Alex Kane, in a May 25th article on jewishcurrents.com, wrote that the Biden State Department committed over five million dollars of aid to Gaza humanitarian efforts. Simultaneously, the State Department also accepted a 735, 000, 000$ offer from Israel in exchange for military support.
Kane writes that the State Department dispensed an export license to Boeing to carry out the American end of the purchase. This included Joint Direct Attack Munitions and Small Diameter Bombs: two varieties of laser-guided explosives used by Israel in an eleven day attack on the Gaza Strip which ended on Friday, the 21st of May.
Reporting earlier that month suggests an interesting dialectical process leading up to this point. On May 3rd, Axios reporter Rebecca Falconer published an article detailing remarks made by Hilary Clinton on a potential withdrawal of American military forces from Afghanistan. Clinton warned that such an event could cause a surge of Afghan refugees and give Jihadi militias a chance to regain lost ground. Two weeks later, the UK branch of The Independent reported that Trump sent a private memo to his Pentagon appointees, stating a wish to immediately withdraw from Afghanistan following his loss of the 2020 Presidential election.
The irony is hard to miss: Trump gets all furious and apoplectic after losing so he decides to punish his own base. So Mister “I love selling weapons to the Saudis” wants to take his ball and go home. Since the 2020 Presidential election and immediately afterward, all criticism of Trump is welcome on the left- even if it’s for things the left should be doing. This leaves the door open for Hilary to look after her own bottom line and look good doing it.
So on the 25th of May, we learn Biden sold laser-guided weapons to Israel for 735 million dollars while kicking five mil to Palestine for humanitarian aid. The dude is hedging his bets but it’s clear which one he expects the bigger return from.
You know how green infrastructure reform, universal healthcare and universal basic income are constantly shot down by people asking how we’re gonna pay for it? Do the outraged deficit hawks have nothing to say about the laundering of perpetual war? Is this what the big liberal rollback of the Trump administration looks like?
Numbers added for ease of navigation. If you want to go straight to my interpretation, scroll down to 5. What comes before that is my analyses of relevant sources and why I make the connections I do.
Marilyn Manson’s Triptych is an important work of postmodern musical storytelling.
“Theater” would have made that sentence less cluttered than “storytelling”, if less firmly defensible. Nonetheless, an argument could be made.
A concept album is not (necessarily) as esoteric or pretentious as the name may sound. Many concept albums are composed of nothing more than consistent lyrical and musical themes. This approach was employed by David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Pink Floyd frequently (though not exclusively).
On the other end of the spectrum are albums that tell a literal story, like Tommy by The Who or the body of work that Emilie Autumn may soon incorporate into an actual work of musical theater (Opheliac, the 4 O’Clock EP and Fight Like A Girl).
Marilyn Manson has frequently voiced his admiration for Bowie and, in particular, Bowie’s early seventies glam-rock material. On our concept album metric, Diamond Dogs, Aladdin Sane and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars are closer to thematic concept albums than narrative concept albums. Yet they contain flourishes of imaginative, fictional events like aliens and global extinction. At the very least, Bowie’s glam trilogy experiments with narrative storytelling without going there in a literal sense.
This is the middle ground where we find Marilyn Manson’s Triptych. This body of work consists of three albums: Holy Wood(In the Shadow of the Valley of Death), Mechanical Animals and Antichrist Superstar. Each one contains distinct lyrical imagery with a small degree of overlap. If we listen to one of them from beginning to end, we will hear about characters like Jack, Omega, Coma White and the Worm. If one confines themselves to the lyrics, these names are usually contextualized as proper nouns.
The context for each phrase remains consistent enough for the proper noun status to be noticeable. At the same time, there is usually enough bluntly obvious or literal subject matter to have a single song make sense on it’s own. In a casual listening, this can convey social commentary with a little bit of word-play. An album-length listening will make the fictional characters and events difficult to not notice, though.
Please don’t think that I mean that the social commentary is a mere “hook” to generate interest with the narrative devices being the “important part.” The simultaneity of the different levels of meaning actually gives the fictional/poetic story the credibility it needs to be accessible and interesting. More so than it would have been if the Triptych was an outright literal story.
This brings us to the “postmodern” part. The simultaneity of the social commentary and the poetic bells and whistles gives them an energy-exchange that is a lot like the exchange between observation and emotion. In fact, the character names and non-literal events usually have an emotional framing. Wormboy on Antichrist Superstar places this dynamic in the foreground.
The object of critique is apparent: vague, simplistic and abstract ideals are used by institutions to control and misdirect. Even the vagueness and the abstraction serve such a purpose: if the ideals of an orthodoxy lack the complexity and detail of lived experience, than lived experience can feel like it is just in the way.
Lyrics like “When you get to Heaven / You will wish you’re in Hell…when will you realize you’re already here” state this plainly, but the lyrics also contain less simple emotional dynamics. The more emotional lyrics also benefit from the successive atmospheric build of the running order of the songs until that point.
Antichrist Superstar is divided into three separate song suites. The second song suite begins with a mysterious, sudden, painful event in the first two songs. The third song in the suite is a visceral, blood-letting reaction to what just happened. Wormboy is the fourth song in the suite, immediately after the blood-letting of Deformography.
Little Horn, Cryptorchid and Deformography can be reasonably interpreted as the emotional low point at that part of the album (before the next low comes in the third suite). So after this visceral trauma, next comes Wormboy.
Early lyrics of the song imply an attempt by the speaker to distance themselves from their own spiraling rage: “So watered down / Your feelings are turned to mud / Love everybody has destroyed the value of / All hate has got me nowhere.” This is also an explicit return to the discussion of binary morality from The Beautiful People. The Beautiful People described alpha-beta, binary ethics as a terrifying and oppressive status quo. Wormboy describes alpha-beta ethics as the source of an inescapable gridlock that offers no satiation and is more trouble than it’s worth.
The succession of different moods within Antichrist Superstar make the emotional attitude of Wormboy more compelling than the speaker’s final, desperate bid for rationality. This furnishes a good example about how the context of the whole album creates different layers of meaning, but the importance of successive “moods” leads us to the reason why the label ‘triptych’ is even appropriate for this body of work.
It also leads us to why I used such a fat, clunky, unappealing word like “postmodern” in the first sentence of this entry. The succession of moods within the Triptych all have a sequential relationship with each other. Different moods that follow a sequential logic, in and of themselves, do not constitute a literal narrative: each one is compelling even without the whole. Yet the sequential order, when experienced from beginning to end, creates the feeling of sequential events or experiences. Events experienced by a single perspective that sequentially lead into other events is one of the defining characteristics of a story.
This is why it is so easy to listen to one of the Triptych albums and get a small, nagging feeling that there is something cinematic just under the surface. Any given song from the Triptych has an accessible emotional center and usually some kind of social commentary. These lucid “hooks” of content then lead deeper into the understated context.
So. The actual word ‘triptych.’ It’s a set of three paintings that, when placed side by side, make up a single panorama. Each third is also, potentially, self-sufficient. If there is a linear, traditional story in this, it fits within three simultaneous and different perspectives.
The word also implies that two of those pieces may fit in to a third. This third would then contain points of departure for the two others. This third, for our purposes, is Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death). Within the story implied by the successive moods subsuming each other, Holy Wood contains two opportunities for a perspective shift.
This is where we get into the role of Manson’s authorial intent. Normally, I hesitate to give authorial intent too much credit. A well-crafted work of art should be comprehensible in and of itself. If it needs a SparkNotes guide to make sense, than that is a failure of the artist. Especially since the designation of ‘Triptych’ implies multiple, simultaneous levels of meaning.
Nonetheless, Manson himself offered a simple guideline during a fan Q&A before the release of Holy Wood(In the Shadow of the Valley of Death). It is not a terribly specific guideline but I think it bears mentioning. After all, the designation of these three albums as a single body of work called the Triptych was coined by Manson himself.
During the Q&A, Manson stated that his Triptych film project would adhere closer to Antichrist Superstar than Holy Wood. Holy Wood was then envisioned to be more of a context source for the film. He also said that the arc of Omega from Mechanical Animals would be part of the story contained within Holy Wood.
If the film would have bore a closer resemblance to the arc of Antichrist Superstar while the album Holy Wood would depict more of a set-up to that story, than we can draw a few conclusions. Manson also stated that, for a linear listening order, Holy Wood would come first, then Mechanical Animals and Antichrist Superstar would mark the ending.
With all this in mind, it makes sense to think that Antichrist Superstar proceeds directly from the end of Holy Wood. Yet popular wisdom among the Marilyn Manson fan community holds that the Holy Wood-Mechanical–Antichrist sequence is literal and canonical. Nick Kushner, who made analyzing the Triptych his archival labor of love on the Nachtkabarett, entertained the idea that Adam (the Holy Wood protagonist) attempted suicide in Count To Six and Die (The Valley). This failed attempt would then lead to the creation of Omega as a psychological alter ego.
I believe Kushner was on to something with this interpretation, but I do not agree with his sequencing of events. Manson’s statement that the appearance of Omega happens within Holy Wood and his remarks on his film idea point to a simpler possibility.
Holy Wood contains four song suites: In The Shadow, The Androgyne, Of Red Earth and The Fallen. If you’ve seen the cover of Mechanical Animals, one of those names will jump out at you.
Both the lyrics and album art of Holy Wood contain numerous Tarot references. Hermetic mysticism has incorporated the Tarot into it’s symbolism and, in the present day, Hermetic mysticism has provided much of the contemporary, popular interpretations of the Tarot. If we’re going to pull back from the actual music (the “text”, as the feller says) we might as well acknowledge that Marilyn Manson has spoken openly about his interest in Hermetic magic.
After Manson contributed voice acting for the video game Area 51, he did a back-and-forth interview with David Duchovny, who also voiced a character in the game. Amidst the spitballing about Jack Parson and the memoir Sex and Rockets and alchemy, Aleister Crowly and his involvement in Hermetic magic came up as a mutual interest. Even if Marilyn Manson was never one for organized religion, there’s still no reason not to incorporate the mythology. The dude made no bones about doing it with Christianity, after all.
A major point of intersection between Hermeticism and the Tarot are the symbology of cups and swords. One is concave and empathic, the other is rational and penetrating. Hermeticism often equates these symbols with femininity and masculinity. More recent pop-culture interpretations of Hermeticism, like Alan Moore’s Promethea comics, emphasize that each person (regardless of sex) contains both of these principles.
