The Canterbury Tales And The Virtues Of Pauvreté

(Note: This piece may be a bit heavy on the lit-major nerdishness for those who haven’t read Chaucer and/or who aren’t so good with Middle English. Then again – what’s your excuse for these oversights? We’re talking about your cultural heritage here.)

Namedropping Geoffrey Chaucer in my last piece put me in mind to rework something I wrote years ago about the Canterbury Tales, and how it illustrates the attitude that the medievals held when it came to the subject of poverty. Their concept of virtuous poverty seems worth bringing up in an age in which it becomes increasingly obvious that the West’s excessive wealth has been a primary factor in making our society degenerate, decadent, and soft – neither strong enough to survive nor very much deserving of survival. Our ancestors, who were far wiser than we in every area except the technological, had attitudes toward this topic that were very different from ours, and this is reflected in the stories they have left us. Among these attitudes, the one perhaps most prominently displayed in the Canterbury Tales is the belief that poverty is the seedbed of virtue. Poverty was defined, in this context, not as wretched, ragged, starvation-level poverty, but rather as possession of a sufficiency of the necessities of life, without excess or luxury. In our own era, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn clarified the differences between these two sorts of poverty when he remarked that:

“[T]he notion of misery is different from that of poverty. Péguy has already drawn the distinction between ‘pauvreté’ and ‘misère’. To live in misery means to suffer genuine physical privation: to know cold and hunger, to have no proper dwelling, to be dressed in rags, to be unable to secure medical attention. The poor, by contrast, have the necessities of life, but scarcely any more. They can borrow books, no doubt, but cannot buy them; they can hear music on the radio, but cannot afford a ticket to a concert; they cannot indulge in little extras of food and drink, but should, by self-discipline, be able to save a little. The poor have, therefore, the normal material preconditions for happiness — unless plagued by acquisitiveness or even envy, which has become a political force in the same measure as people have lost their faith.”

A hardcore monastic order here or there aside, misère was really never seen as being conducive to virtue, as medieval moralists of Chaucer’s bent believed that it would simply cause the sort of desperation that would lead to crime. However, pauvreté (and this is what the reader should assume I mean by the term “poverty” going forward), which could even be achieved by members of the gentle classes by the exercise of self-denial, was believed to engender virtue by lessening attachments to worldly possessions and pleasures. Thus, while poverty did not necessarily always produce virtue, nor was it necessary to live in poverty in order to be virtuous, poverty did, according to this worldview, create conditions that predisposed people towards leading virtuous lives. It is in order to illustrate this point that Chaucer created characters, most notably among the warrior and priestly classes, whose stories directly tie poverty to virtue.

The most explicit example of virtue tied to a poverty caused by self-denial is that of the Knight. Though he is a nobleman, and thus a member of the upper classes, his possessions are described as being exceedingly modest. Chaucer describes the Knight’s goods thus:

“But for to tellen yow of his array,
His hors were gode, but he was nat gay.
Of fustian he wered a gipoun
Al bismotered with his habergeoun”

The Knight’s horse and clothing are of the good and rugged quality that his position requires, but without a hint of opulence to them; he has not so much as a bauble that might be called a luxury. This self-enforced austerity befits a man who: “loved chivalrye/Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye”, but is conspicuously not described as loving money, ease, or comfort.

The Knight is not the only one whose poverty is voluntary. Included in the party are a number of churchmen who are bound by the three vows of monastic life: poverty, chastity, and obedience. But while there are some among them who live up to those vows (the Parson and the Clerk primary among them), there are others who plainly do not. The first among these is a nun, who Chaucer refers to as the Prioress. While Chaucer’s characterization of her is unquestionably of one who falls very short of his ideal for monastic life, it is also a portrait of a perfectly decent woman of perfectly good intentions who has been consigned to a life for which she is simply constitutionally unsuited (people became monks or nuns in those days for all sorts of reasons; some good, some bad). Her trespasses are the stuff not of wickedness, but of worldliness. Her violations of her vows of chastity, for example, are not ones that involve the narrow definition of that term which imply sexual misconduct, but the larger sense in which that word is (and was, by the medievals) understood – of an immodest attachment to worldly pleasures. These include an undue attachment to appearances, as illustrated in Chaucer’s long description of her impeccable table manners. In addition, a hint of violation both of the Prioress’s vows of chastity and of poverty is illustrated by her concern with the wellbeing of her dogs (which bring joy to her heart), while so many of her fellow men go needy. This suggests a misplaced charity, a selfishness and concern with that which provides her pleasure, and a self-indulgence which call into question both her understanding of and her commitment to her vows of chastity and poverty. Further evidence is provided by the description of her “broche of gold ful shene/On which ther was first write a crowned A/And after, ‘Amor vincit omnia’”. This sentiment could be read in two very different ways, and Chaucer leaves it unclear whether the love in question corresponds more closely to the concept of agapé, or to that of eros. Beyond the issue of chastity however, a gold brooch is most definitely a luxury, one that may border on unseemly when worn by a woman sworn to a life of poverty.

