Defund the Paw Patrol

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Content Warning: this episode includes discussion of police brutality

Part 1: ‘Round Adventure Bay

Consider, if you will, a town.

You have never seen a hospital in this town. You have never seen a school. Instead, prepubescent children work full-time jobs without adult oversight. It’s never really occurred to you that not one of them seems to have parents.
The political apparatus of the town consists of a mayor so self-aggrandizing she erects a solid gold statue of her chicken in the center of town, a move reminiscent of the dogs of the brutal dictator of Turkmenistan

Otherwise, if you’re wondering where the town budget goes, direct your gaze to a tower (you can’t miss it) on a defensible island with a single bridge, a tower topped with a retractable periscope so that its residents might, Sauron-like, keep watch over their world. From within the cavernous subterranean garages of this tower pour forth a bewilderingly massive fleet of vehicles–cars, trucks, ATVs, construction equipment, hovercraft, helicopters, boats, submarines, snowmobiles, and jetpack-sporting aviators. And all of it, for some reason, under the command of a 10-year-old boy and his team of trained puppies. Every concert in town, every parade, every celebration seems to center around this circus-like emergency and law enforcement crew. Look now, there’s an underage Dalmatian behind the wheel of a fire truck with the entire team on board, a truck that would plow through cars in its way, if the roads weren’t conveniently empty whenever the team came through as if cleared in advance just for them. Look, the Dalmatian has hopped out of his truck, doing his work as the town’s only medical provider. A woman has an injured leg. Voice activated, from the dog’s backpack emerges a screen which flickers into life as a fully-operational X-Ray, and is applied to the leg without the least regard for safety, probably ensuring that everyone around will get cancer.
Why does such a small town need such an overfunded rescue and law enforcement operation outfitted with enough military surplus to defend a small nation? Because this town is constantly under attack, primarily by the mayor of a neighboring town who, aided by his underage nephew and crew of kitties, will twirl his mustache and steal anything that isn’t nailed down. And why not? He knows he won’t be punished, not really. After all, the show must go on.

No one ages here. Nothing changes. Nothing except the emergency and law enforcement service’s ever expanding surplus of high-tech, military-grade equipment, continuing to pile up within and beneath the tower.

Part 2: A World Without Irony

Created by a toy company literally called Spin Master, Paw Patrol continues the tradition of toy-commercials-as-TV-shows dating back to the Reagan-era repeal of regulations regarding product placement in children’s shows, which resulted in waves of shows based on toy lines including, for example, Transformers, My Little Pony, and G.I. Joe. And this is the true purpose of Paw Patrol: to function as the center of a marketing effort for an ever-expanding line of toys.

The most remarkable thing about Paw Patrol as a TV show compared to other shows of its type is just how unremarkable it is. It’s not merely anodyne, it’s actively backwards-looking; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another show quite so unexamined and unreconstructed. The lead human character is a white boy and the core group of puppies are all boys except one, playing into the same self-fulfilling stereotypes of toy makers that boys don’t want girl cooties in their entertainment, and white people won’t tune into shows lead by non-white people. Girls are thus tokenized in any show not only aimed at a male audience, but a crossover on, just as BIPOC are. And of course, the girl’s color scheme is pink, because girl, and her femininity is signaled by extra-large eye-lashes, as if puppies use lash curlers and eye liner.

Among the pups, the defacto leader is the police dog. Of the main cast, there are two token non-white characters, both of whose ethnic identity has no bearing whatever on their personality or background. The ostensibly black Mayor Goodway plays washtub bass in hoedowns, a style of music literally popularized as a way of countering the influence of “black” music in the 1920s. Goodway was even played by a white actress until season 7, a form of voice acting blackface. As for Farmer Yumi, she doesn’t seem to have much personality to speak of at all.

The main villain, Mayor Humdinger, meanwhile, is a sissy stereotype straight out of vaudeville, his effeminate mannerisms linked closely with loose morals and cowardice.

The show is, in other words, mired in moldering tropes without the least self-examination or apparent knowledge of the larger discourse around these tropes that’s been going on for decades now. Where many other programs actively tilt away from this sort of thing, from Sesame Street to Bluey, and more progressive programs like Steven Universe actively work to undermine them, Paw Patrol embraces them enthusiastically and without the tiniest bit of irony.

But then irony doesn’t exist in the world of Paw Patrol. Where SpongeBob Squarepants crammed irony into every subversive frame of nautical nonsense, an adventurous Paw Patrol joke will at best consist of a pun. While SpongeBob characters might have complex, ambivalent emotions–Sandy’s simultaneous care for and annoyance with SpongeBob for example–there’s no room for such complexity in Adventure Bay. People are either good and trying to do good things, or they’re bad and trying to do bad things. Even when characters should be annoyed by another–Marshall slamming into and knocking over the other pups every episode for example–no such annoyance materializes. There’s no room for any negative emotions here. And while the characters in The PJ Masks, for example, might learn and grow with a proper character arc over the course of an episode, with villains sometimes even switching sides on a temporary or permanent basis, there is absolutely no possibility of this in Paw Patrol. At best, a character might learn to have more confidence in themselves.

Part 3: These Paws Uphold the Laws

At first glance, Paw Patrol isn’t the most obvious show at which to level the accusation of “copaganda”. It’s not about a police force, per se, it’s not Law and Order, or Blue Bloods, or Brooklyn 99, where a sympathetic portrayal of a police department is built into the show’s premise. Only Chase even has a police theme, while the other dogs have such inoffensive “occupations” as construction worker, firefighter, ocean rescuer, or (strangely) recycling truck driver. And much of what they do falls into the category of search and rescue operations as opposed to law enforcement. Even when Chase does get the spotlight, he’s often doing such unglamorous things as directing traffic or laying down traffic cones. In the early episodes in particular, the pups were more likely to help baby turtles cross a busy road or find a lost elephant calf than do battle with criminals.

But this actually gets at part of the problem with how the police exist in the public imagination. They’re frequently lumped in with firefighters, for example, as ‘real heroes’. (Meanwhile, other workers no less heroic like EMS workers don’t get the same treatment, and definitely don’t get anything like the pay, criminally underpaid and overworked.) Police are thus presented as just another arm of the municipal services that keep us all safe. Which is, of course, what they’re supposed to be.

And yet the police’s remit is different from that of firefighters, trash collectors, or construction workers. The police have power they don’t, a right to detain, imprison, and use violence. And the problem with giving any group power over other people is that you have to be sure they use it responsibly. That kind of authority, after all, will attract exactly the sort of people most willing to abuse it.

I’m not going to rehash the list policy brutality cases that set off the wave of protests last year, not going to once more subject you to horrifying videos. If you want that sort of thing, it’s not hard to find. But I want you to consider something.

Derick Chauvin was recently convicted after being filmed murdering George Floyd on camera. But there were three other police officers on the scene with him, who have also been arrested and are awaiting trial. Why didn’t one of them pull Chauvin off while he knelt on the man’s neck for nine minutes, a man who begged for his life and asked for his mother? Well, we know why. Police who issue complaints about other officers are called “rats” (as if the police forces were the very criminal organizations they’re supposed to be fighting) and shunned by their fellow officers, as famously in the example of Frank Serpico, or more recently Baltimore police officer Joe Crystal. This phenomenon is called the “Blue Wall of Silence” and is so well known it has its own Wikipedia entry.

Even after the event, the police released an autopsy report that said there was no evidence of death by asphyxiation and blamed “underlying conditions”. (A second, independent autopsy, found that asphyxiation was indeed the cause of death.) The police would rather lie than hold one of their own accountable. And to make matters worse, prosecutors are famously unmotivated to pursue police misconduct trials, or prosecute them fully, because they don’t want to alienate the same police that they have to work with.

In other words, if it wasn’t for the event being caught on film and the widespread public outcry that followed, Chauvin would have gotten away with murder because the whole system is built to allow him to.

The current culture of policing in this country and the apparatus of law enforcement and prosecution around it discourages the existence of “good cops”. A “good cop” would have pulled Chauvin off of Floyd’s neck and arrested him on the spot for assault. But everything about our current police system makes that unthinkable.

I have a friend on Facebook who complained of a neighbor harassing her. The problem was that the neighbor was a cop, and an internal affairs officer to boot. The comments to this post are a despairing glimpse at public perception of the police. The consensus was that she didn’t have a lot of options short of moving. Because everyone knows that the cops do not hold their own accountable, and that reporting a police officer for misconduct will more likely make your life worse than it will theirs.

The police are responsible for policing themselves, with predictable results, and meanwhile calls to have independent, civilian oversight of police departments, such as recently made by New York Attorney General Letitia James, are met with dismissal from those in charge and howls of “anti-police agenda” from the comically abhorrent police unions. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, police departments aren’t largely being defunded, or are being refunded after being defunded, and despite more rhetoric to the contrary, there’s been no correlation between cities that defunded police and a rise in crime compared to cities that did not.

Meanwhile, on television, we have show after show where the police are not only the incorruptible good guys, but often have to work “outside the system” in order to mete out justice. Police sometimes just have to rough a guy up to get the truth. Wouldn’t you? After all torture works. (Spoiler, it doesn’t.) It wasn’t that long ago that New York police officers abused Abner Louima by sodomizing him with a broomstick, one of a parade of egregious police brutalities going back literal centuries. We should really be more incredulous of positive portrayals of police brutality, but somehow we’re not.

Is it any wonder that so many police officers seem to idolize a psychopathic murderer of a fictional character like the Punisher instead of a more upright superhero like Captain America? Police are fed warrior mentality nonsense that tells them that they’re the only thing standing between innocent people and the wolves who are out to prey upon them. And whatever they have to do to stop the wolves is justified. Even if the “wolf” in question is just passing a maybe counterfeit bill or even just happen to be in a house in which the police mistaken think there is criminal activity.

Back to the matter at hand, plenty of shows have “good guys” and “bad guys”, of course, but few so clearly divide characters into categories of criminals, civil service law enforcement, and innocent civilians who need to be protected. So of course Adventure Bay should pour as much money into law enforcement as possible, outfit them with all manner of military gear, every high-tech gizmo imaginable. They’re the thin blue line that keeps Adventure Bay safe. (The fact that the real reason the Paw Patrol needs constant infusions of new gear is so that Spin Master can keep pumping out toys even lines up in its way with reality. The real reason American police departments are so flooded with surplus military gear is that the government constantly buys excess gear that the military doesn’t even want as pork barrel for military contractors who give heavily to political campaigns, and so it needs a way to dispose of it all. Everyone knows this about the military, and yet there is no will at all to do something about it in or out of congress. Isn’t capitalism grand?)

Part 4: A Shining City on  a Hill

It’s been well documented at this point that conservatives don’t understand irony. I’m not being glib, there’s actual studies to back this up. I don’t mean that every individual conservative doesn’t get irony, but it’s a common trait to them as a group. This is why Liberals get comedy shows like ColbertThe Daily ShowLast Week Tonight and so on to skewer current events and show the emperor has no clothes. Conservatives meanwhile get unspeakably earnest, unhinged tirades from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and, at worst, Alex Jones. (The fact that anything could be worse than the lightly veiled fascism of Tucker Carlson tells you how far we’ve fallen.) What does pass for conservative comedy is typically found in the smug dickishness of folks like Stephen Crowder or Ben Shapiro, where cruelty stands in where irony should be.

Conservatives also value hierarchy. Going back to Edmund Burke, the father of conservative ideology, conservatism has been concerned with maintaining existing social hierarchies and relations, particularly concerning class, race, and gender, and draping this defense of the status quo in clothing of tradition and through tradition, patriotism. Or as conservative YouTuber John Doyle put it, “Conservatives believe in hierarchy and natural law.”

In America, this belief in hierarchy and tradition usually lurks beneath the guise of “meritocracy”–the people who are wealthy are that way because they deserve it by merit and the poor simply envy them. Why aren’t there more women and minorities in executive suites, or in tech and finance in general? It can’t be anything systemic or cultural, it must be because they’re not naturally suited to it. The “small government” crowd, followers of Mises, Hayek, and Rand, will tell you that the invisible hand of the market will naturally sort the wheat from the chaff if it’s just allowed to without interference, no matter whose lives are trampled in the process. The evangelical Prosperity Gospel crowd will tell you the order of things is divinely ordained, except the parts they don’t like which are naturally the product of the devil. And the wealthy and powerful will bankroll millions of hours of talk radio and conservative TV programs, will put money into the coffers of politicians on both sides of the aisle, in order to make sure that their wealth and power continues to go unchallenged. After all if the poor deserved to be not poor they’d figure out a way enrich themselves. Giving them anything they didn’t earn just encourages them to stay poor. Forget the advantages the wealthy are born with, forget the systems and prejudices designed to disadvantage the poor and in particular minorities, forget that some types of work like teaching and elder care just aren’t rewarded on the level of others while still being necessary and valuable to society. No, poor people must be “lazy”, otherwise how could they be poor? And thus the order of things self-propagates and defends itself.

Where was I? Oh right, Paw Patrol!

Let’s look for a moment at the villainous Mayor Humdinger. His motivation generally consists of the fact that he’s the mayor of the dreary, fog-covered town of Foggy Bottom instead of the bucolic Adventure Bay, and he is envious. Oh boy, is he envious. Of course, he could devote his energy to self-improvement, or simply renounce his mayoralty and move somewhere else, but he won’t. Like a Liberal trying to tax the rightful wealth of the billionaire instead of trying to make a billion themselves, Mayor Humdinger simply wants to take what isn’t rightfully his. Almost all of his schemes revolve around larceny, after all. And everything about Humdinger’s dress and demeanor practically shouts “effeminate elite”.

Everyone on the show is happy with their lot except for the villains. There are no artistic types in Adventure Bay to speak of, save maybe a film crew that occasionally comes through with a giant robot. People work simple jobs, like mayor, farmer, restauranteur, and pet grooming salon-keeper. The pups do interact with genuine aristocrats, though, spending a number of episodes working for the royal family of the Kingdom of Barkingburg, fending off the queenly aspirations of the uppity royal pet who wants to take the place of the rightfully born.

It all lines up fairly neatly, even if unintentionally, with a conservative view of the order of things.

In fact, the main thing here that doesn’t line up with conservative ideology is that Humdinger and company are usually let off with little more than a slap on the wrist. At worst, he’s given a broom and told to clean up his mess, which is hardly being tough-on-crime. Of course, there’s two reasons for this–first that no one wants to depict prison on a show for young children, and second that they want the villain to come back and make more plots go.

And it’s ironically this second, metatextual reason that most resonates with conservatism in our world.

The purpose of the penal system for conservatives is twofold–to bestow punishment on criminals so that they suffer for their crimes, and to be able to use them in what is essentially a system of slave labor in which major corporations outsource their labor to prisoners who are paid pennies and generally don’t have much choice in the matter. While liberals fight for prisons be places for rehabilitation and education, so that prisoners can rejoin society and become better people (and leftists would like to abolish prisons altogether, which a completely different subject), conservatives tend to see anything for the benefit of prisoners (rather than their punishment) is mollycoddling the wicked, using up valuable resources on people who don’t ‘deserve it’. And yet, as is easy to see, if you let people out of prison with no skills beyond manual labor and no education beyond what they had when they went in, and you have a society that makes it difficult for people with records to get jobs, what you get is a recipe for recidivism. But in the conservative view, recidivism is simply the fault of the individual and proof of their poor moral character.

Mayor Humdinger has no backstory, he has no reason to steal except that he’s the stealing “type”. That’s just his role. And the role of the Paw Patrol is to defeat his larcenous plans, return property to its rightful owner, and restore the order of things. Everything must go back to the status quo by the end of the episode. And Humdinger must cause trouble again. It’s what he’s does. It’s what he’s for.

It’s almost too neat an allegory for the way police function in our society, and the way they should function according to the right-wing mindset. The purpose of the police might be ostensibly justice or law enforcement, but in reality they’re there to defend property rights and the status quo. And we know that police value property more than human life. One only has to look at the person they murdered because he was accused of passing a counter-fit bill. Hell, police will openly warn the public to do what the police officers say if they value their lives. Because apparently disobeying a police officer is a capital offense in the United States. At least, if you’re poor and particularly if you’re not white.

To reiterate, it’s probably not intentional that Paw Patrol so neatly presents a conservative worldview. I don’t think its creators sat down with the intention of doing anything more sinister than sell toys. But I think that by lazily using an incredible array of tired, unexamined tropes and constructing a world built around a rescue/law enforcement organization with a bewildering array of high tech gizmos and vehicles, they’ve accidentally made a right-wing paradise to rival anything Glenn Beck could’ve come up with. And even if we don’t consciously register how this presentation affects how we think of the world and the police, it does, and it especially does for our children who gleeful dress up as these characters and pile up their toys. It’s an easy example of the principle that every piece of media is political, and if you don’t think it’s political then it’s probably just defending the status quo. Or in some cases, defending actual regression.


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Bibliography and Further Reading

How the Hippies Became Yuppies: The Trial of the Chicago 7

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There’s a moment in the film The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) where we most clearly see the way that writer/director Aaron Sorkin manipulates historical events to fit his particular worldview and how he wants us to feel about the matter at hand. The movie tells the “true” story of the at first eight and then seven activists who were arrested for involvement in the anti-war protests turned riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In the film as in real life legendary activist Abbie Hoffman, co-founder of the flamboyant Yippie activist group, testified on the stand. In the film Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) has this exchange with the prosecutor, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt):


SCHULTZ
Do you have contempt for your government?
ABBIE
I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that, right now, are populated by some terrible people.

