign human volition to determinism, it provides an opening for the likes of Marx to embue social and material forces with spiritual and supernatural qualities while operating under the guise of social science. Social transformation is the product of material and social forces to which the individual is completely subordinate.  

THE MARXIAN THEORY OF HISTORY

Marx’ materialist conception of the world dovetailed into his theory of history. This historical aspect of the Marxist doctrine is downplayed by modern acolytes, but deeply significant because it compounds the moral and ethical void in the entire system. Marx was a member of the Young Hegelians and developed a theory of history which closely resembled the thought of his mentor. Marx saw the transformation of one stage of society to another in a quasi-deterministic manner that was driven by changes to the material conditions and social relations rather than the movement of individuals or ideas. According to Marx, these changes naturally bred conflict because all capitalist innovation simply created new enmity and jealousy.  Marx and Engels spent much of their careers waiting for capitalism to fail and for all of their ghoulish hopes of societal collapse to come true, but they never did.  Rather than admitting error, apologists will keep moving the goalposts to validate Marx’ so called predictions.  If the development of a revolutionary consciousness was the ironclad, scientifically sound historical inevitability he claimed, calls for revolution were redundant. 

THE CAPITALIST ECONOMY

The Marxian conception of the capitalist economy was more sociological than economic. The only purpose Capital serves to the contemporary audience to confirm the prejudicial notion that capitalism is an inherently predatory and exploitative system. It does not offer a positive theory of socialism nor does it add anything to classical market economics. It’s three volumes of tortured, fallacious metaphysics layered on top of thought pioneered by greater minds. Marx completely disregarded the necessity of varying skill levels in the development of an advanced economy, and consigned the entrepreneur completely to the role of soulless predator.  

MARXIAN ECONOMIC CRISES

As is the case with most of the economic analysis in the Marxian system, Marx’ “theory” of business cycles was a half-baked hodgepodge of existing theories jerry-rigged together in order to add another layer of oppressive class struggle. Mismatches of supply and demand were evidence of a lack of proportionality in sectors and were ultimately evidence of “ever widening crises” and deepening class struggle. 

MARXIAN VALUE

The Marxian concept of value is one of the lynchpins of the entire ideology. It’s less a theory of production or consumption goods and more of a theory of social relations.  Marx leaned very heavily on the labor theory of value as articulated by Ricardo and Smith, but was distinguished by his emphasis on “socially useful labor” and the quantity of surplus value extracted by the capitalist. Somehow, contemplating all this the surplus value was a critical act of dialectical inquiry that sharpened the revolutionary consciousness. 

POLITICAL SYSTEMS AND REVOLUTION

Sowell’s treatment of the Marxian concept of proletarian revolution is proof positive of the even-handedness of his analysis.  As easy as it is to point to that one paragraph from the Critique of the Gotha Program as prima facie evidence that Marx wanted a dictatorship, Sowell takes pains to emphasize that this should be taken in context with his overall vision of the transformation of social relations and productive forces. Ultimately, these subtle nuances didn’t override the ideology’s central propositions pertaining to the predatory nature of capitalism. 

Marx was sympathetic to the Paris Commune uprising, and saw it as an exemplary model of a proletarian dictatorship. In The Civil War in France, Marx professed support for four feelgood principles to which any modern progressive would readily align himself. Universal suffrage, an open society, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and a non-militaristic viewpoint sound good on paper just like many other Marxist epigrams. The abject failure of this experiment and the support he gave it were evidence that he was giving birth to a totalitarian ideology. 

One of the most pernicious myths of the Marxian system was Marx’ claim that, unlike his utopian forebears, he had put forth a theory of “scientific” socialism. Despite the numerous flaws and inconsistencies within the system, this perception of scientific legitimacy not only persists as Belief, but abets all complementary doctrines of scientific social organization.  