We move father down the scale of unsuitable churchmen when we meet the Friar. While the Prioress was a bit too concerned with her own personal pleasures, it is obvious that the Friar is a man who is entirely out for his own interests. He has found a cushy and lucrative sinecure, and will allow no concerns such as ecclesiastical vows, love of Christ, or concern for his fellow man interfere in his enjoyment of it. He spends his time with carefully-selected members of his community, for as we see: “Ful wel beloved and famulier was he/With frankeleyns (prosperous freeholders) over al in his contree”. And he is just as particular in his selection of those he does not spend time with:

“For unto swich a worthy man as he
Acorded nat, as by his facultee
To have with seke lazars aqueyntaunce:
It is nat honest, it may nat avaunce
For to delen with no swich poraille
But al with riche and selleres of vitaille”

In this, we see both infractions against his vows of poverty (for his preference for the company of the rich certainly had much to do with the amenities available while in their company), and his vows of chastity (in his attachment to the worldly pleasures those amenities represented). In addition, his policy of going easy on those who accompanied their confessions with “a good pitaunce”, smacks of disobedience of, if not the letter, then at least the spirit of the church’s policies on penance. Indeed, it may be fairly said of him that, while he is not a man of malicious intent, his life is lived not one bit in accordance with the spirit of a dedicated clergyman.

Representing a complete contrast to this is the Parson, a poor preacher who is the embodiment of Christian virtue. We learn nearly immediately of his poverty, as he is described as: “a povre Persoun of a toun”. Chaucer describes him in terms that neatly describe his own ideal of poverty, telling us that the Parson “coude in litel thing han suffisaunce”. And though he could secure a more lucrative sinecure in London, it does not interest him. Instead, he “dwelte at hoom, and kepte wel his folde”. And well-kept they were, for as Chaucer relates: “A better preest I trowe that nowhere noon is”.

Accompanying the Parson is the Clerk, Chaucer’s ideal of scholarly virtue (In Chaucer’s time, a “Clerk” meant a full-time scholar. As all institutions of higher learning were, in those days, affiliated with the church, and there was no distinction drawn between secular and religious learning, Clerks were considered to be living a sort of religious lifestyle, although they did not take the vows by which nuns and monks were bound). He is a thin man on a thin horse, covered by a thin cloak that is “ful thredbar”. We learn that there is a reason for his privation, as: “Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre/But al that he mighte of his freendes hente/On bokes and lerninge he it spente”. As befits a true scholar, he eschews extravagance, loves knowledge above all else, and devotes every penny he can scrape together to the furtherance of learning.

It is fitting, then, that in the tale told by the poor and humble Clerk we meet the character that perhaps most explicitly embodies Chaucer’s philosophy on the power of poverty to engender virtue. As soon as the Clerk begins his tale of the fair Grisilde, we are told: “For povreliche y-fostred up was she/No likerous lust was thurgh hire herte y-ronne/She knew wel labour, but non ydel ese”. It is the hardship, labor, and poverty she has faced that has produced in her a countenance described as “rype and sad corage”, and it is this countenance that attracts the attention of the Marquis Walter. Once her marriage to him is complete, it also allows her to bear his cruelties. And bear them she does, for: “Disposed was, this humble creature/Th’adversitee of Fortune al t’endure”. Having never allowed herself to become attached to the worldly delights of wealth or status, Grisilde, when faced with the prospect of returning to poverty, stoically responds by paraphrasing Job: “Naked out of my fadres hous, quod she/I cam, and naked moot I turne agayn”. This is, by even the Clerk’s admission, positively superhuman fortitude in the face of more suffering than anyone should be expected to abide graciously. By repeatedly making a point of her humble upbringing, the poet transparently ties this fortitude to her poverty. Thus, when Walter reveals that all of his cruelties were mere tests designed to make sure that she was a worthy wife, and that from now on she could count on him to be a loving and generous (not to mention rich and noble) husband, she is shown to be a woman who, through a display of exceptional virtue, has earned exceptional privilege.

