Another National Anthem

There’s another national anthem playing
Not the one you cheer
At the ball park.
“Where’s my prize?”
It’s the other national anthem, saying—
If you want to hear—
It says “Bullshit!”
It says “Never!”
It says “Sorry!”
Loud and clear
It says: Listen
To the tune that keeps sounding
In the distance, on the outside
Coming through the ground
To the hearts that go on pounding
To the sound
Getting louder every year

—Stephen Sondheim, Assassins

§

I went to Boston on Labor Day Weekend for the “Straight Pride” parade, a far-right rally organized by the hate group Resist Marxism, now operating as Super Happy Fun America. Straight Pride rallies have existed since the 1970s as pushback on the encroaching freedoms of gay people. This one was not much more than a neo-Nazi rally, where a knife-toting man—one of several with prominent Nazi tattoos, his including SS bolts and a swastika—gave interviews to the press, and far-right huckster Milo Yiannopoulos called the enormous crowd of protesters beyond the police barriers ugly lesbians. The police themselves beat the protesters viciously and without provocation.

The “rally” was a miserable affair populated by people who did not appear to have recently enjoyed any form of human interaction for more than about ten consecutive minutes. They had their slogans, costumes, jokes, and slurs ready to go; they tricked a number of reporters into incrementing their numbers by following them down the parade route, which was blocked off from the genpop by not one layer of police barriers but two, forming a wide and empty lane separating angry antifascists from Nazis, idiots in Pepe outfits, and one man smelling of alcohol who had dressed as Santa.

At the center of the parade was a huge float that said “TRUMP 2020” and “BUILD THE WALL.” The black bloc kids and assorted allies, many from the local DSA organization, were a less motley and more energetic crew, mostly young, often smiling, some dressed as storybook witches or in band t-shirts. One gigantically tall person arrived in a costume that devoted to their genderqueer identity; they looked a bit like Magneto with maroon dreads. The activist Vermin Supreme showed up with a crown on his head in place of his usual boot.

The protest was, with intent, a joyful affair. The Black Lives Matter chapter organized a bake “sale,” though sale may be the wrong word since there was no price on anything, just a pay-what-you-can jar of bills and change next to paper plates of muffins and cookies and bagels. There was a “non-confrontational” rally beforehand where pacifists could affirm their LGBT pals, and a dance party afterward, which I intended to attend but missed because, frankly, I was too depressed to leave my hotel room.

Inside the fences, snickering, unhappy memelords in clown wigs and a pathetic assembly of right-wing newsmen trawled for clicks and views on their YouTube feeds or Facebook Live streams. Traditional newspeople tried to interview clowns and Santa Claus. Ford Fischer, a man who wears a GoPro camera on his bicycle helmet and acquires good footage of street-level events that he tweets and sells to news outlets, was there; so were CBS and Vice.

One of the speakers, Enrique Tarrio, a Republican operative who leads a violent militia called the Proud Boys, was a no-show. A small woman in a red “socialism is for fags” shirt screamed “faggot” at protesters.

The parade eventually reached City Hall, where a stage, a microphone, and a perimeter of police were waiting. Everyone who wanted to attend the festivities had to be wanded and present their bags for inspection. Proud Boys arrived incognito as a “security” detail for Yiannopoulos, among them a frowning long-haired man wearing what looked like a band shirt bearing, on the back, a paraphrased verse from Leviticus (misattributed) about cannibalism. He and the armed Nazi stood at the back. He told me the Proud Boys had been instructed not to wear their trademark Fred Perry shirts today, though some of them had disobeyed and he was clearly unhappy about it, and about talking to me, so he walked away. I googled the shirt and found that it was from a doomy “lifestyle” clothing brand called BlackCraft Cult (caps theirs).

