Summer of 2022 and “team sports” politics

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe Vs. Wade and Biden made his recent effort at student loan forgiveness, a few right wing arguments have caught my attention.

If you’re wondering, I’m pro-choice and I think student loan forgiveness is the right thing to do. I’m a leftist but I think that the proliferation of political echo chambers is one of the major forces of destruction at work in America and in the world. I think that all of us- my political fellow travelers included -need to be more comfortable with conversation, confrontation and the exchange of ideas. It requires relentless honesty but it also requires compassion and intellectual curiosity.

I wear my positions on my sleeve but I want to emphasize that I do not think those who disagree are necessarily bad people. But I do think that, in the wake of what has recently happened with Roe v. Wade and Biden’s proposed debt relief, some bad ideas have been aired.

One of my common touchstones among the political talking heads of YouTube is Rising which featured an opinion piece(“radar”) by Briahna Joy Gray. She made a comparison which, in my assessment, is fair: the SCOTUS ruling on abortion resembles a Christian equivalent of Sharia law. The overwhelming volume of pro-life activists who loudly express Christian religious motivations make a comparison tempting, at least.

Robby Soave, Briahna’s frequent co-host on Rising, had notes afterward: Briahna used the phrasing “Catholic Sharia law.” Soave claimed that pro-life legislation is not, by definition, inseparable from Catholicism. Assuming he wasn’t making a denominational distinction about Catholicism, he likely also takes issue with the more general comparison. Fundamentally: that the pro-life position is not endemically religious and that this SCOTUS ruling should not be seen as an incursion of the church into the state.

In the interest of covering our bases, let’s own that there is at least one non-religious movement whose cause is represented in the overturning of Roe v. Wade. A number of social media profiles posted statements that the SCOTUS decision can only effect those who have made mistakes. In the words of one detractor, this argument can be characterized as “sluts need consequences.”

What’s interesting is that I can recall adult men having similar conversations around me when I was a child. When there was news coverage of a potential vaccine against HPV, someone said “everyone should have VD once in their lives.”

If I had to speculate why this person thought that, I suspect they may have meant that getting a sexually transmitted infection is a learning experience and a rite of passage. That’s the best I can do with that. The same people might think abortion should be outlawed for the same reason. My opinion is that arguing the social benefit of unplanned pregnancies and STIs is like arguing for the social benefit of rape or poverty. It smacks of social Darwinism or accelerationism. Social Darwinism and accelerationism are often used as rhetorical proxies by fascists. Many people connect those dots. If someone openly claims “sluts need consequences”, their only ideological home would be something like inceldom.

I think there are more Evangelical Christians in the American conservative mainstream then there are social Darwinists and incels. The people who are super stoked about the overturning of Roe v. Wade are mostly Christian. Robbie Soave’s point, that the pro-life movement is not necessarily Christian, just doesn’t map onto reality. But I’ve also encountered that point outside of YouTube.

The other way this is argued is that Evangelical Christianity is an outward symptom of deeper sociological influences like patriarchy. This introduces the problem of the accuser believing that they know the hearts of their opponents better than they themselves do. In theory, this is gas-lighting. In practice, accusing Evangelical Christians of existing only to empower men over women just confuses Evangelicals- while making them look cool to incels.

This also leads to the belief in one group being intellectually or morally inferior to the other. This is ordinary chauvinism and it closes the avenues of connection that allow democracy to work. Ideas cannot prove themselves in civil discourse if they’re excluded or not taken seriously. To say nothing of how those on the receiving end of chauvinism are aggravated and possibly radicalized by their dismissal.

The search for pro-life ideologues outside of American Christianity stops at incels and social Darwinists, both of which are statistical minorities. The only other way to take religion out of the equation is to reject what the Christian majority says about itself.

So is the notion of a non-religious pro-life position a complete fraud? A number of people seem to believe that one exists, even though it contradicts the driving force of the pro-life movement itself. If the stated points of an argument are not true, it makes sense to wonder about other factors.

I think a belief lies behind it; a belief that manifested itself again when Biden stated his intention to forgive up to 10,000$ of student debt. Tucker Carlson epitomized it with a rant headed with the line “this move will not help ordinary Americans.” Do I even need to spell out how asinine those words are?

More importantly though: the best conservative arguments against student loan debt forgiveness are based on the profit motive for colleges. Massive sums spent on gyms and stuff to attract students from wealthy families. A fundamental consequence of modern tuition prices is that college freshmen must, necessarily, resign themselves to anywhere between six-thousand dollars and ten-thousand dollars of debt, up front. I suspect I’m being conservative in my assessment of the “price of admission” but last I heard that was a predictable baseline. If there is any way they can make you pay more, they will find it.

If the problem with an institution (like higher education) is that it is too privatized and too driven by profit…then it needs more outside intervention, not less. Perhaps reverence for capitalism heads off that line of reasoning. Inaction is not supportable. Loan forgiveness, on its own, frees the innocent while paying no attention to the guilty. To do right by the innocent while stopping the guilty would include the admission that American universities are dangerously unregulated. But if you can’t get to that last stage, you’re stuck moralizing about how bailing out student debt subsidizes the lenders.

The pro-life movement in America is a religious one and Biden’s student loan relief effort was a minimal reaction to a problem requiring a bigger solution. And I do not think the political right wing would necessarily suffer by conceding these things. It would forfeit some traditional conservative rallying cries but the gains would be considerable.

On August 20th, YouGov released some interesting data on shifting political attitudes. Those who have changed their positions on political issues were polled. The data was collected from Aurgust 3rd to the 5th. Out of the respondents who shifted their stance on abortion, a 50% movement toward pro-choice away from pro-life was recorded. A 68% conservative-to-liberal swing was found on gay marriage and a 38% shift to the left happened with climate change.

For context, the rightward movements on those respective issues were 34%, 13% and 31%. I’ll also add that these percentages only represented the people who responded, not America as a whole. Even with that caveat, though, these numbers strike me as significant. It has been a politically rocky summer and- evidently -the people who changed their minds favored the left. 50% of those who reported changing their minds have become closer to pro-choice than pro-life. By at least one metric, overturning Roe v. Wade has created more liberals than conservatives.

The gay marriage figure strikes me as significant because of the recent spurning of the Log Cabin Republicans. For those who don’t know: the Log Cabin Republicans are a Texas-based LGBT-inclusive Republican group. At the Texas Republican Convention this summer, they were denied the space to have a booth for the second time in a row. Numerous blogs and news outlets covered this, and dropping their anti-LGBT platforms has been discussed in confidence among members of the RNC. Obviously, it has not happened, but there are clearly some who sympathize as insiders (like the Log Cabin Republicans) who want them to. Even Caitlin Jenner has said that including the queer community would change the Republican party less than the changes she would make to the Democratic party.

If the pro-life position is necessarily religious and therefore, as a political aim, theocratic…then imagine the opportunity the RNC has, right now. They have a vocal (if small) LGBT following waiting in the wings. Imagine if the RNC said that it was time to get real about abortion bans: it is Christian theocracy, full stop. Not only does it allow the church to overreach the state- it allows the church to go straight to the physical body of the individual. The absence of this criticism within conservative thought has always baffled me. Anywhere that welcomes libertarians should have at least a few people insisting that the individual’s right to self-determination is sacrosanct. Yet this affiliation between libertarians and Republicans is the only reason I can think of as to why feminism seems so deeply alienated from libertarianism.

The values that once made me a libertarian eventually made me a feminist. I’m surprised I haven’t heard more voices saying that both feminists and libertarians share an investment in protecting the individual from tyranny. There have got to be at least some “big L” Libertarians who are female, queer, feminist or all of the above who are tired of the DNC being the only game in town.

If the RNC had some kind of “crush theocracy wherever we find it” movement, the influx of support would be considerable. Combined with some “we learned our lesson” messaging, the Republican party could reinvent and reinvigorate itself. A bold and energetic new direction with enthusiastic supporters would also enable them take their power back from Trump’s influence. Speaking of YouGov, a more recent poll they took suggested that the majority of Americans think Trump should face criminal prosecution.

Right now, Trump’s best hope is that the “it’s all political persecution” line lands with his base and the public. The polling data indicates that it hasn’t landed with the public. If that’s true, then the RNC could gain much by simply saying it out loud: the investigation is just and we want to nominate someone else. It would go well for them if they did it in conjunction with an influx of new blood.

None of this is likely to happen, though. And I’m interested in why.