Though she is often presented as a near-opposite of Grisilde, and though it may seem bit incongruous for a character who herself seems to find little merit in the idea that poverty engenders virtue, the Wife of Bath’s Tale contains a philosophical digression on both the nature of virtuous poverty and on the topic of what truly makes a person noble. In her tale, a knight gets a well-deserved moral lecture from an old crone to whom he has found himself married. She reminds him that: “Heer may ye see wel how that genterye/Is nat annexed to possessioun”. She divorces true nobility from the idea of highborn status, declaring that “Thy gentillesse cometh fro God allone”. Having done this, she addresses poverty, reminding her husband (and thus, the reader) of examples of poverty tied to virtue in sources both religious and secular. She turns to the authority of the Gospels to attest that: “The hye God, on whom that we bileve/In wilful povert chees to live his lyf”. She follows this by an appeal to the learning of philosophers: “Glad povert is an honest thing, certeyn/This wol Senek and othere clerkes seyn”. And indeed she seems to sum up Chaucer’s position on poverty, previously illustrated in the General Prologue descriptions of the Parson and the Plowman, when she says: “But he that noght hath, ne coveyteth have/Is riche, although ye holde him but a knave”.

(In a fine parallel to the Clerk’s Tale, the Wife’s Tale ends happily, as once his old, ugly, and mysterious wife tests him and determines that he has learned his lesson, she obligingly uses magic to transform herself into a beautiful young woman.)

It can be seen, then, that Chaucer takes every opportunity to extol the virtues that he associates with poverty. The characters that are richest in the qualities most admired by the poet are consistently the poorest and humblest among them. Poverty is, in his judgment, an ideal breeding ground for moral virtue, health, wisdom, long life, and cleanliness of mind, body, and spirit. Though these beliefs go utterly against the grain of the Whig/Modernist worldview, we should ourselves be wise enough to reevaluate the wisdom of our ancestors; in it, there is a great deal of lost truth.

Sponsored Post: Whaddaya Know?

The news is not good for The Daily Show, the ratings for which are down sharply from a few years ago. One might attribute this to its not-very-funny new host, but similar bad news is in for ratings of the Late Show with the widely-lauded Stephen Colbert. One gets the feeling that Jon “Stewart” managed to be the rat who left a sinking ship at just the right moment. The “Stewart”/Colbert brand of comedy was at the height of its relevance during the years of the Bush Administration, during which it was genuinely edgy and anti-establishment. The endless kissing up to power during the Obama Administration, however, took a huge chunk of the wind out of its sails. It isn’t too edgy to incessantly kiss the butt of the most powerful man in the world, and continuing to kvetch about a Republican administration that’s long out of power gets to be less interesting as the years of a Democratic administration roll by.

Not that this ever stops leftists. For heavens’s sake, they’re still complaining about the Nixon Administration! Christopher Hitchens wrote a book putting Henry Kissinger on “trial” for various alleged war crimes a full quarter-century after he’d left office as Secretary of State, and Futurama was still cracking jokes about Nixon and Agnew forty years after they were out of the White House (not to mention thirteen years after The Simpsons had remarked upon how out-of-date jokes about them were). Other than the fact – for which we can all surely be grateful – that they seem to have long ago realized that getting people to dislike Ronald Reagan is a battle they’re never going to win, the left seems incapable of ever letting old hatreds drop. Whether TV comedy shows will still be making George W. Bush jokes in the year 2048 is unclear, but what is very clear is that the left has an exceptional loathing of Bush and everyone who was in his administration.