MARX THE MAN

Similar to Gary North’s contribution to Requiem for Marx, Sowell gives us a portrait of Karl Marx’ life.  Rather than being the type of working class prole he claimed to represent, he was born into a middle-class family of means. Marx enjoyed a life of lavish patronage from his parents, wealthy in-laws, and his intellectual wingman, Friedrich Engels. He was notoriously spendthrift with other people’s money, and apparently, quite the party hound. He regarded university as little more than a “camping ground” in which to while away the hours. His megalomaniacal tendencies and apocalyptic visions were present in his early poetry, and were simply transferred over to his political writings later in life. Marx’ entire career was marked by failed attempts at media success, squandered wealth borrowed from others, bitter rivalries with other intellectuals, and a marriage marred by self-imposed impoverishment, financial incompetence, emotional strife and infidelity. In short, he was the very epitome of the smug, entitled, coddled, narcissistic, middle-class progressive who goes to college to end up studying Marxism or subjects informed by Marxism. 

THE LEGACY OF MARX

The endurance of Marxism’s appeal is simultaneously befuddling and tragic. Despite numerous refutations and contributing absolutely nothing of enduring value to modern economics, the basic template of Marxian proletarian oppression has been transferred over to the entire spectrum of sociology, arts and humanities. Marxism fits very neatly into the two realms of academic “science” which are the Left’s current vehicles for the implementation of Communism 2.0: gender studies and climate science. 

Even if Karl Marx never existed, the Left would have invented him. Since the Left’s true goal is absolute political dominion, it needs a secular cult of the State in order to advance its agenda. It makes perfect sense that a quasi-religious, pseudoscientific, anti-family, anti-capitalistic, atheistic paean to state power written by a pampered, sheltered academic is still the guiding light of the Left.  

Marxism enjoys an unchallenged dominion in the halls of academia. Instead of promoting intellectual curiosity, Marxism inculcates a set of prejudices against capitalism, prefab outrage, simplistic explanations for complex phenomena, and most importantly, a pretense of moral superiority.  

Marxist thought is reaching a state of peak fermentation in America and Europe after decades of gestation. True believers are beyond reason, but for those looking for intellectual ammunition to ward off the Marxist zombie apocalypse, Thomas Sowell’s book is an indispensable weapon for your arsenal. 

Much of the intellectual legacy of Marx is an anti-intellectual legacy. It has been said that you cannot refute a sneer. Marxism has taught many-inside and outside its ranks-to sneer at capitalism, at inconvenient facts or contrary interpretations, and thus ultimately to sneer at the intellectual process itself. This has been one of the sources of its enduring strength as a political doctrine, and as a means of acquiring and using political power in unbridled ways. – Thomas Sowell

Voltaire: Candide

François-Marie Arouet, better known to the world as Voltaire, was an author, philosopher, and provocateur extraordinaire. Rooted in a fervent belief in freedom of thought, he repeatedly broached subjects deemed forbidden by authority, and became the living embodiment of secular Enlightenment values. Candide was the novella that earned him his eternal infamy. The scorn he directed at the Catholic Church would scarcely raise an eyebrow today, but other aspects of the novel would arguably be just as, if not more scandalous now if he attempted to publish it today.  In addition to its brutal depictions of rape and violence, Candide is a vicious satire of Leibniz’ philosophy of optimism. It’s filled to the brim with barbed criticisms of religious leaders, military culture and government officials, but delivered under the breezy veneer of a simple romantic adventure.

With Candide, Voltaire set out to skewer what he perceived to be the false piety and facile moralizing of the institutions and authorities of his day. He was one of the original trolls of Western civilization who canonized a spirit of irreverence that’s found throughout the ages in the works of Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Lenny Bruce, and presently, Milo Yiannopolous.  Though Milo is routinely compared to Voltaire, I believe this comparison to be only partially true. Voltaire’s provocations are analogous to Milo’s in the sense that he offended prevailing sensitivities, but the targets of his ridicule, specifically his barbs directed at Jesuits and Christianity, feel like Maheresque precursors of the now shopworn clichés of atheists and the Left.

