Stray thoughts: “bad art” edition

  1. I would rather eat glass than directly engage with people who think it’s necessary or at all useful to police the content of artistic work for political respectability as determined by the least generous contextual interpretation of that work and a similarly magnanimous assessment of the intentions of the people who created it.
  2. I shit from a very great height indeed on the notion that craft-based criticism is worth much when it comes from people who call themselves artists but whose main contribution to comics as a medium takes the form of horny Twitter selfies.
  3. Sex comics are a really odd form of art that has mostly fallen out of vogue but a lot of astonishing artists, notably Robert Crumb, did them on their way to creating some of the most beautiful visual art of the 20th and 21st centuries. Straight American and European men illustrating their most depraved sexual fantasies make for queasy reading for a lot of people; that’s fine. Nobody has to like anything, just as nobody has to make art anyone else likes. These comics really help other people, believe it or not! Whatever you may think about them, the act of making a drawing from memory is not an act of violence, as I keep seeing it described. You can call it violence, but you will be completely wrong and incapable of having a discussion about art with anyone because you don’t know what words mean.
  4. It’s really telling how many people who have a problem with Crumb, with Manara, and with their American and European contemporaries, luuurve manga and preach it generally as gospel to everyone who will listen without for an instant considering manga’s regressive and sexist qualities. Crumb drew a lot of gross stuff but he never drew tentacle rape. Either it’s okay or immoral to depict the extremely weird sex stuff that bugs you or turns you on or whatever in your work. I’m going with the former, thanks.
  5. People can be tarred as sexual predators when there is an accuser and not before. If all you have as evidence are interviews featuring a bunch of old guys hee-hawing about their almost certainly embroidered sexual exploits, please jam a sock in it.
  6. I keep seeing comics twitter types say some variation on “I know five people who are just as talented as R Crumb and they’re not personally shitty!” Actually, you do not know five people who are as talented as Robert Crumb. There are probably not five people alive who are as talented as Robert Crumb. An entire industry of confessional alt-comix came into being ex nihilo because of Crumb and multiple successive generations of artists have learned from him, in good ways and bad. You may like your friend Saffron’s stippling or whateverthefuck better than Crumb’s but Crumb’s influence on comics is not simply that the guy is good at crosshatching. This is one of those weird cases where an artist’s obvious technical supercompetence obscures his actual contribution to art and I sort of sympathize but seriously, when you say this shit you sound like one of those boors in the 20th century wing of an art museum who looks at a Joan Miro painting and says “I coulda done that!” No, you could not have, because then you would have done so.
  7. As the nauseating spectacle of #comicsgate winds down due to a number of its partisans realizing that they’ve been hilariously grifted out of roughly a million dollars–no kidding–collectively, I was very annoyed to see a bunch of people tweeting incredulously that they were surprised Frank Cho wasn’t a part of the comicsgate bandwagon and had in fact gone out of his way to dump on the whole clownshow. This is what happens when you are so incredibly invested in seeing people who disagree with you as irreducibly evil and corrupt that you pay no attention at all to what they’re saying. If you deliberately misunderstand people, you will find them hard to predict! Frank Cho is a person of color rose to prominence by writing a humor strip about a pretty woman constantly disappointed by lunkheaded men. He likes drawing cheesecakey pinups and doesn’t like being picked on by silly prudes on social media, which is different from being a frothing misogynist.
  8. Guys, a lot of comics are extremely grim and unpleasant, in terms of the material they explore and originate. That is their nature, largely because of the way they evolved over the 20th century and as a response to that period’s excesses. I find that response to those excesses to be energizing and encouraging and even somewhat optimistic because of the way it resists sanitization and exportation into the larger monoculture, a gelatinous mass of contract law and 1950’s cultural mores mostly owned by the Disney and Warner Bros corporations that I personally consider hugely offensive and disturbing in a way that I absolutely do not find Crumb’s sex fantasies or Alan Moore’s horror comics. If you prefer to carefully dictate the terms on which you consider works of art acceptable for publication and distribution to the artists and publishers by means of boycotts and public pressure campaigns, congratulations on being an evangelical Christian, I guess.
  9. So there you go. I can’t stop people from saying really ignorant and foolish things and of course I wouldn’t if I could but my god, it makes me tired and discouraged about the future to see it in such an unending flood.

Comics Thoughts 9/16

LOEG.jpg

I’m back from Iraq. It was a wonderful experience and full of some of the most interesting people I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting and I hope to go back there soon. I’m accidentally backing into a niche of consulting on fake news for various people and places and I hope it’s something I’m doing well. It’s a strange world. I’m so tired I can barely see at the moment.