If any further evidence was needed to prove the relevance of Hermeticism to the Triptych, consider what Manson named his protagonist: Adam. After Adam Kadmon, a symbol of the Hermetic/Cabalistic ideal of a fully realized individual who is, at the same time, immersed in the collective subconscious of humanity. On a related note, this resembles the symbolic shorthand of classical psychoanalysis, which also pairs rationality with masculinity and the lyrical or chaotic with femininity. Jung, in particular, identified the subconscious with the vaguely feminine label anima.
This all narrows the specificity of the link between the Androgyne song suite and Mechanical Animals. The prominence of the Tarot in Holy Wood make the the cups and swords motifs hard to ignore, along with their gendered symbolism.
The word ‘androgyne’ is basically a portmanteau of the Latin root words for man and woman. A thematic / associative link with the frank gender-bending of the Mechanical Animals era is clearly present. Marilyn Manson is also known for using wordplay in his art, along with fastidious attention to consistency. I think it is fair to assume the associative / thematic link is intentional.
I think that Target Audience (Narcissus Narcosis) – the first song in the Androgyne song suite -is the point of departure for Mechanical Animals. This particular song suite also illustrates a core characteristic of the Triptych: the point of view alternates between that of a character’s experience and the perspective of a recalled memory.
More specifically, the Androgyne suite is about the same thing that Mechanical Animals is about.
The name association conveys a category or content match at least. And if the Androgyne song suite is the point of departure for Mechanical Animals, it remains part of the distinct perspective of the HolyWood album. This is why the category / association link is especially important. The link, essentially, stops at that level. The perspective is separate between albums. The Tarot / Hermetic symbolism indicating a confrontation with the subconscious enables the point of departure to exist within the perspective of Holy Wood.
In terms of literal story beats, this becomes far more clear when you compare the point of departure of Mechanical Animals with the point of departure of Antichrist Superstar. The first Antichrist Superstar song suite is called The Hierophant. The most commonly understood meaning of the word “hierophant” is one who interprets obscure secrets or mysteries. There is also the obvious meaning within the Tarot, but I think a plain interpretation of the word is enough to get us started for now.
So the opening four songs on Antichrist Superstar are either an exhibition of a mystery or the testimony of one who interprets it. If my reading of Manson’s intentions regarding the succession of Holy Wood by Antichrist Superstar are accurate, then the song Count To Six and Die (The Valley) must be the transitional moment.
This song may allude to either suicide or execution. The sound effects of the spinning chambers of a revolver and dry clicks suggests Russian Roulette and therefore suicide. Yet some of the lyrics describe things happening at a distance from the speaker:
She’s got her eyes open wide
She’s got the dirt and spit of the world
Her mouth on the metal
The lips of a scared little girl
There’s an angel in the lobby
He’s waiting to put me in line
I won’t ask forgiveness
My faith has run dry
She’s got her Christian prescriptures
And death has crawled in her ear
Like elevator music or songs that she shouldn’t hear
This, to me, sounds more like anticipatory dread. A fear of events that are already in motion and out of the control of the speaker, Adam. Hapless insolubility, in and of itself, can drive someone to suicide. But I also think it is possible that these lyrics describe the bearers of death themselves, if it happens to not be Adam. Either way, a near-death experience seems to follow.
If Antichrist Superstar immediately follows this…than the mystery at the center of the Hierophant song suite becomes clear. Adam is just waking up from what he expected to be his death. His memories of the preceding events (Holy Wood) are probably extremely garbled and- if Adam was in and out of consciousness following Count To Six and Die (The Valley) -those garbled memories are probably filtered through partial dreams as well. I therefore think that the Hierophant song suite depicts this garbled, dream-like set of memories. I think that the first two songs of The Inauguration of the Worm are Adam’s first moments in a fully conscious state.
If the point of departure for one album is a shift in Adam’s consciousness, the other point of departure may be as well.
Here we move closer to my personal interpretation of the story within the Triptych.
Each of the Triptych albums contains an atmospheric shift between the fourth and fifth songs. In Antichrist Superstar, the opening song suite contains the first four songs. The first song suite of Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death) also ends after the fourth song.
On Antichrist Superstar, this marks the transition from The Hierophant to Inauguration of the Worm. On Holy Wood, it marks the transition from In The Shadow to The Androgyne. While Mechanical Animals does not have named song suites like the others, this shift between the fourth and fifth songs (Rock Is Dead and Disassociative) is also significant.
Although Mechanical Animals does not have suite names printed on the back or in the booklet, it does contain song suites. Only two of them, though. The track listing of the vinyl release is divided into two distinct halves.
On one half, labeled Alpha, we got: The Great Big White World, Mechanical Animals, Disassociative, The Speed Of Pain, Posthuman, The Last Day On Earth and Coma White.
The other half, labeled Omega, is: The Dope Show, Rock Is Dead, I Want To Disappear, I Don’t Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me), New Model No. 15, User Friendly and Fundamentally Loathsome.
Track four on the CD version, Rock Is Dead, is succeeded by Disassociative. The CD track listing of Mechanical Animals would have the following perspective shifts between the first five songs: Adam (The Great Big White World), Omega (The Dope Show), Mechanical Animals (Adam), Rock Is Dead (Omega) then Disassociative (Adam). The four to five transition then goes from one half to the other.
Adam now gets three songs in a row (Disassociative, The Speed Of Pain and Posthuman). Then five songs for Omega (I Want To Disappear, I Don’t Like The Drugs…, New Model No. 15, User Friendly and Fundamentally Loathsome). The album ends with Adam’s final two songs (The Last Day On Earth and Coma White…to say nothing of the fifteenth video track).
If the point of departure from Holy Wood to Mechanical Animals is a shift in consciousness…what can our frame of reference with the psychological segue between Holy Wood and Antichrist Superstar tell us?
If the two psychological segues are analogous…then maybe the altered state that leads into Mechanical Animals is equally dramatic, if not equally destructive. There is subject matter that Mechanical Animals deals with more than the other two. Dope Show, dope stars, “It’s time for recess, please roll up your sleeves”, “I had a dream last night, Cedar Rapids!”, the pill with the word ‘COMA’ etched into it…need I say more? Drugs. It’s drugs.
Or something? Whatever other dimensions there are to those lyrical themes, they also emphasize a consciousness shift. I know we’re supposed to have the source analysis behind us behind us by now, but there’s an interview where Manson almost- but not quite -offers explication on this. He said that the story of Holy Wood is about “an innocent who is offered forbidden fruit.” This fits, since the altered state that leads into Mechanical Animals is roughly at the beginning of the album.
The garbled, dream-filtered version of HolyWood can indicate a way of interpreting the Mechanical Animals altered state within the centerpiece of Holy Wood. As The Hierophant is the recollection of Holy Wood within Antichrist Superstar, The Androgyne is the recollection of Mechanical Animals within Holy Wood.
Adam wakes up from Mechanical Animals within Holy Wood and wakes up from Holy Wood in Antichrist Superstar. Mechanical Animals, however, has no direct representation of either of the other thirds. From a psychological point of view, this could either indicate suppression or escape.
In an interview with NYROCK in September of 2000, Manson said that the Omega song called Rock Is Dead was a parody of a typical, “rebellious” rock song. Manson also alluded to a parallel song on Holy Wood which I suspect is Disposable Teens. This would make Holy Wood’s opening suite a mirror image of the opening suite of Antichrist Superstar.
In The Shadow is a moment of wakefulness before a vision. The Hierophant is a vision before waking. With this in mind, I think the first four songs on the CD edition of Mechanical Animals are the entry to a lucid dream. During the first glimpse of the dream, both Omega and Adam exist side by side. The following three songs, starting with Disassociative, are the first genuine exertion of will power over the dream. Psychological disassociation is a break from psychological context / continuity, which is often a trauma response. This could give us a way to understand the usage of the space imagery.
Like the real thing, the space metaphors represent a void between worlds, and the space imagery only appears in the songs attributed to Adam. The Speed Of Pain confirms this by description within it’s lyrics, detailing how emotions effect our perception of time. The imagery of falling on a bladed surface from The Reflecting God appears again, this time with the blades being identified as memories. The intermediary state between worlds is then equated with psychological transitions. These psychological images are soon identified with external images like photography and fame in Posthuman.
In these songs and the final two on the album, Adam mourns an inability to make meaningful contact in the external world: milk is devoured, seeds spilled at the feet of children, sad endings planted in gardens to be plucked by their “throats” for no better reason than that they’re pretty.
The isolation of space, to be abstracted between worlds, affords escape but also separation from one’s own internal worlds. One outraces the speed of pain by allowing their memories to recede into the blackness of space, now as separate as different lifetimes (“Yesterday was a million years ago / In all my past lives I played an asshole”).
It is also in the songs of Adam that we learn the most about the white in Coma White. In both philosophical and cosmological terms, the Triptych is set in an amoral universe. Darkness and light are forces of nature, not good and evil.
Light seems to behave a lot like real light and real fire: the light of a dead star is indistinguishable from a real one, rather like photographs. Adam was “a hand grenade that never stopped exploding.” In his first glimpse of the empty landscape of his lucid dream, he imagines himself as “a spaceman / Burnt like a moth in a flame / And the world was so fucking gone.” The white light of Mechanical Animals is implacable and inhumane in it’s hunger. Coma herself, in her own lines in the song Posthuman, says that “all that glitters is cold.” This is true even for Omega: “God is white and unforgiving.”
This imagery remains consistent in the vision of The Androgyne as well: “Angels with needles poke through our eyes” to reveal “the ugly light of the world.” In Diamonds & Pollen, a soundscape reminiscent of Mechanical Animals that was included on one of the Disposable Teens singles, monkeys braid thread with gold needles amid “brilliant sluts and fire worship.”
Another significant connection between The Androgyne and Mechanical Animals is a character glimpsed in the tenth chapter of the Holy Wood novel: President White. In a particularly uncanny and horrific moment, President White simply orders a new daughter after the loss of Coma. Later, there is a coffin salute that mirrors the footage of the child saluting Kennedy’s coffin.