I’m convinced that the only thing stopping mainstream American conservatives from flipping on abortion and loan forgiveness is partisanship. Recently, it’s been referred to as “team sports” mentality. According to APNews, the Michigan elections board vetoed a direct ballot initiative effort that gathered its required number of signatures. The initiative was an effort to safeguard the reproductive protections afforded by Roe v. Wade. That’s when “team sports” becomes more than just an ugly oversight. If the Republican party can’t change for the good of ordinary people or even their own political advantage, hopefully the duty of the elected to the electors can still be counted on. Just more reliably than in Michigan.

https://today.yougov.com/topics/politics/articles-reports/2022/08/16/how-often-and-why-do-americans-change-their-minds?utm_medium=organic_social&utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=SM-2022-08-US-B2C-Politics

https://today.yougov.com/topics/politics/articles-reports/2022/08/24/trump-fbi-economist-yougov-poll-august-20-2022

https://apnews.com/article/abortion-2022-midterm-elections-us-supreme-court-health-michigan-4888105cd9fe270786420c150e18c8b3

https://www.npr.org/2022/07/13/1111285143/abortion-10-year-old-raped-ohio

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/louisiana-woman-headless-fetus-abortion-florida-b2146452.html

The album as an art form: ‘Life’ll Kill Ya’ & Warren Zevon

I was in the house when the house burned down

I met the man with the thorny crown

I helped him carry his cross through town

I was in the house when the house burned down

-Warren Zevon

The Christian references sound natural for a reason. It’s a strummy, acoustic folk song and when Warren sang those particular lyrics he affected a whoop-like blue-grass vocalization.

American folk music evolved alongside American gospel music. It’s the reason why we expect to hear Christianity more often in country and in the roots of R&B.

I was raised with an ethnic spirituality in a heavily Christian environment. This tradition came down through my mother’s side of the family. My father was raised with a soft Methodist emphasis but has been an agnostic for as long as he’s been making his own decisions.

My parents got divorced just before my eleventh birthday. My mom was approaching her late thirties and my dad was almost forty. He was open about how much the inevitability of death weighed on his thoughts.

This was an intense time for my dad and I but also a precious time. He began working at the printing press at the local newspaper, sorting papers and delivering them at night in his van. Consequently, he slept during the day more often and was forced to economize his energy. Between errands in town, he would often take naps in his van. He kept it well-stocked with junk food.

The van was also where I heard most of his music. Which brings us back to Warren Zevon. Dad had just discovered Life’ll Kill Ya, which was probably Zevon’s most recent album at the time.

My parents had shared custody so I spent time with both of them. Once, when a psychiatrist asked the right question in the right way, I became unusually open. I spoke plainly about gender dysphoria and constant sleep deprivation. Including the more gruesome intrusive thoughts.

Doctor told mom and mom told dad. I had already been aware of how news like this impacted them both and I had developed a sense of responsibility about it. Broaching these topics with them never helped.

Those events happened about a year after dad discovered Life’ll Kill Ya but both dysphoria and insomnia hallucinations were present well before that year. Death was on my dad’s mind for one reason and it was on my mind for another, but it was in both of our thoughts.

And it was in Warren’s thoughts because of cancer.

Warren Zevon being Warren Zevon, he could not separate spirituality from its relevance to death. For a million good reasons, of course- both spirituality and death are encounters with the unknown. Ditto for Christianity.

When I first heard I Was In The House When The House Burned Down, I wondered if my dad was reconnecting with Methodism. If he had been, it would not necessarily have driven any sort of wedge between us. I had Christian peers who were nasty little proselytizers but my dad was a very different person than them. And then I heard the rest of the album.

My dad and I both agree that the last three albums of Zevon’s career are extremely different from the rest of his discography. Warren Zevon was always a talented writer and lyricist but, in the final three albums, lyrics and ideas seized the foreground. Since Life’ll Kill Ya was my introduction to Warren Zevon, his earlier work felt different. Whimsical, witty and interesting, but different. I liked his simple and earnest approach to storytelling, exemplified in songs like Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner, a ballad about a Danish mercenary who met his end in Africa. I was also captivated by Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels by then, so I couldn’t resist a romantic story about a phantom gunslinger named Roland. I was also taken by songs like Carmelita and The French Inhaler, which were emotional portraits conveyed with simple, poetic narratives.

This poetic storytelling is present in his last three albums, just situated in more of a conceptual framework. I was watching the Orville episode called Gently Falling Rain last night with my wife and afterward, while she was busy, I listened to Genius from Warren Zevon’s My Ride’s Here.

The episode had three main characters: a human diplomat, an alien demagogue and their half-breed child. Both the diplomat and the demagogue are exceptional, powerful people in their own right. The exceptional qualities that can amass power can also make one isolated. Power itself can be seen as a kind of isolation. In Stephen King’s final Dark Tower novel, the character Ted Brautigan says that gifted people usually feel like fifth wheels.

My dad told me, shortly after the divorce happened, that dying alone was one of his deepest fears. Judging from the albums Life’ll Kill Ya and My Ride’s Here, Warren was also haunted by the prospect of loneliness before unknown. In the song Genius, the explicit narrative is a love triangle with comparisons made to historical figures. On a less explicit level, the song describes how unique people can hurt each other in ways that others cannot. It insinuates that the experience of profound isolation can teach dreadful lessons of self-preservation that can prepare you to deceive and abandon the ones you love.

On My Ride’s Here, Genius follows another track called Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song), which follows You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared. Hit Somebody! is also about the pain of alienation. Our main character, Buddy, is a Canadian farm boy who “grew up big” and “grew up tough” but was let down by his coordination:

He saw himself scoring for the Wings or Canucks

But he wasn’t that good with a puck

Buddy’s real talent was beating people up

His heart wasn’t in it but the crowd ate it up

Through pee-wee’s, juniors and midgets and mites

He must have racked up more than six-hundred fights

A scout from the flames came down from Saskatoon

Said “We’ve always got room for a goon

Son, we’ve always got room for a goon”

Buddy loved the game and wanted to score goals like any other player. But his only value to the team was his ability to protect the fast players and beat the crap out of the good players on the other team. To a lot of people, this sounds like a quirky, off-beat story. It is quirky and offbeat, in a way. The quirkiness is accentuated by David Letterman yelling “hit somebody!” during the chorus. My dad ordered the CD single before My Ride’s Here was released. I remember the single disc had For My Next Trick I’ll Need a Volunteer after the Hockey Song.

On the album, though, the song is sandwiched between You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared and Genius. Someone like Buddy cannot escape his rural self-awareness. He is valued for something other than the game itself, which can make you feel out of your depth. Anything about you that sets you apart can make you self-conscious if your value in a group is incidental to the group itself. The quirky appearance is then equated with alienation. The chorus says as much: “(b)rains over brawn, that might work for you / but what’s a Canadian farm boy to do”. Buddy is constantly reminded of his difference from the rest of the team and he can only score his goal by exposing himself to a goon on the other team.

This narrative is also present on Life’ll Kill Ya. The third song is Porcelain Monkey, one of Warren’s iconic lyrical sketches of Elvis, opposite Jesus Mentioned. Both of those songs look back on Elvis from a time after his death. Jesus Mentioned is reverent and the earnestness is depicted by the path of reverence taking one beyond the ugliness of death and addiction. In contrast, Porcelain Monkey is like a bitter, spiteful look backward. A journey that starts as “an accident waiting to happen” and ends in a lonely death with a figurine used to smuggle drugs.

If one looks for songs that depict an obvious narrative on Life’ll Kill Ya, you might be tempted to stop at two songs: Porcelain Monkey and Ourselves to Know. Songs that rely strongly on idiomatic constructions tend to be more conversational than narrative, like the title track or For My Next Trick I’ll Need a Volunteer. Life’ll Kill Ya has some fun gray areas, though.

Novel uses of idioms and commonly understood metaphors engage a prior frame of reference. They rely on a base of knowledge that the listener might show up with on their own. They begin in a way that’s engaged with others. Songs like Hostage-O, My Shit’s Fucked Up and Don’t Let Us Get Sick derive strength from the opposite end of the spectrum, of something spoken in solitude.

I remember I was fifteen by the time I started to appreciate Ourselves to Know and it was because I was ripping my dad’s CD on a disc-writing machine my mom installed in her stereo. I had to start and stop each song. It required a little more attention than recording a blank tape. Since I pretty much had to listen to the whole album in order to make the copy, I had to make sure to stop the disc-writer at the same time the song ended. This was easier if I just hung out next to the stereo and listened to each song closely. When I got to Ourselves to Know, the second to last song, it became one of my favorite lyrics. It still is.

Among my favorites on the Life’ll Kill Ya song cycle, Ourselves to Know shares the title of favorite with Don’t Let Us Get Sick. Jill Sobule would perform that song often when she toured with Warren and he would cover her song I Kissed a Girl, lending his own quirkiness to a male gender-flip of a song about romance between females. After Warren’s death, she offered her cover to the tribute album Enjoy Every Sandwich and it’s probably my favorite from that collection. On a mix CD I made as a teenager, I put Jill Sobule’s cover of Don’t Let Us Get Sick after You Got Lucky by Tom Petty and before Exploration B / Haunted, by Poe.

That energy-exchange reminds me of a mix CD I made after finishing the Dark Tower series. After Warren’s song Genius, I placed a live version of Wash My Hands by Meredith Brooks. Before the end of Roland’s pilgrimage, he loses three companions who all gave him a second chance but were simply not meant to follow him to the end. In the past, he made grievous sacrifices for his grail…and he learns that to seek his grail is to acknowledge that it is meant for him alone. To love others is to know that their own paths are as binding as his own.