I think I’ll start out with some comics:

  • Holy shit, Mark Russell and Steve Pugh’s The Flintstones is fucking magnificent. I haven’t read a work-for-hire comic that good in years. Many years. I have to to read his new Snagglepuss comic immediately. I can’t believe I’m typing any of this. But yeah The Flintstones is an Anatomy Lesson-level reinvention of a classic character, and it’s REALLY funny and quite sad. Five stars out of four.
  • A Walk Through Hell by Garth Ennis and Goran Szuduka is probably the single most frightening comic book I’ve ever read in my life. It’s so upsetting and disturbing, I just can’t even tell you about it. Holy shit. It’s about a pair of cops on the trail of a child murderer who end up in a warehouse that appears to contain… Hell? It’s hard to tell exactly what’s happening at the moment in it, four issues in, but the parallel narratives of the police case that went down before the cops walked into the warehouse and the story of what they find when they go inside are just riveting. The art is pretty good; there aren’t a lot of visual fireworks in the writing yet though there are some really amazing/horrifying ideas. I’m hoping we’ll get a little more room for the artist to work in coming issues.
  • Anders Nilsen, whose art is just astoundingly gorgeous, has a new series with a lot of different threads going at once, called Tongues. It remains to be seen whether Nilsen can keep all the balls in the air, though based on past performance I’d say we’re in capable hands, but purely on a visual level the book is just eye-popping. There’s a recent trend toward (I feel) excessive simplicity in contemporary art comics and I have very little use for it; I like Bryan Lee O’Malley’s stuff a lot but in general I find the Hello Kitty-style quasi-anime school of not really doing much rendering in handmade ink on fair-trade artisanal paper to be incredibly lazy-looking and tiresome and weirdly insulting of actual anime which is often rendered to the hilt. It’s nice to see someone moving in the opposite direction as fast as his pen will carry him.
  • Yes of course I’m reading the final League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, yes I absolutely love it, no I don’t think Alan Moore is a misogynist, yes Kevin O’Neill is one of the all-time great underrated artists and I hope they rename Ruskin after him. If you haven’t read the previous installments you probably won’t get all the in-jokes but the only person who gets all the in-jokes is Jess Nevins, Cruden to the LoEG’s King James Bible, and you can get Jess to explain them to you pretty easily on Twitter and on his website. The League is all women now, interestingly, and, being as it is a series about hardcore status quo changes happening pretty much nonstop, it has to go a long way to surprise me but it has done exactly that in both issues I’ve read so far. I just adore this series. I can’t say enough good about it—it’s one of the great works of literature of the last twenty years and I’ve treasured every page. It has a lot of Moore’s favorite tics in it but honestly, who cares, in many ways it’s the summation of his entire career and he can repeat himself a little if he wants to. (Providence was pretty much wholly original on that score, interestingly. I feel like he still has more good work in him, but on the other hand I’m glad I feel like that at the end of his career rather than silently wishing he would go away).
  • Warren Ellis and Jason Howard have a new book called Cemetery Beach, which I’m excited about because I was one of the six people on earth who read and loved Ellis’s Trees, a sci-fi series about an earth invaded by completely nonhuman aliens. I wish I understood why people are hot and cold on Ellis; his supposedly “bad” books like Jack Cross have some absolutely thrilling visual stuff in them and his good ones are transcendent. Anyway Aftershock Press, which also publishes A Walk Through Hell, recently put out a trade paperback of his megaweird book Shipwreck, which apparently will have more installments though it feels pretty compact and complete to me. I recommend that, too; it’s in a similar vein with his great Karnak miniseries over at Marvel and his absolutely bizarre meta-retcon of Supreme with Tula Lotay, called Supreme: Blue Rose. For more conventional action stuff by him, I’ve recommended The Wild Storm on here every time a new issue comes out and I regret nothing.
  • I’m liking Coates-Yu on Captain America though I really did love Mark Waid’s ten-issue run the year previous. Coates has been finding his sea legs on Black Panther and I’m encouraged by the direction he’s taking Cap if not the development of the characters, which is a little lacking, especially by comparison to Waid’s two books, which were so slick. I’ll read absolutely anything Yu draws so it’s fine with me if the story is a bit expositionally clumsy and overreliant on ruminative captions. I want this series to really take off but I’d rather it happened sooner than later; the decompression of comics stories seems to have meant that nothing is really required to happen in the course of a single issue anymore and I find that frustrating as someone who schleps down to the shop every week, rain or shine.
  • Waid’s Doctor Strange in Space is pretty fun so far although I worry it will suffer the same fate as his Hulk book, which got crossovered into oblivion fairly quickly. At the moment it’s very light and fun and I hope the higher-ups don’t drag the character into too many corporate events so the series has a chance to grow. I am and will continue to be a serious Waid partisan.
  • I wait with bated breath for the final installment in the ongoing Kurt Busiek Astro City ongoing, and I look forward to the graphic novel next year, too. I love AC and I’ve loved the recent stories a lot; he keeps finding ways to bring in superhero-universe archetypes that surprise and delight me, 19 books into this series. The most recent is a kind of Sandman analogue called the Outsider whose recent adventures have been really fun in a way that is both metanarratively interesting and then meta-metanarratively interesting in the ways it recalls Grant Morrison’s shenanigans on Animal Man and some of the odder Sandman issues. Busiek reminds me of something Alan Moore wrote about Rick Veitch, that he’s such a reliable craftsman that people take for granted work that would be astounding if it came from anyone else; I agree strongly on Veitch and think the same compliment applies to Busiek. Also I want that final Batman: Creature of the Night issue to come out, goddammit.
  • Frank Miller’s Xerxes is over; it was a lot of fun to read if significantly lighter than 300. The real pleasure in it was watching Miller get his mojo back over the five issues. By the end he’s at the height of his kinetic powers and it’s a relief to see his colorist, Alex Sinclair, learning to work with him. Miller is a genius for emphasis and sometimes he just gives up on a page after putting the few things it needs on it in black ink; by the end of the series, Sinclair has figured this out and stopped trying to draw in backgrounds with gradations of green and orange.
  • Daniel Mallory Ortberg wrote a Rick & Morty comic; a one-shot about Krombopoulos Michael, the cheerfully amoral hitman played by Andy Daly in a very funny episode of the show. I love Daniel; he published an essay of mine I’m really proud of a few years ago but I also just admire his writing—his jokes at the Toast were some of the funniest humor prose I’d ever read and he communicated a brilliant, tactile understanding of online culture while also being more deeply literate, something digital culture has a lot of trouble with. Anyway his Krombopoulos Michael comic is funny and good and I hope he writes more.
  • Batman #50, the wedding issue, was fun; it reminded me a lot of the old special issues that got filled out with pin-ups after an extra-long story, except in this case the little mini-posters I used to cut out and tape up on the inside of my locker are actually part of the story. There’s a fantastic Frank Miller page, a Neal Adams page, pretty much everybody you could want who’s still alive and capable of drawing.

