The album as an art form: Marilyn Manson’s Triptych

8-bit Adam ❤

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.

Content warning

1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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-MechanicalAntichrist 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.

From Gio Blush Design

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.

4.

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 Holy Wood 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.

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5.

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 Holy Wood 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.

6.

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”).

Seen here: my techie wife helping my color blind ass read the filtered lines

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.

From Provider Module

7.

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.

8.

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.

From ProviderModule, of course

9.

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 Anthem resembles 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).

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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.

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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.

From my collection

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.

10.

From Gio Blush Design

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.

Triptych playlist:

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

6. Cryptorchid

7. Disposable Teens

8. Target Audience (Narcissus Narcosis)

9. Wormboy

10. Cruci-Fiction In Space

11. The Beautiful People

End of hypothetical disc 1 and beginning of hypothetical disc 2

1. Born Again

2. I Don’t Like The Drugs (But The Drugs Like Me)

3. Diamonds & Pollen

4. The Last Day On Earth (studio version)

5. In the Shadow of the Valley of Death

6. Posthuman

7. I Want To Disappear

8. Coma White

9. Valentine’s Day

10. The Fall of Adam

11. King Kill 33

12. Count To Six and Die (The Valley)

Disc 3

1. Mechanical Animals

2. Irresponsible Hate Anthem

3. Kinderfeld

4. Burning Flag

5. Rock Is Dead

6. Lamb of God

7. Dried Up, Tied and Dead to the World

8. Fundamentally Loathsome

9. The Reflecting God (studio version)

10. Coma Black

11. Antichrist Superstar

12. 1996

13. Astonishing Panorama Of The End Times

14. Man That You Fear

15. The Last Day On Earth (TLTOE)

Back to original post

Online sources:

https://www.mansonwiki.com/wiki/Interview:1999/07/29_Fan_Conference

https://www.mansonwiki.com/wiki/Interview:Feb_2005_Marilyn_Manson_and_David_Duchovny_Playstation_Magazine

https://www.mansonwiki.com/wiki/Interview:2000/08/05_Kerrang!

https://www.mansonwiki.com/wiki/Interview:2000/09_I_Don%27t_Hate_Jounalists,_I_Just_Feel_Better_When_They%27re_Not_Around

https://www.mansonwiki.com/wiki/Holy_Wood_(novel)

http://tarot.org.il/Library/Waite/The%20Pictorial%20Key%20to%20the%20Tarot.pdf

A Sopor Aeternus playlist experiment!

Image culled from the Sopor Aeternus Instagram account

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:

Soror

Always Within the Hour

Spellbound

At Sunset Through the Fields Aflame (version from The Spiral Sacrifice)

Anima I

Hades’ “Pluton”

The Sleeper (version from POETICA: All beauty sleeps)

Do You Know My Name? (version from Ich tote mich…)

Children of the Corn

Beautiful Thorn

Baptisma (1989 demo version)

Beautiful

Eldorado (version from POETICA: All beauty sleeps)

Day of the Dead

Abschied

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)

Anima II

Coffin Break

Leeches & Deception

Poison

The Conqueror Worm (version from Flowers in Formaldehyde)

Into The Night

Sopor Fratrem Mortis Est

A Strange Thing to Say

Bitter Sweet

Consider This: The True Meaning of Love

Nightbreed

Tanz der Grausamkeit (version from Ich tote mich…)

Dead Souls

Helvetia Sexualis

Do You Know My Name? / What Has Happened While We Slept?

North Dakota’s theocratic gambit & potential anti-trans legal rollout

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!”

https://www.legis.nd.gov/assembly/67-2021/documents/21-0831-03000.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3UJafL9DNTpzbWztQ2lnRX3YdG-2kD0rQGUu3MlErvnjF5WsVLZt3fSyY

https://www.aclu.org/press-releases/north-dakota-lawmakers-need-focus-real-issues-not-discriminatory-bills

https://www.aclund.org/en/legislation/house-bill-1476

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2014/11/19/atheists-and-secular-humanists-are-protected-by-the-constitution-regardless-of-whether-their-belief-systems-should-be-considered-religions-or-not/%3foutputType=amp

https://www.insider.com/over-half-of-us-states-tried-passing-anti-trans-bills-2021-3

https://www.google.com/amp/s/bismarcktribune.com/news/state-and-regional/govt-and-politics/north-dakota-transgender-sports-bill-would-revive-ban-and-add-study/article_e95dc5ff-dcf9-5b92-86c3-6c5fbd36247e.amp.html

The reframing of America’s neverending war: 2001 until now

Oval Office memo this morning: “Talk to corporate LIKE A BOSS“

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.