When I was planning the mix CD, Ourselves to Know felt like the perfect transition to the end, but it’s just so tranquil and reflective. What that story transition felt like, as I read it, was reflective but not tranquil. Musically, Genius to Wash My Hands was a better match. Meredith’s screaming, war-like chorus could have come from Roland himself.

I have vague memories of reading a biography of Warren Zevon that quoted a reaction that Jackson Browne had to Life’ll Kill Ya. He said that it began with the Crucifixion and ends with the Crusades. If Ourselves to Know is the Crusades, I Was In The House When The House Burned Down must be the Crucifixion. Sure enough, it mentions “the man with the thorny crown” and his cross. “I had to stay in the underground” has a number of probable non-religious interpretations, but thanks to Ourselves to Know and Jackson Browne I’m tempted to make a connection to both early and medieval Christianity. Early Christianity because of the persecuted Christians hiding in Mediterranean catacombs, medieval Christianity because of Les Innocents cemetery in Paris. Disputes between Parisian nobility and the Christian Church often centered on how to manage the overflowing volume of corpses in Paris throughout the Middle Ages. Andreas Vesalius made significant anatomical studies on the bodies crowded within Les Innocents. The grisly historical art in the album booklet make similar associations.

Ourselves to Know details the reflections of someone at the end of a “long hard road”. A journey may start with the most sublime visions but never cease to be true to yourself and those you encounter along the way. If nothing else, you will certainly know yourself better.

Intro post

https://youtu.be/dlZwF0RJoYA

https://youtu.be/Ky-EORl9AUQ

https://youtu.be/IkKP5wXD9B4

https://focusonbelgium.be/en/Do%20you%20know%20these%20Belgians/vesalius-father-modern-anatomy

Secret Journey To Planet Serpo (book review)

If this were a novel, the subject matter under discussion would be the legacy of World War II. This discussion happens through post-war truth claims.

The narrative begins with ETs living beneath a Tibetan mountain range (The Green Men) making psychic contact with Japanese nationalists.

These Japanese telepaths are the Green Dragon group within the Black Dragon secret society, founded by Ryohei Uchida. Karl Haushofer earns the confidence of the Black Dragons and is allowed to share their privileged access to ET knowledge with Germany. This knowledge allows the Nazis to make contact with ETs based in a cave network on Earth called Patala. These ETs consist of a race of reptilians and the “grays” of modern UFOlogy lore. These ETs (mutual collaborators with the Green Men) supply the Nazis with advanced scientific knowledge. They also swell the numbers of the German infantry with clones.

The Nazis, having been given schematics for flying discs and ET weaponry, begin prototyping. They manage to involve experimental aircrafts in a limited number of dog fights but fail to bring the full force of this new technology to bear in time to prevent their defeat. They do, however, succeed in building an underground laboratory in Antarctica where the research and development of ET technology continues after WWII.

Len Kasten writes that the absence of ET tech during the majority of the war allowed organic human dynamics play out. In his assessment, the Axis method of autocratic control of numbers and firepower was outstripped by the innovation enabled by the diversity and free-thinking of the Allies.

The Allies become aware of the Nazi installation in Antarctica. Britain and America now realize that the Nazis could re-emerge with WMDs that make the nuke look like child’s play. So America jumps at the chance to get their own inside connection with ETs. As far as they know, it may be their only way to fight back in the event of a Nazi resurgence. This is the attitude of the American military and intelligence community when the 1940’s UFO crashes happen.

Before Roswell in 1947, a UFO with a crew of three crashed, leaving two dead and one injured. The survivor is cared for and housed at an isolated, commandeered facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The survivor is designated, by his captors, as EBE1 (EBE being an abbreviation for extraterrestrial biological entity). This surviving crew member comes from the Zeta-Reticuli binary star system and is, in all likelihood, the kind of ET that people mean when they use the word “Zeta-Reticuli” as a race name (elsewhere abbreviated to “Zeta”). Betty and Barney Hill described these same beings, to name one example. Len Kasten writes that the military adopted the generalized phrase “Eben / Ebens” which is used throughout the book. Illustrations and implications suggest that Ebens are separate from the grays and reptilians mentioned earlier.

Communication with EBE1 is a long and experimental process, but eventually he explains how to send messages to his home world with the technology aboard his crashed vessel. With an eye toward leveling the playing field with the Axis bolt hole in Antarctica, the CIA uses EBE1 to negotiate a diplomatic relationship. This leads to an exchange program in which twelve American military representatives are sent to the ET’s home world, Serpo, in the Zeta Reticuli star system. One of them dies en route.

An Eben/Zeta representative is sent to Earth to assist the American military with reverse-engineering their technology. On Serpo, the American soldiers conduct the first off-planet cultural exchange in known history. They attempt to teach the Ebens the science of Earth with limited success. The civilization they encounter is one under the control of their military, which itself is governed by a secretive, elite group of Ebens. This elite limits all technology exclusively to a distinct group of scientific, medical and military professionals.

These elites and technocrats possess scientific knowledge far superior to that of Earth. Therefore only the laity of Serpo are interested in the science lessons of the Americans and most of them are confused by human concepts. Only a single student, from a remote cultural group to the north, manages to understand and appreciate these lessons.

The confusion of the average Eben civilian leads to a few speculations by the Americans: the Ebens in general are technologically superior to humans. Yet most of them either do not understand rudimentary science or are even interested in it. This discrepancy is an early hint of the rigid control of knowledge and culture maintained by the Eben elites.

The Ebens appear to be so extroverted and hardworking that they barely have room for personal pursuits of any kind. This extends to religion (of which there is only one) and career paths (which are assigned by the powers that be). The lone, earnest student is the closest thing the American team encounters to a free-thinker.

Eventually, the Americans ask the Ebens for the body of their crew mate that died on the way to Serpo. They are told that it is gone. After an intense confrontation, the Eben host and an Eben scientist do their best to show the Americans the remains that are left.

The two Ebens lead the American visitors to a genetic laboratory. In one section, there are preserved bodies of beings that the Ebens designate as “animals”- meaning they are alive but lack sentience or a soul. Ebens designate life forms that do possess a soul or sentience as “beings”, and they are experimented on in another section of the laboratory. The only remains of the deceased human have been used to create a cloned Eben-like being, which at the time exists in a somnolent, gestational state.

In the same area, the team is shown another genetic experiment, which is humanoid in appearance with a canine head. In other parts of the book, it is made clear that the four other races that the American secret service had interacted with were all created by the Ebens (not including the grays or reptilians). At other times, it is said that the Ebens “civilized” them. The historical military enemies of the Ebens are also classified as “animals”, without souls or sentience.

In a traditional novel, this would be a significant thematic beat.

Like humans, the Ebens also experienced a Great War that cast a long shadow over their history. This Great War could have created a bottle-neck of survival by conformity that lasted through the generations. Perhaps this has to do with the vast influence of the Eben military. Maybe their military enemies truly are not sentient. Maybe these opponents are self-replicating AI that isn’t sophisticated enough for sentience. With their mastery over genetic engineering, maybe the Ebens artificially resurrected societies that were wiped out.

Or maybe the Ebens are susceptible to all of the same evils that humanity is. Maybe the police state they live under has no better justification than a human police state. Like us, they do not believe that their enemies or chattel have “souls” because it makes them easier to kill and exploit. One of the four other races known to the American secret services, Archquloids, are described as “primitive” and “a form of slave.” Since the Archquloids are one of the races either “created” or “civilized” by the Ebens, those remarks take on a darker tone.

If this book was a novel, the motivations of America would be called into question. America sought a cultural and scientific exchange with ETs to level the playing field with the Nazis in Antarctica. Yet this first exchange with the Ebens (in addition to the actions of the reptilians and grays) raises the possibility that fascism is a universal status quo.

For the sake of clarity: I do not think that Len Kasten is a Nazi sympathizer or a crypto-fascist. His bias runs in the opposite direction. Early in the book, he compares the American exchange team to Christopher Columbus. If one were disposed to interpret this comparison charitably, we could dismiss it as hyperbole. Yet the comparison leaves out other historical realities, like Spanish trade routes.

This meditation on democracy versus fascism has interesting corollaries elsewhere in UFOlogy. Barney Hill used words like “red-headed Irishman” and “German Nazi” to describe the aliens he saw. At the time I heard about this, I assumed Barney Hill had not been literal. When asked about the meaning of “red-headed Irishman” he said that most Irish people he meets do not like black people (Barney was black and this was the early sixties in America). However, when he met a “nice Irishman”, Barney said he would think to himself “I will be nice.”

This at least sounds like Barney Hill was talking about how the beings made him feel rather than what they actually were.

Another corollary is an urban legend about President Eisenhower. It is alleged that he met with a group of individuals who urged him to dismantle the United States nuclear arsenal. In some versions, this was an altruistic attempt by planetary outsiders to council us against ruining our planet with nuclear weapons.

In other retellings, one of these human-like aliens bore an uncanny resemblance to Adolf Hitler and referred to himself, simply, as a “man from nowhere.” In these versions, the strangers were hoping to subvert American military might by pressuring Eisenhower to dismantle America’s nukes.