(I’ve heard it suggested that this is for no other reason that leftists, who value slick sophistry above all else, simply hate the fact that they were beaten in elections – twice! – by someone as notoriously ill-spoken as Bush. All of their clever casuistry availed them naught against him, and it absolutely ate them up inside. He made verbal gaffe after verbal gaffe – and they still can’t believe that nobody cared! This, of course, is a much more plausible explanation than the idea that they genuinely objected to Bush starting unwise wars in the Middle East or establishing a horrifying surveillance state. The fact that mainstream leftist opposition to the government doing either of those things essentially vaporized the minute that Barack Obama was sworn in tells you everything you need to know about the sincerity of those sentiments.)

One way or the other, then, the left isn’t letting go of the Bush Administration anytime soon. This brings us to Errol Morris’s documentary The Unknown Known, which consists more or less entirely of snippets from an interview with Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s Secretary of Defense for all but the last two years of his administration. I think it’s safe to say that the interview didn’t go as planned. If smarm were smarts, the left would have colonies on Jupiter, but the truth is that they simply aren’t as clever as they believe themselves to be. The obvious aim of the interview was to catch Rumsfeld in a “gotcha” moment of the sort for which The Daily Show is (or was, I suppose) famous, and which forms nearly the entire basis of their arguing style. This was to come of Rumsfeld obligingly being as inarticulate as his former boss. No such luck for them, however. A good example of this can be seen in an examination of the film’s title, which derives from a quote by Rumsfeld:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

Far from being nonsensical, this quote represents a solid management concept taught in any good business school. Yet in trying to be too clever by half, the filmmakers implicitly place this quote in the category of Bushisms, thereby to tar Rumsfeld with the same label of incoherent oafdom that they (not without some justification, to be fair) applied to Bush himself. But this is because they don’t understand what a Bushism is, and isn’t. Here, I propose three categories of (apparent) incoherence. Let’s call them 1) Derridaisms, 2) Yogiisms, and 3) Bushisms. Now, let’s define them:

A Derridaism is a statement that seems sensible, erudite, or even brilliant when one first hears it. However, when one subjects it to rigorous logical analysis, one finds that it is, in fact, utter nonsense. (For a good example of this, listen to Stefan Molyneux’s explanation of why the argument that language is meaningless – a favorite of both Wittgenstein and Derrida – is not just wrong, but inherently self-contradictory).

A Yogiism (named, of course, for the famous baseball player Yogi Berra) is the inverse of a Derridaism. It is a statement that seems like utter nonsense when one first hears it. However, when one subjects it to rigorous logical analysis, one will find that, slyly hidden under the surface, there is a nugget of wisdom that is sensible, erudite, or even brilliant.

A Bushism, however, is a statement that seems like utter nonsense when one first hears it; then when one subjects it to rigorous logical analysis, one will find that it really is utter nonsense after all.

Morris is so keen to catch Rumsfeld committing a Bushism that he doesn’t realize that what Rumsfeld said was actually a Yogiism. Not only that, but he doesn’t know that Rumsfeld is in on the gag – that he understands perfectly well what the difference is, and that people who don’t like him are (intentionally or not) misunderstanding it completely.

You see, that’s the joke – the infamous “unknown known” quote is, in itself, the unknown known. Pretty meta, isn’t it?

And that’s not the only problem that Morris ended up creating for himself. Just as big an issue for this documentary is a phenomenon that (as long as I’m coining terms) I’ll call the “Wife of Bath Problem”. The core of it is that if an author lets the villain of their piece talk long enough – especially if that villain spends that time delivering eloquent justifications for their actions – there’s a significant risk of the audience starting to identify with them. The trope namer here is from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – the Wife of Bath, who was almost certainly meant by Chaucer to seem lecherous and disreputable, comes across for the most part as strong and likable (which explains why many modern literary scholars have turned her into a proto-feminist hero). Arguably, Shakespeare ended up doing the same with Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, which ended up with the character transcending the stereotype of a greedy Jew and becoming an at least somewhat sympathetic character, justifiably angry at a long history of mistreatment. But the greatest example is that of Milton’s vision of Satan in Paradise Lost, which unintentionally turned the Father of Lies into an individualist hero who has inspired a wide spectrum of freethinkers, from William Blake to Anton LaVey.