More on this, from May 2021

An important update: Afghan withdrawal

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.nytimes.com/2021/02/25/us/politics/biden-syria-airstrike-iran.amp.html

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.washingtonpost.com/energy-environment/2018/10/08/world-has-only-years-get-climate-change-under-control-un-scientists-say/%3foutputType=amp

https://m.dailykos.com/stories/2012/12/20/1171594/-Any-outrage-about-Double-Tap-Drone-Strikes-Killing-Rescuers-and-Children-Any-sympathy

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.timesofisrael.com/guardian-columnist-claims-he-was-let-go-for-joke-tweet-on-us-aid-to-israel/amp/

Vigil: TNL play-through postscript (light spoilers)

The gaming experience is satisfying. As much as I love Metroidvania, the sub-genre at this point is risking over-exposure. While this is not the fault of the Vigil dev team specifically, it does make their task harder. To their credit, though, Vigil establishes its own identity in more than one way.

I know I go on a lot about how aesthetically pleasing this game is, but that’s one of the things that sets it apart. This matters especially since most recent Metroidvanias are stylistically developed and unique (Hollow Knight, Salt and Sanctuary, Blasphemous).

There are great dungeon-crawling and combat sweet spots in the beginning and middle. After that, things crawl a bit before returning to form and even going further in the concluding chapters.

The story has both hits and misses. I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that Vigil had a named character and interactions with NPCs that move the plot along with the player. I don’t know if the constraints this imposed on the script were a factor in sequence-breaking not being more fully utilized in new game plus. There are goodies to be had earlier than usual but the absence of alternative story sequencing feels like a missed opportunity.

In spite of that, this may have been a consequence of the narrative, though, the way FFVIIR would have compromised its own narrative experience if it had full open world.

This takes us back to the story. There are three distinct turning points that at least appear to be time jumps. There is also a kind of reversal of the beginning stakes before (after a fashion) returning to them. I think the decision to keep the relationship between Leila and Daisy front and center in the plot was for the best and the feigned reversal actually adds to the stakes of that relationship. The shifts between different “eras” and the detective work needed to connect the dots, though, are an established convention of both Metroidvania and Soulsborne.

So long as they don’t undermine the purpose the narrative serves (however big or small), narrative mysteries can add a lot to a game that uses circumstantial or visual storytelling. Bloodborne being a best-case scenario here. The suggestions of other plot layers make for fun speculation, such as the Porta Avernus gateways all being emanations of a single location (whether it’s the Cubic Crystal door in the Giantwood or somewhere else- such as the location glimpsed during the opening and closing cutscenes).

Another well-implemented mystery is what specifically Leila and Daisy are. There are a variety of possibilities ranging from normal human siblings channeling deities or direct manifestations of those deities. No matter what the metaphysical ruling is, it’s mystery goes well with the emotional simplicity. The literal question of what they are motivates the villainous forces around them, but who they are to each other motivates Leila.

The only actual narrative weakness I could find also goes with that, though. It’s a story structure that we have seen before. In particular, it reminded me of Heather Mason in Silent Hill 3. It is a touch unoriginal, but I think the story as a whole is decent. Making the stakes emotionally urgent also goes with the more personal narrative, which sets Vigil: The Longest Night apart from a lot of Metroidvania and Soulsborne entries.

One more time with feeling! (last entry of 2020 w/ 30 games tag!)

1. The last single-player game you played:

Final Fantasy VII (PS1 port on Vita)

2. The last multiplayer game you played:

Very first Super Mario with my wife ❤️❤️

3. A game you’ve played through multiple times:

I meeaaan I have played through FFVII a bunch of times because I’m just persistently obsessed but just to shake it up- Salt and Sanctuary!

4. A game in your favorite genre:

I’m not even sure what my favorite genre even is…probably RPGs in general. I also appreciate RPGs with a little bit of puzzle box / dungeon crawling. And I’ve been playing a crap ton of action RPGs with a crazy maze Metroidvania thing going. Or just distinctive dungeon-design in general.

Let’s go with…Chrono Trigger?

5. A game in your backlog:

The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile

6. The game you’ve put the most hours into:

Outside of Final Fantasy in general, it’s gotta be Bloodborne. All the trophies and everything ^^

7. A game you’ve never finished:

Rise of The Tomb Raider (fingers crossed for getting that off the list soon)

8. A game in third person:

Most of what I play? Let’s say Diablo

9. A game in first person:

Sacrifices Must Be Made! Review forthcoming!!!!