This dialectic is even echoed in the Native American attitudes toward ancient alien theory. In the last few years ancient alien theory has been criticized, by South American political outlets, as racist. This is because advanced engineering in the ancient world is often interpreted as evidence of non-human involvement, which unfortunately dovetails with the colonial presumption of indigenous racial inferiority.

Just as many Native voices espouse the opposite, though. In the theological treatise God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, Vine Deloria Jr. insinuates that Abrahamic religion shares none of the hallmarks of animistic shamanism that were nearly universal before the rise of monotheism. Deloria opines that this could be evidence that monotheism is the legacy of non-human manipulation in the ancient history of humanity.

Other Native American voices, like Robert Morning Sky and the nu metal band Corporate Avenger, have treated the possibility of ancient aliens in America as a distinction rather than a weakness.

In Germany, the Nazi interest in the paranormal has made discussion of UFOs taboo by association.

The temptation to characterize aliens as supreme oppressors or supreme liberators reveals more about ourselves than anything else. The first impulse suggests a fear of cosmic indifference; that if the world is bigger than Earth then who knows what waits in the cosmic wilderness. The work of H.P. Lovecraft channeled this fear. The other impulse runs in the opposite direction; that all human ignorance will disappear under the guidance of benevolent non-human teachers.

The role of religious inheritance is also difficult to overlook. Monotheism has engendered a nearly global attachment to an androcentric worldview. If the monotheistic god is seen as a divine parent to humanity, the loss of the divine parent can be terrifying. Just like the oppressor/liberator dynamic, conjecture about alien life can assuage this fear just as easily as it can confirm it. Whatever else may be true about about ancient alien theory, it also accommodates the hope that scientific progress could bring back and redignify the ancient cosmologies it once refuted.

Before ending this entry I feel like I should clarify a few things. Like many abduction testimonials, the Betty and Barney Hill story relies on recovered memories. Considering the medical consensus that trauma suppression just doesn’t work like that, the Hill story has a credibility problem.

Deloria’s conclusion was reached using the ancient alien theories of Immanuel Velikovsky as a jumping off point. After subsequent criticism, Deloria explained why he applied ancient alien theory to the origins of monotheism. He had intended it as a satirical reflection of how non-Native academics are often trusted more on Native American history than indigenous people themselves.

I do not think you would be able to ascertain this from the tone of that portion of God Is Red. Deloria openly pokes fun a number of times in that book, but the chapter containing his speculations on ancient aliens is played very straight. And there is no subtext or perspective that would lead you to think that the even tone itself might be satirical. If it was meant as satire, I would not have known if I hadn’t learned about his later explanation.

At least in my reading of God Is Red, I don’t see any necessary conflict with anything else in that book (and I want to emphasize it is a very good book for its analysis of the religious climate of America). I do not think he would have compromised anything if he had claimed the title of an ancient alien theorist.

If there was no conceptual reason for him to distance himself from those words, there could have been another. Maybe he understood that the label of a believer in the existence of aliens is a hard one to break. Maybe he thought it would be used to undermine his reputation as a serious scholar. In any event, he did not seem particularly invested in ancient alien theory.

I have skirted a substantive analysis of the facts because my focus here was the psychological mechanism of belief. World War II casts a shadow over the narrative of Len Kasten. Whether this is a fabrication or something Kasten actually has knowledge of, many dynamics portrayed in Secret Journey To Planet Serpo can be traced to World War II. No matter how one reads this book, I think it’s reasonable to wonder about its discussions of fascism and liberty.

But I do not necessarily think the assenting opinions I gave as examples are credible ones. I chose them simply because of how they channeled what I think are interesting, repeating psychological themes.

Dead God by Skold- review

Well well well. Tim Skold ‘liked’ my insta post when I got his Dead God album in the mail. There’s no way I’m not gonna review it then ^^

(I intended to do this a long time ago when it actually happened but I had a few more entries that I thought I could finish first)

This EP is a very pleasant blindside. Since this was recorded between the 2002 reformation of KMFDM and a separate project MDFMK and widely circulated during the Grotesk Burlesk tour in ’03, I had no idea what to expect.

Most of my memories of KMFDM are from their mid-nineties material which (in my opinion) was heavy, rhythmic and relentless. As relentless and driving as a lot of club-oriented music from Northern Europe in the mid 90’s, like Lords of Acid. Tim Skold’s collaboration with Marilyn Manson on The Golden Age of Grotesque was rhythmic and heavy but a little less married to the common hallmarks of industrial metal with some clear classic rock influence.

The title track has a swing-like rhythm and syncopation which reminded me of Doll-Dagga Buzz-Buzz Ziggedy-Zag. The percussion slaps on every song but the title track is a decent showcase of what’s on offer. In general, though, Dead God is distinct from both KMFDM and Skold’s work with Marilyn Manson. Musically, the whole thing is very tightly written and very glam rock. This adds a little context to the genre-savviness he brought to both The Golden Age of Grotesque and Eat Me, Drink Me. I was also pleasantly surprised to hear Tim Skold singing.

My favorite song on this is If, but the title track and Don’t Pray For Me get stuck in my head a lot. If this material was released as an album in 2002-03, I suspect one of those last two would be obvious choices for singles. My favorites from the second side of the record are Believe, I Hate and Don’t Ask Me, all of which sound like they would be amazing live.

The apparent discipline is even more impressive considering that Dead God was written, recorded and produced only by Skold.

Bloodborne PSX (light spoilers)

Bloodborne on the PS1 feels uncannily natural.

In particular, I was constantly reminded of the first two Tomb Raiders and the first Silent Hill. The use of shadows is reminiscent of how the fog in the first Silent Hill disguised the procedural rendering while building atmosphere.

A neat bridge between those early PlayStation franchises and the original PS4 Bloodborne was created with the design of indoor spaces…of which there are a lot.

If you have heard of Bloodborne PSX then you probably know that the biggest location that carries over from the original is Central Yharnam. Lilith Walther thoughtfully managed to spin a complete game in this specific location, though.

Just like last time, your player character is investigating Paleblood and is pointed, by Gilbert, in the direction of the Cathedral Ward.

The lore-fiend in me has long wondered if Gilbert was meant to be a canonical “mainline story” character, unlike some of the others that you could go the whole game without running into. I don’t think any other hint about reaching the Cathedral Ward through the sewers is offered.

Considering how I triggered the ending I got, I strongly suspect Lilith Walther has wondered that to.

Also like the base game, you will probably hear about the Great Bridge and think that it sounds more efficient than a giant wade through sewers. (I think he also mentioned aqueduct in the PS4 game? Or maybe he just said aqueduct and the fans all decided to call it a sewer?)

This, of course, does not work out and we gotta pursue Gilbert’s lead anyway. Which puts us directly in the path of a few of the new locations, both indoors and underground.

Within the first few minutes of gameplay, we find that Bloodborne PSX does not have the same continuous map as the original. Which is to be expected: this is a PS1 demake of a PS4 game. Many of those limitations are incorporated into the new design, though. The loading screens between different locations allow the different segments of the map to be more self-contained. Consequently, all of Central Yharnam is turned into an interconnected, “cumulative” dungeon, like the town of Silent Hill.

So far, I have found two buildings with unexpected depths and an awesome expansion to the aqueduct/sewer area. One reason why these discoveries are so satisfying is because- in the original -there are a ton of locked doors that are never meant to be opened. It’s also an intuitive direction for the design to go if you are effectively “trapped” in Central Yharnam. Another reason is that there are indoor areas that bear a superficial resemblance to other indoor areas in the base game, like the Upper Cathedral Ward and the Cainhurst library. To say nothing of the more creative things those spaces are used for.

Is it just me, or is this vaguely reminiscent of Mergo’s Loft? Doesn’t Mergo’s Loft also have dog-headed carrion crows, like this place does?

In Bloodborne PSX, the scrawled note about Paleblood is found in Iosefka’s clinic. Where an infiltrator of the Choir ends up in the base game after killing Iosefka. Lilith Walther used a few indoor areas to explore this influence of both the Choir and the School of Mensis.

This part made me hesitate. I expected it to end here but wanted to be proven wrong. Yarntown ended around this point. Even if it is just a slightly bigger and different PS1 rendering of Central Yharnam, it’s a beautiful lil thing. Well worth playing and vaguely reminiscent of the video game demo compilations some magazines used to carry.

If you’re leveled into the thirties…then Father Gascoigne can be beat. So long as you’re bold and quick enough to pull off some viscerals, which feel a lil different in Bloodborne PSX but still work like they do in the base game. The main difference here is that a beast will not necessarily pause after getting riposte’d (along with a big floating ‘L1’ signaling that a visceral attack is possible). Or you could just grind like a nut and brute-force your way.

If this turned out to be the end, it would be a perfectly admissible mini-game. After Yarntown, though, it would feel wanting.

A new time of the night sets in once we hit the same dead end we all remember from the Great Bridge. Just like in the base game, it is not clear how much actual time passes or what has happened in the interim. This looks like the beginning of a second half. Maybe I wasn’t even that far.

Other than getting darker, some previously opened pathways are no longer accessible. And we get our first glimpse of an old friend from the base game.