This is a reach, but when I first read that chapter I felt an intuition that this has happened before in the White family. I wondered if both President White’s wife and daughter had been replaced multiple times. I was reminded of the character Jack: between Kinderfeld and the autobiography The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, it’s easy to make a connection to Marilyn Manson’s grandfather, Jack Warner. In Holy Wood, ‘Jack’ as an abbreviation of John F. Kennedy is a more obvious interpretation. As lyrical themes, divorced from any other context, the two ‘Jacks’ can be interpreted as separate.
Within the consistency of the world building, though, the usage of ‘Jack’ suggests that they represent a single character. In a novel or a film, it would make narrative sense to treat the Jack in both Holy Wood and Antichrist Superstar as the same person. In President Dead, a connection is made with the Jack in Cruci-Fiction In Space: “President Dead is clueless and he’s / Caught in a headlight police state / God in his skull is stained glass.” Both the President and Jack have receptacles for heads: one is a wine cup and the other filters incoming light. The latter in particular is reminiscent of Jack Warner, whose moldy basement window was described as stained glass in the memoir.
In President Dead, Adam speculates about this distant antagonist. In Kinderfeld, Adam describes an invasive and unwanted psychological echo of Jack that can seize control whenever it wants and can only be suppressed with pain. It is also just as possible that suppression moves Jack closer to the driver’s seat, though, and the Disintegrator persona could simply be a new expression of him. Whether genuine escape is achieved or if Adam simply becomes an even more voracious Jack is not clear.
Disposable humans that can easily be replaced is echoed elsewhere. In several interviews, Manson described Omega as ersatz. With him being the researcher that he is, I refuse to believe that he doesn’t know any other word for ‘fake.’ So what’s with that one, specifically? It means something offered in place of something else.
If Holy Wood is the strict beginning of the Triptych, then substitutes for family are introduced early: The Love Song introduces the symbolic language of children as bullets, loaded into guns to be aimed and fired by parents. In The Fight Song and Disposable Teens, Adam realizes this for the first time and throws himself into an impulsive battle against the status quo that turns individuals into commodities to be used and discarded (“The death of one is a tragedy / The death of millions is just a statistic”). In so doing, Adam unwittingly walks into his assigned identity as an expendable destructive force (“I wanna thank you mom / I wanna thank you dad / For bringing this fucking world / To a bitter end”). The words Narcissus Narcosis in the next song title communicate a descent into sleep and his internal world of dreams.
This is where we run into the real importance of psychological disassociation. Within Mechanical Animals, Adam alternates between black nothingness between worlds and a fantasy self as Omega, whose only thought is to take and consume as much as possible. Outside of Mechanical Animals, The Androgyne suite tells us that this entire episode is remembered in the worst possible light. Upon awakening during The Nobodies, Adam feels as if he received a cosmic vision telling him that the status quo is airtight and has no possible escape.
If the disassociated dream state after Disposable Teens is the “forbidden fruit” that Manson said was given to an “innocent”, then I think the suite called The Fallen is a calculated, weaponized use of the forbidden fruit. In Coma Black, Adam realizes that the object of his desire is dead and may have been dead for awhile. The placement of the song suggests that his discovery of the death of Coma was somehow a consequence of his second attack. If Coma may have been dead already than the question becomes: did the second, calculated use of the “forbidden fruit” kill Coma or did it simply reveal that she is dead?
From a poetic and musical perspective, the nature of the “forbidden fruit” can be a delicious and rich open-ended question. As is typical in the Triptych, the emotional, social and spiritual inflections are more clear than a literal event or object. This elevates the music to an equal footing with the narrative. The music has to drive it forward. It succeeds, in my opinion, and it’s the reason why the Triptych works as a “cumulative” album rather than musical theater.
From the point of view of a traditional, literal story, though…this just makes the nature of the “forbidden fruit” flatly mysterious. What exactly did Adam encounter during his first, juvenile act of rebellion in Disposable Teens? Was it a mind-altering drug? A weapon? Some sort of omniscience? Something drug-like seems likely to me, but until we actually see the novel or the film, we can’t really know.
There is another a fictional character that I’m surprised is not discussed as frequently as Coma White or Adam: The Hierophant. While this is more defensible than my feeling about President White using and replacing his family like Kleenex…it’s still far from a sure thing.
This is especially murky given the world-building so far. A love story is at the center in the beginning: Adam and Coma seem to exist “literally”, other characters less so.
Even if the usage of the name Jack has various non-literal meanings (Kennedy, Jack Warner, etc.), there is still a fictional point of view named Adam. When this fictional speaker / POV says the name Jack, it is natural to wonder if Adam is discussing memories of a person or is interacting with them in the present.
Or could the existence of Jack be like the existence of Omega or the Disintegrator? I wrote awhile ago that I think the song Kinderfeld describes a mental “echo” of Jack that exists in the mind of Adam. I clearly think that there is room for both. I have also made it clear that I think President White and Jack are the same character, at least on some level.
I’m belaboring all this because, after the brush with death at the end of Holy Wood, we immediately meet someone who is filling the same niche as Jack. This period immediately after the attempt on Adam’s life is also a blend of memories and dreams. Even if the buzzing, mechanical voice at the beginning of Irresponsible Hate Anthemresembles Jack, it must be more of a dream-figure than an actual memory. An amalgam, as the feller says.
The opening song suite on Antichrist Superstar is called The Hierophant. The appearance of a new name suggests a new presence. It follows in my assessment that this new presence is simply the amalgam. The only “new” thing is a combination of dreams and memory. It may possess qualities that Adam remembers from Jack, but what did Adam do before he almost died? He made a last stand through the same means that created the altered state of Mechanical Animals.
Upon awakening, during the Of Red Earth suite, Adam no longer had access to the peaceful isolation of disassociation. The isolation enabled fantasies of becoming the hungry, unstoppable light that Adam once found threatening.
When Adam wakes up, the dissipation of the fantasy leaves the sour taste of complete bullshit, which then curdled into resentment and hatred. The side of Adam that the shouting, militant followers saw during The Fall Of Adam and King Kill 33 probably was not the same side that Adam saw of himself during Mechanical Animals. They saw an Adam whose ideals had been suffocated and replaced by the fury of the vengeful.
If Jack supplied memories for the amalgam, those final moments of righteous fury and despair supplied the dreams. This, I believe, is the ranting demagogue of Adam’s near-death fever dream. In my “reading” of the Triptych, this amalgam is what the suite title “The Hierophant” refers to, both an interpreter of mysteries and a mystery himself.
In the troubled nightmares before consciousness, this amalgam is both unstoppable and seductive. Adam is powerless to do anything but submit, regardless of what the amalgam-being demands of him (Irresponsible Hate Anthem & The Beautiful People).
While submission entails communion with other followers, Adam enjoys a kind of privacy: the emotional bluntness of the herd leaves him no outlet. He is then alone with his emotions and self-knowledge, which has an almost meditative security (Dried Up, Tied and Dead to the World).
This next transition is one of the strongest and most interesting in the Triptych. For a work of art that is so complex and bombastic and colorful, it also contains powerful moments of subtlety. The succession of Tourniquet from Dried Up, Tied and Dead to the World depicts the tension between one’s private thoughts and the memories of others. Memories that impose relationships or other demands from the outside world.
The available chapter of the Holy Wood novel depicts Adam and Coma as lovers separated from one another. For those who have lost someone they love, it feels as though that person continues to exist in your thoughts. It’s been my experience, anyway. Adam had no knowledge of Coma’s death until after the fact. His belief was an impression of her that, for awhile, was alive longer than her body was.
There are some truly complicated emotional dynamics here. Adam’s dream companion, derived from the memory of Coma, is a fellow traveler with Adam across the veil. At this point, Adam is in a delirious stupor and probably believes himself dead. In one way, Adam and Coma achieved the impossible together and escaped death. In another way, Adam is alone with the lifeless remains of his love.
A personal note that may effect my perception of this: I have Borderline Personality Disorder, a mental illness that disposes one to black and white emotional reactions. To be more specific, black and white emotional responses to how we perceive relationships. These emotions concern our self-image: if anything goes wrong, those of us with BPD are likely to think it is because there is something wrong with ourselves. We have a masochistic tendency to feel like we are either pure evil or nothing. Literally, nothing: we feel either like we don’t exist or that our existence is less real than the existence of others.
Adam seems to have a lot of BPD characteristics. The Mechanical Animals altered state went from pure light to a miserable false promise. This desolation and fury blend with his self-image, like someone with BPD. This “worst possible version” of himself is seen, in the delirious world of his dreams, as a separate person. This personification is a keeper of knowledge that Adam wishes he did not have.
Perhaps the Hierophant amalgam is the keeper of the memories of what literally happened during the events masked by the fever dream. Maybe they are things that only the worst version of himself can claim to know.
This is most definitely a postmodern story. The narrator is far from reliable and what the narrator feels is often more clear than what the narrator describes. It is on this level that one of the more dramatic moments in the Triptych occurs: Adam experiences a depth of masochism at which he begins to identify as the bearer of all evil and the deserving sacrifice: “Make your victim my head.” Adam believes his head is worth more to someone else as a sacrifice than it is to himself. The word choice is also reminiscent of the digression within the available chapter of the Holy Wood, when the narration mentions the Celtic linguistic root of the name “Kennedy”, meaning ‘ugly or wounded head.’
This same metaphorical language is how sacrifice is described in the third and fourth songs of Antichrist Superstar. Adam visualizes himself as a desiccated bundle, held together only by its’ bindings, connecting two souls. As per BPD catastrophising, if it fails to hold together then Adam will blame himself first and exonerate the other. The other who, in the continuity of the story, represents the memory of Coma.
Tied Up, Dried and Dead to the World transitioning to Tourniquet reveals the tension between the binding memories of others and one’s private thoughts. But what is it Adam thinks about in such privacy? Coma. Adam slips the compulsory bonds of all relationships only to treasure a lost relationship in solitude. The BPD tendencies that cause Adam to offer himself as the exonerating blood-payment for all evil also prioritize service to others in utter privacy, in both the privacy of his dream and in the army of brutal followers therein, whose psycholoical flatlines are as good as total privacy.
So. The white of the black and white emotions could compel Adam to think that he and Coma escaped death and accomplished the impossible together. The black in the black and white emotions demands Adam’s total submission to preserve the second, non-physical existence of Coma. This could satisfy Adam’s fantasy of turning back the clock on her death while appeasing the blood-price for the emergence of Adam’s worst possible version of himself.