New Fun Comics

If you like, you can see the emergence of a united trolldom in the comics fanbase, now apparently called Comicsgate [retching noise] as laterally related to Gamergate (which it apes), and to the Sad Puppies dickheads who tried to get eighth-tier hack sci-fi writer Ted Beale a Hugo Award because he was a white guy (Beale has founded a publishing imprint actually called Comicsgate).

And it’s understandable to want to dismiss these dudes as fake geek boys, who don’t get the most basic tenets of superhero comicdom, namely diversity, inclusion, selfless heroism, and sacrifice. What else are Superman and the X-Men supposed to stand for? They’re the original social justice warriors.

But doing the former ignores the actual comics, and doing the latter commits one of the more annoying fallacies of contemporary mainstream comics criticism, which is certainly not above reproach though it is at least non-Nazi, which is apparently the subterranean state of the bar these days: It resists marrying the work performed on comics to the actual people who perform it and instead weds it to the characters themselves, who are not much more than corporate glyphs at this point. Roughly the same amount of moral goodness suffuses Batman as does the Pepsi logo. Perhaps this wasn’t always this way but it certainly is now.

With each new act in this regrettable bullshit circus I hope more and more fervently that some kind of intelligent analysis of the actual people who help create comics will get written by someone capable of writing it: Chuck Dixon, for example, is one of the most prolific comics writers ever to pick up a pen, having made his mark particularly on wildly popular characters like The Punisher and Batman. Dixon has never been shy about his right-wing politics and now, predictably, he’s thrown in with Beale, writing a comic called “Alt-Hero.” Mike Baron, writer of beloved superhero series Nexus was for a while slated to write a comic about the heroic exploits of Kyle Chapman, the fascist activist who attended rallies calling himself Based Stickman, wearing a mask and wielding a club that the criminal complaint sworn out against him refers to as a “leaded stick.” (Baron dropped out, which is nice to hear. I like a lot of his work.) Obviously, it’s not hard to see the connection between Chapman and the mask-wearing, batarang-wielding four-color heroes who thump thugs every week in the comics.