Who you will probably encounter in the sewers, since the bridge to the Tomb of Odeon is blocked. And while I’ve been putting most of my blood echoes into Skill and Endurance…I’ve also been making an effort to build up Arcane since nabbing the tonitrus off of the mad Hunter in the library. I think Arcane weapons like the tonitrus and A Call Beyond are pretty effective against Winter Lanterns? I also know that Frenzy hits harder as Arcane increases sooo crafting a magic user turns you into a glass cannon in some ways.

I have only played through Bloodborne PSX once- so there is probably a lot I still haven’t seen -but so far I have not encountered more than one Winter Lantern in one place. And maybe I just haven’t put enough echoes into Arcane but the tonitrus seems less useful against them here than in the original. My other weapons were hardly any better.

They weren’t that common in the base game either- only in the Nightmare and the Fishing Hamlet

The scarcity of the Winter Lanterns and their toughness make them feel like Walter Sullivan in Silent Hill 4 or Pyramid Head in Silent Hill 2. Meaning: run your ass off and don’t look back. Maybe it is possible to kill them, but I haven’t figured out how yet. A crazy powerful monster showing up after you find out that both entrances to the Cathedral Ward (The Great Bridge and the Tomb of Odeon) are blocked is just perfect.

I like this because of how it builds on the resemblance between the Winter Lanterns and the doll/Maria. The doll is a very unique character with few corollaries. There is a lifeless physical version of the doll in the Abandoned Hunter’s Workshop in the base game. The revelation of the doll’s human identity as Lady Maria is then played for maximum dramatic tension in the Old Hunter’s DLC. These three different characterizations underline the importance and uniqueness of Maria.

The Winter Lanterns, meanwhile, are all dressed like the doll under their tentacles. If Maria/the doll is unique, then making the monster that wears the doll clothing unique feels natural.

Come to think of it…creating a direct link between the key to the leveling mechanic and an unkillable monster that hunts you feels pretty spot-on for a horror action RPG. (That link also exists in the original, even if it’s less direct than the PSX Winter Lanterns)

I’m uncertain how much more of the game I should discuss after this point. I finished my first play-through on accident in a location that I also found on accident. Something about this makes me suspect that there is more than one way to “finish” game. This demake recreates the vibe of the original so perfectly that multiple endings seem possible. Maybe they’re not. Maybe you know differently. But the subtle implication of new story threads from Lilith Walther make me hesitant to “spoil” anything.

Fun with glitches

Download here from Lilith Walther’s itch.io

Ukraine & corollaries

I wonder if these people would still be salivating at the thought of war if they were the ones to be deployed

Tell your friends and family that you love them. Take nothing for granted. Love unreservedly and live life uncompromisingly. Chase your passions and your dreams.

While the climate change clock ticks, Vladimir Putin has decided to take military action according to a historical, ethnic grievance. In his estimation, Ukraine is ethnically Russian and therefore Russia is entitled to seize the country. For this reason, he has targeted nuclear power plants and insinuated the possible use of nuclear weapons.

Because of a sense of ethnic possession, a whirlpool of death has quickened and may attract the currents of other ventings of insanity.

Obviously there are other factors, but in my opinion those other factors are of questionable value. Before now, the overtures the west has made toward Ukraine regarding possible inclusion of NATO was obviously a contributing factor. And I am aware that, if the west had not pursued this, than the current invasion may not have happened.

In fact, the Ukrainian President has recently stated that he agrees not to bring his country into any such group.

As of 3/17/22, the Russian advances on Kiev have tentatively halted. Yet this hasn’t stopped pontificating, warhawk voyeurs from badgering White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki about adding our fighting forces to the mix- as if global, nuclear annihilation was not possible.

Yet this perspective itself is not without it’s substance: they are asking whether the fear of a nuclear strike should allow the conflict play out as it will which evidently includes bombing nuclear power plants.

What appalls me about the recent White House press briefings, though, is the consensus among pampered, American stenographers that nuclear holocaust should be treated as a non-issue. As though the human cost was admissible.

While this happens, Saudi Arabia availed themselves to the lack of coverage of other things, having executed 81 individuals en masse on March 12- a record of recent history.

In the event of global escalation, it is difficult to overlook Iran’s remarks from January about the murder of General Soleimani. They have vowed revenge if they cannot prosecute Donald Trump. America has never turned over an ex-President for something like that and Russia has carried out joint military operations with Iran in the last few years. Do the math.

Israel has behaved similarly, with new Knesset legislation that strips citizenship from Palestinian spouses of Israelis. If that’s not the act of a apartheid ethnostate, I don’t know what is.

Be good to each other and take nothing for granted. That is all.

https://theintercept.com/2022/03/15/ukraine-russia-war-sovereignty-negotiations/

https://www.politico.com/news/2022/03/16/zelenskyy-recalls-pearl-harbor-9-11-in-plea-for-u-s-aid-00017698

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/zelensky-ukraine-conflict-nato-russia-b2037181.html%3famp

https://www.dailyherald.com/article/20220312/news/303129969

https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/03/15/saudi-arabia-mass-execution-81-men#

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.latimes.com/opinion/letters-to-the-editor/story/2022-03-16/debating-israels-law-banning-palestinian-spouses%3f_amp=true

https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/iran-vows-revenge-soleimani-killing-if-trump-not-put-trial-2022-01-03/

We Are Chaos: relistening

my audiophile wife bit me and turned me into a vinyl nerd send halp D:

The first time I heard Red Black and Blue I misheard the first lines sung after the spoken-word intro. What I heard was “Set fire to the Tree of Life / love or death / just to watch the suffering”.

For my entire first listen, that question felt like the crux of the album. Do our fundamental passions drive us to destroy ourselves or do they push life forward to its natural and appropriate conclusion?

This remains front and center in the title track. Chaos cannot be cured but the influence it has over existence often feels adversarial. We have all heard some variation of “change or die.” One of my artistic heroes (equal in stature to Marilyn Manson) is William S. Burroughs. This very question was often at the center of Burroughs’ writing, from Junky to The Western Lands. Burroughs wrote that life is defined by process and change and that all pleasure is rooted in relief. Relief is the absence of suffering and suffering is a predictable consequence of process and change. The allure of addiction is relief from life itself.

The Book of Job and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s telling of the Faust story discuss whether suffering is “evil” or if it is endemic to the nature of life. It is common for those fresh off of bad relationships to say “I wasted X years on that POS.” Or “X years of marriage, gone because of (infidelity, substance abuse, etc. by the offending party).” This reveals an unspoken attitude that something has been debited from our lives. The phrasing has a close association with what we mean when we talk about “wasting” one’s life or time.

Claiming that suffering is objectively necessary arouses comparisons with social Darwinism and social accelerationism. Historically and ideologically, those concepts gravitate toward fascism. On the other hand, Marcel Proust held that his most valuable experiences happened while suffering. The question of suffering is shaped profoundly by context. Does a thwarted intention indicate waste? What about the intentions of one who causes waste?

Sooner or later, free will enters the equation. Are we or are we not empowered to choose our own goals and evaluate our own success, failure or contentment? If we are, what about everything beside our priorities? John Lennon said that life is what happens when you are making other plans.

If the camera of your mind is always running whether you are happy, miserable, safe, unsafe, in or out of control…then there will be more footage of things not going according to plan.

“Love or death” might be more vague than “not for death”, but I like my misunderstanding. It suggests that the fire consuming the Tree of Life might be love, death or both.

Not that I’d sell short the spoken word part. I love how quintessentially Mansonian the word play is, like the echoing shapes and voids in various contexts. A needle in a void, followed by a snake on the surface of water. Next is a bee in mid-air. It reminds me of the lyrics to Bowie’s Rock’n Roll Suicide: “Time takes a cigarette / puts it in your mouth / you pull on your finger, than another finger / then you’re a cigarette”.

There is an associative continuity between the beings in the void. This continuity, for me, is almost stronger than the apparent lyrical construction. If I might drift completely into hyperbole for a while, these lyrics are more visual than poetic. It reminds me of David Lynch (in a good way). When the music video for the title track came out, I wondered if the use of digitally manipulated photographs and industrial imagery was expressing a David Lynch influence.

Let us not forget the music, though: Don’t Chase The Dead is a gloriously simple wonder. It feels like musical territory that Marilyn Manson must be familiar with. It reminds me of how The Birthday Massacre channel the legacy of Siouxsie and the Banshees. That influence is closer to Marilyn Manson than them, but this is the only song Manson has written that sounds like it. The understated use of keyboards and rattling percussion bring a lot to the song. It is a subtle but effective way of bridging the goth-alt country energy exchange between Manson and Shooter Jennings.

I mentioned in my first We Are Chaos review that each song beautifully segues into the next. This is especially true with the songs that are the most different from any other Marilyn Manson material: Paint You With My Love and Half-Way & One Step Forward. The lyrical treatment of “the void” comes closer to the foreground in these songs. Subject matter includes the value of memories and the potential for blindness within “calculated” incrementalism.