Abbie Hoffman never actually said this. Instead, here’s a sample of what Abbie Hoffman actually said during his testimony at the trial:


HOFFMAN: [fellow defendant] Jerry Rubin told me that he had come to New York to be project director of a peace march in Washington that was going to march to the Pentagon in October, October 21. He said that the peace movement suffered from a certain kind of attitude, mainly that it was based solely on the issue of the Vietnam War. He said that the war in Vietnam was not just an accident but a direct by-product of the kind of system, a capitalist system in the country, and that we had to begin to put forth new kinds of values, especially to young people in the country, to make a kind of society in which a Vietnam War would not be possible.

In the film, beyond the anti-war activism (and the black rights activism of Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and the Black Panthers), you only get the vaguest sense of the larger goals at play here. Hoffman does refer vaguely to the ‘revolution’, and there’s a scene between Hoffman and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) where Hayden refers to “equality, justice, education, poverty, and progress”. But those are all concepts so shorn specifics they could mean almost anything. You get no sense that Hayden was a guy whose most famous piece of the writing, the Port Huron Statement, advocated for replacing the American system of government with direct democracy, where all laws would be subject to votes from the entirety of the citizenry. You get no sense that when Abbie Hoffman talked about ‘revolution’, he literally meant overthrowing the American government. You get no sense of how these defendants were fundamentally against the small-l liberal Capitalism which they blamed for American involvement in the war in the first place. Jerry Rubin, the other Yippie on trial, remarked later that “During the five-and-a-half month trial I agreed more with the government’s analysis of our behavior than with our defense. … The government said: these men are radicals who wanted a disturbance in Chicago to disrupt American society and protest the war.”


No, the words the film puts in Hoffman’s mouth are pure Sorkin. Further, in the film, the Johnson administration is positively contrasted with that of Nixon, with Johnson’s Attorney General Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) getting a hero moment where he testifies that the police started the riot in Chicago (which he never said). And it feels like even though Sorkin, to his credit, opens the story with a clip of Johnson announcing escalations of the war effort, he still can’t help himself but show the Democrats in a positive light. Because Sorkin believes that the American system works well when in the hands of the right people, and the right people are Liberal Democrats—as illustrated by every frame of every episode of his liberal fantasia The West Wing—despite the fact that American involvement in the war being protested was begun and escalated under two Liberal Democratic administrations, and the Chicago Seven were arrested protesting the Democratic National Convention and beaten by police operating under the authority of a Liberal Democratic mayor.


Over and over again, the film invokes the theme that American values are good, and the people who the Right accuse of being anti-American or un-American are actually the most patriotic ones of all. This is why in the big climax Hayden reads into the record the names of American soldiers who died in the war, causing everyone in the courtroom to stand including the prosecuting attorney Schultz. Meanwhile in real life it was pacific David Dellinger who read the names of the dead into the record, and he included both the American and North and South Vietnamese war dead. Because it wasn’t about proving who was the most patriotic, it was about criticizing the horrors of war itself.


All mention of the evils of capitalism or any inherent problems at the heart of America are completely stripped away in this presentation. It’s very much a piece with Joe Biden saying that the Jan. 6 2021 riots at the US Capital “do not reflect a true America”, when in fact nothing reveals the true face of America better than entitled white people thinking they can take whatever they want without consequences. Indeed, the famously awful Judge Hoffman (Frank Langella) (no relation to Abbie) is portrayed as overtly Trump-like, and when the he bars Ramsey Clark’s testimony from the jury (which did happen, because the judge felt he hadn’t provided anything relevant), Clark whispers to the defense attorney to “just get to work on the appeal” (which he also never actually said in reality). In other words, the representative of Democratic Party politics is saying, we’re going to lose here but we’ll win later, as if promising the future Biden administration to the audience. Don’t worry, the good guys will win out in the end.

And while it’s true that the members of the Chicago 7 who were convicted were later freed on appeal, it’s also true that none of the police officers who assaulted them were ever brought up on charges or saw the least consequences and that American involvement in the war would continue for another five years, and not before expanding illegally into Cambodia.


In the film, yippie Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) chiefly serves as a comic foil and sidekick to Hoffman, with his main plot lines (both invented for the film) involving him falling in love with an undercover operative and being hilariously still hung up on her and feeling betrayed. “Does she ever mention me?” he calls after the prosecutor Schultz when they run into each other in the park. And he get one significant scene where he saves a protesting woman holding an American flag from being raped during a riot (a bit on the nose as a metaphor there, Aaron).


The real Rubin is a fascinating figure and is going serve as the central spoke of the argument I want to make in the rest of this piece to explain the relationship of Sorkin and his film to the larger hippy and activist culture of the 1960s. As indicated by Hoffman’s testimony and his own quote about the trial above, Rubin was a radical firebrand, a self-described Communist who wrote a book in which he encouraged young people to burn down their universities, join communes, and arm themselves. “Antiwar pacifists,” he wrote, “are only as strong as the crazy revolutionaries behind them ready to burn the whole motherfucker down.” Now, after learning all that, you might be surprised to find out that by the 1980s, Rubin had cut his hair, donned a tie, and gotten a job as a securities trader on Wall Street. How did such a thing happen?


Jerry Rubin, fresh out of college and working as a journalist, had a formative experience when he visited Cuba and met Che Guevara. Guevara told him and his young friends that they were doing the most important fight of all, fighting in the belly of the beast. When he returned to the United States he was arrested for the first time for his trip and his future path was set.


Rubin enrolled in grad school at Berkeley, but soon dropped out to join the throngs of “non-students” who’d taken to living around the school and hanging out on campus. These burgeoning hippies were mostly middle class, white baby boomers, born into the long prosperity in the wake of the New Deal and America’s flourishing of wealth following the wholesale destruction of the European economies, kids whose parents had enthusiastically embraced the suburban, post-war dream following the privations of the Great Depression and the war and embraced a conformity their children now found stifling.


It’s almost impossible for those of us who weren’t there to imagine what an irruption on the social fabric the hippies really were in the 1960s, and how they could really believe that their movement would reshape society. Rubin referred to the people living on the streets and in the low-cost housing around Berkley as “living Communism”, sharing things in kind and making whatever money they did need through selling drugs or hawking copies of the local indie paper. Rubin and his fellows imagined a future “New Nation” where hippy communes in the country could trade food directly with hippy communes in the cities who would provide services like free schools, health care, and cultural products, completely bypassing the capitalist economy. The real conflict, then, was not one of class but of generations, the old against the young who saw new possibilities and could imagine a better future, and every young person who ‘turned on, tuned in, and dropped out’ was another link in the chain bringing them toward that future. The strategy, then, was to show young people that it was just more fun on their side of the fence, and to that end Rubin and the kindred spirits he soon found in Abbie Hoffman and the rest of the merry pranksters of the Yippie group began their campaign of ‘guerrilla theatre’. The Yippies (members of the “Youth International Party”) played pranks to draw attention to their message such as throwing dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to watch the brokers dive for them, or holding a press conference to nominate a pig for president.


Of course, creating a Utopia was never going to be quite so simple as performing stunts until all the youth were on their side. The War in Vietnam was a symbol of American imperialism forcing the same young people who should have been turning on and dropping out to die and kill in a foreign jungle. And in the hippy communities at home, police would regularly harass, arrest, and beat people with the tacit approval of folks like the Berkeley administrators who saw the throngs of unwashed literally encouraging their student body to drop-out as an existential threat. And, of course, as the hippy movement and anti-war protests became widespread, the government infiltrated the Movement (as it was known) with undercover operatives under the vast web of the Cointelpro operations to (illegally) disrupt and subvert leftist and antiwar political groups. It’s little wonder that Rubin came to believe that the Movement needed to arm themselves against an establishment that would never go down without a fight, and he dreamed of the day when, like his idols Fidel and Che, he might overrun the American government by force. (Though admittedly he never actually quite got around to building anything like a guerrilla army, and Che and Fidel would probably have been aghast at his utter lack of interest in the fine points of Marxist theory and governance.)


After the trial, Hoffman and Rubin had become properly famous and were in demand as speakers at campuses across the country. They both authored books, including Rubin’s Do It: Scenarios of the Revolution; and Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, a guide to fighting against corporations and the government. But even before America had finally withdrawn from Vietnam in 1973, things had started to unravel for the Yippies and the Movement as a whole.


For Rubin, the Yippies started to turn on him as early as 1972 on his 34th birthday which happened to occur during protests at the Democratic National Convention in Miami. He got called a hypocrite for sleeping in a hotel rather than in the park with the other protesters (not quite being an exemplar of “living communism”) and young yippies showed up at his hotel, saying that the man who’d once helped popularize the phrase “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30” was now old enough to be retired, and gave him a pie in the face. More seriously, back at home he found his car vandalized, windows shattered, by young activists who resented him not dropping out as a leader of the Movement.

Rubin wrote that, “When we in the movement realized we weren’t going to dismantle the system, we turned our hostility towards each other.” This factionalism and infighting is one of many reasons he gives for the Movement’s ultimate dissolution. Others include women abandoning it because of the chauvinism of its leaders; people scared off by the possibility of state violence after the Kent State Massacre, in which National Guardsmen gunned down unarmed student protesters; moderates driven away by the violent rhetoric of leaders who demanded a willingness to die or kill; paranoia seizing everyone because of FBI infiltration—tapping phones, opening mail, searching trash, and impersonated protesters; the younger generation rebelling against the hippies by joining the establishment; and finally, the economic recession that began in 1975, finally putting an end to the post-war economic boom and sending people “back into the system to survive”.


Anyway, the war was finally over and Nixon had resigned. The will to protest dried up. Rubin himself started feeling like a hypocrite getting paid to speak at Universities where he told students to burn the schools down. And so he turned inward, moving almost too neatly for the purposes of this essay from the poster child for hippy protesters to the poster child for Tom Wolfe’s “me” decade. As described in Wolfe’s famous New York Magazine article [https://nymag.com/news/features/45938/], the ‘70s became a time when the counterculture turned towards personal fulfillment, personal development, and self-help. Rubin didn’t know who he was after the revolutionary goals which had defined him had fallen away and it became clear he was never going to be Che Guevara. And so he set out to “find himself”, cycling through a laundry list of alternative and fad therapies including yoga, acupuncture, chiropractic therapy, Rolfing, bioenergetics, Reichian therapy, gestalt therapy, Est therapy, Arica training, and more. The new movement he took part in he dubbed the “consciousness movement”, where society might move away from treating symptoms in the Western tradition towards an Eastern concept of treating causes, of changing yourself and your lifestyle in order to be healthier and happier. And he saw in this a new way to rebuild society, writing:

“In the sixties we exposed the degree to which external institutions controlled us and created poverty, injustice, and alienation. The seventies have been a somersault: ‘I am responsible for my own condition.’ This self-responsibility has liberated people to work from within to change social institutions. … I have a positive vision that America will peacefully elect a politically humanistic government. … A political movement will emerge out of the awareness revolution to implement the new consciousness.”


In other words, by focusing on the self, individual, the “man in the mirror” as Michael Jackson would later have it, we will change the world. This is an incredibly seductive idea. After all, you have much more control over yourself than you do on society at large, and it’s a heckuva lot more pleasant to do yoga than to get gassed, beaten, and arrested at a protest. Besides which, everything in our society encourages centering the self, in line with the capitalist principle of rational self-interest that’s supposed to govern the economy.


So why shouldn’t you provide well for yourself? Making yourself happy brings more happiness to the world, and seeking your own interest keeps the economy moving and creates jobs.


Which is how Jerry Rubin, Marxist revolutionary who satirized Wall Street by throwing bills on the floor of the stock exchange, transformed into Jerry Rubin, Wall Street securities trader.


Once again, the story moves so perfectly that if I made it up it’d be called unrealistic. Rubin even undergoes his final transformation in 1980-81 right at the start of the decade and the dawn of the Reagan era. The term “Yuppie” itself is popularized by a newspaper article about Rubin from 1982 called “From Yippie to Yuppie”, and Rubin took the term as a brand of honor and became a major booster of it.


Rubin groused that his previous reputation cost him deals and connections, as many in the business world just didn’t want to be associated with a guy who used to tell people to overthrow the government. Still, the economy was changing in exciting ways with the new buzzword “the Information Age”. As Rubin would point out, fueled by new technologies, ten times more companies were being started by the 1980s per year than had in the 1960s, and most new jobs were created by those new companies. This burgeoning “entrepreneurial capitalism” would replace the old industrial capitalism and the jobs it would create would solve the problem of poverty entirely. We shouldn’t hate those who are successful in the capitalist economy, the successful people were going to save us.


Following on the idea of generational conflict and change, Rubin posited that the Baby Boomers who had been the hippy generation hadn’t “sold out”, they were “taking over”. He wasn’t a fan of Ronald Reagan, comparing him to an old cowboy, a 19th century ideal, but he predicted that in 1988 a baby boomer would be elected president and that would mark the transition to a new kind of politics in the United States. The Boomers, powered by the lessons of both the hippy and consciousness movements, would introduce a kinder, more gentle form of capitalism with progressive social politics to cure America of sexism, racism, and disastrous foreign wars. He said,

When they write the history of the past decade they’re going to say that in the 60s they fought and in the 80s and 90s they implemented what they fought for in the 60s.


Rubin would actually have to wait until 1992 to see the Boomer he’d predicted come to the White House, but Bill Clinton would sound uncannily like him with his rhetoric of social progressivism, jobs, and technology. During the election of 1992, SNL had a skit where George Bush Sr. (Dana Carvey) looked over at Clinton (Phil Hartman) and saw a tie-die wearing hippy, and Clinton looked over at Bush and saw a dowdy grandmother. They might as well have been describing Rubin’s view of the world. Rubin even channeled the same right-wing talking points that Clinton absorbed, referring to poor people becoming ‘dependent’ on hand-outs from the government and the scourge of drugs on the street (which he regretted helping to popularize).


Rubin, who died tragically in a car accident in 1994, becomes a kind of rosetta stone for what happened to America politically and socially as the Baby Boomers came of age. Entrepreneurial Capitalism has resulted in thousands of blossoming start-ups sailing rivers of venture capital, and produced a gaggle of monstrously large Information Age tech firms that dominate our economy, largely founded and run by Boomers and the Gen Xers who followed them. These tech companies, as parodied for example on the TV show Silicon Valley, are perennially caught between the “make the world a better place” rhetoric of the Bay Area’s hippy past and the rapacious, amoral demands of investor capitalism. (No more perfectly embodied on Silicon Valley than by the figure of tech mogul Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) who says things like “I don’t know about you people, but I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do,” before consulting with his grifter Indian “guru”.)


And while there have been notable and welcome gains on social issues as Rubin also predicted, entrepreneurial capitalism has comically failed to end poverty, we have continued getting involved in disastrous foreign wars, and it’s now the Boomers pushing back against the youth while we all watch the economic system Rubin thought would liberate us literally and not so gradually destroy the world.


And one particular Baby Boomer who 1980s Rubin sounds a lot like is the guy who wrote a television episode in which the representative of an almost angelic Democratic Baby Boomer president dismisses WTO protesters as not understanding how capitalism helps everyone.


That is to say, he sounds like Aaron Sorkin.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 , cleaned almost completely of the anticapitalist revolutionary beliefs of its actual historical subjects, becomes a liberal fantasy of the matured Baby Boomer, a revisionist history that 1960s Jerry Rubin would have been disgusted by and 1980s Jerry Rubin would have wholeheartedly approved. Like everything Sorkin produces, the writing is excellent, full of snappy, well-crafted dialogue and a building progression of layered meanings and character growth. But it believes wholeheartedly in American liberal, capitalist democracy, if only we can steer away from the “American Taliban” Tea Party set on the right wing, as Sorkin’s TV show The Newsroom had it, if only we can select the right people. As if those right wing fundamentalist activists just appeared out of nowhere and weren’t created by think tanks and astroturfing and a never-ending onslaught of right wing media funded by a cabal of greedy billionaires who will do anything to preserve their wealth and power including watching the world burn down all around them. As if the system which creates and abets those billionaires doesn’t simultaneously create all the problems we’re now faced with.


If you enjoyed this please consider sharing, since word-of-mouth is how shows like this grow.

This episode took a while, in part because of issues I had recording the audio. However, the text version has been up on Patreon for weeks now, and for as little as $1 an episode you too can get early access to episodes, as well as exclusive author’s notes at Patreon.com/ericrosenfield.

The author’s notes this time will have a lot of material that was excised from earlier drafts, as there was a lot of stuff on the subject of Rubin, Hoffman, the Yippies, and the rest of the Chicago 7 that didn’t really work for the flow of the piece but is still really interesting, so you’ll want to read that.