There are more besides these examples, less egregious but just as noteworthy: Bill Willingham, who devoted most of an issue of his wildly popular book Fables to explicitly comparing the Palestinian people to the subhuman goblin villains of his series, which kind of ruined it for me; and who can forget Dave Sim, the prodigiously gifted writer-artist whose 300-issue long self-published epic Cerebus devolves into a misogynist screed written mostly in tiny serial-killer-font captions and lengthy back-and-forth letter-column discussions with more progressive writers like Alan Moore.

I’m going to take the odd position of declining to insult the workmanship of these guys’ comics; a lot of them are very good. Failing to take into account the world as it is, whether by misrepresenting women or refusing to understand gay people or deploring entire races, is a serious error of imagination and impedes the basic aesthetic goal of communing more deeply with people who aren’t you. But that error, particularly in fantasy fiction where quality depends so much on constructing an entire world as thoroughly as you can (and where a lot of the legacy audience is white and conservative), is not always fatal to the larger project. And these mistakes are very easy for artists who aren’t hooked in to political culture to make, because if they’re any good, they’re thinking about what kind of brush to use or whether the gesso is drying correctly, rather than the Dakota Access Pipeline. There’s an essential conservatism to quite a bit of art, probably because you simply have to accept the status quo, however shitty, for long enough to competently produce it: A lot happens to art between conception and publication. That’s probably why artists get so frustrated with criticism that neglects the actual process of creation in favor of some moralistic superstructure that best serves the critic’s list of political grievances. Criticism is political, sure, but if it’s exclusively political and not at least partly an examination of how art works, it gets hard to call it “criticism” with a straight face.

The trouble is in some ways the medium of comics itself, just as Gamergate was, at least partly, about the culture of games. Media don’t exist independently of their histories: Comics and indeed most figural art are built in significant part on a foundation of straight men’s lurid fantasies. Some of those fantasies are beautiful and moving and even aspire to revelation, but they are still the products of cultures that denigrate women, that enslave black people, that persecute gay people and shun nonchristians. Comics are most interesting when they transgress those norms and because of their disreputability, transgression is comics’ stock in trade, more often than not. Transgression isn’t *necessarily* good but it is *often* good or can be made good: Tijuana bibles are gross little porn comics but perhaps they’re also liberating for people constrained by the public hypocrisies about sex during the thirties and forties when they were published. Robert Crumb’s vision of the world is horrifyingly bleak and corrupted but maybe it’s some part of an antidote to smothering capitalism. I don’t know. Defending the morality of art is a trap; that’s something the Comicsgate chuds instinctually understand and that’s why they’re so eager to talk in completely invented terms about the comics economy and the numbers of books sold, or which series were canceled early and how those metrics prove that this or that book was a grievous business error by people who rose to positions of authority by being diversity hires or something.

The truth is, I hope obviously, none of these things. Art is valuable neither for its didactic lessons nor for its impressive quarterly margins. The best art has no simple moral message by definition and very often leaves its creator no better off financially than she was when she started drawing or painting or writing.

There are big problems of professionalism and cliquishness in comics long before we get to Comicsgate. When big tranches of verified Twitter tell an untried writer that their new book looks amaaaaaaazing despite astonishingly ugly promo art, it smacks of a kind of clubby boosterism that feels designed to pick readers’ pockets from the outside. On the inside, there is a feeling among progressive artists that they must have each other’s backs in uncertain times and if so-and-so’s debut is a little rough and overpraised, it’s just three dollars they’re asking readers to spend, so what’s the harm? Much of the comics-critic world either has one foot in professional comics-making or wants to, and so they tend to be obsequious and ingratiating about this tendency when it suits them and to gin up immaculate political objections to the work of people they dislike when it doesn’t; the notion that criticism might possibly be a form intended to serve a general public readership seems to have vanished almost entirely.

It’s also true that the unwashed hordes who bought every issue of every X-Men book from puberty onwards are a powerful, consistent, and not especially progressive market force. Richard Meyer, an occasional comics writer who runs a hilariously underinformed and horrifyingly popular Youtube vlog called Diversity & Comix*, launched a crowdfunding campaign for a new comic called Jawbreakers; he made half a million dollars. Ethan Van Sciver, a very gifted right-wing artist who contributed work to hit stories starring the X-Men, Green Lantern, and any number of others, made hundreds of thousands from his own Kickstarter for his comic Cyberfrog. I saw someone on Twitter proclaim that these campaigns were successful because they attracted a few wealthy donors; that is absolutely untrue. The donor pages for both projects are almost entirely small-dollar donations from happy fans.