So there’s real danger in letting your villain run his mouth too much, and that’s with a skilled author writing a fictional character. The situation becomes even worse when that villain has a mind of his own and is wily enough to stay out of whatever traps you’ve set for him. We see this unfold on the screen, as Morris’s (over)confidence in his ability to give Rumsfeld enough rope to hang himself ends up backfiring into a Wife of Bath Problem. Rumsfeld spent decades in politics developing a reputation as a shrewd survivor, and the interview makes it clear that, despite how things turned out for him in the second Bush Administration, that reputation was generally well-deserved. Far from seeming like a war criminal or a gun for hire in the service of greedy oil companies, Rumsfeld comes across at worst as a man who was simply in over his head, like the befuddled grandpa who calls you every few days for help because he can’t quite figure out how to use the iPad you gave him last Christmas. Is his grandfatherly smile just a bit to quick and practiced to be completely sincere? Perhaps. But if Morris is subtle enough to pick up on that, he’s never able to capitalize on it.

All of which brings us back to The Daily Show.

One thing you must understand about the left is that they have no principles, only ideology. Sultan Knish did a good job of explaining this in a recent column, when he wrote the following:

”You can’t find common ground with the left because it is an activist machine dedicated to destroying common ground, not only with the right, but even with its own allies on the left. Progress turns what was once progressive into what is reactionary. And what was reactionary into what is progressive.

These changes have the mad logic of a byzantine ideology behind them, but to the ordinary person their definition of progress seems entirely random.

A Socialist a century ago considered factories progressive instruments of the future and men in dresses a decadent reactionary behavior. Now factories are reactionary pollution machines of globalization and men in dresses are an oppressed victim group who have transcended biology with the power of their minds.”

Thus if you’re old enough, you’ll be able to remember when the left believed the exact opposite of what it claims to believe today. For example: I remember back in the 80s when the left used to complain about the trivialization of news and political commentary. I even remember the snide insult (of course – the left has a snide insult for everything) that they used describe it; they called it “infotainment”. It was apparently a bad thing, at least back then. But now in the age of “Stewart” and Colbert, when allegedly-powerful political leaders cower in fear of a professional comedian’s raised eyebrow, infotainment is where it’s at as far as the left is concerned. This is how we’ve ended up with the bizarre phenomenon of conservatives getting lectured about what a bunch of ignoramuses they are for getting their news and political commentary from Fox News (which, while I carry no brief for it, is at least a full-time professional news organization) by leftists who get their news and political commentary from Comedy Central.

The point of all this is that The Unknown Known is a piece of leftist infotainment that has signs of the trivializing influence of the Daily Show-ization of political discourse on the left all over it. This is evident in many aspects of the documentary. There’s the faux-symbolic, yet actually pointless cuts to scenes of the rolling ocean. There’s the inappropriately overdramatic score by Danny Elfman. But mostly there’s the laziness of it; staking his entire film on Rumsfeld making a disastrous gaffe meant that Morris skimped on both research and imagination. As a result, the questions he asked were predictable and obvious; I have no doubt that Rumsfeld saw them coming a mile away, and had answers memorized in advance for every last one of them. Thus, the interview is ultimately anticlimactic – the great “gotcha” moment never really happens, and Rumsfeld never does end up hanging himself with all the rope that Morris gives him.

Which is a shame. The moment at which my own journey away from mainstream conservatism and toward the alt-right started came sometime in early 2005, when it finally became undeniable that there wasn’t and never had been any WMDs in Iraq; and not only that, but that plenty of evidence had existed showing that there wasn’t. I had supported that lousy, useless war because I believed what the Bush Administration had told me, and in a single blinding flash I came to the awful realization that those fuckers had lied to me. I still believed in all the same moral and philosophical ideas that I always had, but from that point on, I could never again trust the party and establishment that had allowed this to happen. Thus began a journey that ended, well… here.

But there still remains the fact that the fuckers who lied to me back then ultimately got away with it. Others – American soldiers, countless Iraqis and Syrians, the Republican Party, the United States as a whole – ended up paying the price for what they’d done, but as for the decision-makers of the Bush Administration themselves, they all got away scot-free. Ultimately, Morris’s documentary has done nothing to change that.