I’d like to thank my Patrons, Kevin Cafferty, Wilma Ezekowitz, IndustrialRobot, Hristo Kolev, Benjamin Pence, Jason Quackenbush, Nancy S. Rosen, and Arthur Rosenfield.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Pixar’s Soul: Finding Yourself Under Capitalism

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This piece spoils Soul (2020)   

The protagonist of Pixar’s film Soul (2020) is a middle aged man who’s spent his life trying and failing to make it as a Jazz musician. As a middle aged man myself whose last twenty years represent a litany of artistic failures, I feel seen. I’m not sure there’s ever been a film in which I feel more seen. It’s a curious choice for the protagonist of a children’s movie, but Pixar goes a long way to show the fallacy of the idea that children’s media should primarily feature either children or anthropomorphic non-humans of some kind. And at the end of the film I felt moved, not just seen but spoken to in the way only a work that seems crafted especially just for you can speak to you. At the same time, in the glow of all of that, there was something missing, something hollow at the core of what the film was trying to say that it took me some time to get a handle on.

In many ways, Soul feels like the climax of a narrative about living in the world that its director, Pete Doctor, has been creating over the course of his career at Pixar. Monsters, Inc. (2001) is about threading the needle between the need to make a living and the need to live an ethical life. Up (2009) is about being able to let go of who you used to be in order to find out who you are. And Inside Out (2015) is about being honest with yourself about your feelings and how negative emotions help you cope with the world around you.

Soul is about nothing less than how we find meaning in life itself. And here, at some kind of philosophical pinnacle of Doctor’s world view, we can clearly see the blindspots and the problems that it creates when followed to its logical conclusions.

The movie tells the story of Joe (Jamie Fox), a jazz pianist working as a music teacher who’s always dreamed of the big time. He finally gets a shot thanks to a successful audition when he summarily falls down an open manhole and dies. In Joe’s effort to get back to the living world from the afterlife, he ends up in the body of a cat while an unborn soul named 22 (Tina Fey) ends up inside his body instead. Hijinks ensue, as Joe tries to find a way to get his body back while 22 learns the value of living. In the end, with everything back to normal and the job he’s longed for secured, he tells famous saxophonist Dorothea (Angela Bassett), “I’ve been waiting for this day for my entire life. I thought I’d feel… different”. Dorothea tells him a parable about a fish trying to find the ocean without realizing he was in it the whole time, nailing down the theme that outward markers of success aren’t the thing that really make you happy.

This theme has been artfully planted throughout the film, perhaps no more fully in the person of Moonwind (Graham Norton), an aging hippy-type who makes his living as a humble roadside sign twirler. Moonwind has elevated sign-twirling into an art form, regularly getting into the ‘zone’ where, in the movie’s mythology, one can traverse into the astral plane, the space between the living world and the afterlife. Moonwind uses this ability to find depressed souls in the astral plane and help coax them out of their funks (it gets pretty metaphysical).

In one sense this is profoundly anti-capitalist; Moonwind is doing something that is not valued by society at large, and making what is assuredly a meager wage for it. And yet he’s portrayed as perfectly happy with his life. At other points of the film, it’s emphasized that the things that make life worth living are small, like the taste of pizza or watching a leaf fall from a tree, and one of the lost souls that Moonwind rescues is a hedge fund manager who, once his soul is properly restored, asks “what am I doing with my life?” and runs out of his office. Obviously this is a far cry from capitalisms push for the endless consumerism and “productivity” which it needs to sustain itself.

But there’s a niggling issue with all this, something key that its eliding. Stick a pin in Moonwind, we’ll come back to him. Instead, consider a scene where 22 (in Joe’s body) is getting a haircut. (Some have noted that for much of the runtime the white Tina Fey is speaking through Joe’s black body, which is uncomfortable and smells of blackface, but others have written about this more eloquently than I can.) 

22 hasn’t allowed herself to be born in the world because she hasn’t been able to figure out what her “spark” is, what her purpose in life should be. (Everything in this film is built around its theme.)

She and the barber, Dez (Donnell Rawlings), have this exchange:

DEZ (chuckles)

I wouldn’t call myself stuck but I never planned on cuttin’ heads for a living.

22

Wait, but… you were born to be a barber. Weren’t you?

DEZ

I wanted to be a veterinarian.

Joe looks at Dez, surprised by this.

22

So why didn’t you do that?

DEZ

I was planning to. When I got out of the Navy. And then my daughter got sick, and… barber school is a lot cheaper than veterinarian school.

22

That’s too bad. You’re stuck as a barber and now you’re unhappy.

DEZ

Whoah, whoa, slow your roll there, Joe. I’m happy as a clam, my man. Not everyone can be Charles Drew inventing blood transfusions

So Dez would have been a veterinarian, but because his kid got sick he had to go to barber school. But hey, it’s okay! He’s perfectly happy! Not everyone can invent blood transfusions!

It hardly needs to be said that if Dez had been born into wealth then his future would not have been so circumscribed. Hell, if Dez had been born in a country that didn’t mercilessly relegate its healthcare system to the free market his future might not have been so circumscribed. But that’s okay, we shouldn’t worry about Dez, he’s happy as a barber.

Does it seem like the implication here is that it’s okay that people don’t have the same opportunities in life, because they can be happy doing whatever? Because it sure seems like that’s the implication to me.

Now, it would be fair to object that I’m complaining that the movie is about something other than what I want it to be about. This story isn’t about wealth inequality. It’s not The Hunger Games. But telling people to appreciate the little things and find meaning in the life in front of them has a history, and it’s important to understand what that history is and why it can be such a problem.

Which brings us back to Moonwind, who works a physically demanding, low wage job in New York City, one of the most expensive places on Earth. One wonders what Moonwind would do if he threw his back out and was no longer able to twirl signs, especially with the American welfare state in the sorry condition? Would he be able to afford a place to live? Or would he have to find happiness sleeping in a cardboard box under a bridge?

It’s fitting, though, that he’s portrayed as a hippy/New Age type. In the 70s, and particularly after the end of the Vietnam War and its role as a rallying political cause, the hippy movement turned inward from political action and towards “being in the moment” and “focusing on the self”, which is why Tom Wolfe dubbed it the ‘me’ decade. Where once, Wolfe argued, society had been built around the family and the community at large, now the counterculture revolution had turned people towards the relatively new coinage of “personal fulfillment”. This wasn’t a bad thing per se—it’s not hard to think of ways the bounds of family, community, and tradition have stifled people, and complaining about the loss of ‘family values’ is typically the province of the reactionary. But this movement gave people an excuse, a license, to prioritize themselves and their own needs over the larger problems facing society and the world. (Interestingly, Wolfe argues that this development in America was linked closely with the ‘long boom’ that lasted from the New Deal to the end of the 70s, where for the first time elderly parents didn’t need to be cared for by their children, and children could live on their own at the unthinkable age of 18.)

Further, as the Guardian has explored, the distrust of the government that came with the war, the Nixon Administration, the revelations about COINTELPRO and MKULTRA, the Kent State Massacre, the legacy of Jim Crow and treatment of minorities in general, and on and on, primed much of the hippy movement for Libertarianism’s distrust of government as a concept. There were large swath of hippies for whom Reagan’s slogan of “government isn’t the solution to our problems, government is the problem” rang true. And ultimately, this all led a large portion of former hippy and counterculture types to try to improve themselves by improving their financial situation, in the process transforming into the yuppies of the 1980s, the very establishment professionals they’d once turned up their noses to. (This is a huge generalization, but one with a basis in reality I hope to explore in more depth in a later episode.)

Moonwind is not a yuppie, certainly, he’s a pretty unreconstructed hippy. And he devotes himself to helping people, so selflessly he gets essentially no acknowledgement or credit from the lost souls he brings back from the brink. But he does this purely on an individual level, helping people one-by-one with no sense that there might be a larger system involved in, say, alienating people from their lives so that they become lost souls in the first place. (How did that hedge fund manager get that way, exactly?) Everything is atomized to the world of the personal, which is capitalism’s favorite move and one which America has not only embraced but created a narrative that places it in our DNA, despite the communal, agricultural lifestyle that characterized much of the United States before the 20th century, to the point where now you not only can’t solve the larger problems of a society that’s built around profits over human welfare, you can’t even see them, you don’t even know they exist, and if someone tried to explain them to you, you would shrug and say, well, there’s no alternative, is there

And so if there’s no alternative to the alienation and dehumanization we suffer under capitalism, then the solution becomes to turn inward and to find beauty, to find our humanity, in the “little things”, in whatever we happen to be doing. The implication of Soul is that the only thing there is to fix is yourself. And so, rather than being anti-capitalist as it appears on the surface, it actually serves to help us accept our place in an unjust social hierarchy and never demand more. It falls into the same logic, in other words, that right wing pundits use to claim we don’t need to raise the minimum wage because “money can’t buy happiness”, as if poverty doesn’t buy a whole lot of suffering.

Dez should not be ‘happy as a clam’ that his daughter’s sickness kept him from the career he wanted. He should be outraged.

Bibliography and Further Reading


If you enjoyed this please consider telling people about it, as word of mouth is how projects like this grow.

Special thanks to my Patrons: Kevin Cafferty, Wilma Ezekowitz, Industrial Robot, Hristo Kolev, Not Invader Zim, Benjamin Pence, Jason Quackenbush, Nancy S. Rosen, and Arthur Rosenfield.

You can support this project financially by going to https://patreon.com/ericrosenfield. For as little as $1 an episode you can get exclusive author’s notes and early access to episodes.

Why Stories? Henry Fool and What the Artist is For

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Content Warning: Rape, suicide

This piece spoils the films Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Henry Fool (1997).

In the film Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Hollywood director John L. Sullivan decides he’s unhappy with the silly comedies with which he’s made a name for himself, and wants to do a serious movie about the plight of the poor. For research, he dresses up like a hobo and sleeps in shelters, but he returns to his wealthy life whenever things get too dire, and never really understands what it means to be poor. Finally, through a mishap, he’s arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and put in jail under a different identity. There, sentenced to hard labor, he sees that the prisoners receive great relief from watching silly comedies and escaping from their difficult lives. After finally securing his release, he decides to make comedies again, realizing their value.

Sullivan’s Travels is in the Criterion Collection, consistently listed among the best movies ever made, and holds a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

I hate Sullivan’s Travels. And I hate it because of its intensely superficial estimation of the value art, and the way it pats itself and the entire Hollywood film industry on the back not despite of its tendencies towards status-quo reinforcing mindless pablum, but because of it. And I hate the way it implies that we must accept being poor and downtrodden as an inevitable condition, and the best we can do for them is to entertain them for a while.

The central conceit of the film is that some narratives are escapist and some are non-escapist, and that escapist art is still important and valuable.

[While this is a good antidote to the snobbish thinking that divides art into “art” and “trash”], I tend to dislike this entire way of thinking about narrative. To me, narrative is about creating meaning in the world around us. Even something as ostensibly escapist as Star Wars helps people understand the world they live in, to see themselves in the Jedi or the rebels or what-have-you, which is why people love to paint their enemies as the Dark Side and themselves as the Light. The question then isn’t whether the narrative helps you escape or not, but what meanings the narrative is creating and for whom and how. What do we think a work is trying to tell us about the world we live in, and how might people interpret that work differently? (And granting that what the creator intended may have no relation to what people see in a work, cf. Lucas creating the rise of Palpatine in the Prequels as an intentional critique of the Bush administration while the Republicans simultaneously refered to Nancy Pelosi as “Darth Pelosi” and compared themselves to the rebels.)

Which brings me to my favorite film of all time: Henry Fool (1997) written and directed by Hal Hartley.

Recently released from prison, the title character Henry (played by Thomas Jay Ryan) lets a room in a townhouse in Queens where middle aged Mary (Maria Porter) lives with her grown children, Fay (Parker Posey) and Simon (James Urbaniuk). Henry is a writer and, despite no publishing credits to his name, he fronts like Jack Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, and Norman Mailer rolled into one, a walking embodiment of a certain 20th century ideal of literary masculinity. Here is how he describes the memoir he’s working on:

I’ve been bad. Repeatedly. But why brag? The details of my exploits are only a pretext for a far more expansive consideration of general truths. What is this? It’s a philosophy. A poetics. A politics, if you will. A literature of protest. A novel of ideas. A pornographic magazine of truly comic-book proportions. It is, in the end, whatever the hell I want it to be. And when I’m through with it, it’s gunna blow a hole this wide straight through the world’s own idea of itself!

Despite the title, Henry is not the hero of this movie. That’s actually the son Simon, a garbageman who is so quiet and unprepossessing that growing up people thought he was mentally disabled. Henry notices that Simon has an interest in poetry and begins mentoring him, gradually coaxing him out of his shell.

This story might easily have followed the format of other stories about an eccentric master mentoring a young talent, like Finding Forrester or Good Will Hunting. But it’s not that kind of story. Henry, you see, is an awful, awful person. When he says he’s been “bad, repeatedly”, he isn’t kidding and, like one of Raskolnikov’s Great Men, he seems to think his artistic powers gives him license to do whatever he wants. At one point he actually rapes Mary, having sex with her while she’s so drugged up she can’t really consent, an act he seems incapable of understanding as wrong. (She straight-up calls him a rapist; the film knows what he is even if he doesn’t.)

And so part of Henry’s method of training Simon is to take him to strip clubs, to encourage him towards violence, to invite him to “impose himself” on women he’s attracted to.

But while Henry believes in Simon, nobody else does; his sister and mother laugh at his literary ambitions, and the publications to which he sends his work reply with shattering rejections (for example: “this tract you’ve sent us demands a response as violent as the effect your words have had upon us. Drop dead.”).

And yet, it gradually becomes clear that what Simon is doing isn’t just good, it’s miraculous. Hartley intentionally never actually lets us see or hear Simon’s poetry for ourselves. We only see its effect on people. And that effect is dramatic: A woman who has been mute since childhood reads it and bursts into song; it makes his sister’s period come early; some teenagers read some of it and put it in their yearbook, causing a media furor over its perceived pornographic elements.

Finally, Henry convinces Fay to put the poetry up on the nascent internet and with all the magic of computers on film in the 90s it takes off like a rocket and catapults Simon almost instantly to the kind of fame no American poet has attained since Allen Ginsberg or maybe Robert Frost.

Of course, the central irony becomes that while Simon’s poetry is spectacular, Henry’s memoir is unreadable dreck. Henry insists that Simon use his newfound fame to get the work published anyway. Simon refuses:

Look, Henry, I did it! I wrote. I wrote poetry because you told me to! I worked! I worked while you sat back and comfortably dismissed the outside world as too shallow, stupid and mean to appreciate your ideas.

In other words, while Henry was prancing around being someone’s idea of a hard-drinking, misbehaving writer, Simon was actually doing the work. Simon evolves into a self-possessed and sensitive young man, someone who doesn’t need Henry-style antics to prove anything to himself or the world. Simon outgrows Henry.

There’s more to the film, so much more, including a Pat Buchanon-esque politician who decries the loss of family values and the fanatics who follow him and denounce Simon’s work as pornography. There’s Henry’s romance with Fay which crashes predictably but not before they have a child. There’s the unspeakable reason Henry was sent to prison which when revealed drives us straight towards the ending. A more conventional film might have Henry turn into a more straightforward villain by the end, so that Simon and Henry could have a proper climactic showdown of some kind, probably with a tragic ending. Instead, Henry is given something of a redemption in a last terrible, heroic action which sends him once again on the run from the law. (And this is not to at all bring up the film’s two sequels which shockingly recontextualize the narrative as well as the character of Henry.)

Henry as a character is a bit harder to stomach now in the age of #metoo when the consequences of men who feel like they’re entitled to women’s bodies has been given a much more appropriate spotlight. Stories about awful men given last shots at redemption ring more hollow these days and Henry is perhaps all too sympathetically portrayed in the film for a guy who does the kinds of things he does. I don’t blame anyone who shuts the movie off mid-way because they can’t put up with it. And it’s not helped that the two primary female characters, Fay and Mary, mostly exist in the story to react off of what Simon and Henry are doing. (This is rectified to a great extent in the sequel, in which Fay is the lead character.) I will note though that the film isn’t about giving Henry a pass because of his great artistic ability, because he doesn’t have any, and the crushing of that delusion is the focus of his whole arc.

As a counter-point to Henry, let’s talk more about poor Mary, who seems to have unspecified psychiatric disorders for which she’s heavily medicated. At one point Simon finds her playing the piano to herself, something she apparently never does, resulting in this exchange:

SIMON

That was nice what you were playing.

MARY

Yes, it was nice. But it was unremarkable.

Simon waits. Eventually…

SIMON

Does that matter?

MARY

(looking right at him)

Yes. It does.

Soon after, Mary finds Simon’s poetry and reads it for the first time. When Simon arrives home, Mary is lying cold in the bath tub with her wrists slit.

So here in the film we have three ways people can view artistic talent: Henry assumes he has it and is inherently special because of it; Mary assumes she doesn’t have it and is inherently not special at all; and Simon who starts writing just because it gives him a voice in the world that he wouldn’t have otherwise. Simon who just does the work.

And it’s not that he doesn’t get discouraged—unlike Henry, he takes other people’s opinions seriously. It’s that whether or not he’s discouraged he’s going to keep working anyway.

And ironically, this is exactly what Henry tells him to do in one of my favorite scenes in the film. Simon has been assaulted by neighborhood bullies and propped himself up on the floor of the bathroom with fractured ribs. Henry has found Simon’s notebook and read his work for the first time. Henry vaults into the bathroom:

HENRY

Are you willing to commit yourself to this? To really work on it? To give it its due? In the face of adversity and discouragement? To rise to the challenge you yourself have set?

Simon just blinks, looks away and wonders.