Before moving on: I do not necesessarily believe that Marilyn Manson himself has Borderline Personality Disorder. I’m not a psychiatrist. But those who do have BPD will recognize emotional dynamics within the Triptych that look intimately familiar. It is also equally likely that Manson was writing about a character with BPD tendencies- perhaps, like the Hierophant himself, the character Adam is an amalgam of observation and imagination. I mentioned BPD in the first place because the resemblance is strong, regardless of what the case actually may be.
There is another, less melancholy element in Adam’s fever dream. As one of the Major Arcana of the Tarot, the Hierophant may represent a link to genuine truth or holiness. The Hierophant may also embody a negative inversion of this: not truth but orthodoxy, not wisdom but power, not insight but bigotry.
If this is part of the Hierophant of Adam’s dreams, then this upside-down prophet would have acolytes after his own heart. His clergy would be the privileged and the powerful: The Beautiful People.
Most explicitly in Antichrist Superstar and Holy Wood, the Triptych examines the role of tribalism in human nature. For a stark look at this, compare Irresponsible Hate Anthem and Count To Six and Die (The Valley).
I have not spent a lot of time dwelling on the political levels of meaning within the Triptych because, in general, I think they are accessable enough on the surface. The continuity of the symbolism and storytelling requires it at this point, though.
I am convinced that Antichrist Superstar is as deeply political as Holy Wood. The opening lines of Irresponsible Hate Anthem represent a reductio-ad-absurdum of capitalism. Literally anything can be sold if someone wants to buy it and it is the nature of the “All-American” to sell it. Everything is transitional and transactional. Everything has a price, and death is the ultimate transition and the ultimate transaction. The psychological sublty of the movement between Tied Up, Dried and Dead to the World and Tourniquet has a small appearance here as well: the Hierophant demagogue addresses their victim as if their victimhood is their personal identity. Adam later offers his head, which in Tourniquet is elevated by its’ status as a sacrifice beyond the value that Adam places in it himself.
The reductio-ad-absurdum continues in the second song. The Beautiful People measure the value of something based on whether or not it is available for them to posess or consume. The mindlessness of the frenzy creates the emotional privacy that Adam comes to luxuriate in during songs three and four.
Let us not forget that this visionary dreamscape is happening in the wake of Count To Six and Die (The Valley). The song opens with a loud metallic crash, followed by the rotating chambers of a revolver. Later, there are a few dry clicks, telling us that the Roullette wheel landed on an empty chamber. There is another scenario involving guns that may or may not be loaded, though.
In the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, firing squad executions employed a detail of about six men, some with loaded guns and others with blanks. In On Killing: Learning to kill in war and society by Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman, a military psychologist, it says that studies in the early twentieth centuy revealed that most soldiers deliberately missed a lot of the time, or “aimed high.” This was because most people are in fact unwilling to kill. This supports a wider claim made by Grossman that a scientific comparison between destructive potential paired with the number of people who did die in World War I and World War II. Those numbers were vast, but the destructive potential of the weapons of the day would have enabled even more deaths if they were used as deliberately and destructively as possible.
Grossman states that this was the reason why a firing squad had five rifles loaded with blanks and only one with real ammunition: the psychological cost of killing is simply too high for most people to accept. The current story beat in the Triptych describes the followers of the Hierophant amalgam, a class of people interested exclusively in what they can own and exploit. The owned and exploited are a second class. A binary class war is as good a display of human tribalism as it gets, short of what we would recognize as “normal” war.
So what does this bring to a possible interpretation of Count To Six and Die (The Valley)? Establishments are self-perpetuating. Capitalist establishments share the economic philosophy of cancer cells: unregulated growth. If an establishment is “too big to fail,” then it needs a way of using humans to do things that a human may or may not want to. The ruling class that maintains this infallibility, therefore, need to be shielded from moral responsibility as much as soldiers in a warzone or a firing squad.
If this historical nuance is any part of our interpretation of the beat between the last song of Holy Wood and the first song of Antichrist Superstar, this consequence-free exploitation is also a luxury enjoyed by the Beautiful People. We would also be remiss if we didn’t consider the possibility that the fever dream before Innauguration of the Worm is a fantasy that protects Adam from what the worst possible version of himself knows. The lyrics in these songs and throughout refer to suppression frequently: “I better better better not say this / Better better better not tell”…”This is what you should fear / You are what you should fear…”
The linguistic pedant in me even wants to consider the construction of the word ‘innauguration.’ It contains the ‘augur’ phoneme, meaning to predict. A ‘hierophant’ is one who deciphers and interprets ancient mysteries.
I’ve actually bent over backwards a little bit to avoid dwelling too much on classical psychoanalytic reading of the Triptych. Sigmund Freud was a bad scientist by any modern standard. I find classical psychoanalysis hard to take seriously. That being said…Antichrist Superstar starts with a vision and moves onto a jarring, traumatic awakening. The suite that depicts the awakening contains a linguistic hint of auguring, or prophecy. There is no getting around the implication: after the vision, the awakening is itself foretold. This suggests a subconscious influence of the vision stretching into waking life. Perhaps this is the influence that is unmasked in the song Kinderfeld, which could bring us full circle to Jack setting the mental mold for the persona called the Disintigrator.
The movement between the fourth and fifth songs on Holy Wood is an outburst followed by introspection. The four to five movement on Antichrist Superstar is introspection followed by an outburst.
However I think the transition between Disposable Teens and Target Audience (Narcissus Narcosis) is more aptly mirrored in the first two songs of Innauguration of the Worm: Little Horn and Cryptorchid.
Mirrored most aptly- a mirror image is an opposite-inverse. The outburst comes first: Little Horn is relentlessly driving, almost a single verse with one line for a partial chorus. Cyptorchid is similarly unconventional: one verse followed by an abrupt key change with a single line repeated over and over again.
On the subject of Cryptorchid…under what circumstances might a “worm consume the boy”? There’s probably only one interpretation that comes easily to mind: burial, perhaps murder. We’ve encountered burial and penetration like this before: A Place in the Dirt, with angels carrying needles to reveal the “ugly light of the world”. This also feels like an echo of a short story that Marilyn Manson attempted to publish before his music career took off: a mentally ill, housebound man murders his sister and has sex with her dead body. Later, he is buried alive with his eyes sewn shut. This is an idea that had been in Manson’s mind before he even began actively pursuing music.
Yet Adam, himself, is frequently identified as the Worm throughout Antichrist Superstar. This could mean that Adam is drawing nourishment from the death of his innocence. Oh- the worm does not consume the child, the worm consumes “the boy.” In Kinderfeld, the line “There’s no one left to save ourself” is attributed to The Boy in the printed lyrics. The voice of Jack is unintelligible noise somewhere between a whistle and a machine, as if even the memory of Jack is too horrible to listen closely to.
If The Hierophant is a fever dream, then Little Horn and Cryptorchid are perhaps both a panicked spasm upon awakening and the first remembrance of what just happened. This remembrance is the first, fully-concsious stock-taking of the dream. Deformography is a rageful bloodletting that openly flaunts the black and white emotional mania of BPD: “I’ll lift you up like the sweetest angel / I’ll tear you down like a whore” and at the same time the speaker expresses helplessness in their rage: “I’ll make myself sick just to poison you”. Adam may have woken up from his fever dream but still feels the instinctive submission that he experienced in his dream, under the Hierophant created by his mind. Adam feels as if he can’t act on his own so his only path forward is mutually-assured destruction. Perhaps this overture toward waging a war against himself is an outgrowth of Adam consuming his prior state of being in Cryptorchid.
The world that he naively attempts to reason with (Wormboy) simply drags him back (Mister Superstar, Angel with the Scabbed Wings) to the version of himself that was hidden by his dreams of the Hierophant. This leaves us with the moment of anguished helplessness and self-awareness in Kinderfeld, before the appearance of the Disintigrator in the Triptych’s final movement.
This bears out the possibility of a subconscious influence from the fever dream reaching outward into Adam’s awakening. The auguring bound the Worm as firmly as his own soiled twine until he was forced to look the puppet master of his subconscious in the face and attempt to transcend it.
This brings us to the actual song called Antichrist Superstar, which carries a well-worn theme from earlier: things offered in place of something else, copies, clones, “xeroxes.” If the world wants the illusion of the Hierophant, then Adam will give it to them to secure his own freedom: “I shed my skin to feed the fake…cut the head off / Grows back hard / I am the Hydra / Now you’ll see your star”. Adam has blamed himself for everything he possibly can- now that path is dulled beyond feeling. There is nowhere to go but outward. If the world wants to take their Hierophant from him, then Adam will give it with the unbound masochism of one incapable of feeling pain or anything else. From here until the end, Adam tests the reality of the world he lives in to the point of obliteration. In the process, he fulfills the augury exerted by the Hierophant dream: on track 99, feedback envelopes a mechanical voice saying “When you are suffering, know that I…” and snuffs it out before it can finish it’s sentence. In the hallucinatory rally or concert where the dream of the Hierophant first appears, the sentence is completed: “When you are suffering, know that I have betrayed you.”
As an ending, the cyclical relationship between the Hierophant and the Disintegrator works better in a non-literal way: on uniquely lyrical terms. The Triptych is an innovative exploration of what the album is capable of as a medium, but stays within that format. A further step into musical theater or literal storytelling would lift the central burden off of the music and replace it with plot construction. I believe that music bears the standard best. Like the printed word, the special effects are more to my liking. At least if intimacy with the mind of an audience is a strength that the artist wants to make use of. All artistic mediums succeed when they invoke experiences outside of their medium. Great film and visual art create experiences that are not just visual, great literature creates experiences that go beyond language and great music goes further than sound. I have known Coma and Adam for most of my life as figures in a psychedellic, beautiful and transformative musical epic and I believe Marilyn Manson made the right choice.
1. Inauguration of The Mechanical Christ (TLTOE)
2. The Reflecting God (TLTOE)
3. The Great Big White World (TLTOE)
4. The Love Song
5. Little Horn
7. Disposable Teens
8. Target Audience (Narcissus Narcosis)
10. Cruci-Fiction In Space
11. The Beautiful People
End of hypothetical disc 1 and beginning of hypothetical disc 2
Heyyyy sooo I’ve been really busy lately AND I’ve been working on a longpost which will be up very soon. So I decided to take a brain break!