Closer to the end of the album, the dynamism between Manson and Shooter becomes nearly as pronounced as Paint You With My Love and Half-Way & One Step Forward. That same energy exchange can be heard during Solve Coagula, which has lyrics that echo words I’ve heard in my own head many times: “there’s no one else I want to be like / so I stay the same like nobody else”.

In the lyrics of the final song, the meaning of the word ‘needle’ is a matter of perspective. In an Apple Music interview coinciding with the release of We Are Chaos, Manson suggested that it could be the needle of a record player. This reminds me of Manson’s online journal entry immediately preceding Lest We Forget in which he wrote about “all (his) goddamn Frankensteins coming back for some sick closure.” It creates the impression of Manson’s art having its own autonomous existence. Like all art, it becomes separate from its creator.

There is a more intuitive lyrical connection, though: the needle in the horror that can fix your blindness. The associative transformations (needle, snake, bee) can distract us from the backdrop. What does a needle do? It pierces and connects. Using a needle to “fix your blindness” almost conjures the image of a child poking holes in something to give it eyes.

This could lead to the autonomous creation: the thing that gets scratched and put away, never to be played again. Or, if the needle scratches a surface before breaking, maybe there is nowhere for it to go.

From GioBlush Design

Perfume and Keep My Head Together both reminded me of an essay that Marilyn Manson wrote immediately before the release of The Golden Age of Grotesque called Putting Holes In Happiness.

Around the same time, a forum called The Oracle was created on Manson’s website where fans could post questions and possibly receive a public reply. One poster said that they knew someone experiencing a suicidal crisis. In Manson’s response, he included a link to this essay.

Putting Holes In Happiness describes a pernicious subtext to the 90’s, gen-X-led celebration of individuality. Other alternative musicians from the same era, like Billy Corgan, have talked about the gen-X effort at demystifying psychological catharsis as one of the strengths of that generation. Corgan has claimed that he set a unique example by discussing subjects like personal, childhood trauma with the press. There is something to be said for that: obviously, a social climate where psychological struggle is not stigmatized is one where it is easier to get help. Manson himself has not minced words about his personal history.

An unfortunate consequence, though, is the potential of privileging a personal narrative over the deeper, interpretive possibilities that art needs in order to survive. Resonance is the lifeblood of art and, if everything is a strict, literal, memoir-like personal statement…it discourages the spread of resonance.

It also has more superficially annoying consequences, such as the proliferation of psychoanalytic interpretation. Art is frequently reduced to a veiled autobiographical statement. It creates a culture where college students and high schoolers feel like literature only “comes to life” when they are given a SparkNotes study guide. This would make the life or background of an artist a better key to their work than their own art. This elevates a factual narrative over interpretation.

This correlates with the rise of social media and the influencer / social media personality. Inevitably this impacted the relationship between celebrities and their fans. The exhibition of a public personality is now as much of a point of contact between the public and an artist as the artist’s material.

When personality and autobiography are privileged above everything else, discussion of personal meaning and motivation dominates the conversation. When someone sounds off about politics, philosophy or art, it is now easier to speculate about their unstated mental and emotional motivations than listening to their words. One might say that the line between pathology and empowerment has been blurred.

In The Golden Age of Grotesque, there are three songs that are explicitly about this blurring: (s)AINT, KA-BOOM KA-BOOM and The Bright Young Things. The last two are particularly relevant.

From GioBlush Design

KA-BOM KA-BOOM describes the futility of an existence in which everything is only relatable to the most directly personal values. All interaction with the outside world is barely distinguishable from a consumer choice. If the outside world has any value, it is as an occasion for the inner world.

This, for Marilyn Manson, is a bit of a challenging undertaking: one of the defining statements of his career is the origin of meaning within the self. At the same time, this is precedented. Even on Antichrist Superstar, his signature work in the eyes of many, the crab-bucket homicide of capitalism is discussed in the first two songs.

To clarify, I do not think Manson has ever ceased to believe that the origin of meaning is personal. But songs like (s)AINT, KA-BOOM KA-BOOM and The Bright Young Things reveal his awareness of gray areas.

Social reinforcement has a way of shaping our internal worlds. When consumerism is your only window on existence, autonomy is traded for expression. Without action, little else remains. Social media has made it easier than ever for our pain and angst to be offered to us as a consolation prize for the surrender of our autonomy.

This adds depth to Manson’s reply to the suicidal fan on the Oracle forum: do not accept your own suffering as payment.

https://youtu.be/Wm4U0QEXLNU

http://www.mansonwiki.com/wiki/JournalEntry:2004/03/30_No_salvation,_no_forgiveness

https://www.mansonwiki.com/wiki/JournalEntry:2003/03/03_PUTTING_HOLES_INTO_HAPPINESS

Final Fantasy XV: Dawn of the Future (spoilers)

While this does not involve my dewy-eyed Noctis and Prompo ship, this book is definitely worth reading for a fan of Final Fantasy XV.

Like any entry in a multimedia story, there are two questions: does it stand on it’s own and what is it’s relationship with the rest of the material.

Simple answer to the first one is: mostly yes. Someone with no prior context would have questions, but the story that opens at the beginning is effectively closed at the end. It even keeps it concise: four stories, all about characters with close relationships (either personal or associative) with one another.

Each of the four stories has a neat simplicity of scope: each narrative rarely goes further than the perspective of a single character. Two protagonists, Ardyn and Noctis, have experiences that afford panoramic views of their home world Eos. While this works like broad-spectrum explication, it is still rooted in a specific character’s perspective. To the credit of author Jun Eishima, this complication is accommodated by the novel’s internal context.

Speaking of context- the answer to our second question is lopsided. The novel The Dawn of the Future contextualizes the rest of Final Fantasy XV better than the game contextualizes the book. The weakness on one side and the strength on the other both relate to the narrative use of alternate timelines.

Players of FFXV may remember that alternate timelines were suggested in Episode Ignis, at the end of the first DLC season. This suggestion was followed up at the end of Episode Ardyn, which was projected to be the beginning of a second DLC season.

Final Fantasy XV: The Dawn of the Future chronicles the story that the second season would have told. When read as a single frame story, divorced from the rest of FFXV, multiple timelines are a more central part of the story than in the base game. In retrospect, the rest of the expanded universe needs this book more than the book needs the expanded universe.

Obviously, this is a consequence of Square Enix canceling the second season of DLC. In the normal course of things, the “hint” from Episode Ignis would rise closer to the surface in Episode Ardyn. This would enable the multiple timelines to be revealed through a “slow burn” of DLC chapters spaced months apart.

Instead, whatever happened at Square Enix happened, and we now have a novel. Instead of the episodic format, the whole thing is wrapped up in a single book. There were small insinuations indicating time travel, like revisiting memories in a visionary state in the “post game” material. But the importance of manipulating timelines and the forces of destiny just isn’t talked about very much in the base game. For a reader concerned with continuity with the rest of FFXV, this can feel like a sudden change (even if Episode Ardyn and Ignis could potentially soften the blow).

As it’s own book, it works wonderfully. Then again this might be something of a haunting difficulty with the FFXV dev team. The film, Final Fantasy XV: Kingsglaive also had world-building that wasn’t present in the base game. Also like Dawn of the Future, the film Kingsglaive created a deeper world than the base game.

As I type this, it occurs to me that Kingsglaive may be a more intuitive next step for someone who appreciates this book rather than the game Final Fantasy XV. To be fair, though, a fan of Dawn of the Future would still find the game worth playing. Much of the book (particularly the stories of Lunafreya and Aranea) are set against backdrops of travel across great distances. Distances in both time and space are detailed in the stories of Noctis and Ardyn. Eishima writes vividly of the shifting landscapes and how relationships may grow and change on the road. The travel-centered gameplay of Final Fantasy XV and the chemistry of Noctis and his retainers would feel natural after Dawn of the Future.

Appropriately enough, the novel starts with an intense confrontation between Noctis and Ardyn. Our setting, Zegnautus Keep above the city of Gralea, has been reduced to an undead playground by Ardyn, whose demonic nature was not fully appreciated by his enablers until it was too late. Placing Ardyn and Noctis on opposite sides establishes the importance of their rivalry in the uniting frame story. The familial relationship and physical resemblance between Ardyn’s brother and Noctis makes this opening “flash forward” an appropriate set-up for the story of Ardyn’s human lifetime.

This early framing also sets up one of the distinguishing story developments of Dawn of the Future. This is a huge spoiler for the original game so consider yourself warned. And it’s something we’ve seen before in Final Fantasy. Once in IV and indirectly by association in X.

Those two games tell stories that experiment with redemption. A while ago, a friend and I were discussing what we saw as the lack of a coherent direction in the new Star Wars films. The prequels cover the fall of Anakin and the original series cover the rise of Luke. I said that the sequels don’t seem interested in continuing this theme.

This doesn’t have to be a deal breaker if it’s completely original material that can stand on its own and needs no contextual validation. It is a high qualitative bar to meet, but it is not impossible. Both of us agreed that the sequel movies did not meet it. But if one half is a “rise” story and the other half is a “fall” story, what would a thematically consistent third story consist of?