10. A game you’ve replayed:

Final Fantasy VII Remake ^^

11. A game you play to relax:

Other than my PS1 FFVII port…almost any Pokémon game. LoZ: Ocarina of Time also helps me wind down.

12. A game that gets you excited:

Vigil: The Longest Night

13. A game from your favorite developers:

I don’t know if I have a specific favorite? I would love for Ska Studios to do something new sometime soon.

14. Your favorite indie game:

Salt and Sanctuary (speaking of ❤️)

15. Your favorite AAA game:

Bloodborne

16. Your favorite board game:

Chess!

17. Your favorite multiplayer game:

Hehe…Bloodborne…the PS4 port of the original Dark Souls also gets way more fun with partners

18. Your favorite single-player game:

FFVII

19. Your favorite game series:

FF

20. Your favorite game from childhood:

First NES Zelda game!

21. An overrated game:

Dark Souls

22. An underrated game:

The Space Between

23. Your guilty pleasure game:

World of Final Fantasy. It’s an utterly barefaced Pokémon clone but it does things that a lot of monster hunter games don’t, like interacting with multiple monsters in your party simultaneously without feeling cluttered.

24. A game based on a movie:

Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie! (Yes that is also a review currently in the works)

25. A game with an awesome soundtrack:

Silent Hill 4

26. A game with awesome artwork:

Blasphemous

27. A game with awesome voice acting:

Vampyr

28. A game best played with a controller:

Hollow Knight

29. A game best played with mouse and keyboard:

Diablo II

30. An upcoming game you’re excited for:

Hollow Knight: Silksong

The hard work of civility

Content warning

I’m pretty sure this is gonna annoy or piss off nearly everyone.

In both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections here in America, there were widespread expressions of shock. Many Americans began to see a near-majority of us as being demonstrably evil. Or, at the very least, the other half sees evil as a tolerable state of normalcy.

I chose to use the meme above because of how confrontational it is. To forgive mistakes and to see the good in those that are guilty of evil feels very different now. Nearly impossible.

Nor am I exempt from this. Lots of queer people like myself get used to people-pleasing because we are so deprived of acceptance that any price might seem acceptable. I won’t belabor this point but I’ll say that, in order to reverse this destructive psychological tendency, I swung hard in the other direction.

I essentially adopted a policy of zero expectations from others and license to do whatever I want, without explanation or justification. Pure fairness.

This belief is also embodied in a well-known adage from Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible: “If your happiness or success is offensive to someone, DESTROY THEM”

This continues to be one of my favorite quotes and I’ll probably embroider it on a homey lil doorway decoration that all cute, quaint little houses seem to have.

I believe in my lived truth: I cannot do otherwise. I know what it is like to learn the value of dignity the hard way. But even if the specific point of contact between lived truth and objective reality is difficult to perceive, it must be grappled with.

This would be true anyway, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made it unavoidable. The new, resilient and even more contagious strain that originated in the United Kingdom is now in America, and even before that we’ve fucked up our response so badly that we got travel-banned by the EU. Our negligence, as private individuals, is now pushing the limit of our healthcare, administrative and scientific infrastructure. Those who did not take the first lockdown seriously are now saying that we should have followed the order better the first time around. Reality has become so negotiable that we see it as our due when we make exceptions to break quarantine. Across America, hospitals are being filled to capacity and dead bodies are quickly and efficiently removed because of the need for more hospital beds. Our belief in our right to ignore the needs, humanity and mortality of others has enabled this pandemic to become what it is here.

There is, though, a less obvious but equally pressing need for greater unity. A society that values democracy as an aspiration will not change without minds being changed. Minds do not change without conversation. The portrayal of civility above as a naïve attempt to marry an unstoppable force with an immovable object is a lived reality in many respects. I have no desire to sit down with people who do not think I am as human as they are, or that the historical trauma of my ancestors was an acceptable price to pay for the proliferation of Western culture. But there is no other way forward.

In an adversarial duopoly such as the one America is subject to, there are convenient and practical reasons not to believe this. We are shown that the side opposite our own will stop at nothing to defeat us, including sabotage, deception and potentially even violence. We often feel that to play by the rules under those circumstances is a mistake. A friend of mine once said “When you try to be reasonable with unreasonable people, you get played.”