I had no idea how fun this game was going to be until I started it. Within seconds I was yelling and bouncing around just like I normally do when playing Bloodborne or Mortal Kombat X. My attitude toward beat’em ups is kind of like my attitude toward dungeon crawlers, RPGs, MUDs or MUSHs. There is something so irreducibly simple and appealing about the design that I usually like them at least a little bit, even if they’re not particularly good.
The mechanics are intuitive enough for you to get ahold of the punch / kick basics easily but even the more unique stuff is just a few button mashes away from figuring out. Even before getting that far, though, there’s something about the Ska Studios art style that just charms the pants off of me. The Ska Studios graphic design actually meshes really well with how fun and lighthearted this game feels at first. You’re in a punk band and you wake up in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. I only just played through the very beginning so there may be more to it than that, but I love the apparent simplicity at this point. In fact, simplicity on a few levels seems like one of the strengths of this game. The controls are simple enough to figure out on your own and you’ll probably figure out stuff like the character building mechanic on accident in the course of messing around.
But the art style and the premise speak to something even more simple. The flying pieces of shrapnel and body parts and panicked bystanders and zombies and explosions make me think of certain cartoons I grew up watching. The original Powerpuff Girls, Courage The Corwardly Dog and Ed, Edd & Eddy all come to mind. I can even see a modern cartoon like the She-Ra reboot, Twelve Forever or even the creators of Over The Garden Wall or Gravity Falls attempting something like this if they wanted to go edgy. It would definitely be adult-oriented but…think of a creative team like the artists and writer(s) of Over The Garden Wall (my favorite recent cartoon). Based on that example, at least, they seem like they’re unafraid to go all the way with artistic ambition. Not afraid to be blunt while unafraid of going subtle…and with music. That kind of creative team could do something delicious with Charlie Murder.
Other than character building, there are other RPG-lite doodads like equipment and weapons. You also…seem to be able to rotate playable characters from the very beginning. Or, at least, a single save file contains your entire band. Each band member has a character class and I decided to go with the Mesmer first and then started again with the Berserker. So now my save file has a level 3 Berserker and a level 3 Mesmer but everyone else is still at level 1. When you decide to rotate your player character, you start at the beginning.
I know it might not sound like much on it’s face, but…it’s a fun work around for something that other games struggle with. At least the RPGs. Square went from each game having a million potentially playable characters to having mandatory small groups. I don’t know if I’ve played a game lately that simply has everyone available at the beginning like Charlie Murder, to be played and developed at the player’s discretion. Did I mention the simplicity, yet?
Our story begins with a near-death experience. Whomever you choose to start the game with, you wake up in a big’ol hellscape surrounded by demons and then you are jerked back to your body as a paramedic is defribulating your heart. Next to the ambulance, some zombies and demons(?) quietly watch you for a moment. Just as quickly as you left the beatdown in the afterlife, you find yourself in a new one. After a small tutorial walk past some trashed storefronts, you make it to a bar.
This…feels kind of like a checkpoint? In Salt and Sanctuary (another gem from Ska Studios) the checkpoints look a lot like this. Except…in S&S, you only fight the inhabitants of another checkpoint if you’re claiming it for your creed or if you defect from your own creed. Here, the barflies simply start swarming you to begin with and the poor bartender only sticks his head back up once you’ve cleared them out.
The beer taps that bestow stat buffs even feel a bit like the S&S checkpoints. In S&S, you can only distribute allocation points and alter your gear in checkpoints. The simplicity at the heart of the design may have either consolidated that aspect or…added another level of complication? See, in Charlie Murder, there is a traditional character building and allocation point system. When your character has gained a level, you’ll receive a smattering of allocation points you access with your phone.
(Oh about that- you know how many video games try to incoporate smartphones in ways that are supposed to be immersive? Like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories or The Legend of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild or a million others I’m just not thinking about? For some reason this grabs me more than any of those. You can even access the camera on your phone and the screen will just stay in side-scrolling mode while you angle around with your little phone screen. That presentation just adds to the overall charm, along with how you’re so often picking literal pocket change off of the street and throwing the arms of zombies back at them as projectiles)
Soooo there’s at least a little bit of a normal character building but…your collection of money also seems to be a factor. As you beat the crap out of zombies and take their pocket change, you’ll probably notice that you’ll have about five to seven dollars with modest grinding. At the bar, money is exchanged for the stat-buff booze and for tattoos that convey special abilities. Seeing as Charlie Murder came first, I wonder if this was an early, experimental germ of the salt gathering in S&S. The tattoo mechanic even bears a resemblance to the magical brands in that game. Then again…I haven’t actually used any of the alcohol, I just bought a bunch of it to be used later. Maybe the alcohol only bestows temporary buffs…? We’ll follow up on it, eventually.
The checkpoints in Charlie Murder even have a little bit of the same…exploration value as S&S, even if less hidden shortcuts to other areas are involved. Poking around will usually reveal some renewable weapon resources or low-level enemies to grind against.
After the first “real” boss fight in the back room of the bar, there is a brief cutscene of the band kicking it in happier times. Maybe even the founding moment of the band. Everyone’s chilling on the couch and some friends just happen to have instruments laying around. One random thought leads to another and the magic happens. There is a brief flash-forward to the band’s eventual success, combined with a simple rhythm mini-game. Then the cuscene returns to one particular band member for whom the good’ol days weren’t so good.
Anna-Varney Cantodea crafts albums that are distinct bodies of work. Any given Sopor Aeternus album (excluding compilations…like the one I’m about to list in this entry) has its own internal context. So the whole idea of a Sopor Aeternus playlist is either impossible or, optimistically, experimental.
Consider this my run at the experiement:
Always Within the Hour
At Sunset Through the Fields Aflame (version from TheSpiral Sacrifice)
The Sleeper (version from POETICA: All beauty sleeps)
Do You Know My Name? (version from Ich tote mich…)
Children of the Corn
Baptisma (1989 demo version)
Eldorado (version from POETICA: All beauty sleeps)
Day of the Dead
End of hypothetical “first disc” and the beginning of a “second disc” (Why yes, I am pretentious, I highly recommend it if only for fun 😀 )
To walk behind the Rows
Harvest Moon (Cornflowers part II)
Leeches & Deception
The Conqueror Worm (version from Flowers in Formaldehyde)
Into The Night
Sopor Fratrem Mortis Est
A Strange Thing to Say
Consider This: The True Meaning of Love
Tanz der Grausamkeit (version from Ich tote mich…)
Do You Know My Name? / What Has Happened While We Slept?
Something I’ve always wanted to write about, ever since I experienced the full force of passion that our first love affairs with music inspire in us when we are young, is what distinguishes the album as an artistic medium.
Rather like film and video recording, any collection of recordings or things recorded together is a record. Early experiments in film did not even necessarily regard video recording as relatable to narrative storytelling. What we now recognize as modern filmmaking is a hybrid between literature and film, since storytelling is presumed to be the ultimate point. For more on this subject I suggest you google Tania Modleski and cinematic excess. I don’t need to borrow too much from Modleski except that a created structure implicitly reveals its purpose through its design.
Writing and narrative require conceptual coherence since writing is a linguistic medium. Photography and audio recording do not: for something to be photographed or recorded, it need only be visible or audible. A photograph or an audio recording might be artistic or it might serve some other technical or commercial or any other conceivable function. Filmmaking and audio recording are not meant solely for art any more than writing is meant solely for storytelling.
Bringing audio recording to music creates a hybrid in the same way that bringing video recording to literature does. Like any other constructed object, it makes sense to infer intention behind its’ structure. One of my favorite movies is a horror film from 2002 called May. May has long, drawn out non-verbal parts that rely completely on visual storytelling and involve subject matter that is never frankly discussed in the dialogue of the script (this isn’t anything new and I’m sure we can all think of a ton of examples of this; I’m just using May to make a point). For me as a young teenager, the silent, purely visual scenes in May shifted the perspective and character of the film in a way that the script could not: in fact, as an adult it’s obvious that a script is only written to serve a specific function that works equally with the contributions of the actors, director, cinematographer, editor, etc.
The finished product of a photographed script uses the contribution of the writer in concert with every other force at work in front of and behind the camera. The same is true for an album. All art requires a bit of intimacy and exposure on the part of the artist but with films and albums the separation between conception, embodiment and execution is more obvious than something like a novel, which often comes to us resembling nothing more than a naked and singular work in spite of however much editing and re-writing may have happened before publication. Like all rules there are exceptions: my two favorite writers, Victor Hugo and William S. Burroughs, frequently used their writing as a kind of embodiment that would itself “tell” a story rather than use an impersonal and anonymous narrator. This sort of creative device is necessarily more common in modern film and music, however.
I don’t want to make this seem like some kind of big academic look at the album as an art form. I just don’t feel like doing that and it’s more fun to look at specific albums that exemplify the range of what the medium is capable of. I also wanted to nail down some basic ideas that are going to be used later before I get into what I really want to talk about.
Sequential posts to be linked, soon, at the end of this one
Anti-LGBT lawmakers and activists are taking inventory, now that Biden is in office. Under Trump it was open season on the queer community and now social conservatives are testing boundaries to determine what they can get away with. Hopefully, this reconnaissance won’t cost too many lives.
On January 19th of this year, North Dakota began legislation on House Bill 1476. On January 21st, it was fortunately withdrawn. The bill would have made same-sex marriages from other states as good as non-existent in North Dakota and penalize any corporate or state entity that openly expresses support for LGBT people in general. The bill also would have criminalized the teaching of anything about sexual or gender variance in history, science or health.
As bad as that would have been, there was a truly surreal detail in the bill’s list of relevant definitions.
After my head stopped spinning, I looked online for any legal validation or precedent for this. I found only two outstanding instances. One of them was a 1890 court ruling and the other dates back to 2014. The 2014 case involved convicted prisoners who wished to form a secular humanist discussion group, the way that prisons host religious discussion groups. That particular case ended in a ruling that secular humanists are entitled to the same First Amendment rights that protect religious expression.
The 1890 decision, meanwhile, was simply the last attempt made in court to set a legal definition of religion. It was then provisionally offered that “The term ‘religion’ had reference to one’s views of his relations to his Creator, and to the obligations they impose.” In the same case, it was said that to defend fundamentalist Mormons who wish to practice polygamy as a religious freedom is to “offend the common sense of mankind.”