Though superficially a bildungsroman, the ultimate object of Voltaire’s ridicule was Leibniz’ Theodicy which was expressed through Candide’s mentor, Pangloss. “This is the best of all possible worlds,” Pangloss tells Candide from the luxurious confines of Castle Thunder-ten-tronckh in the kingdom of Westphalia. After being banished from the castle for getting a little too hot and heavy with the Duke’s niece, Cunégonde, Candide is beset by one misfortune after another as he traverses through Europe and the New World. Candide finds the naïvete of his wordview repeatedly challenged as he tries to reconcile the message of his mentor with the cruel reality of life outside castle walls. 

Though he was a professed deist, the religious dogma, fanaticism, and hypocrisy of Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all sent to Voltaire’s literary guillotine throughout the book. Candide leaves no religious cow un-slaughtered.

Candide translates to “optimism”, and above all else, Voltaire sought to poke Leibniz’ vision of optimism squarely in the eye.  Voltaire saw this philosophy as hopelessly naïve and an inadequate lens through which to view the horror and depravity of the world. One can certainly appreciate that this work was deeply transgressive in its day, but Voltaire’s critique feels like little more than a petty gripe rooted in a failure to grasp the essence of Leibniz’ message. Of course the world is filled with depravity, suffering and hardship. These phenomena exist because they test the faithful. Rather than being an excuse to engage in self-deception through recitations of vacant aphorisms, I suspect Leibniz promoted this philosophy as a way of embracing the totality of life, good and bad. It’s far more challenging to find reasons to be hopeful about humanity when you’ve seen it at its worst. Can you find a reason to be hopeful after your home has been devastated by an earthquake?  Can you find forgiveness and happiness after you’ve been brutally violated? Voltaire eventually resolves this conflict with a very modest aphorism of his own, but he seems to view this philosophy as something shallow, enervating and mind numbing rather than being a lens through which to view even the worst human suffering.

Voltaire is particularly scathing in his treatment of the Jesuits. Upon arrival in South America, Candide and his manservant, Cacambo, avoid being served as the main course in a tribal cannibal feast after calmly explaining to them that neither was, in fact, a Jesuit and that he had just impaled his Jesuit brother.  On these grounds alone, Candide and Cacambo are spared this gruesome fate.  It’s droll gallows humor, and he’s obviously having a bit of rude fun at the expense of the numerous Jesuit missionaries who ventured to South America in the 17th and 18th centuries, but he also appears to hold that appeals to reason are universal regardless of cultural or language differences. This strikes me as proto-SJW Kumbaya fantasy.

Voltaire’s view of Islam was largely negative, and the one aspect of the story that would most assuredly arouse a shitstorm of scandal to this day would be his portrayal of the Muslims. Candide is eventually reunited with Cunégonde only to discover that she was raped and maimed at the hands of the Bulgars. But just when you think it can’t get any worse, their new companion, the illegitimate daughter The Princess of Palestrina and Pope Urban X, tells her tale of woe. Known only as the old woman, she recounts a blood curdling tale of her rape by a “loathsome Negro”, and her mother’s brutal murder at the hands of the Muslims. Since Islam and the effects of Muslim immigration remain a political third rail, this aspect of the book would easily arouse controversy today if anyone in any academic setting were actually reading it.

But that’s not the only thing that would draw the ire of the contemporary Thought Police. His treatment of Don Isaachar has drawn accusations of antisemitism and that most ghastly of contemporary ThoughtCrimes: RACISM. Don Isaachar is one of Cunégonde’s early captors, and is portrayed as greedy and immoral.  I don’t find it particularly antisemitic since it’s not out of the question that Jews like Don Isaachar existed. Voltaire is an equal opportunity offender and he is just as harsh on the Catholic Inquisitor and the Muslims. Besides, like every other manufactured outrage, it doesn’t make sense to judge yesterday’s art against today’s warped standards of Social Justice propriety.