If you were not alive for it, then consider what racial integration in public schools must have looked like when Lyndon Johnson decided to enforce it with the military. At that time, it must have seemed like a question with a diversity of opinions on both sides and to claim that you are right and so many others are wrong would have sounded like sweeping arrogance. Yet we now take racial integration in society for granted. Democratic change happens through exposure to other ideas and sometimes that exposure must come through confrontation. A first blow needs to be struck sooner or later. When the abolitionist John Brown was publicly hung, a young solider named John Wilkes Booth was in attendance who would go on to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Meanwhile, other contemporaries of Brown equated his willingness to die for the greater good with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The early skirmishes preceding change are always seen in the most polarizing and combative lights. If these necessary challenges to popular wisdom are to last, though, conflict cannot be the end even when it must be the beginning.

If not sooner, conversation must happen later. And the prospect makes my blood boil, at times. I grew up practicing a marginalized religion and my Christian neighbors spent both my childhood and their own trying to convert me and convince me that Western conquest could not have been that bad if Natives got Christianity out of it. The various rounds of bathroom panic create an expectation that myself and those who share my gender identity are sexual predators and that we are obligated to explain how we are not. Transphobia and stealth racism have become fashionable brands and a method for washed up political figures and celebrities to renew their cultural relevance. I have dated people who saw me as racially inferior and my gender identity as false and I simply took the time to civilly engage them in conversation about it when I could. And it has never gone well. I detest the prospect of nobly taking one on the chin for the moral edification of others for the rest of my life.

On the other hand, I could not have made it this far in my life and achieved this much success and happiness if I thought everyone who demonized me and people like me were demons themselves. This admission, though, must co-exist with the point of contact between lived truth and objective reality. What would such reconciliation actually look like?

I once had a traumatic encounter with someone who was released from prison mere weeks beforehand, having been jailed for victimizing others the way he did me. Might I, potentially, be required to shake that person’s hand, or the hands of those like him? During the few occasions where he approached me in public afterward, I could not even bring myself to make eye-contact with him. When he was seen around my mother’s workplace a few years later, I ended up binge drinking for days.

Perhaps there is a boarder to the territory of forgiveness. If so, I don’t know definitively where it is and I doubt anyone else does. I would also like to clarify that I am not equating violent people with those who give voice to bigotry. We are all familiar of the conversational slope of “what about”-ism, though. I am only relating that memory as my only experience that could furnish a worst-case scenario of forgiveness. Yes, someone who enables or condones evil might not be an evil person- but what about those who have committed predatory acts and have an established pattern of it? If conversation is necessary in the long run, then the scope of necessary engagement will probably include some painful conversations. If all movements for positive change start as a marginalized effort, though, then the fear of a bad outcome cannot stop us from trying.

There is a concept that has degraded from misuse by bad faith pundits in the last decade. This is the free market of ideas. Without those harrowing conversations, we cannot say that we have given the range and applicability of public discourse it’s due. The free market of ideas cannot be dismissed as a dishonest ploy from hipster commentators if there are ideas that have not entered the market for fear of bad company.

The true, ethical imperative of civility and dialogue can lead to frightening responsibilities and confrontations. It frightens me. But what alternative exists? If we see those who disagree with us as monsters in human form, what would the application of this belief look like? If we cannot deign to associate with them at all, then we cannot claim to be the victims of unfairness when they accuse us of being tribal and unreasonable. As potentially terrifying and mysterious as such negotiations may be, a pandemic in which our healthcare system is bursting at the seams is not the time to experiment with disposing of civility.

At the same time, though, we need to be able to recognize other common-sense needs. We need our Lyndon Johnsons and our John Browns and those who are willing to use their power unapologetically for the greater good. I absolutely support the push for Progressives in Congress to force a vote for Medicare for all and a greater stimulus effort because the health care system and our profit-driven society simply have not left us prepared to face things like a long quarantine during which we can’t work in person (or at all). Civility must be weighed in balance with external demands, but the degree to which other people create external demands means civility will keep coming up.

Other contemporary events, such as civilian violence, may also be attributable to others who feel driven by necessity. This has the appearance of an impossible and escalating gridlock. I acknowledge that it is possible, but I do not think it is necessary. Not only does civil discourse need to be weighed in balance with circumstantially necessary action. It must remain possible at roughly the same time (whether intermittently or perpetually).

This will not be easy. Yet when we are driven to act unilaterally, we can at least be honest about why. Those reasons being laid bare enables others to speak to us on the level at which we need to be heard.

-Leonard Cohen

Leftism, transphobia and Zeno’s paradox

Zeno’s paradox, for our purposes, can be summarized thusly: someone shoots an arrow and measures it’s progress by halves. While measuring by halves, one is constantly shaving off a half of the difference no matter how close or far the arrow is. While measuring in the halves of the closing distance, one could potentially keep measuring the relative halves down to subatomic increments and never actually record the impact.