Further reading revealed that the 1890 case only affords potential for interpreting secular humanism as a religion. And this is only because one of the attendant Justices capitalized Secular Humanism like a proper noun in a written brief.
There are two likely possibilities: one is that the “religion of secular humanism” is something the author(s) of ND HB 1476 fabricated out of whole cloth and means nothing. This would be nice and the withdrawal of the bill could make it seem likely: maybe it was withdrawn because that claim was so sweeping and dramatic that the authors pulled it before it could be scrutinized closely by other lawmakers.
The language of 1476 also reveals conceptual, theocratic groundwork: repeatedly within both the definitions and the proposals, it is written that the bill attempts to isolate the public from “nonsecular” influences and classifies secular humanism as “nonsecular.” On it’s face, this echoes the claim within Christian apologetics that Christianity is both necessary and relevant to every living human.
C.S. Lewis frequently espoused this, to name just one of the Christian thinkers to champion that argument. In this view, the only reason you would claim to be an atheist or an agnostic is either ignorance or dishonesty and everyone is “religious” whether they cop to it or not. (as the image above shows, claiming to be non-religious is treated as patently false) The only meaning of the word ‘secular’ that would make sense in this theology is a state intermediary between religious individuals.
Claiming that all values must necessarily come from religion sounds like it would be laughed out of the room by lawmakers in a country that separates church and state. This is where we get to the scarier possibility: what if increased scrutiny was not the reason it was withdrawn? What if, because so many state-level lawmakers play to social conservative voters, increased scrutiny would not have stopped it anyway?
An absurd claim can either indicate ignorance or the existence of an understated plan. Twenty-eight states have considered similar bills lately with less expressly theocratic language. This could simply be part of a trial and error exercise for social conservatives to delineate where the “line” is. In that scenario, ND HB 1476 could simply be an effort to test the deep end, which would be cold comfort to those who have already suffered from these laws.
In Arkansas, doctors are prohibited from providing transition-related health care to minors. Minors who were already receiving hormone replacement therapy have had their treatment summarily stopped. A USA Today article paraphrased Rep. Deborah Ferguson’s description of a testimony provided by a physician from Arkansas Children’s Hospital. This doctor stated that several minors that receive HRT at Arkansas Children’s Hospital attempted suicide days after this law went into effect.
If one were determined to play devil’s advocate, it could be said that North Dakota is willing to put it’s money where it’s mouth is. There are also two separate bills banning transitioning minors from school sports, one of which contains a stipulation that medical research will be gathered going forward. However I do not envy the person who has to tell the parents of a suffering child “don’t worry, we’ll do research. If your child’s mental health tanks, we’ll consider it with the rest of the data!”
I’ll come out and say it: the plot design lacked the finesse of the SU Dreaming and Lucifer and the originality of House of Whispers. But the SU Books of Magic has some of the most memorable character moments in the new Sandman Universe comics, though.
The main standout quality here is the portrayal of stereotype threat. Nearly everyone in Tim Hunter’s life tells him his dormant magic is so powerful that it might be a good idea to cut the universe’s losses and just kill him. This goes back to the very first miniseries which Neil Gaiman completed in 1993. There is even an arc running parallel to Tim Hunter that explores Tim’s genuine potential for destruction as sympathetically as possible.
Like Tim, Ellie is established early in the SU story. The reader gets to know her almost as well as they know Tim. Ellie is joined by two other classmates who are characterized, early on, as one bully and one anxious bystander. I wondered, more than once, if Ellie the teenager is modeled after the adult character from the older Hellblazer comics. If so, I wonder how/if Ellie and the two others (Fatima and Kevin) may factor into the upcoming Hellblazer young adult comics if DC is still committed to that.
As Tim is our main viewpoint character though, the weight of the stereotype threat is expressed largely by what it means for him. In other words: is Tim in fact a ticking time bomb that should be done away with?
The fear of this possibly has oppressed him long enough for Tim’s mind to subconsciously create a mirror image of his conscious good intentions. When this character first appeared, I initially thought it was a version of Tim from another timeline. Multiple timelines have appeared before in this story. If this were an “AU” evil Tim, the plot would probably require a deeper exploration of that timeline later.
That happens, incidentally, but for completely unrelated reasons: “evil Tim” is literally a dream made flesh, born from the fears and dark fantasies that Tim’s mentors engendered with their warnings of what he might become. The problem with possibilities, according to Lucien of the Dreaming, is that too narrow a choice can often be worse than none.
Tim’s future is frequently described to him as a narrow, binary choice: good or evil. The evil part is fleshed out with far more details by those who have been outside of the story’s timeline. One of the first of these people to meet Tim tried to kill him before any of those details materialize. This was a factor in Tim’s earlier decision not to pursue magic, since that choice would stop the “evil future” as surely as his death would. Tim later reversed that decision, though, since his magic is endemic to his being and is no worse than he chooses to be.
Changing your mind is also a thematic big deal which compliments the theme of stereotype threat. While also exacerbating some of the accompanying mysteries. After parting ways with Lucien, Tim encounters Emily Dickinson within the Dreaming. She explains to him that she left precise instructions for her family to burn all of her writing. Instead, her sister re-arranged her poems according to her liking and published them.
Tim understands this to mean that people are only free to interpret your nature and your legacy if you are dead and can no longer speak for yourself to them. He asks Emily if it’s true that, so long as you can think and act autonomously, it is never too late to change your mind. Emily agrees, adding that to be yourself or authentically adopt a commitment is to consciously express it consistently. Almost as soon as this happens, though, we learn that the most consistent antagonists throughout the SU comics and the miniseries are from a reality where this cannotbe true of Tim.
The evil cabal of magicians called The Cold Flame is used as a red herring in the original miniseries. (There’s gotta be a pun in that somewhere) During the original miniseries, there were constant hints about the fabulous and chaotic world just outside of Tim’s point of view. This world is separated from Tim by the “trenchcoat brigade” and the lessons they teach. A battle between the trenchcoat brigade and the Cold Flame happens completely off-camera. Later, one of the trenchcoat mages (Mister E) attempts to kill him. This builds tension over whether the danger in that specific story comes from the outside world or Tim’s would-be protectors.
This works for the duration of the opening miniseries but a bigger story would necessarily show more of Tim’s world outside of his bubble. As it turns out, The Cold Flame comes from a timeline where Tim went full supervillain. Stopping him at all costs is the highest possible priority as far as they are concerned. In the third book, they are revealed to be adult, “alternate universe” versions of Ellie, Kevin and Fatima. They time-travelled to the present of the story in order to kill Tim before he can become the apocalyptic nightmare he is in their own world.
From the perspective of The Cold Flame, Tim’s good versus evil dilemma has already been resolved. This echoes the revelation at the end of the miniseries when Phantom Stranger states that Tim already gave explicit consent to learn magic when he agreed to be educated.
On one hand, your consent and commitment are yours to give or withhold no matter what at any time. On the other hand, your consent and commitment are out of your hands and already decided by others. As soon as Tim leaves the company of Emily Dickinson, Tim is abducted by the Dead Boy Detectives and put on trial for his wrongdoings.
With Tim as our main character, his perspective is the one we see the stereotype threat through. So it’s severity is determined by how much credit Tim gives it himself. So, from Tim’s point of view, what are his wrongdoings?
While Tim has not turned the world into a burning hellscape, he has been forced to kill twice in self-defense so far. Since Mister E had already told him a number of horror stories about how evil he’ll become, these incidents haunt Tim. Potentially, with enough fear and self-loathing, they could be seen as definite proof that he is evil.
In volume one, several members of The Cold Flame attack Tim in astral form and Tim levels them with a flick of his screwdriver-wand. (between his hair, glasses, owl and magic screwdriver, onlyone of those was an knowing pop culture reference- the first three were in the original miniseries before Harry Potter was published). In volume two, a proxy of The Cold Flame was about to kill Ellie, Fatima and possibly Dr. Rose before Tim intervened.
This brings us back to the credibility of the stereotype threat and how it’s credibility effects its narrative function. Most of us who do not have antisocial personality disorder would probably need some time to psychologically process killing someone. The normal psychological impact of this experience is exacerbated by the messages Tim has received about being inherently evil. The normal mental hardship of killing is turned into a crisis in which Tim wonders if his accusers have been right all along regardless of his actual decisions.
Luckily, the bodies of the astral warriors are still biologically alive which means their souls can simply be “re-tethered” which Tim has a chance to do. This is what brings Ellie around to wondering if Tim actually is the world-ending menace her future self says he is. The insistence of the other accusers beyond this point convinces Ellie that they’re disingenuous which makes her abandon them altogether.
By the end of the story, all of the main characters have come around to Lucien’s point of view: a given range of possibilities is often limiting because such a range can bait ones’ mind into thinking there are no lateral, “third” options.
The risk of binary perspectives is pointed out several times. One of the starker examples of this happens in the garden of Destiny of The Endless. The last and most powerful of the eponymous books of magic to be gathered is the Book of Possibilities. And it can basically hack Destiny’s book.
This gave me a little bit of pause. The book of Destiny is basically the script for all of space and time- all alternate timelines, every hypothetical or imaginary event, literally everything. The beings and events that defy Destiny’s book in the original Sandman are singled out as startlingly unique, like the triple-goddess form of the Kindly Ones spontaneously appearing to herald the departure of Lucifer. Or even Delirium knowing more about her origins than Destiny himself.
The exceptions to Destiny’s surveyance stood out in the original Sandman. I get that the Book of Possibilities is supposed to be a crazy powerful object. But when an exception is used to signify how special something is…you probably shouldn’t wear out a single, specific standard of exception. It doesn’t break any suspension of disbelief or anything, but it is an unfortunate eyesore.
Getting back to binary versus lateral, the Book of Possibilities basically generates extra paths in Destiny’s garden on demand. And Ellie is the first character we see use the Book of Possibilities within Destiny’s garden. This serves to emphasize the importance of her changing opinion of Tim. But that’s not the only thing that it effects.
Like the role John Constantine and Dr. Rose play in the thematic treatment of binary-defiance. Before handing over one of the books of Magic to Tim, John Constantine elects to put Tim through a reliability test. There are multiple moving parts in this scene but one particular detail serves for our purposes: Tim is required, by a “demon” of impartiality, to sort different uses of magic into general good and bad categories. They soon stop being clear choices between good and bad and become choices between two equally bad events. Tim elects simply to attack the demon and end the charade.