My friend said it should be a redemption story, containing both. This would introduce the pressure of balance. A “fallen” state at the beginning would have to be believable and substantial enough for this character to look like a tragic hero or a villain protagonist. At the same time, the “rising” process would also have to be believable.

The easy way to meet the first requirement would be to go hard on the evil. Something like Anakin butchering children in Revenge of The Sith. But that kind of obvious solution could paint you into a corner when you attempt the “credible redemption” later.

For the sake of covering our bases, let’s also own that you absolutely can go hard on both. The original Star Wars trilogy did, but mitigated the risk of audience expectation by only allowing Darth Vader to survive a few moments in his redeemed state. I have a lot of respect for George R.R. Martin for ignoring this fine line, just so current pop culture has at least one visible example of it. In Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Sandor Clegane, aka The Hound, chopped off a child’s head in the first book simply because he was ordered to. But after a few books, he is clearly portrayed with sympathy.

I’ve wondered if this was something that made the creators of the TV show anxious. Perhaps this was the reason they decided to portray Jamie and Cersei Lannister with more darkness, so a casual viewer wouldn’t feel too deprived of morally laundered sadism.

Final Fantasy IV and X explored different expressions of these extremes. With X this is a little less obvious but an experiment is still at work: Jecht’s human failings as a father and a bully are always in the foreground. Jecht’s role as the human vessel for the being Sin is revealed afterward. In one of our first glimpses of Tidus, venting his fury to his mother, he is told that if he never sees his father again he will never have the chance to tell him how much he hates him. Before the final battle, Tidus does tell him. In the mind of Tidus, the human failings of Jecht haunt him more than Jecht turning into a supernatural, apocalyptic monster. If Jecht is damned, it is because of what he did before he transformed.

Final Fantasy IV does not defy the expectation of reconciliation, but exceeds expectations with reconciliation. Golbez, it is revealed, was fathered by the same alien that fathered Cecil. Before that moment, Golbez committed a series of atrocities that would have been at home in one of the first two world wars. The depth of suffering Golbez has engineered cannot be avoided, since Cecil has to go through a painful expiation process because of something he did under Golbez’ authority. At the end of the game, we learn that Golbez was effectively “possessed” when he did those things.

This is weird because the expiation of Cecil has already shown us that “the devil made me do it” is no excuse. Cecil had to personally face the survivors of his victims, endure their hatred and nearly pay with his life. Cecil had doubts about Golbez when he delivered the “ring” to Mysidia and he wasn’t even aware that the “ring” carried a nuke-level destructive spell. Cecil is morally evaluated strictly according to the outward consequences of his actions, with no attention paid to his thoughts and intentions.

It is possible that this expiation may have been intended to soften the player toward Golbez. But a casual player could not be faulted for wondering if Golbez’ last minute redemption is a bit of a double-standard.

Final Fantasy XV: Dawn of the Future explores similar moral extremes. Is there anything like Final Fantasy IV’s inconsistency that might get in the way? No, but the simplicity of the experiment itself creates its own questions.

This novel plays it straight. You know how I used the words “undead playground” earlier? This ain’t news to anyone who played the game but Ardyn basically had ten years to kill the majority of people on Eos and turn them into daemons. Another one of the viewpoint characters, Lunafreya, was herself killed by Ardyn before she is resurrected at the beginning of Dawn of the Future.

Lunafreya is also the first major character in the book to solicit Ardyn’s assistance. The apparent forgiveness of a viewpoint character who once died by his hand helps establish Ardyn’s positive arc before the last story, The Final Glaive.

Some of the best moments in the whole book are in this story. The first paragraph on the page above engages the philosophical dimensions of this story directly. The two female perspective stories are about road trips and the two male perspective stories feature long, visionary or altered state segments.

With this kind of thematic division, there is one half with people literally doing things. The other half needs to be written in a way that holds its own by contrast or comparison. Ardyn’s story features an eventful flashback and a brief period of action and travel to an ethereal plane.

The beginning of The Final Glaive starts the contrast in the right way. There is an exchange between the physical travel of the female protagonists and the astral travel of the male protagonists. Both place experience front and center, which is all that lasts between transient states. This lends gravity to the early meditations of Noctis during his ten year slumber within the Crystal.

Noctis does not immediately let go of the hatred that Ardyn provoked. At the same time, the simple existence of innumerable lifetimes conveying innumerable experiences is marked by Noctis within the Crystal. If each subjectivity is at least a little bit “objectively real”, than thoughts and emotions are empowered. If subjectivity is accepted as “real” then an internal process- like the changing of Ardyn’s heart -is empowered.

This is a careful attempt to substantiate Ardyn’s positive character arc. In the context of the novel, it works. But since I’ve played FFXV, it is hard for me to reconcile this with what I felt was a relative disinterest in narrative continuity in the base game.

Absent narrative continuity has haunted the FFXV project for years. It’s the reason why I never bought the thematic comparison between Ardyn and Kefka that appear throughout FFXV. It’s why I found the visionary afterlife in FFXV with the reunion of Luna and Noctis so unbelievable. We see Noctis go from a boy to a man and learn the wisdom of acceptance in the face of disaster, only to find his ultimate refuge in a fantasy of a woman he met briefly in childhood with whom he corresponded from a distance.

I’ve belabored the pointlessness of the Ardyn-Kefka analogies enough already, but do we need to drag Dancing Mad into it to, now?

I emphasize that the narrative treatment of Lunafreya within The Dawn of the Future is satisfying. In fact, she and Aranea probably have a few of the more entertaining moments in the book even if The Final Glaive is my favorite. Giving Luna both depth and a spine was sorely needed. The appearance of a new character, Sol, in three of the stories also builds up the continuity of the book. But it would have been nice to have something like this in the base game.

And here we are, back with the problem of a part of a story building the world better than the whole, like the Kingsglaive film. As a stand-alone “frame story”, this book carries its own weight just fine. But in the bigger FFXV multimedia project, it’s hard not to think something like “Why can’t all the good ideas make it into one specific story?”

Zelda: Outlands +Q (part 3)

Blobby eyeball creature in Level U doesn’t unlock anything but rupees….X_X…

But now we can buy moblin meat and potions with Bagu’s letter, and the Goron shop with the Kokiri Sword and Goron Shield is unlocked with the ocarina. So at least rupees are worth more than they were.

Meanwhile, back in Level T, remember that you just received two expansions to your bomb bag. Take the hint. Both the raft and the dungeon’s Tetrarch Fairy are not far off.

With another fairy comes another ocarina warp location: directly across the stream from Level O. There’s some obvious goodies and a warp cave that returns you to the other side of the stream…but not much more than that so far.

With more progress comes more ocarina warp locations…which you can’t really control. Playing the ocarina can take you to any of them. Now and then I suspect that your location on the map has some sort of correlating, mirroring relationship with where you warp to, but I’m not sure.

What this means is that, with the expanded range, you can no longer count on the ocarina to take you across the central water body. At least, not with any predictability. So, while getting the raft from Level T might feel a bit redundant, it’s really just in time. From now on, it’s the only way you can cross the central water body until you find the Gerudo warp caves.

(Actually, I remember some water in the upper left corner of the map, near a waterfall. I think the raft had some sort of use there, during the first quest?)

Along with the Outlands signature crisscrossing between dungeons comes another reversal of traditional Zelda mechanics. Each dungeon will not necessarily give you something that you need to unlock the next, sequential path forward. A treasure from one dungeon, the ocarina, has unlocked two dungeon entrances so far. Two others were accessible from the very beginning, even without the sword.

Like acquiring the sword, the expectation that the next treasure should unlock the next dungeon is so ubiquitous across Zelda games that, without it, you can easily feel lost. With Level T behind us, the ocarina has gained more warp spots and, ironically, appears a little less useful for it. And receiving the raft feels almost disappointing, since we’ve been coming and going across the water for awhile now without it.

This made me assume, several times now, that there is no clear path forward ever and each time you have to do a ground-up systematic investigation of everything.

So I spun my wheels for awhile before remembering that there are suggestions of where to go next, even if the treasures are not always involved. Back in Level T, Zelda said there was a dungeon with twelve guards. Typically, numbered guards could only mean one thing. And they usually come in pairs of four or five so the uncommon pairs of six adding up to twelve are easy to track down and rule out.

Level T sets an interesting precedent for the next three dungeons: continuing the theme of the Subrosian warp caves, the secret staircases are often one-way passages. Level L particularly is arranged so these paths loop back on each other. The next two dungeons, N and A, also have tricky underground staircases, but at this point T and L still hold the record.

Ooh look another sprite from The Adventure of Link!

Level L also has the next item, after the ocarina, to unlock multiple dungeons: the Handy Glove. Level N is hard to miss if you do just a little bit of experimenting outside of L.

Next, it’s time to hit up the puzzle next to the cemetery in the lower left corner of the map, now that we can actually push rocks outside of dungeons. The hint-for-rupees Subrosian said it could be solved the same way it was in quest one, after all.

I knew, from the moment I saw this mushroom tree, that it would lead to a dungeon. In the second quest, if not the first

Interesting touch, saving this location for later in the game. The puzzle that lets you access this area felt significant in the first quest to- last time around, there was a heart container hidden in the area. It put me over the quota necessary for one of the Gerudos to hand over the Staff of Byrna. Speaking of, between L, A and a few other random holes in the ground, we’re at more than enough to get the staff in quest two.