Obviously, the arrow is going to hit something sooner or later. This is undeniable, but it is also possible to measure the progress in such a way that it cannot be perceived.

Since the American presidential election ended, I’ve taken a break from writing about political stuff. It simply wasn’t doing my mental health any favors. I was watching a video from the YouTuber called Thought Slime, though, about transphobes attempting to weaponize philosophical materialism. A commonly echoed point shared by this flavor of bigot is that A. trans people claim that gender is a social construct and B. social constructs are not real.

The analogous relationship this claim has to Zeno’s paradox is also uncannily relevant to the recent voter-shaming fad within the American left. To keep things sequential, though:

The gender-essentialist avenue of transphobia typically allies itself with a clash between philosophical materialism and linguistic fluidity. You know, the Jordan Peterson/J.K. Rowling types that hold that post-modernism is being turned against cultural institutions that are validated by human nature and tradition. Ergo, the notion of social constructs amounts to consensus reality and consensus reality empowers things that are not real.

This is easily refuted by both sociology and animal psychology. When pack animals are threatened by a separate species, they respond with the typical fight/flight response. When threatened by members of their own species, the fight/flight response becomes posture/submit. Pack animals typically try to signify victory or submission rather than engage in mortal violence. Naturally there are exceptions to every rule, but this is an observable and documented behavioral convention among pack animals.

Consciousness, famously, is an emergent phenomenon. The exact electrical/chemical process that gives rise to our experienced consciousness cannot be observed, yet we know enough about the electro-chemical interplay of the brain to infer how it leads to consciousness.

An emergent phenomenon is where you know what goes in, you know what comes out but you don’t know the middle stage. In that situation, you can make educated inferences about the transformative phase based on the beginning and ending, but until you can observe it, an educated inference is as good as it gets.

Now…we own that humans are pack animals, and pack animals typically show behavioral evidence of shared psychological experiences. This is what people usually mean by the ‘herd instinct’. Since the expressed convention of the herd instinct predictably shows itself in a specific type of animal, it is likely that this behavioral pattern has a biological origin. This cannot be objectively documented any more than the emergence of consciousness itself, but the herd instinct’s ubiquity among pack animals is a strong sign that the herd instinct is not fabricated out of whole cloth.

This means that social constructs are almost certainly real. Social constructs and their predictable origins in the herd instinct cannot be observed, but to include it’s inscrutability in philosophical materialism leads straight to fallacy. Similarly, we understand that our eyes receive and compile refracted light: most of the things we take for granted, such as color, are not as literally real as we think. The color of an object is not an inherent, material quality; it’s just the color of the photons that pigmentation bounces outward into our eyes.

If things that are not literally, materialistically manifest are not real, then our eyeballs and their neurological interface with our brain are bullshit. I don’t know anyone who would actually commit to that chain of reasoning.

The falseness of the claim made by gender essentialist and gender critical feminism, though, still leaves a lot of room for uncertainty. Externally documented patterns with strong implications about things that cannot be documented leaves room for subjective claims on any side. Another common talking point is that lived experience does not validate anything outside the binary, ala J.K. Rowling. The evidence that Rowling and those like her advance is their own lived experience as cispeople and their belief in the reality of claims made by cispeople (ciswomen, most frequently). Those experiences may, absolutely, be real to the people who have them, but it does not advance their central claim about philosophical materialism. It does not even relate to anything beyond the feelings of specific people.

Having spent years trying to convince doctors and family members of my own dysphoria before being permitted to medically transition, I feel as if I will always be an outsider to the binary even though I’m a binary transwoman. I am a binary transwoman because my dysphoria is relieved by medical interventions that create feminine secondary sex characteristics. Yet I did not have the same childhood and early social conditioning as a ciswoman, nor did I have the same childhood as a cisman. As a child, I simply chose to express myself as “female-like” or girly as possible, up to and including frankly describing myself as a girl if anyone asked. This led to relentless teasing in elementary school and non-stop suicidal ideation for my entire adolescence and early adulthood, but simply “stopping” was never a genuine possibility.

On one hand, my medical transition fits within the binary. On the other, there are many experiential differences between my life as a transwoman and the lives of ciswomen and cismen. While I am a binary transwoman, I will never be a ciswoman. If I am a binary female only in the sense that I am a “binary transwoman”, one almost begins to wonder what the distinction between binary and non-binary even means. If anything, my lived experience has led me to believe in a third gender category at least.