Candide’s arrival in the fabled land of Eldorado certainly suggests that Voltaire was sympathetic towards socialist thought and had utopian notions of his own around how society could look if Enlightenment ideals could be expressed in his ideal monarchy. The citizens of Eldorado have an advanced economy with a dedicated scientific class, public institutions, housing, and art. They have access to precious stones and metals, but they are unmotivated by the accumulation of wealth and give them freely to Candide.  In this respect, one detects the unmistakable seeds of proto-progressive economics, scientism and other related doctrines of social reform.

When Candide finally meets the one man who allegedly “has it all”, Signor Pococurante, Voltaire uses it as another opportunity to make fun of another coddled elitist, but it also betrays a certain cynicism towards the philosophical and cultural legacy of the West which now pervades the modern Left. Candide is dumbstruck as Signor Pococurante dispenses one blistering criticism after another towards every art form and philosophical work of importance. Voltaire wants to tear away at what he perceived as a false veil of deference towards these allegedly Great Works, but like his treatment of Leibniz, it feels slightly misplaced. Signor Pococurante sounds like a jaded hipster or academic progressive who listens to NPR, acquired a liberal arts degree, and has very specific, and mostly negative opinions about everything in the cultural sphere. One could take all of Signor Pococurante’s snide remarks, drop in a couple references to bell hooks, Howard Zinn and Judith Butler, and he’d sound just like a garden variety, Tumblr ready, Social Justice Warrior preparing for a career writing for Vox. This cynicism towards the cultural legacy of the West is now the norm. Within the cloistered halls of academia, so-called “educators” openly cultivate an active hostility towards Western thought as the font of all human opression.

Just like the numerous contemporary atheist critics of Christianity who’ve fancied themselves the torchbearers of Voltaire’s flame, Voltaire was a moralist at heart and his literary jabs were designed to expose the hypocrisy of those who claimed to be arbiters of morality. Whether taking shots at the sexual indiscretions of Catholic clergy, the brutality of the Inquisitors or the Jesuits who do not practice the teachings of Christ they preach, Candide rightfully inferred that the ordained guardians of morality should live by the standards they imposed on the laity.

Society needs people like Voltaire in order to shock people out of complacent obedience and expose social taboos to sunlight. Ayaan Hirsi Ali says the Islamic world needs its own Voltaire in order to ignite a reformation within the Islamic faith. Institutional power, whether state, religious or academic, rarely lives up to its responsibility to uphold the truth or live by the standards it imposes on the public.  Yet, people crave the truth, and above all else, crave both a sense of moral certitude and to see hypocrisy exposed.  Since the truth often dies within the walls of power, the responsibility to stand up for the truth always redounds to the individual. Humorists and satirists like Voltaire have often been the catalysts of change that puncture the seal of propriety that the self-appointed arbiters of morality have so assiduously tightened.

Voltaire was the court jester of his time who sought to answer ancient moral conundrums by poking fun at what he perceived to be the strictures and limitations of prevailing orthodoxy. Some of Candide still would arouse controversy today, but his overall posture of enlightened contempt towards the conservative attitudes and institutions of his time has become its own orthodoxy of progressive chic. The poles of entrenched thinking have reversed, and what was controversial in its day is blasé today. There’s nothing even remotely transgressive or edgy about ridiculing Christian morality, institutions or the broader legacy of Western philosophy in 2017. Milo draws comparisons to Voltaire today because today’s elites are, in many ways, the intellectual progeny of Voltaire himself. Whatever validity there was in Voltaire’s quest for a secular moral order in its day has devolved into the smug wisecracking of Bill Maher, the proto-neurofascism of Sam Harris, and a postmodern academic hegemony of absolutist relativism.  All of whom are eagerly marching towards Gomorrah, but still doggedly cling to the delusion that Eldorado is the final destination.