This mirrors the event in Destiny’s garden with Ellie almost exactly, minus the actual Book of Possibilities. The placement of the “sorting” test makes it appear to be foreshadowing which just adds even more build-up to the revelatory use of the Book of Possibilities. This just brings us back to the exceptions to the scope of Destiny’s book being overused, though.
I realize that reading the original Sandman repeatedly for years might not be the frame of reference the SU writers intended, though. The four modern SU stories are supposed to be set within the world of The Sandman, not be an actual continuation. Kat Howard may have plotted this story with nothing else in mind other than the original Books of Magic miniseries. But between Tim exploring the Dreaming and the appearance of Destiny, it really starts to feel like A Game of You, in which the Endless are present but Morpheus/Daniel is not the main character(or barely, in A Game of You). Which makes the over-use of certain tropes hard to overlook.
Both John Constantine and Dr. Rose are interrogated multiple times by different characters for being both committed to Tim’s protection and prepared to kill him if necessary. This implicitly threads the binary-transcendence theme through the story from the beginning. Constantine walks all the way up to that line (remember the moving parts I mentioned?) but doesn’t cross it.
Rose, realizing she has to briefly assume the appearance of going on the offensive against Tim, takes another route to the party. If you’ve read either the opening miniseries or my post about it, you’ll remember that Dr. Occult transforms into a female alter-ego called Dr. Rose when she enters Faerie. During her brief ruse, she assumes her Dr. Occult identity. This moment enables Tim to play an instrumental part in Ellie’s perspective change.
In the SU Books of Magic, Dr. Occult exists almost exclusively as Dr. Rose and only assumes her male identity under specific pressure.
On that subject, I gotta mention how happy I am with Dr. Rose in general. I’m a trans lady so I would be a little sensitive to this, but it really, really looks like Dr. Rose is a trans lady. She even seems to refer to her Dr. Occult alter-ego as something separate from her but with specialized, limited use (“I’ll have to slip into someone less comfortable”).
Granted, using the apparent gender-swap as a last- minute plot device is a bit cringe, but it is portrayed as a temporary magic transformation. As in, a short-lived event, and it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know from context. Basically, it looks like her main, long term preference is Dr. Rose, and it’s played for zero laughs, gross-out moments or cheap pathos. That may be a low bar but honestly that’s where we’re at with trans inclusion.
Another character event I appreciated: seeing John Constantine be morally ambiguous for the first time. I’ve never actually read a Hellblazer comic so my knowledge of Constantine comes from The Sandman, the recent SU comics and the 2005 movie. In the movie, Keanu Reeves tried really hard to portray a morally indifferent character who does good things almost on accident. In The Sandman and the new SU stuff, Constantine barely has enough time in the foreground to show any range. So this was my first time seeing Constantine actually grapple with anything.
I also liked how much Howard committed to the stereotype threat/imposter syndrome theme. With a lot of fan communities, you gotta watch how you portray that. For some readers, a character voicing a belief is enough for it to appear canonical. Stereotype threat or imposter syndrome is most readily visible when multiple characters have clashing perspectives and there are clear reasons for both sides of the “disagreement” to have strong, emotional motivations. Then again, a lot of the cool narrative conflicts are conflicts of conviction, so good job Howard.
I first read this comic as a teenager, when Heavy Metal magazine serialized the first English translation. This had to have been around 2004 and my dad and I had been bonding over our shared love of Stephen King and Anne Rice. Having gone through most of his vampire movie library together, a French vampire comic was a natural next step.
The cosmology was particularly interesting to me. Much of the story takes place in Hell, which is outside of space and time. For perspective, only living, three-dimensional, physical creatures are subject to linear time with a past, present and future. Once you are liberated from three-dimensional existence after death, the cosmology of this comic implies that your soul is also free from linear time.
In the place sometimes called Hell by its inhabitants (which is also known by some as Resurrection), all time is simultaneous. There are dimensional ruptures between different timelines, though, so a fragment from Earth at any point from multiple histories might manifest. To say nothing of the fact that all souls bound for Resurrection from any timeline enter Resurrection during its own “present”, which is separate from all other timelines.
Hopefully that wasn’t too garbled. Upon transmigrating to Resurrection, a soul will enter the care of a psychopomp called Lord Cryptos. Cryptos will put these souls through anguishing preparation which can actually cause them to vanish, never to enter a body again. Those souls who “graduate” from Cryptos’ “training” may assume the body of a few different supernatural beings. Those guilty of deliberate evil with little or no hypocrisy in their minds become vampires. Those who do so with hypocrisy become ghouls.
In the independent “timeline” of Resurrection, the flow of time is said to run backward. Whether this is literally true is not clear but it seems possible: vampires age backwards into infancy and after that their souls either disappear or transmigrate elsewhere. At the same time, the monarchy of Resurrection has many laws and traditions that enforce a backwards time-flow as a moral value. Having only read a little bit past where I did when I was fourteen, it could also be both for all I know.
Mention is made of an ethic called obscuritantism, which requires its’ adherents to consume something called Black Opium that suppresses memories of their mortal lifetimes. The vampires of Resurrection equate the obliteration of your past, mortal identity with the authenticity of your undead identity. On the other hand, ghouls frequently talk amongst themselves of their past lives and are reviled by vampires.
There is also a professional caste called archeologists who are tasked with burying the fragments of Earth that materialize through the dimensional rifts. They may selectively scavenge for technology or resources for the monarchy. In the absence of any wider context for the backward time-flow, the decay of the Earth fragments from the rifts looks like it…is just the archeologists burying stuff. Like, that aspect of the time-flow is enforced by the archeologists.
Since few fantasy stories reveal everything about their cosmologies up front, the gray areas between cosmic “rules” and the taboos of Resurrection’s vampire nation are ripe for tension-building. At this point (just after volume 3) it feels like it’s worth paying attention to the stated motives of those arrayed against the vampire nobility.
The collected edition of Neil Gaiman’s opening run on The Books of Magic is one of the most unconventional comics I’ve ever read. While plot construction is one of Gaiman’s strengths, this story does not rely on it much.
Or at least…it doesn’t rely on plot the way most stories do. Lots of stuff happens off camera. The central narrative details the education of a young boy named Timothy Hunter. Timothy has the potential to become the greatest magician of the current age and is taken in hand by DC/Vertigo’s “trenchcoat brigade”: John Constantine, Doctor Occult, Mister E and Phantom Stranger. While Tim is receiving all these words of wisdom, other characters are frequently rushing around doing other things.
Major characterization details are hinted at more than they are shown. With a bit of context this can be overlooked: Neil Gaiman wrote these comics when he was commissioned to do an ensemble story for DC featuring all of their occult characters. The four volumes anthologized in the collected edition were also meant to be a frame work that later stories would spring from. Meaning that Neil’s chief obligation to DC & Vertigo was to establish that a bunch of characters exist in the same universe so other writers could craft stories about them interacting with each other.
So, of course, many of those implied character beats are meant to be callbacks or references for the benefit of readers already familiar with the source materials. Neil Gaiman also took the opportunity to introduce several original characters besides Tim Hunter. One of them, Mister E, has a naming scheme that makes him fit in with the likes of Dr. Occult and Phantom Stranger. He’s a Neil Gaiman creation designed to fit into the overall DC occult universe. If you’re like me and you’re learning about many of these characters for the first time, it’s easy to assume Mister E is another pre-existing character.
Neil Gaiman cannot resist an opportunity to throw a wild card into situations where you are tempted to assume you know what is going on. With this in mind, the subtle introduction of Mister E has got to be intentional.
Another interesting original: Glory. The first time I ever heard of that character was in Sandman: Overture in 2013. The Books of Magic miniseries was first anthologized as a trade paperback book in 1993 though. In retrospect, it lines up: Neil Gaiman has said that he was thinking of the plot of Overture since the early nineties. He originally planned to publish the story that would become Overture as part of the original Sandman run. Even so…it’s a little hard not to be gobsmacked by that character’s appearance in an early nineties comic. For me, anyway.
Comic franchises like DC doing crossover ensemble stories have long been par for the course. When I say that The Books of Magic is one of the most unconventional comics I ever read, I mean the relationship between it’s stated subject matter and it’s script. Most of Timothy’s would-be mentors attempt to shelter and educate him. Tension mounts when Tim is not sheltered and instead learns firsthand. This, in turn, forms a response to the lectures.
Speaking of the lectures…consider the various qualities they attribute to magic. The lessons of Phantom Stranger and Mister E are the furthest from waking, physical life. The lessons of Constantine and Dr. Occult are the closest. Phantom Stranger and Mister E discuss universal generalities of time and space which relate to magic. Constantine and Dr. Occult discuss magic in terms of it’s accessibility from waking existence. The generalities often have smaller details which are consistent with the more specific lessons.
While traveling with John Constantine, Timothy meets magicians who reside in the physical world who discuss their magic in words that have double meanings that can just as easily be true of our reality. Upon arriving in America, Constantine says that, as a boy in England, the comics he read made America sound like a fantasy land. All America was to him as a child was a world where a lot of colorful, larger than life characters were- and also where he was not. As I read that I was reminded of the Atlantis vignette from the lesson of Phantom Stranger.
The Atlantean magician says that Atlantis itself is a symbol of the art (meaning magic). All interactions with Atlantis are with emanations of the original- not the original itself. Later, in the company of Dr. Occult (who occasionally transforms into a female alter ego named Rose), Timothy travels through Faerie, the Dreaming, Hell and a cave where dwells a bard singing songs about a mythic king who sleeps beneath all countries. This could be Heinrich Barbarossa, King Arthur, the Roman Emperor Julian, King Solomon or any other living king that passed into the myths of people who dreamt of their return.
The magical countries of Faerie, Hell, the Dreaming, Atlantis and America are all alternatives to physical reality that provide the opportunity for genuine change to manifest. Many of the magicians residing in the physical world that Timothy encounters have rather simplistic ways of “clipping out of bounds.” Zatana and her father (two of the pre-existing DC characters) discovered magic while talking backwards. Madame Xanadu, another established DC character, begins simply with a Tarot reading. She freely admits that the Tarot symbols could be interpreted on any number of symbolic levels or literally.
This all pops when Timothy and Constantine visit a magician who wants nothing more to do with the practice of magic and insists that anything else is a better use of time and effort.