Of course, I know that arguing this point against actual transphobes is probably pointless, since everyone has a subjective expeirence that backs them up. This is simply an expression of the frustrating social facet of Zeno’s paradox: there is almost certainly a biological prompting for a lot of our mental states, but our existence is still fundamentally rooted in our subjectivity. The two probably meet through cause and effect, but because we can only measure the distance relative to ourselves, we’ll never actually perceive the moment of impact. Lately, it seems like every social phenomenon lends itself to that analogy and it’s scream-into-the-void frustrating.

Like, remember when I wrote that Biden’s expressed commitment to trans rights, on it’s own, might have been enough to get me to vote for him in spite of the rest of his record? This has lately come back to haunt me. Since winning the 2020 election, Biden has elevated a few state-level transgender political leaders. To his credit, Joe Biden has also committed himself to rolling back the Trump-era executive orders regarding trans healthcare. Meanwhile, Lael Braenard and Tony Blinken are in line for cabinet posts in Biden’s White House, two of the most infamous forces of military intervention from Obama’s presidency. They are joined by Neera Tanden, who has given voice to the opinion that we should seize Libya’s oil as our due compensation for the resources we spent occupying their country. On one hand, American trans people are more protected, on the other, so is the American war machine.

Commitment to civil rights can be used with cynical abandon by politicians who want to launder their image while continuing business as usual. Business as usual, in this case, is proceeding apace in spite of the fact that we may be in the final decade in which we can still roll back the damage done to our biosphere. Republicans and Corporate Democrats relentlessly hit leftists with the “#whereisthemoney” argument, which we need to be able to respond to, clearly and loudly.

I believe the correct loud and clear answer is the dismantling of the military industrial complex: the American war machine spends money in proportion to the money it makes, which means it requires billions of dollars every year to continue functioning. By hitting the military industrial complex, we can begin to rehabilitate our image on the world stage while simultaneously liberating funds for a green new deal. While perpetual war is an apalling crime against humanity on it’s face, it is now standing directly in the way of America’s chance to ease away from the damage we are doing to the collective future of our planet. If this does not change, the conversation about the survival of our species may need to move from saving Earth to leaving Earth.

The incremantalist reading of these events is to take the wins when we can. Biden’s complicity with the military industrial complex might stop any effective action toward climate change, universal health care or any other pressing necessity, but at least he is nice to trans people. Trans equality is now further within the Overton window. The same incrementalists also claim that, while Biden’s expressed concern about perpetual war and environmental protection are lip-service, it makes the right choices possible in the future if not right now, irrespective of the ticking clock.

Increased safety and access to medical care for myself and people like me is an unambiguous win, but we are still dealing in the gold-standard of subjective values (societal ethics) without any consideration for outside pressure (the biosphere and perpetual war). This year’s presidential election was a passionate, psychologically harrowing experience for a lot of us, but so long as we measure things relative only to ourselves, the clash with the wider world must necessarily take us by surprise.

Civil disobedience and “social issues”

In my last post I wrote about the legal precedents being set in states like Tennessee and New York that punish non-lethal civil disobedience as severely as violent crime, entailing in some cases a felony conviction. This is particularly amoral since civil disobedience is one of the few tools that American political minorities have historically had at their disposal. Punishing civil means of resistance and discourse can radicalize people for lack of any other option and could contribute to civil war.

Remember, this was done ostensibly out of a fear of violent uprising. If vandalizing public property, blocking access to public places and other non-lethal crimes are punished with felonies, then political minorities are shunted squarely in front of militarism out of necessity.

This is clearly a double-bluff: with fear of rioting being the stated reason for these crack downs, Republican legislators have framed the notion of civil unrest in a way that takes attention away from the natural outcome of the policies they plan to enact. That outcome, civil unrest, will confirm what they’ve positioned as a worst case scenario (rioting). This reflects a calculated awareness of the purpose of civil disobedience and a wish to use the result for political gain.

To address some common sense concerns, yes it makes sense to punish minor crimes and the law is meant to be followed. However, that attitude must coexist with other social realities. Ever since the labor organizers of the early 20th century and the nineteen sixties civil rights movement, civil disobedience has been established as a means of civil discourse.

What is the thing that stops it from being insurrection? Non-violence. If no one is harmed, then no one is alienated against the inevitable implication: that this specific law can be broken or that a prospective or related law can be given social censure. More often than not, the implication is that the specific law should be broken or that a legal or political act should be censured. The subtle depth to what has happened in Tennessee and New York is that, when non-violent crime is punished identically to violent crime (a felony charge) it discourages non-violent activism and emboldens those who claim that civil discourse is fruitless. If civil activism is not seen as an effective choice then non-civil activism begins to look practical. If that course is followed, then those decrying BLM as violent will claim to have been right all along.