HENRY

And don’t gimme that wonderstruck ‘I’m-only-a-humble-garbage-man’ bullshit, either.

SIMON

It hurts to breathe.

HENRY

(nodding)

Of course it does.

It’s not that Simon is a genius and Henry and Mary are not. That reading is shallow and not justified by the text, despite the quasi-magical powers Simon’s work ultimately has. The point is that neither Mary nor Henry can face the disconnect between who they are and who they want to be. Henry meets this disconnect with denial—he is who he wants to be and it’s the rest of the world that’s wrong. Mary, meanwhile, simply takes herself out of the world entirely. Simon doesn’t have pretensions. He doesn’t presume that his art is going to ‘blow a hole in the world’s own idea of itself’. He just wants to make it because it fulfills something inside him. And that’s why he succeeds.

This all isn’t to say there aren’t commercial considerations to artistic production, or that there’s some problem with meeting a market when and where you find it. There’s nothing wrong with treating art as a job, and one that should pay. In reality, becoming commercially successful isn’t as simple as just throwing your work on the internet and hoping for the best, as any self-publisher will tell you. You can follow your passion and give it your all and still fail, utterly.

There are so many easier ways to make a living.

But when art is good, it’s good because it resonates with someone, even if that someone is only yourself. 

In reality, people don’t ‘make it’ simply because they deserve to, even though that’s an effective narrative device. Perhaps this fact has something to do with why Simon’s success is so meteoric and magical (he wins the Nobel before the tale is out). It signals that this is a fantasy, that Simon’s work takes off not because it’s real but because it’s true, which are two different things. Simon’s success gives meaning to our story. 

And that is, after all, what stories are for.


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Doom, Myst, and the War for the Soul of Video Games

Podcast Version

In the 1990s, Doom and Myst fought a war for the soul of video games. Myst sold almost twice as many copies. Within ten years, the entire industry had remodeled itself around Doom.

The seeds of the war had been sewn at the dawn of personal computing. As has been widely reported, computer programming was once the domain of women, positions descended from their earlier roles as human “computers”, solving mathematical problems for corporate and governmental work, labor considered rote and therefore “women’s work”.

As computer programming became more complicated, it gradually shifted to men, aided by personality tests used by employers that prioritized “stereotypically masculine traits and, increasingly, antisocialness”. Still, women in computing were common until the late 1970s when personal computers began to appear. These personal computers were marketed primarily towards boys, parents bought them for boys, and as a result computer science classes began to fill with those same boys who had grown up with the machines.

There’s a trend here

Marketing towards boys accelerated following the video game console crash of 1983. Then-dominant Atari had flooded the market with cheap and poorly produced games and the result was a loss in consumer confidence paired with the idea that the new multi-purpose personal computers had made dedicated consoles obsolete. And so it was when, in 1985, the Japanese company Nintendo decided to bring their new Entertainment System to the North American market, they packaged it with a little toy robot that would follow the player character around on the screen, so that it could be marketed not as a game console at all but as a toy. The console migrated out of the electronics shops and into toy stores.

As anyone who’s entered a toy store knows, the toy market is starkly gendered, with girl products in their rows of bright pink cordoned off from that of boys. Nintendo’s research said that boys played more games than girls, and so (as had happened with personal computers) they marketed their products exclusively to boys, creating a feedback loop attracted more boys while excluding girls. It wasn’t that girls couldn’t enjoy these games, it was that the company told both kids and their parents that this was a boys toy for boys.

By 1989, when the Sega Genesis launched in North America, boys who had grown up on the Nintendo were now hitting puberty. Sega marketed their product as the cool game system, not like that childish Super Nintendo. The Genesis wasn’t just for boys, it was for the kind of boys who didn’t like icky girl things or little kids things or boring things. “Alpha” boys. Their mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, perhaps tried a bit too hard to seem cool while embodying the fast action ethos of the company, but all the ads and marketing would prime the pump for what was to come. Marketing to boys became marketing to pubescent boys became marketing to stereotypes of pubescent boys, to make things fast and loud and free of thoughtfulness. Masculinity turned to toxic masculinity quick, and by the 90s all the game systems were flooded with ads that played up stereotypes and lurid pandering to the hilt. A Sega ad advertised a beautiful naked woman you wouldn’t notice underneath all these game screenshots. In a NeoGeo ad, a model in lingerie pouts at the camera while her boyfriend plays video games in the background with the text “I remember when he couldn’t keep his hands off of me!” A particularly infamous Sega ad showed a hand on a joystick reading “The more you play with it, the harder it gets!”. In 1998, there was even a Playstation TV ad in which a character is shown having to choose between playing manly games or being “totally whipped” by his girlfriend.  (Discovered via an excellent article about sexist video game ads on Slate.)

NeoGeo is so exciting!

In 1992 the Genesis gained two titles that would make it infamous and marked the natural result of the prurient bro-boy marketing strategy: Mortal Kombat and Night Trap. Originally in the arcades, Mortal Kombat was a fighting game whose characters literally pulled skeletons out of bodies amid geysers of blood. Night Trap involved the player watching ‘live surveillance’ of a family home where five teenage girls disappeared. While tame by today’s standards, the game’s focus on watching young women in scanty outfits get assaulted by vampires became caught up in one of the periodic video game moral panics and led to Senate hearings.

While console games fled fast into a single, boy-focused marketing segment, computer games had followed a different tack. Unlike consoles, basically anyone with a computer could make software that ran on these machines, and so a much wider variety of content appeared on them, including adventure games.

Adventure games had begun as text-only programs, where the player would get a description of a room or environment and then type a command of what they wanted their character to do. Quickly, graphics were added to these games, until companies like Sierra and LucasArts were turning out what became known as “point-and-click” adventures, where a character walked across a screen and the user would click on the objects or people they wanted to interact with. In this way, the player could explore a world, solve puzzles, and take part in an unfolding narrative.

While these games (like all computer games) were played predominantly by boys, the creators often pitched them towards a much wider audience and dreamed of a future where the computer game would stand beside mediums like film and television, enjoyed by people of all genders and age groups. With the dawn of the CD-ROM drive and the massive amounts of data it could store (many times that of the default storage medium of the time, the floppy disk), the imaginations of many game developers turned to so-called “interactive movies” using live action actors. As Sierra CEO Ken Williams put it, “I always thought the future of storytelling was on the computer. I predicted that computer games would be bigger than films, and still believe there is huge potential with story-telling games – if done correctly. Watching a story from the inside is more exciting than from the outside.”

Adventure games were pitched to the whole family

But the true future of gaming would come not from the big name companies dreaming of celebrity castings, but from a rag tag group of men in their 20s operating out of a rundown riverfront house in Shreveport, Louisiana who came to call themselves iD Software. Their first game became a huge hit in the small Shareware scene of indie games at the time, a platformer in the Mario Bros. model, unflaggingly wholesome in both name and content: Commander Keen (1990-1991). (Shareware was a model in which software was distributed in part or in whole for free with the user paying for the rest of the program, or documentation, support, or simply to support the game makers. The tradition lives on in software trial periods, Patreon-funded developers, and so on.)

For their next game, they aimed for something more ambitious, and much more graphically violent. Deciding to make a shooter, they chose a homage to one of the original of the breed, Castle Wolfenstein (1981). Instead of the top-down view of the original game, or the side-view of a platformer, iD would place you inside the head of the protagonist, looking out on a 3D world. And the game would strip out everything but the barest essentials: here are Nazis, shoot them before they shoot you.

And thus was born the genre-defining Wolfenstein 3D (1992), which took off like a rocket, becoming probably the best-selling shareware game to that point, and getting reviews in mainstream publications that other shareware titles had only dreamed about.

Time to shoot some Nazis

Two months later, a long-anticipated A-List game came out with a similar 3D, first-person perspective—Ultima Underworld. And while the first person play was far more well-realized in this game (for example, you could move up and down, which you couldn’t in Wolfenstein 3D), as an RPG game the gameplay was far more cerebral, with puzzles, clues, maps, and skill leveling. There was a plot. Ultima Underworld was a successful game, but Wolfenstein, a game which had taken far less time and effort to make, ran absolute rings around it and became the game of 1992.

For their follow-up, iD improved the 3D engine to match Ultima Underworld, allowing true three dimensional views and movement and multi-level environments. They created a much wider variety of weapons, and instead of Nazis, the player would face all manner of creatively imagined demons and monsters. There would even be a handful of minor puzzles, places where the user had to, for example, push a button to open a door in another location. They would make the game that would lift them once and for all out of the indie, shareware world and into the stratosphere of the top mainstream game companies, creating a franchise that would last for decades. Doom.

Doom let you shoot monsters and… shoot more monsters

Meanwhile, back in 1988, two brothers operating out of their parents’ basement in Spokane, Washington, were inspired by the new graphical development tool Hypercard (1987) for the Macintosh. With it, they created three children’s games focused less on achievable goals and more on simply exploring worlds, and founded the company Cyan, Inc. to sell them. By 1990, they decided to make a game for adults using the same system called Myst. Much as iD had stripped the action game down to its barest essentials, Cyan stripped down the point-and-click adventure game. Instead of a player-character walking around the screen, their game placed you inside the head of the protagonist, looking out on a 3D world. While this game would have bits of live-action video, the bulk of time would be spent exploring, finding puzzles, solving them, and unraveling the mysteries of the backstory and characters.

Welcome to Myst

As first-person, 3D games Myst and Doom are actually quite similar. The primary difference between the two is philosophical.

In Myst, your character fell through a book into a world of fantasy. In Doom, your character was sent to a space station to put down out monsters. Gameplay in Myst involved exploration, unraveling a mystery, and solving puzzles. Gameplay in Doom involved shooting demons. Myst required a CD drive and the latest in SVGA graphics. Doom fit on a few floppies and ran on common VGA graphics. Myst had been released first on the rarefied Macintosh. Doom had been released first on ubiquitous MS-DOS machines. Myst was the game you bought to show off your new machine. Doom was the game you played on whatever you had. Myst appealed to a broad demographic, and actually, finally, had more female players than male. Doom was marketed to the same core demographic of pubescent boys who’d eaten up Mortal Kombat. Myst was beautiful. Doom was cool.

To be clear: it’s not that girls and women can’t enjoy shooting games. It’s that they’re not who these games were marketed to, targeted at, or who parents would think to give them to in our gender normative culture. Stripped down shooters like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom left in only mindless violence, which our culture associates primarily with masculinity.

Like Wolfenstein, Myst ascended from its humble origins to outsell the biggest, most expensive games on the market. It would have been the game of 1993, except of course that year also saw the release of Doom.

The sales numbers for these two games exponentially dwarfed most of their competitors. In a world where selling a few hundred thousand copies was considered a major hit, Doom moved over three million units, and Myst more than six million, and in doing so these games ushered in the era of the PC game blockbuster. And while it is true that Myst sold nearly twice as many copies as Doom, that statistic doesn’t tell the whole story. Like Commander KeenDoom was distributed as shareware, which meant that the first few levels of the game could be freely copied and passed around. And those free levels traveled far and wide, making it onto store shelves in shareware compilations, as free giveaways with magazines, copied from person to person on floppies and CDs, and showing up on the dial-up bulletin boards, Gopher sites, newsgroups, and the primitive websites of the period. And so, while fewer people paid for Doom (and to be clear, many, many people still paid for Doom), an order of magnitude more people played Doom.

The end result of all this would take years to become clear. Companies fell over themselves to duplicate these games, in hopes of duplicating their sales. Doom-style games like Doom II (1994), (the aggressively sexist) Duke Nukem 3D (1996), and Unreal (1998) continued to sell like gangbusters. Meanwhile, Myst-style games like Zork Nemesis (1996), Lighthouse: The Dark Being (1996), and Obsidian (1997) were commercial disappointments. (Though Riven: the Sequel to Myst (1997) was successful, selling 4.5 million units.) And with them the point-and-click adventure fell out of fashion along with the dream of the “interactive movie” for the whole family. More and more games began to look like Doom. Other types of game play and game-player were pushed to the cultural periphery. The war had ended and Myst lay in a pool of blood and nostalgia.

So what happened? Why did the children of one blockbuster succeed while those of the the other failed?

People bought Myst for its beautiful graphics and intriguing story, and learning to play was as easy as clicking on things. However, the difficulty curve on the puzzles was sharp. The creators of Myst would later remark that most people probably didn’t make it off the first island/time period of the game (out of five). (I should also mention here 7th Guest (1993), another puzzle-based, point-and-click adventure game that sold well in part by showing off the potential of people’s computer systems, released in the shadow of Myst and benefitting from its favorable early reception.)
But the failings of Myst as a game (even if it turned people off of similar games) does not alone explain how the once booming adventure genre fell into decline, and why companies like Sierra and LucasArts largely stopped producing them, especially since Myst’s own sequel was a success. People sometimes blame ‘moon logic’ for the fall of adventure games, the tendency in them to have puzzles that were ill-thought-out or illogical. But LucasArts games were known for being largely absent of such issues and their games got rave reviews, so that explanation alone doesn’t cut it. (Though Jimmy Maher of the Digital Antiquarian opines that the LucasArts games actually did suffer in quality following 1993.)

As we saw earlier, after the rise of Nintendo, video game marketing focused almost exclusively on boys, turning gradually more stereotypical and toxic. The 90s were a decade that saw massive growth in PC home ownership from 20% of American households at the beginning of the decade to 50% by its end. Further, as home consoles and PC ownership rose, arcades—once the primary way kids played video games—declined. And so as the boys who had been marketed to in the 80s and early 90s grew up into teenagers, they became the dominate block of what came to be known as Gamers. And game companies under the capitalist impulse towards massive growth didn’t want to chase moderate success, they wanted the blockbusters they now knew were possible. Even LucasArts decline in quality can probably be attributed to the companies renewed focus on action-oriented Star Wars games. It wasn’t so much that the adventure game audience left as game makers left them.

And yet, what the similarities between Doom and Myst show is that there’s nothing about the first-person, 3D game that inherently means the primary activity must be violent. That’s a choice, and it’s a choice that game makers keep making even when trying ostensibly to make their games more narratively rich, thoughtful, and meaningful. Games like Half-Life (1998) would successfully mix the first person shooter with elements of adventure games, developing stories and characters and puzzles to be solved, demonstrating that there was still an audience for this type of thing, and future games would follow suit, absorbing, for example the dialogue tree method of interacting with characters. And yet because the core mechanic hasn’t changed, there are a huge number of people who will never discover the nuances of Bioshock (2007) or Mass Effect (2007), et al, because they have no interest in a game where you have to shoot people over and over to make the story go.

Of course, adventure games never completely died, and the rise of the internet, smartphones, and tablets have proved a fertile ground for new indies and revivals of classics. There’s even a much-touted VR adaptation of Myst on the horizon. But these are all on the fringes of what has become “gaming culture”, or, like casual games (think Candy Crush (2012) or Angry Birds (2014)), an ignored or ridiculed thing that is not part of that culture at all. Today, excluding sports games, almost any list of the most popular games is dominated almost exclusively by action games in the Doom mold. Myst might have been the last time (maybe the only time) a top-selling game of this class had more female players than male ones. Game companies essentially stopped trying to market to them at all. 

Again, it’s not that girls can’t enjoy such games, it’s that they’re not the target audience of the game-makers. And it’s not that games like Doom are bad per se. The problem is with the methodology of slicing off a demographic, targeting to it relentlessly, encouraging people to associate brands with their self-identity, making what they sell not just a product but a lifestyle. It’s with aggressively crafting and marketing that brand through toxic masculinity because it sells, without any regard for the repercussions. And the result is what’s become “Gamer culture”. And when people have tried to point out that maybe some of this stuff is sexist, retrograde, or tasteless they’ve been shouted down, demonized, and literally terrorized, and from this toxified loam rose GamerGate.

GamerGate has been written about elsewhere at length better than I could hope to, but in short what began as a jilted ex trying to slut-shame an indie game maker by pointing out that that she’d slept with a gaming journalist ballooned into a campaign of harassment and persecution against women in gaming in general and women who pointed out sexism and lack of diversity in games in particular. And this provided a template for harassment campaigns against supposed “social justice warriors”, a festering cesspool of white, male grievance from which shooting rampages happen. (As Slate pointed out, the actual connection between real shootings and video games is not violent games causing violent behavior directly as hang-wringing moralists and bad-faith gun activists have claimed, but rather the culture that has risen up around them.)

There was a moment in the 90s where this seemed like it wasn’t going to come to pass, where the popularity of Myst and the drive towards narrative games aimed at a wide audience might have created a gaming culture more like the general culture, an audience as wide and vast as that of other mass media. But a capitalist would argue that this result was simply the law of the marketplace: First Person Shooter games sold better and so their rise was inevitable. But choices had been made all along, beginning with the marketing computers primarily to boys at the dawn of the PC, which meant that even when Myst was popular with women and wider audiences in general, the culture didn’t exist for them to become a part of, while Doom found a massive audience primed and waiting. The war had never been a fair fight, the entire playing field tilted in favor of Doom and its successors.

Of course, video games are now more popular among ever wider audiences, and adventure games are having a bit of a revival. Maybe, while everyone’s distracted by ‘esports’ and streaming celebrities, a new kind of gaming culture is just beginning to emerge.


Special call out to Jimmy Maher at the Digital Antiquarian (https://filfre.net) whose work covering early video games I drew on extensively.