Outside the rally, the mood was much brighter, but it was colored by a different fear. Inside, the rallygoers were afraid of cultural Marxism, of the things the protesters represented. Outside, the protesters were afraid of being physically hurt or humiliated by ralliers and the cops. At one point, chatting with a couple on the street, a white kid with long blond hair came up to us and said with a badly feigned sincerity that flirted with sarcasm, “Hey, did you see those awful, bigoted straight pride marchers anywhere? Do you know where that homophobic straight pride rally is?” We shrugged him off and he went away, but the experience was unsettling, the clumsy pretense in his voice clinging to our own conversation like a spiderweb as we wondered, half to ourselves, whether he had tried to hustle us into engaging with him for a hidden camera or a group of friends who meant us harm. I didn’t know the man and woman, both very young and animated, but in that moment we were all, suddenly, on one side, and he and the police were on the other.


Police pepper-spray protesters standing on the sidewalk


The cops beat the shit out of everyone. Police departments from all over the state at a cost of more than half a million dollars earned overtime zooming through the streets on bicycles in riot helmets, shorts, neon yellow-and-black uniform shirts, wraparound shades, and clenched scowls. Some carried weapons for a melee and had zipties velcroed to the front of their armor for easy access; one had an enormous truncheon as long as his leg tucked into a ringed scabbard behind him on his belt. When the rally ended, the cops left the barriers between the rallygoers and the protesters up; then they drove motorcycles through the crowd to break it up.

A second wave of cops, these on bicycles, worked their way into the crowd to chants of “Good cops quit” and “shame, shame, shame.” The cop closest to me put the shield on his helmet down over his face.

Then they forced the protesters down the street, pushing ahead with their bikes, chanting, call-and-response style, “move,” “BACK,” “move,” “back,” the cantor calling “move” and his fellow soldiers yelling “BACK.” Everyone complied as best they could, but the crowding was far too dense for anyone more than a few people deep in the throng to simply disperse. The bottleneck into which police had forced the protesters was blocked on the one side closest to city hall by the barriers the police had erected themselves and refused to open after the parade’s permit ran out. On the other, a fence between the two lanes of the street prevented the protesters from leaving across the grassy expanse outside Boston’s Holocaust memorial. The police began hurling the protesters, especially the women, to the ground; one stick-thin twentysomething girl was led away with huge abrasions on her shoulders from being dragged across the pavement by the enormous cop, who had forearms like Popeye, restraining her. Cops blasted pepper spray at protesters standing on the sidewalk, where they had been directing people. Plainclothes police planted in the crowd led away more people in handcuffs from outside the scrum, why, I couldn’t tell.

As the crowd backed up, the bike officers formed a neon yellow phalanx across the street from fence to fence and bludgeoned with their bicycles anyone who tried to move through it or who didn’t move away quickly enough. Everyone moved back. Finally, when the remaining protesters had dwindled to two, the police charged them, threw them to the ground, beat them, and handcuffed them in front of a crowd who videotaped and took photos. It’s easy and tempting to dismiss the men who did this as violent bullies who like to hurt people, but this was not bullying. Bullying is impulsive. This was preplanned tactical movement against an unarmed, nonviolent adversary, many if not most of whom were young women, to protect armed neo-Nazis from confrontation because the city had given them a permit to shout slurs and provocations at women, gay people, and immigrants. And the police didn’t care, and there was no reason, beyond decency, for them to care. And we were well beyond decency.

Reports after the parade said that the police had stolen a cane from an elderly woman and had broken one protester’s arm. I texted a source who had been closer to the violence than I was to ask if they were all right. “Skin is spicy, I needed an eyeflush,” they replied, adding that they’d been hit with a bike but were otherwise okay.