Such well-informed social engineering enacted from above makes me wonder about everyone else. Especially since the ability to define an idea by being the first voice in a conversation to articulate it is used so carefully (“BLM are violent” *does things that drive out non-violent protestors and leave the violent ones* “See?”). Social calculations and dynamics are mixed up in how we think about social issues.

The importance of the herd-instinct and our mammalian, prosocial hard-wiring cannot be overstated. Language is how most problems are solved between individuals and language (whether it’s speech, writing, typing or any other medium) is how we are taught to express ourselves. After the example of self-expression, it is no surprise that the language we use most frequently probably looks a lot how we think our private thoughts.

It follows that some of our private thoughts may resemble external social dynamics. If one believes that those in power will never negotiate with those without, then an actual refusal to negotiate will create the appearance that you are right. If this “you” is a BLM protester, others will remember claims about how violent your movement is and will think they are right while you are receiving the message that nothing short of violence will be heard.

This is nothing new: most of us have heard about stereotype threat (aka labeling theory) and confirmation bias. If you have not: both of those things refer to ways that social stereotyping can effect both behavior and private thoughts.

Recent events have made me wonder what the current state of things looks like, though, through the eyes of social engineers. In a recent speech, Trump mentioned that he was afraid of running against Bernie Sanders since Sanders had a movement following, like himself. With Joe Biden, he is less afraid, since the majority of those voting for Biden are doing so because he is not Trump.

Donald Trump realizes that the Democratic Party scattered their base when the DNC gave the nomination to Biden. He is now attempting to hit us where it hurts: by saying he was intimidated by Bernie’s movement, he is trying to touch a sore spot of progressives to stop the left from uniting.

The senators in Tennessee and New York are preparing to punish civil disobedience harshly enough to escalate violence. And Trump just attempted to use the emotional momentum of the scattered Democratic base against itself. One reflects a calculated effort to get people to think and act a certain way and the other reflects an informed knowledge of how people feel to begin with and how to exploit it.

This kind of manipulation only works with people who believe that their value system furnishes everything they need to know. If one believes they have an airtight grasp on an issue, it becomes easy to be disinterested in other consequences. What most people know more about, than anything else, are their personal experiences. The kind of political issues that can most directly effect our experiences are often social issues.

Speaking of recent political events, Kamala Harris used an interesting rhetorical device in her speech to the DNC: she began talking about an impersonal and voracious virus which turned out to be a metaphor for racism.

If you start talking about a virus right now, people are going to think of COVID-19. Did she say COVID-19? Nope. But I think it’s importance in general (to say nothing of it’s importance in American politics) is hard to ignore. I don’t know of anything else such a metaphor could be referring to. It strikes me as likely that she did intend to use COVID-19 as a metaphor for racism.

This rhetorical technique is familiar: start your talk with something everyone knows about in order to frame your point as comparable to it. Is a viral pandemic the same kind of problem as racism?

I’m not saying it’s not possible for overlap. Racism effects the function of government infrastructure, so systemic racism can impact how a response to a pandemic unfolds. And I have no doubt that it has. But when you equate a social issue like racism with a non-social issue like a pandemic, it’s clear which directions the emotional support is coming from and going toward within that analogy. With the intended metaphor and the metaphor’s meaning, the emotional momentum of anti-racism is related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of those two things we all probably know at least something about, and the other is a mystery that our best doctors and scientists are still laboring over. For most people, to relate those two things will allow one to borrow emotional “weight” from the other. It makes the mystery less scary.

But if the effect that racism has on the pandemic is the actual point, the comparison cannot be literal. It relies on the emotions that the viewers bring with them. To start with emotional momentum is not necessarily proof of bad faith but it makes it easy to suspect: either the emotional momentum is supposed to make the truth evident or the emotional momentum is the point itself.

In either case, the psychological button being pressed is more visible than what the person pressing it wants. Not knowing what someone wants could make one feel like they’re not being honest. If their end game is not stated, then they either feel no need to or think you already know. Neither inspires confidence.

Obviously not every statement that invokes ideas with strong social resonance with a vaguely defined or undefined goal is social engineering. Context, as usual, must complete the picture. What makes the legislation in Tennessee and New York so unique is that it reflects both a knowledge of the function served by civil disobedience and how to exploit it. Every day, though, I wonder when the psychological momentum summoned by those in power will clash against forces it cannot move.