Magic, for Baron Winter, is everything outside of reality. Atlantis and the fantasy realms of divergence are paths outside of reality that begin with imaginary contrast or re-interpretation. Earlier, with Phantom Stranger, Timothy’s encounter with the Atlantean magician is situated between the distant beginnings of the universe and the birth of human myth, rather like a link between them.
It really starts to look like that when these characters are discussing magic they’re actually talking about imagination. However I don’t think The Books of Magic is a narrative treatise in the same way that Promethea is. Yet it is difficult to look past the prominent dialogue. Dialogue (or just someone talking to you without an answer) is a way of directing attention. While Tim is being lectured by Earth-dwelling magicians, a clash between the trenchcoat brigade and the evil magic cabal known as the Cold Flame happens elsewhere. One character in particular is reputed to have fought valiantly in Timothy’s defense. Later, when Tim is alone with him, he’s rather less protective. Details like that draw your attention to what is stated to Timothy versus what he directly observes.
Yes this relates to a plot point and the pay-off at the ending is realizing what happened much earlier while your attention was directed elsewhere. Come to think of it, I think there’s a word for a kind of stage performance you do where you carefully control the audience’s attention so you can do cool things in their blind spots that they don’t notice til later. Involves cutting people in half and rabbits in hats. Cain took a run at it in Season of Mists.
I’ve been light on spoilers so far but now I’m gonna get into some speculation that could spoil some stuff, in case you’d rather not know.
That this was written near the inception of the original Sandman comics appears significant. I have not yet read any of the following Books of Magic comics after this point that were not written by Gaiman. I do have the three recent Books of Magic collected editions from the Sandman Universe run, though, so I’ll probably review those sooner or later. I have also been meaning to review the SU House of Whispers comics but they’re just so dense that I think I better re-read them first.
Back on topic though: Gaiman said that the story that would eventually become The Sandman: Overture was in his head in the early nineties. He also originally intended to publish it within the original Sandman series. The appearance of Glory at Faerie in Books of Magic resembles what might be some early groundwork he was laying for his original Overture plan. The idea of the Gemworld, introduced in Books of Magic, could also tie into that.
Early in Overture, we see all manifestations of Dream, from the eyes of all who have seen him, all interact with each other. It at least seems possible that, along with the “emanation” metaphysics, those different facets are also intertwined with his soul. When Timothy encounters the Gemworld and the regions beyond it with Mister E, mention is made of diverse timelines and how they cluster in matrices of probability. Overture is the only other story within the world of The Sandman that also prominently features different timelines. Mister E also points out, in their journey through future timelines, a cancerous god whose soul forms a hive mind with his followers. I think this sounds like the mad star who became a dream vortex in Overture.
I don’t think I’m ready to commit to the theory that Mister E showed Timothy the foreclosed timeline of Overture but it sorta looks like it. This then leaves us with the conundrum of the mundane egg which also plays a role in the later Sandman Universe stories.
Welp, America just attacked Syria, the first military action ordered by Biden during his presidency. Without congressional authorization. The reporting relays a claim that the targets of this strike were Iran-led militias.
As someone who was a preteen in America when 9/11 happened, this is depressing. This is even more depressing because it might not occupy the spotlight of the American media for very long, as it doesn’t have a conventionally salacious antecedent.
If you’re an American in your early thirties or older, you can probably remember the press dialectic during the years immediately after 9/11. The memory almost feels like a Lonely Island song that’s written around repetition, like Jizzed In My Pants or Like A Boss. Where the thing being repeated gets more and more unrelated to everything else and becomes comically random.
First it was all about Bin Laden and al Qaeda. Then there was a “preventative” reframing that was all about getting weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of heads of state who collaborate with terrorists. We then hyper-focus on Saddam Hussein and ignore the break in cause and effect. Because Dick Cheney is clearly a man of honor and wouldn’t even consider continuing the botched Iraq invasion from the days of George the Elder. I mean, why would you even go there, that’s ridiculous, right?
So at that point the dialectic shifts to the need for providing stability until a functional local government takes control. This was an effective way to quash debate since, in the absence of context, the moral stakes look confusing. If someone says “we never should have been there in the first place and there is no causal link between this and 9/11” the other side can reply with “what are we supposed to do, just leave them without any judicial system or constabulary?” An American could say that, regardless of what happened in the past or how, we have a responsibility to vulnerable Iraqis right now. I grew up with people who joined the military and were deployed to Iraq at that time, when this was the prevailing point of view.
Actually…when I was a senior in high school, I had classmates who thought spreading “western democracy” would have been justification enough without the war on terror. I grew up in Nowhere, Alaska in a small, rural town with a distinctive cultural and ethnic history. Not every small town in America is comparable to the one I grew up in, but there are probably some similarities. It is conceivable that there were average Americans watching Fox News and CNN every night at that time who may have thought something like that in the back of their minds. There were probably more than just a few thinking that, really.
So between the lack of a clear either/or choice and the emotional temptation to think that your own nation should expand anyway, a lot of people checked out of the conversation. To this day, the popular wisdom among Americans is that we’re occupying the Middle East to provide stability until a local democracy develops. Obviously, the insistence on only relinquishing control to a democracy gives America the ability to set its own standard for withdrawing.
Nearly a week ago on MSNBC, Morning Joe discouraged the usage of terms like “perpetual war”, “forever war” and “occupation” to describe the American presence in the Midde East. He prefers the term “open-ended presence.” The apathy and confusion that followed the American assumption that we just gotta stay there forever has taken root. And those roots are so deep that a pundit on MSNBC can claim that perpetual war is both normal and desirable. I repeat- on MSNBC, which has a reputation for being a left-leaning news network. In 2001, openly justifying perpetual war would have been political suicide for anyone on the mainstream right. Back then, a conservative who didn’t want to get heckled out of the room would have to at least invoke the appearance of a definite end-point.
It is so tempting to think that the American mainstream has ceased to care about this loose thread. Many probably have. And there are many dimensions of culpability on both the left and the right. When Barack Obama was sworn in, he said he was not inclined to allow an investigation into the war crimes of George Junior. In keeping with his morally bold and assertive image, he said his would be an administration that looks forward, not backward.
Perfectly good sentiment on its face, if it didn’t continue the laundering of neverending American war. The dude went on to authorize Air Force and drone strikes on Middle Eastern civilians. In the case of the air strikes involving pilots, said pilots were directed to swing back and bomb the same location to make sure the emergency first responders were killed. This was referred to as a “double-tap”. I guess he was looking forward, just not the way we hoped.
Perpetual war, at that point, was so deeply entrenched in our sense of normalcy that the prosecution of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange barely got a rise out of anyone.
Many learned, then, that blowing a whistle on war crimes was no longer a moral slam dunk in America. People learn through example and Obama was a President with a dedicated, skin-deep liberal movement behind him. Do the math.
Then came Trump. If ever there was a convenient opportunity to make war crimes evil again, it would be with a President we all love to hate. The first time the dice were rolled on impeachment, the blue dogs decided to invoke the phone call about Hunter Biden. The second time, it was over the Capitol riot. Out of all the reasons to go after Trump, no one decided to make an impeachment movement about laundering money through his DC hotel chain. Through which payment was made to Trump by the Saudis, in exchange for American-made weapons. Late in 2018, spent shell casings that were manufactured in America were found in warzones where Saudi Arabia was participating in guerrilla warfare.
I mean, you’d think the assassination of General Soleimani a year ago might have been brought up. Emoluments, weapons-dealing with laundered money or assassinating an Iranian General at a peace conference in Iraq were not deemed worthy to base an impeachment case on. Trump even said, in an interview, that our military forces in Libya have seized their oil wells. He elaborated that he wasn’t inclined to take permanent possession of the wells- but he wasn’t ruling it out, either. Later on, Neera Tanden spit balls the notion of confiscating Libyan oil revenue for compensation for our military expenditures and gets picked by Biden for Budget Director.
This is a huge reason why the discourse around civility is so mind-numbing (even if I think a version of it is desirable- read my ‘Civility’ post if you care what I think about that). What most people mean by civility is decorum: if Tanden’s confirmation is nipped in the bud, it will be because Joe Manchin was upset by her mean Tweets. Being a catty troll on social media will stop you from holding office but openly fantasizing about colonial piracy will not.
If you live in America, ask yourself if this is really a nation you feel good about being a part of. We revile bad manners on Twitter more than war crimes. If that seems whiny/hyperbolic, then where does this lead eventually? Just a few decades ago wasn’t there a hugely popular counter-culture movement galvanized by moral outrage over our invasion of Vietnam in the sixties? Wow. Just wow. And to think, these days if you scream bloody murder over illegal, offesnive wars you’ll be lucky if getting told to shut the fuck up is all that happens to you. Ask Chelsea Manning about that one. If you do comissions for a high-profile news outlet like the Guardian, you might loose that comission if you criticize a fashionable, above-board arms deal. While the cash stimulus for COVID relief gets shaved down.
Oh and escalating death and disaster because of climate change? Remember back in 2018 when the WMO said we had about ten years to get that under control before we can’t? That was three years ago. Tick-tock, tick-tock. That pesky problem that gets laughed out of the room if anyone brings up anything decisive and effectual, like a Green New Deal? Does the military industrial complex get to go on spending billions every year while alternative energy is always slapped down by people asking how we’re gonna pay for it? The invisible elephant in the room loves money. This even carries over into deficit-hawkery. Whenever a 15 dollar minimum wage, green energy, police reform, universal basic income or Medicare for all gets brought up, conservatives and blue dogs love to invoke the deficit. It’s almost like there’s a huge, voracious, cancer-like growth that that keeps wasting billions of dollars. Every damn year. People insist on money for goods and services so maybe that could do the motivational heavy-lifting that regard for life and limb can no longer accomplish. If the depth of trauma we inflict across the globe doesn’t get under your skin then maybe somebody could think of the money. Maybe if we saved more of it we could do something about the looming floods, hurricanes and our non-functioning healthcare system. You know, bringing us full-circle back to the value of human life and limb.
During the final days of Trump’s lame duck period, Andrew Yang said that, if we prosecuted Trump for war crimes, we would risk keeping company with third-world dictatorships where heads roll between administrations. I’m just a catty troll on the internet but I think having Presidents who can commit war crimes with impugnity is a bigger problem.