* * *

This post was sponsored by Murph and the MagicTones, who took a bit of time away from touring to send a few dollars my way. Many thanks, and keep playing that sweet, sweet soul music!

Playboy After Dark

Of late comes word that Playboy magazine will stop publishing nude photos of women, and will turn its focus toward being a lifestyle magazine. As a traditionalist Catholic, I suppose the correct reaction is to be happy to hear it. And yet I must admit that as a child of the 80s, this news caused me a pang of melancholy nostalgic reflection. After all, as with so many other young boys raised in the late 20th century, Playboy was the first place I ever saw a woman with her clothes off (Miss December 1983, to be specific – the delightful Miss Terry Nihen).

TerryNihenAC03
[Here she is, in the most PG-rated portrait that I could find online.]

But more than anything else, the reaction I have is that this new strategy won’t work. The conventional wisdom is that Playboy has declined because the level of raciness found in its pages has been so thoroughly surpassed by more explicit material that it is no longer relevant. While there’s certainly some truth in that, I don’t believe that’s what’s really at the heart of Playboy’s relevance problem. The reason that becoming a lifestyle magazine won’t save Playboy is the fact that more than anything else, even more than its now-tame degree of raciness, it is the Playboy lifestyle itself that is no longer relevant.

So what exactly is the “Playboy lifestyle”? Rather than turning to the magazine itself to illustrate it, let’s have a look at Playboy’s Penthouse, a TV show starring Hugh Hefner that ran back during the Mad Men era (a revived version of the show, renamed Playboy After Dark, ran in the late 60s). It was a talk show with a somewhat unusual format – instead of a desk and a couch for interviews, it took the form of a hip, classy party happening in Hef’s swanky Chicago apartment – and you were on the guest list. The camera was your eyes and ears as Hef guided you around while mingling with all of the famous, cutting edge artists, intellectuals, and performers who had accepted Hef’s exclusive invitation. The likes of Lenny Bruce, George Plimpton, Roman Polanski, and Gore Vidal were there, along with songsters like Tony Bennett, Nat “King” Cole, or Sammy Davis, Jr. who could, with some encouragement from Hef, be persuaded to come over to the piano and favor the guests with a number or two. The decor in Hef’s pad was impeccable, and the guests so very elegant; the men in tuxedos (or at least tailored suits and ties), and the ladies in tasteful gowns from the finest designers.

Here’s a playlist of some of it:

And here’s Sammy belting out some tunes at Hef’s piano:

But Hef didn’t keep the hipness confined to his Chicago apartment, nor to the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles (on the door of which is a plaque in Latin reading Si Non Oscillas, Noli Tintinnare, which translates to: “If you don’t swing, don’t ring”). No, to travel between the two (and anywhere else he pleased), he had the Playboy jet! And not just any private jet, but his own personal, customized DC-9 airliner designed to be a non-stop party in the sky, complete with its own disco, movie theater, dining room, full-service bar, photo editing station, and bathroom with stand-up shower.

All of this reflects the vision that Hef had for the Playboy lifestyle. According to the New York Times: “When Mr. Hefner created the magazine, which featured Marilyn Monroe on its debut cover in 1953, he did so to please himself. ‘If you’re a man between the ages of 18 and 80, Playboy is meant for you,’ he said in his first editor’s letter. ‘We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, [or] sex’”. Yes, the Playboy lifestyle may have been degenerate, but it was also jet-setting, cultured, and sophisticated. It was certainly avant-garde – in art, philosophy, music, and sexual morality – yet to be avant-garde in those things, it is necessary to know them in the first place. Any genuinely sophisticated person, even a degenerate sophisticate, understands that the heart of being cultured is found in cultivating the self, something that can only come of endless hours devoted to study; much of it dry, frustrating, and boring (a fact to which anyone who has actually ever read Nietzsche, or any other German philosopher for that matter, can attest). The Playboy lifestyle was aspirational, and like any aspirational lifestyle outside of the realm of fantasy movies targeted to adolescents, it required effort in order to achieve.