While Candide may be showing its age, Voltaire’s spirit is evergreen because Puritanism knows no ideology, and people know who the busybodies are. Candide’s message of “tending one’s own garden” is a sufficiently universal ethical and moral principle, but the modern progressive intelligentsia have very specific ideas about what you can plant, how big it can be, and what pronouns you can use while tending it. Russell Brand, Bill Maher and John Oliver may imagine themselves to be the secular dragonslayers of hypocrisy who descend directly from Voltaire’s sacred order, but they’re actually the effete royalists who tacitly defend the new priesthood. Voltaire’s flame burns most brightly in the shitposting of Milo, the trolling of Steven Crowder, the savagery of Bearing and the meme magic of 4Chan.  Candide is both of its time and timeless because there will always be priests, politicians, academics and self-appointed behavior cops and thought police who deserve to be exposed, and there’s no better weapon than satire and ridicule.

Revisiting the Argument for Atheism: Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian

Given that atheism appears to be a rising trend in the US, it’s worth taking a look back at one of the seminal arguments against the Christian faith to see how well it holds up. Besides his numerous contributions to mathematics, history and philosophy, Bertrand Russell’s contribution to the modern atheist movement is significant. Russell comes from a long line of religious skeptics which goes back to David Hume and Immanuel Kant and finds modern expression in Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens among many others. Mr. Russell may have been a gifted intellectual in many respects, but his 1927 essay, Why I Am Not A Christian, is logically inconsistent, poorly argued and uncharitable towards Christianity. It also reveals a paradox at the center of the atheist worldview which, in my opinion, few atheists have acknowledged let alone sufficiently addressed.

By staking a monopoly claim on rationality, reason, and by extension, the scientific method and the entire realm of scientific discovery, atheists have essentially positioned themselves as the new arbiters of morality. While atheists have busied themselves dismantling the edifice of religious morality using the tools of logic, they have simultaneously claimed that a new secular moral order can be constructed from these tools alone. In some of the more extreme cases, moral principles do not matter at all. That’s the core conceit of Why I Am Not A Christian, and the very philosophical error that places Russell in the same company as Karl Marx. Though Russell wrote extensively on morality and ethics, a condemnation of faith or a failed attempt at logical refutation isn’t a sufficient replacement for a system of morality and ethics, however flawed it may be in certain respects, that’s been developed over centuries. Russell deserves credit for making the attempt, but moral relativism and utilitarianism have proven themselves pretty weak substitutes.

Russell’s essay is worth reading for the simple reason that he attempts to actually refute the intellectual arguments for the existence of God.  It’s a phenomenon that’s mostly absent from the contemporary cultural discussion, but there is, in fact, a set of intellectual arguments for the existence of God that were famously articulated by Aquinas in the Summa Theologica. There is a widespread, and arguably bigoted, perception amongst atheists that Christians are knuckle dragging, anti-science mouth breathers who have neither a willingness or ability to engage in formal debate. Since the argument has already been fought by the likes of Russell, atheists generally take it as given that the debate is over, and engagement with these arguments is unnecessary. Conversely, Christians have largely retreated, been ignored, or simply failed in the intellectual arena against the likes of charismatic and intelligent atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. Given that atheists lay claim to being the superior logicians, it’s surprising to see how lazy and weak Russell’s arguments actually are.

The First Cause Argument

Though he can be forgiven for making this claim since what came to be known as the Big Bang Theory was introduced the same year he made this speech, Russell’s opening volley is completely contravened by the weight of current scientific evidence in favor of the Big Bang Theory. The religious skeptic’s argument against First Cause ends up being torpedoed by the weight of current scientific evidence.

That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality it used to have; but, apart from that, you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity.

Well, Mr. Russell, I hate to pull Hitchens’ Razor on you, but what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.  Why aren’t there any more specifics on the multitude of theories that supplanted a causal theory of cosmic expansion? This was a missed opportunity to specify how science contravened faith, and he dismisses it with a hand wave. Naturally, the Big Bang Theory lends itself to the First Cause argument to which Russell retorts with a reductio ad absurdum that persists to this day.

If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause.