I like America. I like being from here. I like my memories of childhood in the infinite woods setting off bottle rockets and swinging like Tarzan on vines over creeks and building dams in those creeks and learning to pick up crawdads just behind their claws. And as a grownup I like living in a big insane city stuffed with weirdos who have to cram daily onto a network of awful trains that pretzel into each other in such an inconvenient configuration that it must be, on some level, intentional, and take their kids to the zoo, and boo the mayor, and complain about the theater, and go see their friends’ awful bands and stand-up routines, and eat sandwiches as big as a man’s shoe. I like that we have a ridiculous law here that declares your right to say absolutely anything you want, anything at all that doesn’t directly ask another person to commit a crime, and if somebody else doesn’t like it, why, it’s their right and their duty to scream at you and tell everyone who will listen that you’re an asshole. I like the Me Too movement. I like comic books, and movies that cost more than the GDP of Denmark, and musical theater, and awful rock music that is so sincere it makes your teeth hurt to listen to it. And I like that so many of us, me included, hoped that we would be able to surmount the problems we all knew were coming when we made our president a fascist game-show host who hates black people and women. That he wouldn’t be able to burrow deep into our structures and institutions; that those things were flawed but still, somehow, basically sound.

That hope was foolish, and I repent of it after seeing what happened in Boston with my own eyes. It is too late.

§

Noah Carl is a young academic who was drummed out of Cambridge last year for participating in a conference of race scientists and contributing to Mankind Quarterly, a magazine devoted to advancing theories of intelligence and its correlation with race. Carl became a cause celèbre among conservative media creatures, taking bylines in Quillette, The Economist (yes, The Economist grants bylines to guest contributors), and receiving sympathetic coverage from many conservative pundits, among them Bloomberg writer Cass Sunstein and libertarian Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle, who is personally famous for such theories as “children should be trained to charge into the line of fire during school shootings” and “the fire at the Grenfell Towers public housing project was normal attrition.” The Times of London published a leader—Britspeak for an unbylined editorial, one that states the institutional position of the organization, rather than that of a specific columnist or contributor—entitled “The Times view on the sacking of Noah Carl: Monoversities.”

“Mr Carl does not stand accused of writing anything unlawful or liable to incite hatred. His main offence seems to have been to challenge the ‘woke’ left-wing orthodoxy now starting to grip British universities as it does many American ones,” write the authors of the Times leader, who may be relieved to hear that the Koch petrochemical dynasty has endowed several chairs in prominent universities run by their American cousins.

Other pundits such as Michelle Malkin shared Carl’s crowdfunding campaign, with which he hoped to sue Cambridge in retaliation for his dismissal. Outlets like UnHerd and The Federalist ran ringing tributes to this fallen thought warrior, as they often do.

I know it cannot be true in every case but I hope so much that these writers are merely extraordinarily stupid. That would make me think better of them. McArdle, at least, is profoundly lazy and entitled, so perhaps she can plead her usual ignorance.

Noah Carl is a Nazi. He is a prolific contributor to OpenPsych, a racist pseudojournal of non-peer-reviewed work, much of it on eugenics, that overlaps significantly with the authorship of Mankind Quarterly. He has published with Emil Kirkegaard, the lay-researcher founder of OpenPsych, who is both an apologist for pedophilia and a white nationalist.

Mankind Quarterly was founded by a number of fascists but the most important name on the list is Otmar von Verschuer, who trained Josef Mengele, convinced the German Research Society to fund Mengele’s experiments on the population of concentration camps, and worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute on human remains Mengele provided him from Auschwitz. As early as 1935, he had advocated passionately for experiments on twins, which Mengele carried out. Other founders of the journal include Italian fascist Corrado Gini and neo-Nazi Henry Garrett, the latter of whom helped to found the “Liberty Lobby,” a political activist group dedicated various forms of antisemitism including denying the Holocaust in which his professional colleague had personally participated. Current editors at Mankind Quarterly now review for OpenPsych, as does Kevin MacDonald, author of the ur-text of contemporary American antisemitism, The Culture of Critique.

The editor-in-chief of Christianity Today regularly sends his readers links to The Federalist and UnHerd. In my opinion, there should be more steps between Christianity Today and “eyes from murdered gypsies, internal organs, skeletons and blood samples … likely … of twins, one of them deliberately infected with typhus or tuberculosis by Mengele,” to quote the section of the Nature article on scientific racism devoted to Verschuer.