The problem is not that Jawbreakers is a monetary failure or even an expression of moral turpitude. It’s that it’s shit. It’s fucking awful. The dialogue in Jawbreakers is such painful tough-guy bullshit that it’s funny, except when it’s trying to be. The art looks like it went to the colorist before the inker had finished. Cyberfrog is at least nicely drawn.

There are terrible comics from progressive writers, too; Marguerite Bennett, a very popular writer, once gave one of the X-Men a bromide-filled monologue about why racist jokes are bad that’s so long it takes up an entire page so that there’s only room for a little drawing of the characters in the lower right-hand corner. I can feel myself needing to qualify this by saying Bennett is actually an okay writer because I like her politics but I don’t really think she is. She’s fine for superhero books, and there has always been a subcategory of superhero comics that feel like reading a benefit book from which the proceeds go to orphanages for especially nice children.

This is a thing Comicsgate has always gotten wrong, and in a particularly annoying way: The Denny O’Neill Green Lantern-Green Arrow comics, classics though they may be on the strength of Neal Adams’s art, are terribly written in exactly this way. Lame, socially aware superhero comics are as old as the genre; they’re just misremembered as good by people who haven’t read them because, to quote John Huston’s villain in Chinatown, politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respect if they last long enough. There are also *good* socially aware comics: Sex Criminals, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, the Lee-Kirby FF, any number of others.

Radiating like a bad smell off the other kind of work, which is to say, comics writing that engages directly with the culture wars, is a kind of panic, a sense that we have to sacrifice aesthetics in order to give necessary voice to the ideals that have driven us to create art because time is running out. And I think on the right, too, there is a similar animating force, a desire to define oneself in opposition to the misperceived status quo of insincere, clannish progressives who are eroding the very fabric of our society. It’s absolutely not true that these positions are morally equivalent—the people on the left are correct and the people on the right are incorrect—but it is true that both are using art to demonstrate the application contemporary political ethics. And that project is doomed to failure, because that is not what art does.

“It is disgraceful for a philosopher to say: the good and the beautiful are one; if he adds ‘also the true’, one ought to beat him,” Nietzsche reminds us. “Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth.”

*Disclosure: Meyer did an episode about my Guardian profile of Frank Miller earlier this year, in which he said he hated the article because I had obviously never read Holy Terror (Richard: My Holy Terror, which I’ve read several times, is signed by Frank) and that it had moved him to tears.