The obvious rebuttal to this claim has already been spelled out by Aquinas, and Russell bypasses it like it’s inconsequential. If there is motion in the universe, and all motion requires a mover, and the moved cannot be the mover, ergo, there must be an original unmoved mover. The laws of the universe that govern our world flow from the Big Bang, and thus far, science has nothing definitive to say about what preceded the Big Bang. But even if one finds Russell’s argument persuasive, the ramifications of his argument should be troubling to any rationally minded person who values objective truth. If one removes the possibility of causality in explaining the universe or human action, you’ve arbitrarily excised a significant line of philosophical inquiry and a key tenet of the scientific method.  And to everyone who considers it a given that science and faith are incompatible, just remember that the most significant scientific theory explaining the origins of the universe came from a Catholic priest.

The Natural Law Argument

Russell’s argument here is essentially that it is too simplistic to say that the phenomena of the natural world or the cosmos can be explained away by saying Goddidit. He further contends that because Newtonian laws of gravitation were overturned by Einstein’s more complete theory of General Relativity, “natural laws are really human convention”.

Utter bollocks.

Scientific law gets called law because it explains phenomena that are constant, immutable and unchanging. There isn’t a single scientific law that has been invalidated or overturned since the time Russell wrote this piece.  Whether we’re talking about Special Relativity or Pascal’s Law or Planck’s Law, scientific law gets called a law because it reveals the machinery of the natural world expressed as a mathematical equation and can be reproduced under controlled conditions.  It is the continuous discovery of natural law which forms the foundations of a body of scientific knowledge from which technological innovation arises. Why a self-professed man of science like Russell argued something so asinine is beyond me.

The Argument From Design

Also known as the Teleological Argument, the argument from design essentially asserts that if the conditions of the creation of the universe were altered ever so slightly, life as we know it would not exist.  Russell dismisses this out of hand. At this juncture, I’m going to refer readers to an excellent piece by SJ Thomason which steps through all of Russell’s arguments and explains why considering the possibility for design does not preclude scientific inquiry, but expands it.

Russell then goes completely off the rails and starts sounding like a proto-SJW in the remainder of this section. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, why did we get the KKK or the Nazis? The obvious rebuttal is that humanity was given free will.  It is entirely up to us to distinguish right from wrong and choose accordingly.  That is the challenge of being alive.

The Moral Arguments For Deity

This is the core failure of Russell’s argument, and by extension, the entire atheist enterprise in my opinion.

I am not for the moment concerned with whether there is a difference between right and wrong, or whether there is not: that is another question.

The atheist argument poses a deep conundrum because it is either implicitly or explicitly a call for a secular moral order. The atheist, by and large, most definitely has a sense of right and wrong because not only would any atheist seek punishment for the murderer, rapist and thief, atheists mostly busy themselves lambasting the evils of religion. If the atheist attacks a religious moral tenet in favor of a secular moral advancement, he is positioning himself as an arbiter of morality. If the atheist rejects the idea that faith is the foundation for moral realism, then you have consigned the entire realm of morality to the relativistic world of political ideology, or worse, scientism and utilitarianism. The atheist that claims a “belief in science” over faith is not only peddling a ridiculous fallacy since good science does not require belief in the first place, but is glossing over the larger issues of morality and ethics. One cannot have sound science without sound ethics, and I would contend that it is a precondition for any serious quest for scientific knowledge. The sciences of the natural world are neutral on morality and ethics. Few people would embrace it today, but eugenics were once considered cutting-edge science. On the other hand, the modern social sciences make no effort to hide the fact that they are both normative and subjective, but affect a pretense of being the engines of modern moral progression simply because they live under the broad banner of science. Gender studies, critical race theory, and climate change “science” now form a de facto secular moral order from which any dissent is met with censure and opprobrium. Committing violence in service of the advancement of political goals and being a self-appointed judge of who deserves to be punched for having the wrong political opinions are not only explicitly sanctioned by the progressive political class, academics and celebrities, but they are evidence of moral virtue.