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Cerebus: Misogyny and Madness

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Content Warning: Suicide, sexual abuse, rape, grooming, and extreme sexism.

The 1970s were a time of death and rebirth for the comic book industry. Traditionally, comics had been sold at newsstands, but the newsstand market was drying up and people predicted the whole industry’s demise. However, inspired by the hippy head-shop scene where underground, independent comics had been sold since the 60s, the first dedicated comic book stores started opening and with them the first dedicated distributors. While this development helped close off comics from the general reader and gear it towards the enthusiast crowd who came to dominate its fandom, the newly abundant shelf space in need of filling became amenable to small publishers and self-publishers in a way the medium had never seen before.

It was in this environment, in 1977, that a 21-year-old Canadian artist/writer named Dave Sim produced the first issue of Cerebus the Aardvark, a parodic mash-up of two popular comics of the era, Conan the Barbarian (based on the pulp stories from the 1930s), and funny animal in the modern world comic Howard the Duck, and aimed squarely at the heart of the burgeoning geek audienceOne of the early successes of comics self-publishing, Sim would continue producing his comic almost every month for the next 30 years. Over those years, Sim became an exemplar of the kind of idiosyncratic, iconic artist who did exactly what they wanted however they wanted, and in so doing would push medium in strange and exciting directions.

The first issue, looking accurately like the work of someone barely out of high school

And Cerebus might be primarily known in these terms, a cult phenomenon from before the dawn of the web that paved the way for utterly singular and independent visions in narrative media like, say, Homestuck. Except that if you’ve heard of Dave Sim, one thing about him overshadows everything else: Dave Sim is a misogynist.

Now, Sim himself will talk at length about how he’s not a misogynist, he’s simply “anti-feminist”. And the truth is, he’s not a misogynist the way your uncle who watched Fox News is, or in the way we see misogyny in the world around us all the time. No, much as his comic book is bigger and weirder than anything else, his misogyny is bigger and weirder than anyone else’s. Everyone talks about the big break in the middle of the Mother’s and Daughters storyline where a barely fictionalized version of Sim cuts in to explain how women are psychic vampires, voids that feed off of male light; where he writes things like “If you look at her and see anything besides emptiness, fear and emotional hunger, you are looking at the parts of yourself which have been consumed to that point.” That’s when most sane people threw the comic away and went about their business. But that was barely half-way through the series’ run. Before it’s over, Cerebus the Aardvark dresses up like the superhero Spawn but with a Charlie Brown shirt and stilts and a scorpion stinger tail to pose as some kind of demon and lead a rebellion in which women who are too uppity get executed unless they’re too pretty to execute, in which case they’re put in a kind of garden preserve so they can be ogled until they’re old enough that they’re not pretty anymore and can safely be executed.

That’s the sort of misogynist Dave Sim is.

The garden of women too pretty to kill, aka an excuse for Sim to trace models

And yet–and this is true–Sim forces anyone who wants to so much as talk to him sign a document affirming that they don’t think he’s a misogynist. He doesn’t hate women, he wants you to know. He just thinks they’re incapable of rational thought and should be stripped of all rights, completely subservient to men. What’s misogynist about that?

More recently, much has been made of Sim apparently grooming a 14-year-old fan for sex, though he claims this is okay because he didn’t actually have sex with her until she was 21, which is kind of the definition of grooming. (Dave Sim is not a good person.)

If you know anything else about Sim, you probably know that he’s mentally ill. He was diagnosed with “borderline schizophrenia” and does not treat his condition, and it’s very easy to read through the Cerebus volumes as a document of his deteriorating mental condition. You see, there was a point in the mid-80s, before Mothers and Daughters and everything after, when he self-identified as a liberal and Cerebus was hailed as a comic with well-rounded female characters, celebrated by feminists because its women characters had complexity and depth so often lacking from other comics of the period. And what a strangely magnificent and magnificently strange comic it was at its peak of popularity.

According to Sim’s self-mythology, in 1979 he discovered LSD and, enamored of its effects, ate it basically continually for a week and a half. This resulted in a nervous breakdown during which his wife had him committed to a mental hospital. There he received both his diagnosis and a creative epiphany about his future: he would transform his little, humorous aardvark comic into a vehicle to tell the story of his character’s whole adult life until death, an epic fantasy narrative that would take 300 monthly issues. The fact that he actually went ahead and did what he set out to do as a drug-addled 23-year-old is nothing short of miraculous, a testament to sheer will.

Cerebus had always been a vehicle for parodic characters, beginning with ones related to his fantasy milieu like Conan flame Red Sonja or Michael Moorcock’s Elric the Albino (who becomes “Elrod of Melvinbone” and speaks and acts like Foghorn Leghorn). The comic takes its first strides into brilliance with the introduction of Lord Julius, who is simply Groucho Marx as the leader a medieval city state. The move not only gives Sim an easy way into political satire—as demonstrated by Duck Soup (1933), making the comically venal and fast-talking Groucho into a head of state is inherently satirical. (Sim also has a knack for comic pastiche, nailing Marx’s vaudevillian sense of humor as he later would that of comedians from Rodney Dangerfield to the Three Stooges.) Further, it creates an avenue where Sim can introduce other real people into the narrative to increasingly post-modern effect as Chico Marx, Mick Jagger and Keith (or “Keef”) Richards, and even obscure historical figures like Adam Weishaupt (the founder of the Order of the Illuminati) all become players on the political stage as Cerebus is manipulated into becoming the prime minister of a city-state himself and ultimately pope. Cerebus also makes an excellent foil for all the pretentiously self-important and manipulative people around him by remaining a stubborn and single-minded simplification of the already simple character of Conan. (His first command when becoming pope is that everyone, everywhere must bring him all their gold. Cerebus is not a good person.) Throughout all this, Sim’s art improves from its modest beginnings to masterful levels, and he brings in a background artist named Gerhard who gives his world palpable depth and texture.

The pope storyline climaxes in the surreal, as President Weishaupt and Cerebus battle for an orb that will create a spinning tower who’s surface is carved entirely out of skulls. Upon winning the battle, Cerebus walks up the side of the tower to the moon. There he meets the Judge, a parody of Marvel Comics’ omniscient character The Watcher who for some reason looks like an actor who played a judge in the obscure film Little Murders (1971). The Judge tells Cerebus a story about the beginning of the time, where a male void rapes and shatters a female light, giving birth to the universe.

Cerebus and the Judge on the gendered moon

Wait wait, you’re thinking, wasn’t Sim’s whole game about female void and male light? Why would he make a metaphor that appears to condemn toxic masculinity and sexual abuse? (And he makes this explicit, saying that men break women and tell them they were ‘asking for it’.)

Sim himself later calls this the “ultra-female” reading, setting up the revelations that would come later after the judge is revealed to have been “lying”. At any rate, it shows how the deep the gender issue went in his personal cosmology, serving as the climax of the story.

When Cerebus is sent back to Earth, we discover that in the chaos and war leading up to and following his ascent, his region of the world had been conquered by the Cirinists, a fascistic matriarchal cult. Still, it’s not yet clear that something is terribly wrong with Sim and the story he’s telling; other than all being women, the Cirinists more closely resemble the right wing, with the women all wearing masks a la conservative Islam and with social order and activity kept under tight control. I mean, one of the Cirinists is Margaret Thatcher, for Pete’s sake (and she’s delightfully creepy)We don’t yet know that the Cirinists are Sim’s idea of feminists, of leftists, of what his incoherent fever dreams imagine as liberal’s endgame. That they’re just “feminazis”.

Perhaps this is somewhat unfair; there’s a second group of feminists called the Kevillists who oppose the Cirinists and want freedom and equality in a way more recognizable to the modern reader. (These are the “daughters” who oppose the “mother” Cirinists that value motherhood above all else.) Their leader is a woman named Astoria, whose schemes made Cerebus prime minister, and who comes off as a fascinating character torn between ends and means. One of the earliest Cerebus scenes that people took issue with was after Cerebus becomes pope he has Astoria imprisoned and rapes her. (Cerebus is a piece of shit).

The impression of this scene is bifurcated by what comes later. At the time it seemed Cerebus’ rape was, like his demand for gold, another example of how everyone thought he could be manipulated because of his simple-minded and unbridled self-interest, only to discover that giving power to a monster benefits no one. (One thinks of certain contemporary political figures who also seem like a cartoon in a world of humans.) It’s also a canny send-up of the whole concept of the “barbarian hero”, showing that someone who behaved like Conan would be less of a anti-hero and more of a straight villain.

But of course this interpretation of Astoria and the Kevillists is later contradicted. During Mothers and Daughters, Sim even has Astoria claim she manipulated Cerebus into raping her in hopes of having an aardvark child, who in this world are figures with great destinies. The rape is, in other words, the woman’s fault. The Kevillists are just amorally self-interested users of men, no better than Cerebus himself.

Following the big pope/moon story, Cerebus’ adventures become much more small-scaled and introspective. The next storyline is about Cerebus hiding out with his love interest Jaka, who’s married another man, and it’s mostly just this quiet unrequited love story, with Oscar Wilde poking about and delivering one-liners. (The scene where Wilde meets Groucho Marx is one of the all-time classics of the series.)

Oscar Wilde meets Groucho Marx (in a dress for no reason)

The story climaxes when the Cirinists arrest Jaka for illegally exotic dancing, summarily executing her incel-like employer. There’s an emotional scene where the Cirinists reveal to her husband that she aborted the child he desperately wanted, and he hits her and they punish him for it. Sim calls it a story without a villain, and despite a cringe-worthy sequence where Jaka is interrogated by Thatcher and seems to have no sense that her dancing has any sexual component at all, the portrait of her has depth and nuance, with a series of flashbacks to her childhood fleshing her out as a character. The ending came off as much more thorny before you knew Dave Sim’s feelings about abortion.

Thatcher has Jaka’s husband punished. Notice the use of shadow and the lettering.

Amid all of this, the storytelling techniques Sim deploys, his layouts and pacing, the expressiveness of his figures, even his lettering are so compelling and original that it’s hard not to get swept away; it’s with Jaka’s Story, I think, that it becomes clear that Sim is one of the most skilled comics artists working. Also during this time, Sim championed self-publishing in comics, helping to create the “Creator’s Bill of Rights” for comic book artists and giving boosts to lots of up-and-comers, including the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when that was still a self-published, black-and-white comic no one had heard of, and Jeff Smith’s Bone.

After this storyline we get, unexpectedly, an elaborate adaptation of the last years of the life of Oscar Wilde, making extensive and compelling use of extracts from his letters and with no hand-wringing at all about the man’s homosexuality. (In this world Wilde was punished by the Cirinists for a lack of “artistic license” rather than for sodomy by the courts of Victorian England.) In the previous storyline, Wilde had even stood up to Jaka’s employer and his homophobic insults. This is fascinating since later Sim becomes ardent in decrying the homosexualist agenda, and has said that he thinks homosexuality “belongs at the margins of society and behind closed doors.” But clearly he loves Wilde and is rapt by the same dramatic fall which has long since made him the gay martyr.

After this, it’s the four-book arc of Mothers and Daughters, whose lose plot climaxes when Cerebus finally confronts Cirin, leader of the Cirinists and a fellow aardvark, and the whole thing is entirely overshadowed by the textual insertions where Sim lectures us about the world. He describes a new, inverted version of the Creation, with male light impregnating the female void and builds to the famous issue 186, where all pretenses are ripped away. “It’s not your body they’re after but your soul,” Sim helpfully tells us when explaining how women siphon the power of men, and how they must be held tightly in check. Women have no business working or voting or doing much of anything besides rearing children and having sex. They’re not really people in the same way men are, they can’t reason, they can’t be trusted.

And we’re now confronted with a floodgates-open display of his mental illness. One of his many claims about women, for example, is that they can literally read minds, and the names of the sub-volumes of Mothers and Daughters spells this out (“Women Reads Minds, Guys”). (Technically the first volume of Mothers and Daughters is Flight and Guys is an epilogue, but whatever.) Everything in the universe it seems, even abstract concepts like Birth and Death, are gendered in Sim’s mind and this gendering reveals secret truths about the workings of the universe. (In later issues, Sim even genders the laws of physics, positing, for example, that hydrogen is female (because it desires to “merge”) while helium is male (because it doesn’t).)

It’d be nice to attribute his turn to misogyny entirely to this psychotic break, to say he just went crazy. Did he really write the Judge’s version of creation just to knock it down later? Did he really think of Astoria and Jaka as psychic vampires incapable of reason even has he wrote them so sympathetically? It’s impossible to know for sure, but the Cirinists were introduced as early as issue 20, when Sim still described himself as a politically liberal. If Sim himself is to be believed, he felt this way about women for a very long time. In any case, his mental illness appears to have taken his misogyny and ballooned it to monstrous proportions.

Reading about Sim online, I get a little frustrated when I see otherwise intelligent people claim that Sim isn’t really mentally ill at all, or that his mental condition has no bearing on his work, even while they also tell you that Cerebus can be properly read as a document of the inside of the man’s head. Someone who thinks that women are telepathic, that they syphon all rational ability from men and are incapable of differentiating between [humans] and animals is not someone in touch with consensus reality, and the only way to make that claim is to avoid describing his beliefs in depth.

And Sim’s mental illness has had tragic consequences for his own life; he’s alienated almost everyone he knows personally including Gerhard, and become a virtual hermit and self-described “voluntarily celibate” (though he sometimes rewards himself with trips to a local dance club so he can ogle young women).

On the subject of his own diagnosis, Sim has written, “the definition of schizophrenia—the inability to perceive the difference between reality and fantasy—is, to me, self-evidently ludicrous because it presupposes that there is universally agreed upon perception of what reality is”. Which I suppose is at least how Sim can still think of himself as sane, by denying any such thing as sanity exists in the first place.

At the climax of Mothers and Daughters, Cerebus is spun off into space again on a floating cube that brings him to Pluto where Dave Sim personally speaks to him as a voice in his head. Sim confirms something a character previously said, that Cerebus is in fact intersex, with both male and female sex organs, this assumably explaining his over-emotionality. He berates Cerebus for never learning his lesson, for still wanting to be with Jaka. Cerebus asks for Jaka to love him unconditionally, and Sim shows him several alternate futures where Cerebus is abusive, Cerebus is a cheat, where Jaka kills herself in remorse. (Did I mention that Cerebus is fucking awful?) Finally, he’s sent back to Earth.

Cerebus finds Jaka’s suicide, and is transported back to Pluto

Sim himself has said that the Cerebus narrative essentially ends with Mothers and Daughters, and everything after it is postscript. In the following books, the character is barely a lead, drinking in a bar for page after page before Jaka shows up again, and then they go off and there’s books where Earnest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald appear and Sim examines their lives in a way which doesn’t really directly connect to anything else in the series.

Jaka, the once great character, is here reduced to a shrill bimbo, and Cerebus ultimately rejects her when they travel to meet his parents only to find out they’ve died while he was away and this is somehow Jaka’s fault for being a distraction. (Notably, Dave Sim refuses to talk to his own parents.) He then leads a final revolution against the Cirinists which results in the Spawn-dressing and uppity women executions I described earlier.

After this, Woody Allen wanders in with the literal Torah (the first five books of the Bible). Sim, once an atheist, at some point had a complete religious conversion where he decided he was simultaneously a Christian AND a Jew AND a Muslim (but really a kind of syncretism of the three of his own devising). Allen and Cerebus spend several issues on an exegesis of the book of Genesis in which the details of Sim’s new beliefs are outlined. Genesis, when read correctly we find, secretly tells the story of a war between a male diety, God, and a female diety, YHWH (Yahweh in the Jewish tradition, though Sim refers to her derisively as “Yoowhoo”). Which is to say that his “light and void” idea of creation is not a metaphor, or an interpretation, or even a theory as we once might have thought, but the capital-T Truth found in holy scripture. (As pointed out by one of the excellent posts on the subject of Cerebus by Tegan O’Neil, it takes a certain chutzpa for someone to look at Genesis, the most read and reread book in the history of world, and decide he’s the only one that knows what’s really going on with it.)

In Sim’s belief system, we live in a kind of fallen world, an age of the Female Void. “We are already past the point of no return,” he wrote. He believes civilization’s been on a downward slope towards feminization since the death of the prophet Muhammed, and rejects basically all post-enlightenment philosophy as “bafflegab”. He does not have a cell phone or an email address (though he bought a computer some years ago which he says is specifically for Google Image Search). He claims artists who use computers in their work aren’t artists at all but “technicians”.

Cerebus came to its intended conclusion in 2004, with the lead character, as predicted by the Judge, dying alone, unmourned, and unloved when he trips, farts, falls and is sent to Hell. (Sim at least knows Cerebus is not a good person.)

In the following years, Sim released a few comics projects including Judenhass, a straightforward retelling of the story of the Holocaust which relies heavily on primary sources, and Glamourpuss, a parody of fashion magazines that also included a serialization of a history of the now unfashionable “fine line” comics art style which he practices. Because he stridently believes in creator ownership, he gave Gerhard half ownership of Cerebus, and has been progressively buying back those rights from him.

In February 2015, Dave Sim started suffering from an unknown condition causing tremors in his hands and hasn’t been able to draw since. He’s refused any modern medical treatment because he doesn’t “believe in medical science,” which also explains his lack of a diagnosis. He sees the condition as a divine test of some kind because “any other assumption… begs credulity.”