If you remember Zelda’s hint about the “red tree path” from Level N you’ll probably find your way to Level C, right next to where the Thunderbird’s fortress was in the first quest. Just a few screens in, though, we naturally learn that we need all eight of the Tetrarch Fairies before venturing further.

So. Where to go from here. This actually got me pretty frustrated for awhile. The only other hint from Zelda was about searching “the dark maze of ice,” from Level A. But you need the Handy Glove to reach Level A in the first place and the Handy Glove dungeon is in the frozen area itself. So it kinda looks like you have to go back and look for a third level in the frozen maze. Which sounds a little obtuse for a Zelda game, what with the emphasis on exploration, but it was the most recent lead I had at the time.

Nonetheless…there was a lot going on up there that I just hadn’t covered yet in the second quest. The waterfall in the upper-right region of the frozen area seemed significant, somehow. I remembered that there was a way to reach it with the raft in the first quest.

Since there didn’t seem to be any way to trigger the raft up there, I started bombing walls and pushing rocks. Bupkiss. There’s no dock to launch from…but if I remember correctly, there wasn’t in the first quest either? My next “sure thing” theory was the small forested area with no snow, near Level L. I remember something being there last time around, but I guess there isn’t this time. Not even after bombing and throwing fire at everything and playing the ocarina.

Slowly, the weirdness of this sinks in. No other Zelda game I can think of has three dungeons in the same area. But wasn’t the hint about the “frozen maze” from Level A? You need the Handy Glove to get to A. The Handy Glove is in one of the two dungeons in the frozen maze. If I’m not supposed to go back to the frozen area, then what does that hint mean?

Another way of looking at it: how many hints refer to the frozen area and how many dungeons are there? Two, for sure. What about the hints? “Twelve guards” is one, “frozen maze” is the other. Is it possible that it’s simply two-for-two and that hints might be scattered randomly?

Strictly speaking…all you need to reach Level L is the ocarina and bombs. It’s entirely possible that someone might finish that dungeon (somehow, miraculously, without the sword, or maybe with the Kokiri sword) and then proceed to Level T. In which case, the “twelve guards” hint would have seemed a little pointless, just like the “frozen maze” hint now appears to be.

It’s annoying but at that point I felt forced to consider it. Also…all of the dungeons, so far, are in different locations than the first quest but none of them are far from their original placement. And I think there were only two dungeons located, roughly, within the frozen maze in the first quest.

There are two conspicuous areas that hid dungeons in the first quest which, so far, have yielded nothing. One of them is a rocky enclosure only accessible through the Gerudo warp caves.

This one, Level D, is just a few screens away from the area you need the Gerudo warp cave to access. Where else do the Gerudo caves lead? Just outside of the Graveyard of Serenity. If two of the warp caves are in the vicinity of Level D and T, maybe the third location is also close to a dungeon?

It’s interesting that sprites from the first LoZ are used for the concept of Dark Link from the second game

As expected, it’s near the Gerudo warp location across the water. This one hardly lasts any longer than N or A. The hardest thing about this dungeon is the search for it. Also interesting: I think Level S has more Dark Links than any other dungeon before it. Story significance, maybe?

With all eight Tetrarch Fairies liberated, we may now proceed to the Thunderbird’s fortress in the red territory of Subrosians.

Remember how I said L and T had the record for misdirection and difficulty? They don’t, anymore. N, A and S were kind of effortless, but C makes up for all that- with rather classic dungeon design. The circular, misleading staircases do make an appearance but they only really take the foreground near the end of the level. It pays to rely on both the HUD map and the map in the pause menu which shows what rooms connect to what others. This level is intimidating but it doesn’t throw anything at you outside of the context from the rest of the game. And there’s some pretty neat treasure scattered throughout, to. Only one of them-the Silver Arrows -is necessary to finish the game.

Just like the first time around, I’m hesitant to go into too much detail. A final dungeon is just…such an important part of a “puzzle box” game. And this one is so much more than a tribute from a fellow Zelda fan (although it’s definitely that as well). Zelda: Outlands actually feels surprisingly genuine- like a Zelda game from some alternate reality.

First quest review

Afghan withdrawal

For the first time since I’ve been of voting age, I finally managed to support an anti-war president; and to think I almost didn’t.

Not that I don’t continue to have reservations about Biden’s political record; I absolutely do. In the sixties he called mixed-race schools “racial jungles” and he worked on legislation empowering private prisons and the drug war. Considering how the enforcement of drug laws has typically been carried out, it paints a scary picture in conjunction with the “racial jungle” comment. He even co-authored a bill with Strom Thurmond that expanded civil asset forfeiture to those convicted of drug crimes. He then laundered his image by running alongside Barack Obama in 2008.

(To clarify: civil asset forfeiture is when the police are empowered to preemptively seize property or money if they think you are going to use them to commit a crime. Essentially, it’s when law enforcement takes your stuff because they think you might do something illegal)

Joe Biden’s record could reflect corruption at worst or political opportunism at best. But the withdrawal from Afghanistan has, in my opinion, proven that Joe Biden is already twice the President that either Trump or Obama was. What he has done was both necessary and profoundly brave.

Some obvious objections are the American collaborators we left behind and the return of Islamic theocracy with the Taliban. Regarding our collaborators, it is possible that there was some sort of miscommunication: before the withdrawal, Biden said that military intelligence projected months before any possibility of a Taliban incursion. Right now, though, military intelligence liaisons are telling the media that they always knew the Taliban would instantly take control.

As of this writing, it doesn’t look like the precise mechanics of what wires were crossed with what is in any way clear. But there is room for legitimate criticism there.

The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, though, has a simpler context which I believe is causing subconscious angst in the media coverage of the withdrawal.

Put simply: it was preventable. Easily preventable. And easily preventable by the Afghans.

America spent roughly eighty-nine billion dollars training the Afghan army. An army that numbered some 300,000, armed with modern American weaponry. The Taliban had 75,000 combatants on their side, with artillery from the eighties and nineties. The Taliban was vastly outnumbered and outgunned.

Yet the stronger Afghan army instantly cleared the way for them and the Afghan head of state disappeared. The only way that could have happened is if they wanted it to.

America gave Afghanistan every means of support we could possibly offer. But all the money and weapons in the world can’t make a nation do what she does not want to.

The shallow and obtuse pearl-clutching in the mainstream media strikes me as more psychological than moral. If a western-style democracy is not the prerogative of the Afghan people, it makes it impossible to avoid the conclusion that our stated motive of benevolent statecraft was never truly about the Afghan people.

Let us be clear: our recently stated motive of benevolent statecraft.

After the death of Bin Laden, it became impossible to pretend that our military presence in the Muslim world had anything to do with 9/11. So the justification then had to be an altruistic effort on behalf of the people of Afghanistan and Iraq.

This reframing took place during the administration of Barack Obama. After quarantine and the end of the Trump presidency, nostalgia is now more sacrosanct than ever. Everyone wants to get back to normal and Barack Obama is one of the symbols of life before 2016-2020.

To admit that an altruistic effort to establish western-style democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq was never the desire of those nations touches a nerve. Both Trump and Obama won droves of voters with the promise to end American intervention in the Middle East. Many (perhaps most) Americans probably voted for one President or the other. And both of them welched on their anti-war platforms. To cling to the fantasy that either Trump or Obama represent some lost state of greatness is to buy into the belief that A. we were right to support their anti-war platforms and B. they were right to welch on them.

These two articles of faith are reconciled in a narrative of maturation: we were once youthful idealists but we learned hard lessons. In this narrative, it follows that the fine points of responsibility require us to eradicate tyranny in the Muslim world and leave them with representative governments. This leads to a perpetually receding goal post and permission to chase it forever.

To let go of what Obama and Trump represented is to admit just how deeply we were lied to. And the last thing anyone wants to do as they pine for the good old days is to lose more of their illusions.

The falsehood of our altruistic claims is particularly glaring in light of the parties who have benefited from our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Jon Schwarz, writing for The Intercept, reports that a 10,000$ investment in defense stocks at the beginning of the Afghan war would now be worth 100,000$. A recent tweet from Public Citizen listed the returns on defense stocks during the Afghan war:

Now that we realize that our stated aspirations could not have been realized, we are forced to ask who benefited from it all. The answer to that is a tough pill to swallow for a lot of us. We pursued a political program for those who did not want it for no better reason than the enrichment of defense contractors. We are now forced to grapple with this, and hopefully we will be more clear-eyed in our voting and political scrutiny.

Less money squandered on foreign occupations can also allow us to re-allocate resources to fight climate change. Billions to trillions of dollars every year, now freed up. You know, so there can be some humans walking around after we’re dead carrying our genetic code.

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/07/08/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-drawdown-of-u-s-forces-in-afghanistan/

https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/taliban-surge-exposes-failure-us-efforts-build-afghan-army-2021-08-15/

https://theintercept.com/2021/08/16/afghanistan-war-defense-stocks/