Comics 6/30

xerxes

  1. Prison Pit, Johnny Ryan’s absolutely revolting sci-fi monsters-fighting comic, which makes me laugh until I wheeze like a banshee, is finished; I think most of the people who pass it in the store do not realize that the cover is an image of our hero with a monster’s head impaled on his penis. This is the sixth book in the series and I loved them all; Ryan’s Instagram is a personal favorite of mine although as always I feel terrible recommending it to anyone. It’s a really amazing feed of extremely offensive gag comics and, to my delight, he tags the New Yorker in all of the worst ones. The joke is that much funnier for the fact that he draws exactly like Syd Hoff when he wants to.
  2. Some things I’ve kept reading:
    Doomsday Clock, by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, largely against my better judgment; Frank, at least, is a terrific artist. I’ve finally realized what the damn thing is actually supposed to be: It’s Watchmen 2, the book DC could never get Alan Moore to write. It’s really astonishing to witness the precision with which Johns has managed to trap in amber the exact tics of a 33-year-old Alan Moore gloomily working through his depression over Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Of course, things trapped in amber are dead, it ought to be remembered.
    Sex Criminals, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s truly excellent I guess I should call it a sci-fi series? It’s a really wonderful book, totally enamored of the inherent plasticity of the comics form and seemingly at ease with using and misusing every one of its possibilities. It’s a wonderful, willful book and I hope it makes its creators a godzillion dollars.
    Mister Miracle, by Tom King and Mitch Gerads, one of the better superhero books I can remember reading. King has learned a lot of ironic tricks and flourishes from Neil Gaiman and his work is consistently surprising for it; in a corporate universe where pretty much everybody is trying to be a version of Alan Moore that even Alan Moore thinks is boring, it’s a very fresh and interesting take. I was not as enamored of King’s The Vision book as were many others, so that’s probably on me; it left me with a gnawing worry that he has trouble sticking the landing, and for a book as portentous as Mister Miracle, I hope he works that problem out. He’s had some good plot twists, especially recently; I suspect he’ll pull it off.
    Jimmy’s Bastards, an extremely silly Garth Ennis comedy book that manages to be “un-PC” (ugh) without going full reactionary. It’s mean about the right people, mostly.
    The Wild Storm, for which I just don’t have enough superlatives. It is so much fun. Jon-Davis Hunt is a treasure, and Ellis is firing on all cylinders here. It’s not merely enjoyable to speculate about where it’s going, it’s a blast to read as it progresses. There’s never a missed opportunity to impress or entertain the reader, which, as someone frustrated with the growing emphasis on byzantine imaginary-world politics in ostensibly kid-friendly superhero comics, I am very grateful to read.
  3. Frank Miller’s Xerxes, I think I can say with some certainty, is quite good and will be better still by the time it finishes. I wrote a long feature for the Guardian on Frank earlier this year; he’s a towering figure in comics and it was obviously a thrill to get to speak to him though I think the reporting turned over more rocks than he wished it had. He’s been in rough physical shape for a long time, a thing that, I suspect, explains why people seemed to feel that he’d lost his mojo or something. Whatever it was, it seems to be going away; Xerxes #3 is as cool-looking as anything he’s drawn since 300 and it’s a hell of a lot of fun to read. Alex Sinclair, his colorist, has also kind of figured out what to do with him—that’s a kick to witness, too. I’m really happy about this; I love Miller and always have. I hope he keeps going, as he promised he would, into a third volume, though I sorely miss Lynn Varley, who never quite got her due as a masterly painter.
  4. Speaking of writers I love whose politics are probably quite a ways from mine, Ennis has another book out from Aftershock and I can be relied upon to pick up his work pretty much every time. This one, with serviceable art by Goran Sudžuka, is called A Walk Through Hell and two issues in, it really does appear that our protagonists are in Hell. I’m curious to see where it goes. It’s very strange and Ennis seems to have set himself the task of truly and intensely horrifying the reader, which I’m always up for.

On Civility

A specter is haunting America–the specter of incivility. All the powers of legacy media have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise it, never mind the broader state of the world.

Noting that President Donald Trump’s habitual slurs on black and brown people have been received, quite correctly, as government permission to express racism in bald terms in public with far fewer consequences of public censure than they might have two years ago, two prominent New York Times political reporters, Peter Baker and Katie Rogers, diagnose the president’s detractors with the same malaise of rudeness, explaining that Kathy Griffin joked about his death, for which she was fired. The two go on to compare a Trump supporter’s complaining about imagined murders by Hillary Clinton to a Trump protester’s suggestion that when governments move to concentrate classes of people in camps of some sort, historical resonances with 1940’s Germany present themselves.

In their laudable quest for elevated discourse Baker and Rogers have managed to avoid not merely good manners, which is not at all the same thing as civility and requires genuine grace to deploy, but the basic meaning of the words coming out of people’s mouths. Good manners demonstrates welcome and anyone can do it, while civility proclaims class status and is thus circumscribed more closely. The two are sometimes consonant, but they are hardly the same thing.

Donald Trump, since his arrival on the public scene in the 1980’s, has not been consistently uncivil, exactly, but he has always used his public position to solicit violence done to black and brown people. He asked for the five innocent black children falsely accused of rape to be executed in an ad adorning the pages of Baker and Rogers’s own paper in 1989, he launched his presidential campaign with a series of rallies where, by implication and by direct instruction, he encouraged supporters to beat Hispanic and black people, which they did, and now that his pronouncements have the force of law, the language he uses must be carried down the chain of command in the form of policy, forcing small children into lice-infested internment camps where they are held for months without being bathed.

You can see, easily, the way that Trump’s language becomes violence as his public influence grows, because words have meanings, and comedian Samantha Bee’s description of White House advisor Ivanka Trump as a “feckless cunt,” though it is perhaps not a very nice thing to call her, is perfectly accurate, even if the word “cunt” can be investigated for nuance—as, of course, can Bee’s subsequent apology.

But there is less need to investigate Trump’s instructions to “knock the crap out of them” for nuance, or his lapdog Jeff Sessions’ declaration that “If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you,” except perhaps for the use of the word “smuggling,” which the administration has delighted in so that it may blur the line between slavers and parents seeking asylum for their infants.