Since then he’s released a series called Cerebus in Hell, in which public domain art like that of Gustave Doré is collaged with old Cerebus artwork in order for Sim to continue expounding on his ideas about the world. Recently, he’s produced a free Coronavirus special packed full of flaccid jokes about how we’re all panicking over nothing.

Cerebus stands as curious thing. It’s an indelible part of comics history by one of its most skilled practitioners whose whiz-bang pyrotechnics of graphical storytelling–framing of pages, sequencing actions, establishing a mood, communicating emotion, are virtually unrivaled. It’s plot seems to meander off into whatever Sim happens to be thinking about at the time and has very little relation to classical notions of structure or character development, with long textual passages and virtuosic pastiches of the styles of other writers and various comedians. It is the singular and untrammeled vision of a creator, and in a world where every marginally notable piece of art is hailed as unique, it can truly be said that there is nothing even remotely like it. And it’s an example of how someone can make it completely on their own, earning a good living creating precisely the art they want unencumbered by interference from major corporations.

It’s also thousands of pages of unbridled hate speech.

And so it’s difficult to recommend reading Cerebus to anyone at all. Perhaps it will be a rich vein for academics of 20th century graphic storytelling and popular culture. And perhaps artists in the future will find ways to mine and remix its innovations. In this way, and despite itself, Cerebus may finally find its legacy.

Special thanks to the folks at the Eruditorum Press Discord for voting on what the next episode should be about.

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Pink Floyd’s The Wall and the Rise of the Alt-Right

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The Worms
The Face of the Alt-Right

One of the first things I learned to play on piano for myself, rather than for a piano teacher, was the Pink Floyd song “Nobody Home” when I was 12 years old, an ode to “having a strong urge to fly” but “nowhere to fly to”. The song comes from The Wall (1979), a theme album (and subsequent film (1982)) about a maladjusted, mentally ill rock star who becomes progressively more isolated, building up a “wall” between himself and the world around him. As a narrative it’s less a plot with characters than a cycle of emotional states layered on top of each other, more poetry than prose. The kind of thing that’s perhaps too easy for a moody young person to identify with. That is, at least, up until two thirds into its run time when the lead character has a breakdown, completes his wall, and it’s revealed that he beats his wife and he subsequently (whether in fantasy or reality, it’s not clear) becomes a Neo-Nazi leader out to route out the Jews and the coons and the queers.

It was a twist I didn’t get at all at the time. Up until this point, the lead character (“Pink Floyd”, a joke on how the band’s name was always confused for a person’s) is portrayed as victimized, oppressed by his mother, his school system, his adulterous wife. He’s sympathetic, if entirely in a bourgeois kind of way (cue the SNL skit about “white male rage”). In fact, he’s similar in broad strokes to the put-upon, adulated, Messianic white male protagonists of other ‘rock-operas’ of the era, such as The Who’s Tommy (1968) or David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972).

But there’s nothing sympathetic about becoming a Nazi, and no direct references to Nazism in the build-up to the twist that would give you a clue that it’s coming. And anyway, Nazis? I’d grown up with them as like this cartoonish villain, as real and present as Viking raiders or pirates. Why was this what Pink Floyd had decided to depict?

As an adult looking back from the vantage point of 2020, however, the arc of the character strikes me as not only ringing true, but prescient in ways I never could have anticipated.

At my high school there was a guy who oversaw the computer lab, fresh out of college and not so much older than me at the time. (This was the kind of upscale Connecticut public high school that had a computer lab in the early 90s.) We started talking about computers, but soon the topic turned to politics and he was ecstatic to turn me on to the wonders of Libertarianism and the wisdom of Ayn Rand.

Subtitle: How to be an Asshole

This was before the Web had become ubiquitous, before Google, before you could just go online and research something. I didn’t really have context for Libertarianism. But this guy was friendly and exuberant and I was lonely and soon I found myself reading The Fountainhead and parroting Libertarian talking points like the benefits of abolishing income tax and privatizing schools and roads and just about everything else. Submitting to Rand’s unrelenting selfishness-as-political-philosophy made me feel powerful and special and destined for greatness like the hero in her book.

One of the people I knew at school tried to warn me away from the guy–after all, he’d also been known to talk about “racial problems” and reference The Bell Curve. “What do you call ten people talking to a Nazi?” My acquaintance asked, invoking a very old expression. “Eleven Nazis.”

But how could he be a Nazi, I thought? Libertarians were about freedom and Nazis were about authoritarianism. The phrase “the Libertarian-to-Fascist Pipeline” had not entered the public consciousness. (The shortest explanation for how Libertarians become Fascists is that because by “freedom” they primarily mean property rights, they see Fascists as the only ones who can absolutely guarantee property rights against the inferior masses that might seek to take them away from their betters–this is what figures like Peter Thiel mean when they say they “no longer think freedom and democracy are compatible“. In other words, an even shorter explanation might be “racism”, because it’s inevitably minorities who are seeking to take your property away with absurd demands like ‘taxes’ for ‘health care’ and such.)

And as for the race question, well, I obviously didn’t agree with that, but of course I wasn’t racist so what did it matter if he was as long as he wasn’t racist against me?

When you’re insecure, you’ll do anything to not feel insecure. And so when someone offers you a narrative where you’re actually powerful and special, you grab ahold of it with both hands and refuse to let go. And thus, as the album would have it, the worms ate into my brain.

When we talk about the related subjects of the rise of the Alt-Right and the rise of Trump, what you’re talking about is a mass of people who feel loss and aggrievement over their fallen status. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that white male voters backed Trump because of the perceived threat to their dominance in society. As has been pointed out by others, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like discrimination. White people, and white men in particular in this country, feel humiliated and powerless. They resent the so-called “left wing media” for trying to make them feel ashamed of their history and heritage just because their ancestors enslaved Africans and murdered off and displaced native peoples.

At the near end these feelings of aggrievement gives you your average Trump Supporter, eager to keep out the mythical Mexican coming to take his job, and at the far end this metastasizes into full-on Neo-Nazis marching with torches and chanting slogans about the Jews. This mirrors how the rise of Nazism in Germany was directly related to the feelings of disempowerment and shame felt by the German people after their loss in WWI and the crippling economic conditions the war debts put them under especially during the Great Depression.

Sociologist Michael Kimmel, author of books on masculinity and the Neo-Nazi movement, talks about how many men feel “aggrieved entitlement … that sense of entitlement that can no longer be assumed and that is unlikely to be fulfilled.”

He elaborates on what causes people to fall down the slope of Nazism and violence in a recent interview in the Guardian:

Many of [the Neo-Nazis], especially the American guys, were sexually abused, beat up, bullied as children. Some of them have basically the same sort of profile as the victims of the Catholic priests. Growing up they were deeply ashamed of themselves; they didn’t do well in school, they didn’t have friends, they were sad, miserable, and they escaped into themselves. That just made them better targets, and the far right drew them in.

The camaraderie of the community validates their masculinity, and – even more importantly than that – gives them a sacred mission. That is really powerful for these guys.

Which brings us back to The Wall. Pink’s embrace of Nazism isn’t a strange side-track in the story of his feelings of emasculation and shame from his mother, teachers, and wife. They’re a direct outgrowth of them. Indeed, the (admittedly sexist) focus on overbearing mother and cheating wife (literally making Pink a cuckold, that most Alt-Right of insults) jibes well with this idea of a Right driven by the threat of emasculation. Pink embraces the narrative of Nazism because he needs something to hold onto now that the wall between himself and the world is complete. And there’s a neatness to the fact that the ideology he chooses is the same one that killed his father as a soldier in the Second World War, a way for the narrative to come full circle.

Trump voters and Nazis alike want to feel powerful again. And so Trump supporters love ‘owning the libs’ because by making liberals freak out they’re asserting their own dominance, giving themselves a thrill of schadenfreude in lives where they feel like they have no control. They see no problem with separating families and putting children in cages. Cruelty, and the power it represents, is the point.

Back to myself as a disgruntled teenager, Ayn Rand made me feel powerful where in the rest of my life–especially my social life—I felt utterly powerless and confused. In the long run I was saved from this ideological slip-n-slide in no small part because I was surrounded by left-leaning people in my little bubble of educated, privileged North Easterners. But it’s not hard for me to see how things could have gone in a different direction. Even just living somewhere else, with others who shared these ideas waiting to show me camaraderie and make me feel like I belong, and my belief system might have become different. This fact haunts me in ways I still find hard to admit.

Racism makes white people feel powerful. That’s the tool that rich slave owners used to make poor whites hate the poor blacks with whom they actually had much more in common. And it’s the tool that someone like Donald Trump uses to fuel his cult-like political tsunami.

All that really needs to be said about The Bell Curve

And so The Wall works because racism has nothing to do with logic or reason, as much as racists might protest otherwise. It isn’t about reading The Bell Curve and suddenly understanding that racism is science. If that were the case, then something like Shaun Skull’s epic 2.5 hour deep dive into the book which exposes exactly how the studies it’s based on are fundamentally flawed and intentionally misused would put a rest to the whole thing. Racists will proudly proclaim that they’re simply willing to go where the facts take them, while they blithely ignore facts that contradict what they already believe.

No, racism, and the drive towards fascism with which it’s fundamentally bound, are both about making people feel powerful and providing cover for dehumanizing behavior. And the people who most need to feel powerful are people like Pink–sad, sad boys (and girls) desperate for something to reach out and hold on to. For something out beyond the Wall. Even if doing so transforms them into something monstrous.

I don’t think Roger Waters–Pink Floyd’s bassist, lyricist, songwriter, and architect of the album–could have remotely anticipated the irony to come when masses of Trump voters would shout “build the wall”. But as I said, when you’re insecure you’ll do anything to not feel insecure, and that goes for building a wall around your country as easily as it does for building a wall around yourself.

It would have been an easy thing for Waters to make Pink a more sympathetic character all the way to the end. He could have taken the tack of a film like Joker, which portrays its protagonist in such a way that his horrific actions are somehow justified and even celebrated by society (the problems of which are explored in depth in an excellent essay by Film Crit Hulk). But it doesn’t. The Wall looks straight at its protagonist and doesn’t blink. From the moment Pink sings “I need you, babe/to beat to a pulp on a Saturday night”, you see the creature he’s already become well before the descent into Nazism. Pink isn’t a hero. He’s a warning.


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Bibliography and Further Reading

Superheroes and the Police

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  1. Hydra
Policeman’s Benevolent Association

In the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it’s revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D, the government organization Captain America and the Avengers have been working for, has long since been infiltrated and taken over from within by the Nazi splinter group Hydra. After battling these compromised government agents for most of the film, our hero discovers that Hydra has taken control of three enormous Helicarriers linked to spy satellites with the goal of ‘stopping threats before they start’.

And so Captain America picks up a protest sign and peacefully marches as the Helicarriers take off.

I’m just kidding, he actively sabotages them, destroying millions of dollars in government property. But it’s fine because his ally, the Black Widow, appears before a Senate subcommittee and explains everything, and everyone in the Senate and the public accept that destroying the Helicarriers was the right course of action, the end.

Meanwhile, in the real world, police departments all over the country have been infiltrated by White Supremacists as reported by PBS Newshour. This has been known for years, and very little has been done about it, which is why in recent protests, we’ve seen them routinely take the side of white nationalist vigilantes. That’s why when white supremacists marched on state capitals demanding their right to be infected by a plague, the police gave them free rein. And when the police murder black people, prosecutors let them off the hook because they need to work closely with the police to do their job. The Internal Affairs people who are supposed to police the police (and are ironically hated for that role) are in fact police themselves beholden to the same police authorities. Anyway, if you actually try to file a complaint you’re liable to followed and harassed.

And so the people peacefully protest. And so these protesters are tear gassed, shot at with disabling rubber bullets, assaulted, and pepper sprayed indiscriminently. Over and over again we see evidence of peaceful protesters being attacked by police unprovoked, police brutalizing innocent people while whey cover their badge numbers and cameras. And inevitably, some of the protesters fight back. Some protesters lash out.

Some of the protesters riot.

This appears to be a deliberate tactic on the part of the police. Commit violence, watch as violence is instigated in turn, and then point to that as justification for further crackdowns, and the media goes along with this framing because the media values sensationalism even while the police are spraying them in the face.

There’s a lot of talk about how the rioters were white anarchists and not the black protesters, or out-of-town opportunists, or they were cops trying to make the movement look bad, or white supremacists doing the same.

And I’m here to tell you that none of that actually matters. How many times now have we peacefully protested? How many times have we flooded the streets? Athletes started peacefully protesting at their games, and people lost their minds. Peaceful protests have not stopped the police (and others) from murdering black people with impunity. Peaceful protest has not freed the children in cages on the border. Peaceful protest has not brought an end to this criminal presidency. And historically, rioting can lead to real political and social change.

Or to quote Martin Luthor King, jr, as did his son, “a riot is the language of the unheard”.

  1. President Luthor
President Luthor Shows Off His Small Penis

DC Comics did a storyline beginning in 2000 where it was not George W. Bush who won the presidential election but Superman arch-villain Lex Luthor. Luthor’s an interesting character; in the beginning he was a mad scientist, a cheap knock-off of the (original) Captain Marvel villain Doctor Sivana. By the 1970s Superman movie, he’d become “the greatest criminal mind of our time”, a figure a la Professor Moriarty. In the 1980s, he was cannily transformed into another kind of villain: a greedy businessman with near endless resources. Luthor would emblazone his name in huge letters across his every project, build giant black towers in Metropolis, and then be elevated to the highest station in the land.

Batman Spreads Fake News

While in power, Luthor frames Superman by claiming that he was controlling a kryptonite comet headed for Earth, a claim for which he provides no evidence (but you would believe it if you saw it, we’re assured). He rounds up some other superheroes to apprehend Superman (they fail or switch sides). In the end he takes the drugs the Batman villain Bane typically uses to ‘roid out and gets into a kryptonite backed fistfight with the superhero. In the midst of this drug-fueled battle, he confesses to allying with the evil dictator of an alien planet, Darkseid. Batman records this confession, everyone accepts the clear revelation of collusion between him and a hostile foreign power on its face, and Luthor is removed from office while missing and presumed dead.

Meanwhile in the real world a supervillain more cartoonishly evil than Luthor could ever hope to be responds to the protesters with a quote from a racist 1960s police chief, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a statement that as clearly as possible expresses the sentiment that property is more important than human lives. He uses the National Guard to clear out peaceful protesters (whose right to protest is guaranteed by the Constitution) from in front of the White House with tear gas and flash bombs so he can have a photo-op holding a bible in front of a church.

The government is the body given monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. In the super hero world, allowances are also made for heroes, though this is often debated with various programs to regulate and control superhero violence by the government causing “civil wars” among the heroes, but ultimately always rejected. Superhero powers are, after all, typically (though not always) intrinsic to the hero’s body, and therefore regulating it would be like regulating people themselves. With this is the idea that the superheroes are, in a word, heroic, in a way that the government too often is not. In the film Captain America: Civil War, the Captain puts it succinctly:  “What if this panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there is somewhere we need to go, and they don’t let us? We may not be perfect, but the safest hands are still our own.”

You’ll find no better of example of the disillusioned veteran than Captain America. And like him, we as a people do not trust the government to always do the right thing. Because we’ve seen what their monopoly on violence looks like in the real world, and it looks like a knee on a man’s neck until he dies. And it also looks like drone bombings and the mass deaths of civilians in the name of bringing them “freedom”.

Actual Context has a great pair of videos on how so many in the police seem to fetishize one super hero in particular. He’s not a cop, or a literal symbol of American ideals like Captain America. Instead, he’s a psychopathic murderer who takes the law into his own hands: The Punisher. Which is telling about how these police officers see themselves: not as patriotic defenders but as brute killers on a mission of war against crime.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to abolish the police altogether?

Part 3. The Paw Patrol

What Happens When Police Are Replaced with Puppies

As someone with a three-year-old child, I’ve been subjected to more than the recommended dosage of Paw Patrol. From the beginning of the series, the show is about a team of puppies with various different vehicles and specialties–Rubble has a bulldozer, Marshall has a fire truck, and so on. Most of the adventures these canines go on don’t involve defeating villains, but mundane issues like rescuing a treed kitten or a beached whale or helping some baby turtles get safely to the sea.

But there’s a special episode in between season 7 and 8 where a mysterious meteor comes to town and grants the Paw Patrol members superpowers. It also grants superpowers to the nephew of the mayor of a rival town and the he and his uncle become antagonists with whom the Paw Patrol must do battle. This is, of course, all very G rated and as non-violent as superhero action can be (much like the similar show PJ Masks, which eschews any punching and kicking and always ends with the bad guys slinking away).

This change completely reframes the series from being about civil services organizations that helps out in the community to a crime fighting unit that must defeat the enemies of law and order.

A counter-intuitive example, I admit, in a piece about Superheroes fighting against a corrupt state, but of course the PAW Patrol are overtly modeled on government services like the police, the fire department, recycling services, search and rescue teams, etc. And while their funding as far as I can tell is murky, they operate like public servants without any apparent monetary reward.

And so there’s a sense in their transformation from a rescue operation to superheroic crime fighters that they’ve moving from serving the public to fighting an enemy.