§

I read the collected Kevin Huizenga Ganges comics, called Glenn Ganges in The River at Night. It’s absolutely delightful. As good as anything Chris Ware has done, and I love Chris Ware. I’m also in the middle of Eleanor Davis’s The Hard Tomorrow, which I can’t recommend highly enough. It’s extraordinarily moving. I’ve got Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, and a bunch of old New Mutants comics to read, as well. Transmetropolitan is being reprinted; it’s still one of my very favorite comics. In single issues:

•JJ Abrams’ first issue of Spider-Man, with his brother Henry and art by the wonderful Sara Pichelli, is very promising.

•Mark Russell and Richard Pace’s Second Coming is just terrific. I’m reading all the Russell books at the moment—that’s Second Coming, Wonder Twins, and Red Sonja, I believe, and Second Coming is the best, though they’re all good.

•Jonathan Hickman’s vast X-Men reimagining, House of X and Powers of X, with Pepe Larraz and RB Silva, respectively, is remarkable. Some of the best X-Men comics I’ve ever read and a very clear vision for what the stories ought to be doing. Hickman’s enormous metanarrative experiment with the Marvel Universe in the early ‘teens didn’t quite get the fanfare it deserved, in part because it was so long and only a few people realized he was doing it. There’s plenty of fanfare around this one, so I think more folks will be on board from the jump, which is essential.

My little boy is super into Carl Barks at the moment. WEAD DONGLE DUCK AN THE BEAGO BOYS, he instructs. WEAD THE BEAGO BOYS. So we do. It’s good. Life is good. Life itself, always, is good.

§

My Work This Year

Officially New Year’s Eve! Here are the ten best things I wrote in 2018. I hope you enjoy at least one of them.

That’s it! It wasn’t a particularly glamorous year but I’m surprised by how proud I am of my work, which I think mostly holds up pretty well. I’m also *incredibly* proud of the work of my colleagues at the Tow Center and the wonderful people at CJR who let me hang out in their office and yell story ideas in the morning meeting.

In general I spent a lot more time parenting and husbanding and drawing and reading and walking than I did last year. I’m glad I did, and I think it made my writing better, too.

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.

 

Some thoughts on liberalism

It has been a banner year for critics of liberalism, and with good reason. Deracinated liberal pluralism has given us many of our worst problems, it seems: an open hearing for a thieving, lying xenophobe in a presidential campaign that he unexpectedly won; a huge number of credulous fora for his ardent supporters in places as queasily august as the opinion section of the New York Times; a megastate labor market that lets the wealthy easily duck labor protections and dictate the lives of the poor in humiliating detail; “diversity of opinion” on matters including whether gay people deserve to be treated like all the other humans and whether oil companies ought to stop dumping carbon into the atmosphere or not.

Of course the case for liberal broadmindedness is that without a certain measure of it we’d all be in a constant state of violent conflict with each other, ready to kill or die in order to subjugate our neighbor in one way or another. Liberalism is depressingly bad at stopping people who would like very much to round up and kill whole groups of other people, but it is a surprisingly good weak deterrent, which is to say, good at stopping people who would on the whole rather not round up and kill one another but feel like they probably ought to. It appeals to benign laziness: Yes, our cherished beliefs about what is best for other people are morally superior to what they foolishly believe to be best for themselves. But the couch is very comfortable and besides, doesn’t my right to swing my fist end where your nose begins? Who cares about how we define “fist” and “nose” in the metaphor, I’m tired.

This is also an belief system, many wise people have observed, and a horrible, patrician one. It is a snobby orthodoxy that arrogates itself to the position of referee between solider and realer things like religion and philosophy — you can see why people don’t like it.

Worse, it is a plastic, ad hoc orthodoxy, and if you can get inside it you wreak all sorts of havoc. It’s blackly amusing that the people who complain most bitterly about liberalism, which is to say social conservatives opposed to what they see as the libertine excesses of American culture, have benefitted most clearly from it. Not only have they demanded equal time for themselves, they have given it profligately, first as a sort of ironic pose demonstrating — rightly — how silly it is to try to split the difference between “yes” and “no,” but then with more and more sincerity, indulging in a plague of open-mindedness that has, in large measure, brought us to our current situation.