In fact, the word “cunt” has a rich and interesting history of usage and reclamation and in its most literal sense describes something for which many people, myself included, have great admiration, while the history of the euphemisms and strongman bullying employed by Trump and Sessions is almost exclusively one of atrocity. The rhetoric comprising both men’s statements, I would humbly suggest, is used exclusively by cunts, in the cuntiest cunting way possible, and the use of obscenity to describe them seems not merely permissible but compelled by the lodestar of good manners.

And when New York Times reporters, some of the most powerful people on earth, draw equivalence between the public act of declaring the internment of babies suckling at the breast by legal decree on the one hand and the admittedly graphic suggestion by a private citizen that anyone who would do such a thing ought to be beheaded on the other, there is, I would suggest further, an obligation of the highest possible propriety to remind those reporters that they are asslicking pantsloads whose time spent not fucking themselves is sadly wasted.

To do less would perhaps be classier but it would be unwelcoming.

On whether or not it’s “Biblical” to enforce “the law”

killer priest
Members of the Hungarian Arrow Cross carry confiscated goods out of the ghetto in Budapest. The man on the left is Father Andras Kun, nicknamed the “killer priest.” October 15, 1944 A Catholic Minorite monk and an Arrow Cross leader, Father Kun participated in the torture and murder of perhaps as many as 500 Jews after the Arrow Cross, backed by the Germans, seized power in Hungary in October 1944. During a raid at a Jewish hospital in the winter of 1944–45, Kun directed that patients be killed “in the holy name of Christ.” Kun was later tried and executed. Credit: Magyar Nemzeti Muzeum Torteneti Fenykeptar

Jeff Sessions is a vile, despicable racist, who famously only objects to the Klan because they smoke weed, but he’s being cited, as is Sarah Huckabee Sanders, whose job it is simply to lie extravagantly, quoting Romans 13, the most important bulwark of fascism and irrational cruelty under the law against the compassion of Jesus Christ. Here’s the relevant passage:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

(Corporatist right-wingers typically leave out the next two verses, which are about the duty as children of God to pay taxes, for reasons that hardly need explaining.)

It’s always amazing to see conservative white Christians pull this dodge. They, after all, make all the laws, just as they have for the last fifty years. Terrorizing immigrant workers and asylum-seekers and imprisoning their children by what will soon be the tens of thousands isn’t the Prime Directive. It’s selective enforcement of a misdemeanor under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which was itself a reworking of the much crueler immigration law that had national and racial quotas, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 (the rewritten version, the Hart-Celler Act, perhaps unsurprisingly, was championed, written, introduced and cosponsored by Emanuel Celler, a Jewish man of German extraction who bravely but unsuccessfully spoke out against restrictions on countries affected by the Holocaust during World War II).

Barack Obama, whose administration laid the groundwork for our current nightmare, oversaw the creation of many of the facilities now filled so far beyond capacity that the US government is now building tent cities for children. (Here’s a good account by a former colleague of mine, Oliver Laughland, noting the way the people who ran the facilities restricted access to crayons.) But the exceptions to even Obama’s awful cruelty—not separating families as a matter of course, not detaining pregnant women—have now ended, as, in hindsight, they were probably always going to.

One of the reasons violating the Hart-Celler Act is a misdemeanor is that it is virtually impossible to apply for asylum in the US without being here already; even the UCIS guidelines for application for asylum tacitly admit this.

The stated goal of the abomination of separating parents from their children and putting those children in cages in prisons where they are prevented from receiving physical affection from their caretakers but also sexually abused by them and subsequently try to kill themselvesas do their parents—is apparently deterrence, or, if we are to believe the president’s frankly disgusting explanation, leverage over Democrats, who, I suppose, he believes can be counted on to have human feelings that can be exploited as weakness, or are at least expected to feign a simulacrum of such by their constituents in a way that Republicans are not.

Legally speaking, all this is not too much different from pulling over everyone who drives 60 miles per hour in a 55 zone, taking away the children who are in the car, putting those children in prison for three weeks where the older ones must teach each other how to change the younger children’s diapers, and shrugging off the subsequent well-documtented physical and psychiatric harm as the necessary collateral damage in order to prevent people from speeding slightly. Never mind whether those people were on their way to the hospital with a broken limb or in labor; never mind whether they were being chased by someone with a gun—you can’t make an omelet, we are told, without breaking a few babies.

In all of this, o my coreligionists, where are you? Cat got your tongues, you pusillanimous suck-ups to power, you lovers of serpents, you cheap pimps? Having sold the body of Christ on the streetcorner to be used by anyone who would persecute your gay children for you or outlaw the removal of a septic fetus, perhaps you could favor us by explaining how you’ve found the price worthwhile? Have you managed to install a glorious new Christendom, a city on a hill where the church solves homelessness and the opioid epidemic and converts flood your sanctuaries in gratitude? Seen a lot of new faces in the pews recently, have you?