Some More News did a great piece on how the police have been overtaken with a warrior mindset, trained to do battle and become predators. And this has been exacerbated by a military unloading surplus onto them, providing even small town police departments with military vehicles, armor, and equipment and turning them into a virtual paramilitary force. The police have been trained to see the very people they’re supposed to be serving and protecting as the enemy they must war against, as if they’re in a foreign country and we’re all insurgency.

After all, if the only problem with police were a few bad apples, then why aren’t the “good cops” arresting the “bad cops” for the egregious battery they’re performing on protesters that we’ve seen in video after video? Have any of those arrests happened? Has a single good cop of their own accord stood up to a bad cop and arrested them?

If there’s only a few bad cops, why are so many of them literally cheering the Buffalo officers who pushed down an old man and sent him to the hospital in broad daylight and on video. Why are they talking about calling in sick in Philadelphia in solidarity with an officer who was arrested for beating a college student with a baton?

But we why this all is. Consider the case of Adrian Schoolcraft. Adrian Schoolcraft was a police officer who reported misconduct and the falsifying of reports. As a result he was hounded, harassed, and forcibly committed to a mental hospital. The truth only came to light because he recorded his superiors committing their crimes.

The police actively drive out good cops. This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. It’s almost as if the police don’t actually exist to uphold the law. It’s almost as if they exist to protect the property of the rich and terrorize the poor into submission.

Which is why it’s taken days of protests and riots to even get a small group of police arrested for murder that was caught on video in plain daylight, and it remains to be seen whether prosecutors will actually do anything meaningful to them.

But, I still hear you say, this all just means that the police need to be reformed. Not abolished.

Indeed, the idea of abolishing the police altogether might seem bizarre, especially to white people raised on a culture of lionizing the police in every cop and crime show on television. It’s kind of astonishing that we find ourselves at a place where such a stodgy news organ as the New York Times is published a piece advocating defunding the police. (Of course, they counter this by publishing an op-ed by Tom Cotton saying we should send in the military and treat our own populace like enemy combatants.) Abolishing the police, like abolishing prisons, is one of those ideas that has appeared in leftist thought for ages but always seemed impossibly out of the public consciousness. Now it’s definitively inside the Overton Window.

I know what you’re thinking: what about murderers? Who’s going to apprehend Charles Manson? And if you abolish prisons too, what will you do with him?

Hear me out here.

We’ve tried reform for the last however many years. For example, the Minneapolis police “implemented trainings on implicit bias, mindfulness, de-escalation, and crisis intervention; diversified the department’s leadership; created tighter use-of-force standards; adopted body cameras; initiated a series of police-community dialogues; and enhanced early-warning systems to identify problem officers” according to the Guardian. And they still let an officer with multiple complaints about his record murder a guy on video while his compatriots watched.

The vast majority of crimes investigated by the police are never solved anyway, as explained in the book The End of Policing by Alex S Vitale available now as a free ebook). And most calls to police for things like domestic disturbances or people with mental health issues aren’t things police are well trained to deal with anyway. Some places, like Dallas, have actually started responding to some 911 calls with social workers instead of police officers, with great results. Things could further be improved by decriminalizing recreational drugs, like they did in Portugal, which would lead to us ceasing to treat addicts like criminals and more like the victims or innocents they actually are. Alcohol prohibition only made money flow into the hands of violent gangsters, and drug prohibition has had the same effect, while punishing the very victims–the drug users–it ostensibly seeks to protect. The same can be said about other victimless crimes like prostitution and gambling.

So what about Charles Manson? Well, here’s the thing about old Chuck: The arrest that landed him in prison was the third time he’d been arrested. He’d been in and out of prison for years. It’s almost like arrest and imprisonment didn’t deter him at all. It’s almost like he had serious mental health issues that were never addressed by the present system.

Our current criminal justice system practically breeds recidivism; ex-cons have difficulty finding work because of their records, difficulty finding housing, and they’ve often spent so long in prison they’re maladjusted to life on the outside. It’s a formula that, rather than helping them reform their lives, actually incentivizes them to return to crime and imprisonment.

And it would be easy to argue this is all by design, since in America prisoners are essentially used as slave labor for various corporations, funneled into for-profit prisons, paid pennies or nothing at all. After all, it’s painfully clear who this ‘tough on crime’, ‘law and order’ system benefits and who it punishes.

Which is why we need to start defunding and demilitarizing police, massively reduce prison populations with an eye towards shuttering them completely, and use the funds saved for efforts that reduce criminality from the source. We need to replace the police with unarmed civil servants with active community and independent oversight and make them part of the community rather than aligned against it.

The idea of the superhero is aspirational; they’re supposed to represent how any of us, if given extraordinary abilities, could go out and do good for the world. And over and over again we’ve been given examples of superheroes fighting against corrupt systems in the government and the establishment. Well, I’m here to tell you those corrupt systems are here, except instead of Hydra being in control of S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s white supremacists with permission to deploy violence against minorities and the poor without consequences. It’s time for that system to be replaced with something better.

This is not a ‘ far left’ idea. This is clear and obvious sense.

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I’d like to thank my Patrons, Nancy Rosen, Arthur Rosenfield, JF Quackenbush, IndustrialRobot, and NotInvaderZim. You can support me for as little as $1 an episode at https://patreon.com/ericrosenfield.

Bibliography and Further Reading

How Can I Save You? 12 Monkeys and the Coronavirus

Audio Version | YouTube Version | Get this in your Inbox

Reopen the economy, they said…

This piece spoils the entirety of the film 12 Monkeys (1995), written by David and Janet Peoples and directed by Terry Gilliam.

It’s 2020. A science fictional sounding year. You wear the mask your wife made and a pair of latex gloves to go out for groceries. Everyone on the street wears masks and it adds a layer of weirdness to just walking around, like you’ve stepped into an alternate reality of the neighborhood you know and love.

You hurry to the supermarket a few blocks away. The line to get in stretches around the block, everyone trying to keep their distance, if not strictly the recommended six feet. You’d use services like FreshDirect or Amazon Fresh, except it seems impossible to get a slot. Besides your wife is concerned that the slots there are should go to people who really need them. And so the simple act of getting groceries has become a fraught proposition, and you can never be completely sure if you’re going to bring home the plague.

While you wait, you fiddle with your glasses because they’re fogging up over your mask, though you’re not supposed to be touching your face. After about half an hour, you get inside. You try not to touch anything other than what you want to buy, and probably don’t pay as much attention as you should to keeping six feet from other people in the claustrophobically spaced aisles of a New York Supermarket.

Once home you follow a strict routine: leave the shoes at the door, strip off the gloves, the mask, the coat and sweater, haul whatever you bought to the sink so it can be washed unless it’s in a cardboard box in which case you put it by the door and don’t touch it for 24 hours since that’s supposedly how long the virus lasts on cardboard. Take off your pants and put on pajama pants, wash your hands for 20 seconds, disinfect the phone and the AirPods and the wallet and the keys by rubbing them over with a Clorox disinfecting wipe. You wash the groceries and put them out to dry.

You live with your wife and daughter in a 1.5 bedroom apartment in Queens. You talk about what to do if one of you gets sick, isolating them in the bedroom. But since you can go up to two weeks without showing symptoms, if one of you gets sick all of you are probably going to get sick. And if it gets bad and all three of you are feverish, you don’t know what you’re going to do.

It’s 2035. James Cole (played by Bruce Willis in the prime of his abilities and popularity) is “volunteered” for a trip to the surface world from the cage in which he’s kept for unspecified violent crimes. Enveloped in a transparent space-suit with an elaborate, Gilliamesque breathing apparatus, he wanders a ruined, overgrown, and snow-laden Philadelphia. A lion stalks the roof of a building. Cole collects a huge beetle in a jar and is startled by a roaming bear. The bear wanders away. Cole stalks an eerily empty and ruined department store.

Back underground, Cole is thoroughly hosed down and scrubbed with long brushes by men in similar suits. He must draw his own blood sample to be tested for any trace of the virus which has wiped out the bulk of humanity.

Good news: not only isn’t he sick, he’s impressed the scientists with his diligence and his memory. They have a special job for him.

It’s 2020. Sometimes you think everything is normal and then you realize the only car traffic you hear is ambulance sirens and you remember what’s really going on. You live a short walk from Elmhurst hospital, the epicenter of the epicenter of the outbreak. There’s a large playground in front of it where you used to take your kid, and a fantastic Thai restaurant across the street.

You and your wife have been working from home for weeks now. You’re happy to have jobs–people you know have lost theirs, others had their pay cut. The day they shut down the nursery school, your three-year-old daughter saw the nanny in the morning, realized she wasn’t going to school, and burst into tears. You’re nervous about still giving the child to the nanny, but if she were home it’d be difficult to keep working and you both need to keep your jobs.

Every day you check the numbers on the nyc.gov website and update a spreadsheet you’re keeping of cases and deaths in the city. Hundreds of New Yorkers drop off the face of the earth every day. It’s the kind of thing where if you don’t know people who’ve died you know people who know people who’ve died. One of your friend’s grandmothers died of it. Another friend’s aunt died of it. One of your wife’s co-workers had 6 members of her family die.

Some of your friends and family literally haven’t left the house in weeks, prisoners of the virus.

Here Because of the System

It’s 1990. Cole has been sent back in time to gather information. He’s supposed to find a pure original sample of the virus that can be used to synthesize an antidote. He quickly ends up in a sanitarium, where he meets patient Jeffrey Goines (played by Brad Pitt at his twitchiest in a breakout role which would earn him a Golden Globe and his first nomination for an Academy Award).

Goines has some ideas about why they’re really all locked up in a mental institution, giving us much of the film’s thematic material:

Goines

Very few of us here are actually mentally ill. I’m not saying you’re not mentally ill, for all I know you’re crazy as a loon. But that’s not why you’re here, that’s not why you’re here, that’s not why you’re here! You’re here because of the system. There’s the television. It’s all right there. All right there. Look, listen, kneel, pray. 

Commercials. We are not productive anymore, they don’t need us to make things anymore, it’s all automated. What are we for then? We’re consumers. Okay, buy a lot of stuff, you’re a good citizen.

But if you don’t buy a lot of stuff, if you don’t, what are you then I ask you? You’re mentally ill!

Cole is brought before a panel of psychologists at the institution. He explains to them what happened:

Cole

Five billion people died in 1996 and 1997, most of the entire population of the world. Only about 1% of us survived. 

Psychologist

Are you going to save us Mr. Cole?

Cole

How can I save you? This already happened. I can’t save you, nobody can.

It’s 2020. “In a city ravaged by the coronavirus, few places have suffered as much as central Queens, where a seven-square-mile patch of densely packed immigrant enclaves recorded more than 7,000 cases in the first weeks of the outbreak,” reports the New York Times.

At least one person in your apartment building has reported to the co-op board of feeling Covid symptoms and self-isolating here.

You hold the front door open for an elderly woman hauling two overstuffed grocery bags, every inch covered except her eyes which peer from behind thick glasses over a ski mask. “Hold your breath,” she says in her muffled voice as she goes inside. Is she saying that as a general precaution or is she the one with the virus? According to the letter the board put under your door, the person is self-isolating, but how could they enforce that?

You hold your breath until she’s well on her way.

One person you know who works in the food industry said that there’s an estimate going around that 75% of restaurants in the city won’t reopen when this is all over. Here, in the greatest restaurant city in the world. Most of the restaurants are already shuttered for at least the duration. You order Thai food once (not from the place across from the hospital) and it takes 2.5 hours to arrive. Another time you order a pizza and pick it up. Otherwise, you cook your own food, more cooking than you and your wife have ever done in your years together. New Yorkers are famous for eating out, for not knowing how to cook, and why should you when when such an abundance and variety is waiting outside your doors. Was waiting.

Your wife likes cooking. It takes her mind off everything that’s happening.

The board puts up a sign-up sheet for people who want to help those in the building who might need it. You sign up. They send out a message that no one has asked for help yet. No one wants to feel helpless, you guess.

Every night at 7PM the neighborhood erupts in clapping, banging on things, horn blowing, bell ringing, and otherwise making noise. Your daughter loves it, clapping enthusiastically out the window. You’ve read that the first responders in the hospital appreciate it. Still, it feels like just something given for us all to do so we can feel like we’re contributing something, anything at all. After all,“essential workers” (at least outside the hospital) are often less heroes than hostages forced to work in dangerous conditions for very little money or starve.

It’s 1996. Cole has been sent back again. He kidnaps the psychologist who’d been treating him in 1990, Dr. Kathryn Railly (played by the underrated Madeleine Stowe, whose grounded performance does much to help the unfolding insanity work even if she’s inevitably overshadowed by the larger-than-life turns of her costars). He forces her to drive him to Philadelphia where he believes he can find the group behind the virus, the “Army of the 12 Monkeys”.

On the way he repeatedly sticks his head out the window to breathe the air and exults at the music on the radio. 

Cole

Love this music. We don’t have this, we don’t have anything like this.

They listen songs from the 50s and 60s. All the film’s cultural references are similarly dated, with a Marx Brothers movie making an appearance, and an Alfred Hitchcock film. A modern film where someone time traveled to the 90s would ostentatiously remind us of the decade, this one has no need to evoke the year the viewing public would already be in. Instead, by digging into what would be their past, it evokes the nostalgia Cole would be feeling for the world he watched die as a child.

In Philadelphia, they discover that the “Army of the 12 Monkeys” is run by his old fellow patient, Jeffrey Goines, and further that Goines’ father is a world-famous virologist.

Cole subsequently tracks down Goines at his father’s house, but fails to do anything except find out Goines got the idea to kill the world from Cole when they were back in the sanitorium. Cole becomes enraged, attacks Goines, shouts,

Cole

We live underground! The world belongs to the dogs and cats! We live like worms! 

At the edge of his wits throughout the story, Cole finally cracks and decides that Railly was right all along, he is crazy and so he gets to live in the ‘real world’ of 1996 where he can breathe the air and drink the water and doesn’t have to ‘live like worms’ underground. Unfortunately, it’s at this moment that he’s spirited back to 2035.

It’s 2020. Everyone’s obsessed with a TV Show about the godawful people who own private zoos and the godawful things they do to each other. The godawful things they do to the animals gets far less focus, buried under the weight of their collective inhumanity to one another.

A tiger at the Bronx Zoo catches Coronavirus from an infected handler. Fortunately, the case is mild and the animal is expected to make a full recovery.

It’s 1996. After several of Cole’s predictions come true and other circumstantial evidence is uncovered, Dr. Railly becomes convinced that Cole was telling the truth all along and tries desperately to circumvent the apocalypse with what little she knows. Outside the headquarters of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, she finds Cole stumbling towards her. He tells her he’s come to his senses. 1996 is the real world. He played the future scientist delusion like a fiddle and convinced them to send him back one more time, and now he’s ready to get treatment and become healthy again.

Now it’s she who convinces him that the world is ending. They leave one last message for the future, and then decide all they can do is buy disguises and flee to Key West to ride out the coming plague. (Cole has never seen the ocean.)

Jeffrey Goines and the Army of the 12 Monkeys raid the Philadelphia Zoo and release the animals from their cages. Lions, tigers, and bears run riot through the streets. This was their plot all along. All they wanted to do was save the animals. Free them.

“I think we’re gonna make it,” Railly says, laughing as they pass a giraffe in the cab on the way to the airport. She thinks the virus won’t happen after all.

But, of course, the film has a secret villain, a character who appears briefly in all of three scenes. His name is Dr. Peters (played by a perfectly cast David Morse, who oozes with detached psychopathy), an assistant to Goines’ father. I only know his name because I looked it up. Why does he want to release a plague to kill everyone in the world?

He tells us in his longest piece of dialogue, delivered to Dr. Railly while she’s distracted and barely listening.

Dr. Peters

Surely there is very real and very convincing data that the planet cannot survive the excesses of the human race: proliferation of atomic devices, uncontrolled breeding habits, the rape of the environment, the pollution of land, sea, and air. In this context, isn’t it that “Chicken Little” represents the sane vision and that Homo Sapiens’ motto, “Let’s go shopping!” is the cry of the true lunatic?

Proving one man can make a difference

This critique of consumerism jibes with what we heard Goins say in the earlier scene, and it’s easy to conclude that diegetically (in-story) the two characters know each other (certainly possible since the one works for the other’s father), and non-diegetically (in reality) the screenwriters wanted to make sure they got their point across. (And characters having similar ideas actually works in favor of a movie as dreamlike and with as much repeated imagery as this one, where in a more mimetic film it might grate.)

One might complain here that we have the same problem we saw in the Doctor Who episode “Kerblam!” last episode. Indeed, Goines’ speech in the sanatorium or Peters’ speech here might not have sounded odd coming out of the terrorist character from Doctor Who, if that script had had a tenth of the teeth and savvy this one does.

But here’s the key difference: at no point does anyone tell either Goines or Peters that they’re wrong in their philosophies. Certainly, no one wants Peters to murder everyone, but the film takes the correctness of his general criticisms as a given. People tell Goines to calm down. No one tells him the system is not the problem.

Equally, it’s significant that Peters is barely in the film, hardly a character at all. Why is he like this? What’s his backstory? What sets him off? It doesn’t matter because it’s not the point. Peters might as well be a natural disaster, or a systemic threat vast to the point of insolubility. Peters is an oncoming, implacable storm.