American civil unrest and America’s social imagination

Plainclothes officers in Portland, under the Federal direction of Donald Trump, abducted BLM protesters this summer. In Tennessee, lawmakers are currently finding ways to charge those protesting at the Capitol with felony offenses. Tear gas and rubber bullets in addition to ordinary violence are being used by police and Federal agents with punitive abandon.

All this happened because George Floyd did something that I myself did on accident years ago: I had a counterfeit bill in my wallet while buying a sandwich during my lunch break at work. I think I must have gotten the fake bill in some change. Anyway, the old lady who rung me up took the bill and held it up to a fluorescent light. Her face lit up and she said “Hey, check this out!” I went back there with her and she showed me how she knew it was fake. We both kind of giggled over it, I paid with plastic instead and ate my lunch. George Floyd was asphyxiated by a cop for doing the same thing, though.

Obviously, I have nothing but love and support for #BlackLivesMatter. The authoritarian crack down and violence used against both protestors and bystanders has brought something out in this country that may be very difficult to ameliorate or pacify. This is something that could, potentially, involve every American soon. Like I said in my post about trans rights and the modern left though, this is also something I hope I am wrong about.

Tennessee lawmakers wish to charge protestors with felonies (entailing revoked voting rights and a six year prison sentence) if they do things such as block access to public places. In July, Nikki Stone was arrested in New York for spray painting the lenses of security cameras.

One of the main assets of marginalized political groups in America is civil disobedience: civil defiance of laws that we have a principled disagreement with. By imposing draconian consequences for non-violent law-breaking, Tennessee and New York state officials are taking specific aim at the means of civil discourse between law enforcement, lawmakers and the public.

The civil part of civil disobedience usually gets less attention than the disobedience. It is important, though, because if the legal disobedience is civil and hurts no one, it remains a statement. One can agree or disagree with a statement and the person making a statement can be engaged in discussion. If legal defiance stops being civil, it becomes either insurrection or terrorism.

Adding insult to injury, legislators in Tennessee are citing the possibility of violent revolt as a justification for this crack down. What these policies will do, though, is strongly discourage people from non-violent legal defiance. This could send the message that nonviolent activism will not be heard and push people toward violence. GOP lawmakers may engineer a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For many American millennials and zoomers, nothing like this has happened before in our lives. More Americans than usual lately have had to grapple with how to respond to something outside of our personal and/or moral frame of reference. For some, the first taste was the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville during the summer of 2017. The authoritarianism of the Trump administration could make a second term of his presidency feel like an existential threat. There are also just as many Trump supporters on the other end of the spectrum that see a potential Biden presidency as equally threatening for their own reasons.

The last time there was violent civil unrest escalating as a presidential election draws closer was before the time of millennials and zoomers, though. It was the American Civil War.

I’m not saying that I believe the upcoming election will be that catastrophic, but I think it’s a possibility that needs to be acknowledged. Without any prior experiences to draw from, violent activism is unexplored territory for a lot of people. While many people in America are heavily armed, the majority of those armed individuals have no idea what a military combat situation feels like.

If the authoritarianism ramps up, the armed civilians are set up for death and defeat. So then we will have people who are traumatized, humiliated and heavily armed. With situations that we have no basis for comparison for, it is difficult to know limits.

Some of those armed people belong to anti-racist groups like the Not Fucking Around Coalition. While the trauma, grief and anguish they are feeling are as alive now as they were at America’s birth, many of the individuals themselves are as new to the lived experience of combat as the right-wing militias.

If more states follow the recent examples of Tennessee and New York and non-violent activism becomes illegal, that’s only going to leave one more outlet. If any militia groups tried to wage war on the government now, they would be swiftly and painfully quelled. Wounds create resentment, everyone loves an underdog and martyrs provide moral validation. The military response to such an event could create emotional and psychological momentum that could rebound destructively.

If I sound like I’m catastrophising, it’s because the American government simply won’t quit lately. Trump has engineered a nationwide postal service emergency in order to thwart mail-in voting and criminal charges that prevent voting are being weaponized against protestors. Every day there is a new civil rights violation to read about. With so much pressure coming from above, it does not seem likely that those below will simply do nothing.

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/08/13/tennessee-camping-felony-capitol/%3foutputType=amp

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8573305/amp/NYPD-release-clip-woman-throwing-paint-security-camera-pushed-unmarked-car.html

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.nytimes.com/2020/08/15/us/post-office-vote-by-mail.amp.html