What needs to happen before you decide that the project of defending zygotes as though they were toddlers and imprisoning toddlers as though they were hardened murderers might, in hindsight, seem a little dodgy, morally? Will they actually turn the ovens on before you speak out, or will you stay silent and, in the future, entertain yourselves with folklore of the few dozen people you now deride for their liberalism who hid their neighbors from ICE or led prison breaks in the years to come, the way you do with the Nazis? Do you ever ask yourself whether your grandchildren will change their names when they are old enough to know what you’ve done?

Let’s look at the pages of World Magazine, First Things, and Christianity Today on Monday. Hm, there seems to be very little about throwing children in jail while their parents seek asylum. World leads with a number of moral-panic pieces, wailing over the California legislation outlawing “conversion therapy” quackery and the referendum in favor of legalized abortion in Ireland, where, spurred on by the Catholic church’s mass graves filled with infants, a nation experienced some buyer’s remorse when it came to sanctity-of-life snake oil. First Things has a new translation of a letter by Proust declaring that Christianity ought to be the state religion. Christianity Today’s “news and reporting” section leads off with a story about how “Trinity Western University’s loss [of its accreditation] over its LGBT stance [which requires staff to say they won’t be gay] is seen as a blow to religious freedom.”

This is particularly noteworthy given that Trump’s most significant Christian apologist, Franklin Graham, has condemned the tactic of separating families at the border, something that seems like it ought to merit more than a one-paragraph mention in a news roundup and a mealymouthed no-time-to-panic op-ed. (First Things, I’ve observed before, is the magazine of choice for racist Catholic integralists and thus loves Nazis and wants to marry them. First Things and Adolf, sitting in a tree, etc.) Graham’s statement is shamefully weak tea (a sample: “I blame the politicians for the last 20, 30 years that have allowed this to escalate to the point where it is today.”) but it’s instructive that significant Christian conservative outlets are treating even that tiny rebellion like a blip on the radar screen.

In fact you have to go to Vox to learn that the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution condemning the immigration policy, not to be confused with the SBC’s resolution 12 years ago urging the adoption of crueler immigration policies. The Gospel Coalition, a network of marginally self-aware conservative preachers, is broadly on the right side but all of these groups are generally opposed to how sad the whole situation is, as though hurt feelings and not diabetes were complications of this specific kind of childhood trauma championed by Christian politicians who are carrying out the will of Christian constituents.

To be wholly fair to CT, the magazine has reported in some depth on Christians speaking out broadly against the Trump administration’s immigration policies, but the tone in which these statements are made is, pardon me, fucking astonishing. None of these people campaigned for Hillary Clinton. Those who were “never Trump” were still broadly supportive of every other Republican candidate and politician, and yet they still see fit to behave as though these policies of vicious racism materialized out of thin air. The posture, forever and always, is one of shocked disbelief. How, they ask, could this secularist government be so cruel? The answer is that the government is not secularist, it is operated and controlled by conservative Christians, and the horrifying thing you see when you look at it is your reflection.

Christian, consider, if you will, that it might not have been enough to denounce Trump sotto voce so as not to break faith with the racists in your community on whom the benefit of the doubt is eternally conferred. Perhaps you should have voted for Hillary Clinton. Perhaps you should have told your family and friends to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Fascism does not brook dissent, but one of the central tenets of Christianity is that both the general revelation of the world and the specific revelation of scripture must be interpreted by fallible, sinful, soiled human beings. So dissent is not simply normal, it is sanctified. Conservative Christians have seen fit to live and let live when it comes to a whole host of controversies: Whether or not to fly the American flag in the sanctuary; the use of texts by racist thinkers and scholars who deplore their black and brown brothers and sisters; the baroque philandering of untold preachers and influential laity, including, of course, our president, whom four out of five of them actively voted to install.

So the silencing of dissenting voices within their ranks and the pose of eternal surprise at atrocities they have worked tirelessly to commit seem to conflict with one another. Having established a militant and impenetrable authority backed by force of arms and upheld by the bulwark of the beshitted law, far above the reach of little people like me, they are finally invincible. And for them I have neither reprimand they can hear nor penalty I can enforce, but a simple question, as befitting my station: Are you Christians, or are you fascists?

I am waiting, you whitewashed tombs.