It’s 2020. The president hawks untested drugs in which his family has investments at his press briefings like the two-bit snake oil salesman he is. He and his party have so eroded faith in the media that millions of people ignore advice on how to stay safe, call the whole thing a liberal hoax, and pack into churches. And so simple safety advice during a pandemic is transformed into part of a larger culture war, chucked out along with facts and science in general.

Dr. Peters has a coherent philosophy behind his death-dealing, a kind of twisted altruism. Our real-life villain is simply a soulless charlatan who has miraculously ridden a wave of rage and racism into the highest office in the land and proceeded to use it to enrich himself, dismantle oversight and regulation, and punish his enemies while his party refuses even the remotest accountability as long as he fills the courts with their contemptible cohort.

South Korea had its first recorded case on the same day as the United States, and squashed it despite having a super carrier in the form of a cult leader who infected thousands of people (which is a whole insane story in and of itself). Other countries from Australia to Norway managed to get the situation under control relatively quickly and save untold lives. Our federal government on the other hand ignored the problem until it was too late, and even now is confiscating PPE on the way to individual states, handing it over to for-profit businesses, and then making the states bid on it again no matter the state’s actual need. Maryland has taken to literally hiding the Covid tests it’s bought with the National Guard to defend it against the Federal Government.

Writer Ted Chiang says we wouldn’t believe this story if we read it in a book because it’s an “idiot plot” where everyone acts like a fool. I think he’s off the mark. We wouldn’t believe this story if we read it in a book because the antagonists are too one-dimensionally evil, because we wouldn’t believe that the system could be so utterly corrupted, because we wouldn’t be able to believe that it could all go so wrong so easily. 

Trump is one inheritance and an obsession with big cats away from being a character on Tiger King; which is to say, someone without moral scruples and an almost psychotic need for attention. You don’t identify with characters on Tiger King so much as you gape at them in disbelief. Reality consistently makes a less satisfying story, because real people are often horrible and inhuman to one another in a way that the average movie audience would find ‘unsatisfying’.

And yet you write all this, only to discover that a disturbing percentage of people have a positive opinion of the Tiger King subjects–between 30-40% of viewers—with the lowest approval ratings going for the most innocent character, who happens to be a woman. Something which one wry Twitter user notes, is why Trump won.

You can’t even.

It’s 1996. Cole and Railly arrive at the airport and buy plane tickets under assumed names without any ID, and you remember how innocent a time this really was. Railly discovers that Dr. Peters is in the airport, remembers him from the lecture, coincidentally sees in the newspaper a picture of him with Goines’ father (recently tied up in a monkey cage at the zoo by his son), and puts the pieces together. Peters has a bag full of virus samples and he’s on his way on a world tour of death. Symptoms won’t even begin to appear for a week, this incubation period giving the plague ample time to spread among the populace.

A fellow time traveller arrives at the airport to give Cole a gun. “Who am I supposed to shoot?” he asks, just as Railly runs up to tell him the news. On first viewing, you think maybe they might actually stop Dr. Peters and give the whole story a different shape. This is their chance.

If you’ve been paying attention, though, you know this isn’t going to happen. Throughout the film, Cole is haunted by a dream in which a man is gunned down in an airport. But it isn’t a dream; as a child, Cole watched it happen but repressed the whole thing. The man is Cole himself, shot dead by the police while running with his gun towards Dr. Peters.

It took a Google search for me to figure out why the scientists had set him up this way. They needed him to identify Dr. Peters as the culprit. Though couldn’t the fellow time traveller have just waited until he found out and asked him?

But as Cole had said before, this all already happened. He couldn’t change it, he couldn’t escape, he couldn’t save anyone. Dr. Peters doesn’t even notice him.

It’s 2020. In one week, three people commit suicide by throwing themselves in front of the 7 train, which goes through your neighborhood. Economic collapse has a vivid human cost.

While other countries cover 70-80% of laid off workers’ income, we pat ourselves on the back for giving billions to wealthy corporations while giving most people a one-time check equal to a month’s worth of our absurdly low Federal minimum wage, excluding students, the elderly, and many of the disabled. Republican officials and pundits alike tell us that we should reopen the economy as soon as we can even if it means hundreds of thousands of deaths, because not to do so will ‘kill the country’. Astroturfed protestors even storm state capitals demanding the right to get infected. Never before have we seen so clearly that the Right cannot conceive of any system that takes care of people without demanding they work for it, no matter how many lives it costs.

Of course, a percentage of homeless people starving in the street was always considered a viable cost to them, so this position isn’t new, it’s just exposed on a grander scale. The minimum required to survive in this world should be a right, but it isn’t, and so we accept an economic system where farmers are plowing over fresh produce and dumping milk and eggs they can’t sell to restaurants while food banks don’t have enough to provide for the needy, because all that matters is whether one can turn a profit.

The real solution is obvious and simple. Putting aside the fact that the Federal Reserve can literally print money and that it’s unlikely to cause the dreaded hyper-inflation in this particular situation, fantastically few people are still hoarding massive amounts of wealth. The government can simply take this wealth (in the form of taxes) and redistribute it in the form of a UBI [https://qz.com/1355729/universal-basic-income-ubi-costs-far-less-than-you-think/] or whatever [https://www.iftf.org/uba/] and keep people alive. Rich people will be a little poorer, and poor people will survive.

But elements of our society have spent generations convincing poor people to hate other poor people and think anything that smells like socialism is the same as Stalinism. And so Trump keeps poor whites hating immigrants to distract them while he raids the government apparatus for the profit of himself and his friends. This is hardly a new observation, and its age actually makes having to restate it again and again all the more exhausting.

It’s 1996. Dr. Peters gets on a plane to San Francisco with his suitcase full of virus samples, embarking on his voyage of global cleansing. Next to him is a woman you recognize as one of the scientists who sent Cole back in time. They make small talk. She tells him,

Scientist

I’m in insurance.

The film ends. The assumption is that, thanks to Cole’s information, she gets the pure virus sample the scientists have been after so that they can synthesize a cure. Cole did make a difference after all. Yes, the bulk of humanity still dies, but on the other side of unthinkable trauma there’s hope for the future. They can rebuild.

It’s 2020. A pandemic has largely stilled the machinery of capitalism. For a brief, terrifying moment, homo sapiens’ lunaticcry of ‘let’s go shopping’ has been put to bed. The air is clear and clean. Dr. Peters would smile.

Further, the ethos that one must work to survive, even if no work is forthcoming, has been shown a murderous lie. It should now be clear to all that a for-profit health care system is one that considers the poor expendable. We may now be ‘living like worms’ and the streets ‘belong to the dogs and cats’, but we have a unique moment to consider–to demand–that things be different.

There’s a Medium essay going around about how we can build a better world out of this if we only overcome the inevitable gaslighting that the corporate interests will engage in once this is over, to try and convince us that everything can go back to ‘normal’ and that’s okay because ‘normal’ was good.

But ‘normal’ didn’t address the fundamental problem, called out in this movie 25 years ago. Capitalism is still destroying the planet and consuming our lives.

It’s justifiable to ask how much we can realistically hope for. How much we can realistically do. The reigns of power are still held by the most contemptible, and our best hope is a presumed Democratic nominee who promises “nothing will fundamentally change” and thinks he can work with the same Republicans who refused to give an inch to the previous administration (of which he was part).

And while stay-at-home orders have caused the disease to plateau nation-wide, it’s not declining, and experts say it won’t decline without much more aggressive testing and contact tracing which we don’t seem to be ramping up nearly fast enough. Meanwhile, suicidal states are already opening back up, which will only make things so much worse.

You give to charity, for what it’s worth. It’s not like you can lead a revolution, raise your pitchfork high while you drag the billionaires from their mansions and lead them to the guillotines. You’ve got enough to worry about paying the mortgage and keeping your family safe.

And so like Cole, we’re all caught in a system beyond our comprehension, manipulated by forces we cannot understand, barreling towards a future we cannot control. And like Cole we do the best we can with what we’re given, and hope we’re making a bigger difference than we understand in the moment.

And so you’ll put on your mask, and your gloves, and head out to the grocery store.


Sorry this episode is later than usual, it’s longer and was difficult to write.

 I’d like to thank my Patrons Arthur Rosenfield, Jason Quackenbush, IndustrialRobot, and Not Invader Zim. You can become a patron of this show for as little as $1 an episode and help support it at patreon.com/ericrosenfield.

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Unfortunately, the film 12 Monkeys is not on any streaming service as far as I know, but you can rent and buy digital and physical copies from the usual locations.

There is No Alternative: Doctor Who, “Kerblam!”, and the Specter of Technological Unemployment

Audio Version | YouTube Version | Get this in your Inbox

They’re here to steal your jerb

There’s a moment at the climax of the Doctor Who episode “Kerblam!”, where the titular time traveling alien known only as the Doctor confronts a terrorist. This villain seeks to murder hundreds of innocent people in an effort to disgrace and collapse the Kerblam! Corporation, an interstellar Amazon.com analog he blames for rampant unemployment as it’s automated the bulk of its workforce.

“We can’t let the systems take control!” He exclaims.

“The systems aren’t the problem,” the Doctor replies. “How people use and exploit the system, that’s the problem.”

These sentences have been justly seized on as reactionary by segments of the viewing public, including a recent article in the Guardian. In context, if we’re being charitable, the Doctor is specifically referring to the AI itself, consistently referred to as “the system” throughout the episode. Therefore, the idea is that the computer itself is a tool, and it can only be judged by those who wield it. But it’s just another way in which the episode refuses to face or even acknowledge the actual problem it’s trying to grapple with in any real way.

The premise is simple and fairly typical Whovian fare. The Doctor gets a message asking for help from the homeworld of the far-future Kerblam! Corporation. She and her human companions infiltrate the corporation by acquiring jobs, and there they proceed to ferret out the mystery of why employees are turning up dead.

Part of the narrative is how most of the employees have been replaced by robots, and the robots and their AI controller are assumed to be the most likely culprits (fitting in with a long tradition of Who episodes where contemporary technological fears are channeled into tales of murderous androids and megalomaniacal computers). This is, however, a feint and in truth a relatively clever one, where the culprit actually turns out to be the aforementioned terrorist, whose plan is to essentially put a bunch of bombs in boxes Kerblam! is shipping out to cause a backlash that will shut down the corporation which has automated away so many jobs. And the message asking for help was actually sent by the AI itself.

The episode is thus primarily about the oncoming threat of technological unemployment, where technology has rendered the bulk of labor unnecessary. In other words, it’s a ‘ripped from the headlines’ premise in a world where management consulting firm McKinsey & Company predicted that by 2030, one third of all US workers could be unemployed due to automation, and a recent White House report posits that 83% of jobs making less than $20 per hour will be subject to automation and replacement, and between 9% and 47% of jobs may become irrelevant.

And even the human jobs that Kerblam! does have are described as completely unnecessary, dull, repetitive labor only assigned to humans as a sop to laws that require an at least partially human workforce. “Work gives us purpose, right?” Says one of the people thus employed. “Some work, maybe,” accurately replies one of the Doctor’s companions.

The Kerblam! Corporation is shown to be completely unregulated; it’s even responsible for policing itself, leaving no one to call as people are murdered throughout the episode. And while this point isn’t dwelled on, it’s a self-evidently horrifying end result of a corporation being beholden to no one.

The episode, in other words, presents some evidence of knowing what the real problem is: rapacious, unchecked corporate power and dispelling the myth that creating bullshit jobs that no one really wants is a suitable solution to technological unemployment. Except the climax and denouement undermine all of this, where the only person really trying to change the system is portrayed as a terrorist, the system itself declared not a problem, and ultimately the corporate functionaries vowing to solve the problem by filling the company with more humans working bullshit jobs. And so terrorism (even in failure) is the only thing that succeeds at creating material change, but really that material change is hardly anything at all. Which could be seen as a satire of capitalist society, if there were any evidence the episode wanted it to be seen as such.

Missing completely from the equation, after all, are the owners of the company, the executives, board members, and investors, who actually have power over the situation. In all the talk of rampant unemployment in the galaxy, there’s no mention of a wealth gap, of the wealthy at all, simply a “system” nebulously being “used”. The real question hanging over everything is never asked: who’s fault is it that people are starving simply because they don’t have jobs? Why should they need jobs at all when most of the jobs can be automated away? What’s the purpose of forcing your population to starve or work boring, soul-crushing jobs when the jobs are completely unnecessary and there’s enough wealth for everyone to live a fulfilling life if we simply shared it more equally?

And so we arrive at the expression coined by Slavoj Žižek (paraphrasing Fredric Jameson) that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Capitalism, something proven over and over again by Doctor Who’s depiction of the former and lack of depiction of the latter.

Anarchy in the UK

Terrorism as a response to automation has real-world antecedents. In the early 19th century, English textile factory owners began replacing highly-skilled artisans with mechanized looms that could be run by low-paid laborers. In 1811, the artisans began to respond to the sudden loss of their livelihoods with violence, breaking into factories and smashing looms to pieces. In the manifestos these artisans would subsequently release, they’d credit their movement to one General Ludd, a fictional, Robin Hood-like military leader.

The British government responded by making the destruction of looms a capital offense and sending in the military. Many artisans were gunned down, others hanged, still others merely shipped off to penal colonies in Australia. The back of the movement broken, the textile companies were free to “modernize” their factories and the term “Luddite” came to refer to anyone who hates and fears modern technology.

Missing from the typical version of this narrative is the fact that the Luddites weren’t originally opposed to mechanized looms. Resistance only happened when it became clear that the factory owners were going to replace them with cheap, unskilled labor. And the artisans’ first response was to suggest measures to preserve their quality of life–a minimum wage, guaranteed pensions, and the establishment of safety standards for these dangerous new machines. After all, the owners stood to make more money than ever. Why shouldn’t they share it with the people actually doing the work? This logic might in fact have carried more weight in earlier decades, but the writings of Adam Smith had been recently published, and the minds of the ruling class swam with ideas of the fundamental value of self-interest and the “invisible hand” of the market working to the benefit of all.

While concerns at the time that mechanization would lead to mass unemployment would turn out to be unfounded, as the 19th century wore on the bulk of skilled artisan jobs transitioned into relatively unskilled industrialized wage labor. And with no check on business owners’ exploitation of their employees, the leisurely lifestyle of the artisan (who could dictate their own hours) gave way to a situation where by 1890 a US government study found that laborers across industries worked an average 100 hours a week. And the hazards of factory conditions during this period are the stuff of legend, with workers routinely ending up maimed or dead without any of the modern expectations of workers’ compensation, health care, or life insurance.

This state of affairs wasn’t an accident of industrialized capitalism, it was the obvious end-result of it, where business leaders and their investor co-owners do whatever they can to maximize profit over all other considerations, especially the welfare of labor.

Workers unions and their allies in the Progressive movement battled against this system (often literally as the police, military, and mercenaries were turned against strikers) and ultimately won concessions including the 8-hour-day and the 2-day weekend that we now take for granted. Part of the rational for these measures, taken during the Great Depression, was to reduce unemployment, since businesses would need to hire more people to do the same amount of work. Indeed, there was a tantalizing idea in the minds of Progressives at the time that mechanization could actually free us from work. Economist John Maynard Keynes, for example, famously predicted in 1930 that people would soon work 15-hour weeks with no loss of pay. By the middle of the 20th century, taxes on the wealthy had gone up dramatically, social security had been created, and things had greatly improved for most Americans in economic terms. That all shifted with the resurgance of laissez-faire free market ideals in the form of Neoliberalism beginning in the late 70s, where tax cuts and large-scale deregulation gave the wealthy the means to begin the process of destroying the hard-won middle class.

As a result of this Neoliberal agenda, today the wealthy have taken all the gains in productivity and labor efficiency that automation and computerization have allowed and hoarded it all for themselves, leaving 78% of Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck and 61% of Americans unable to cover a $1,000 emergency and having to turn to GoFundMe to cover their medical expenses. And this is all felt more keenly in the time of a pandemic.

Keynes and his cohort would have seen the modern rise of technological unemployment as an opportunity rather than a crisis, where we as a society could reduce the number of hours people have to work just as progressives did during the Great Depression, or even do away with work as a prerequisite to survive altogether using strategies like Universal Basic Income or better yet Universal Basic Assets or some other scheme funded through expanded progressive taxation of the wealthy few who can afford it better than ever.

But conservatives, as alluded to in the Doctor Who episode, would have it that humans need work to give us purpose. However, spending the bulk of your life in the soul crushing tedium of a position that could just as easily be performed by a robot doesn’t sound like much of a purpose, especially while the children of the rich have unlimited opportunities to make their life however they please simply by virtue of their birth.

In a world where the middle classes have been gutted while the burgeoning lower classes find themselves at the sword point of the aforementioned rise of technological unemployment, “Kerblam!” represents a situation where the house is on fire and someone just wrote a parable where the villain wants to blow up the house with everyone in it to put the fire out and in the end the heroes resolve to stay cool by drinking more ice water.

And yet, for so many, this seems to be the limits of their imagination, not just for this problem but all the major problems our society is currently facing. It’s apiece with telling those concerned about Global Warming to drive electric cars and recycle more. The problem isn’t the system, after all. It can’t be the system. I mean, there’s nothing better than the system. As Margaret Thatcher would have it, there’s simply no alternative.

And so there’s nothing left for us but to be thankful we have jobs at all while the world around us burns.

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Bibliography and Further Reading