At its core, the atheist argument is a negation of belief, and an active embrace of non-belief. It also falsely asserts that faith and reason are mutually exclusive faculties, and the existence of one automatically short circuits and precludes the exercise of the other. If this doesn’t lead to a state of pure nihilism, it creates an inherent cognitive dissonance with respect to positive engagement with humanity itself. By and large, humans generally strive towards a very general notion of Doing Good and Making a Difference. Happiness, love, friendship, loyalty, forgiveness and charity are all abstractions which cannot be quantified, and yet, these abstractions are the mythical sky wizards that every atheist presumably chases in his own life under the guise of “science” or “reason”. Every act performed which carries an expectation of positive good, whether it’s money donated to a soup kitchen or a vote cast for a politician, is its own act of faith. If an atheist truly has any hope for humanity, he must, at some level, have belief in humanity’s capacity for good. This all by itself is an act of faith. It is the Golden Rule in practice. Cynicism and nihilism are easy.  Finding reasons to be hopeful about humanity is a far deeper challenge which pretty much requires some level of faith.

The yearning for justice and righteousness; more specifically, the desire to do right by for our fellow man and leave a positive legacy for posterity is hardwired into the human consciousness at some level. However, it is not a forgone conclusion that any given human will make choices that will expand and spread virtue, and it is entirely possible that many will be actively constrained and thwarted in their ability to exercise it or possibly even violate others in one way or another.

As Thomas Sowell argued, the world is roughly divided between those who subscribed to a “constrained” vision of humanity which posits that human nature is fixed and unchanging or an “unconstrained” vision which asserts that humans can be molded by social forces and institutions. Atheists mostly belong to the latter camp. Sadly, no one gives a shit about “a rational proof for secular ethics” or any other lofty philosophical disquisition on morality and ethics. Bertrand Russell wrote a bunch of stuff, but who reads it except for philosophy nerds and academics? The study of neuroscience in hopes of uncovering the “moral landscape” as Sam Harris describes it seems like little more than a recipe for pharmacological and technological micromanagement of the human will. The yearning for justice appeals to human emotion, and subsequently, humans tend to respond more positively to narrative and allegory when it comes to formulating notions of morality and justice. This is why Biblical allegory and mythology have been far more effective vehicles for the transmission of moral lessons than philosophical dialectic.

I further contend that it’s far easier to denigrate the Christian faith and morality than it is to proffer a positive alternative. There are no consequences to proclaiming yourself an atheist.  It takes no courage to heap scorn and ridicule on Christians as the enemies of Real Social Progress© and scientific discovery. According to the contemporary progressive orthodoxy, the only real moral transgressions are “bigotry”, white on black police brutality, climate change “denial”, the absence of consent in sexual relations for white, middle-class female college students, saying anything negative about Islam, and pretty much anything uttered by a conservative, libertarian or Christian. But the outrage is strictly confined to the narrative as it’s defined within the walls of academia, the media echo chamber which dutifully parrots every bit of brainless tripe dispensed from the social justice priesthood, and the gender ideologue foot soldiers who dominate Twitter and Tumblr. And by and large, this is where the yellow brick road of atheism has lead: to the sanctuary of the Church of Progressivism. Few atheists would admit it, but political rhetoric and social “science” have replaced the priest’s sermon.

Atheism has become a new orthodoxy which has largely ceded moral authority and agency to the leftist political class, their agenda and apparatchiks in academia.  There are exceptions, but this is the trend.  It seems like little more than a license to condescend to Christians, denigrate Christianity as the font of subservience and totalitarianism, and generally be miserable, nihilistic curmudgeons. Like all progressive thought, it’s not edgy, contrarian or new. With few exceptions, it’s just a standard accompaniment to a predetermined list of progressive political goals.

I wasn’t enthusiastic about making this argument since atheists are definitely the cool kids in the class, but if this is the quality of the argument from one of atheism’s greatest thinkers, then color me unimpressed.