It is that strange conservative liberalism, after all, that listens quietly when brothers and sisters in Christ try experimentally to rehabilitate the great thinkers of the Third Reich or, just for fun, to put themselves sympathetically in the shoes of someone who kidnaps a small Jewish child in the name of Jesus. It is not always at work in conservative organs, either: The New Republic’s blaring racism took the form of “just asking the question;” of thought experiments about whether black people were really underprivileged or had simply suffered inignities at their own hands; on the one side was the history of race in America, and on the other, Charles Murray’s peer-derided quackery and Stephen Glass’s fabrications, but you had to hear both sides.

During questions of whether or not the persecutors of the poor are doing the right thing in the church, Jesus himself is largely absent from the discussion, occupied as he is with turning over the tables of money-changers, pouring out their coins, and driving the animals from God’s house with a scourge.

Christians, on the other hand, are giggling over accounts of Hillary Clinton murdering people. Perhaps they don’t believe these accounts, but they are happy to listen to them, for the sake of fairness.

The problem seems to be that there’s actually no such thing as a philosophy of “liberalism” any more than there’s such thing as a meal of salt. You can’t simply be “a liberal.” A liberal what? “Liberal” is often a slur suggesting that people don’t have the strength of their convictions — growing up in a conservative Christian church and school I remember few nastier epithets than “liberal Christian.” Within that construction was a planetoid’s worth of spite: A liberal Christian was a shallow hedonist who simply did what she wanted instead of what God wanted her to do — sex, drugs, going to R-rated movies with someone who wasn’t her husband, you name it — and beyond the awfulness of opposing the will of God, this person was also indulging herself while the rest of us had to hang around celibate, trying to wring some joy out of ritual.

It’s easy to respond with reflexive contempt to these people, since it seems so clear that they wanted to be out enjoying themselves, too, but enjoyed passing judgment and gossip more than the frisson of less acceptable, more bodily apostasies. But to do so misses the point. In the article about the kidnapping of six-year-old Edgardo Mortara, linked above, the priest writing the article use the phrase “putative civil liberties” to describe what he perceives as the weak opposition to the iron rod of the Church. I am not a Catholic but I know this line of reasoning fairly well: God has given his orders and we are to follow them however unpleasant they may be. In the case of Edgardo Mortara, they demanded the Pope kidnap a Jewish child and remove him from his family to be raised Catholic because a Catholic nurse had secretly baptized him when he was ill and near death, and the baptism made its way to the Pope after the child recovered.

Something that hasn’t quite made its way into the public discourse is the conservative ideological fit you can find between the article defending the Mortara kidnapping, by the priest Romanus Cesario, and the benighted Adrian Vermuele article rehabilitating Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, and I daresay any number of other articles in First Things or World Magazine: “The problem is the relentless aggression of liberalism, driven by an internal mechanism that causes ever more radical demands for political conformism, particularly targeting the Church,” Vermuele observes, warming up to Schmitt. “The solution is an equally radical form of strategic flexibility on the part of the Church, which must stand detached from all subsidiary political commitments, willing to enter into flexible alliances of convenience with any of the parties, institutions, and groups that jostle under the canopy of the liberal imperium.”

So: Make a deal with a devil — any devil will do, except the devil of liberalism. Compromise with any force, except the forces of inchoate compromise; the Christian fundament must be protected, no matter the cost.

Vermuele vanishes up his own fundament fairly early on in the piece but he has teased out something fairly important by inference here, and it’s the same thing Cesario points to in his sneering at the phrase “human rights:” There is, of course, no such thing as formless liberalism. Our society is barely pluralist, as any Muslim, atheist or practicing Jew will tell you. But even that piddling measure of reasonableness, that stingily fulfilled duty to at least sit and sigh loudly while the other fellow has his say; that is a mortal threat to fascism and requires it to stack the deck and rewrite the rules so that it may be perceived to have won the fight fairly, because it knows it cannot. That is a tiresome, fey, hedonistic sort of virtue but it is virtue nevertheless.