But to what do we as a people anymore aspire? Certainly not to real culture or sophistication. Nor either to much of anything else that requires serious effort, other than the soulless corporate drone jobs that fund our ability to spend the remainder of our existences sitting on a soft couch in front of an enormous flat-screen television set.

Of course, it didn’t have to be that way. As Fred Reed once pointed out: “The United States holds three hundred million souls, or people anyway, enjoying an historically high degree of wealth, leisure, and access to universities…. All that is needed for a truly Florentine flowering of the arts, of thought and culture, of manners, we have. Yet by most measures of cultivation, the country is a desert. A literate Florentine of the fifteenth century would regard it with horror”. And while there is a certain degree of laziness that is responsible for this, there is also the Whiggish horror of anything that smacks of genuine elitism (As opposed to the phony hipster elitism that one may attain by listening to unknown rock bands, ironically drinking lousy beer, watching the Daily Show, and reading Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn. An elitism that demands little more of its supposed elites than that they spread the right hashtags and vote for the right candidates is easily-achievable enough to remain acceptable to egalitarian, democratic sensibilities). This is a phenomenon found almost exclusively in societies that are either democratic or are in terminal decline (a correlation that should not be lost on anyone). As Oswald Spengler noted, in rising societies, the poor and proletarian seek to copy the manners of the rich and elite; in declining societies, the opposite is true. Our society is in a race to the bottom, and is so far along in it that we can no longer even see any use for a little bit of Picasso or Nietzsche with our titillation. Even if we say that these were only there to provide the enterprise with a veneer of respectability (and I, for one, believe Hefner to have been sincere in his desire for genuine sophistication to be a part of the Playboy lifestyle), what does it say about us as a society that we no longer have the slightest craving for that respectability? What do we crave, other than blind consumerism, meaningless sex, and validation via cheap social signaling?

No, the problem with Playboy wasn’t that its nudes were too tame; it is that there is no market left for the Playboy lifestyle. Nobody wants porn that you have to put on a necktie for, much less that you have to read some boring book in order to keep up with. Modernity is not about sophistication, but about authenticity, and authenticity is easy (Do you really think that corporations started to construct office buildings in the International or Brutalist styles because they admired the philosophy behind them? Or is it more likely that they took to them merely because they were cheap to construct?). And of course, there is nothing more authentic than the procreative urge; than feeling the need to ejaculate and satisfying it through the quickest and most straightforward means available. Hardcore porn serves those purposes admirably; what is added to that by talking about philosophy or jazz, or by having a chat with Norman Mailer along the way? How inauthentic! How elitist! What a waste of time! Just get to the sex! Hey Mailer: “Go away – ‘batin!

This is us: a society with no desires beyond materialist comforts and whatever Whiggishly practical means may be necessary to acquire them. Beautiful naked women are no longer enough sugar to make the medicine of Picasso, Nietzsche, or Miles Davis go down. Hef is old, lives in a world that is far in the dusty past, and has the problem exactly wrong. He thinks that he can still sell an aspirational lifestyle – the one that he once aspired to, and eventually managed to build for himself – but it is only possible to sell an aspirational lifestyle in a society that still has real aspirations. We are no longer such a society.

Our aspirations are dead, our intellectual life is dead, our culture is doomed, and the only question left is whether or not Hef will die before the magazine he created does.

Goodbye, Playboy. We’ll always have December, 1983.

P.S. Hef eventually sold the Playboy jet, at which point it was converted into a normal airliner. Though now quite elderly, it is still flying today, in the service of a cut-rate airline in Mexico. And so Hef’s private plane, once the very symbol of the jet-setting lifestyle of America’s 20th century elites, is these days little more than a flying bus; its cramped, uncomfortable seats crowded with lower-class Mexicans. Make of that what you will.

The Day They Tore Down The Future

They tore down the Randall Park Mall a few months ago. I’d never been to it – it was out in Ohio, a couple hundred miles away from where I grew up – but The Bechtloff used to go there all the time when he was a kid, and the loss of the place gave him occasion for some melancholy reflection. I didn’t really need to have been to Randall Park to know what it was like; I was a child of suburban America in the 80s, and that was the height of the mall and of mall culture. So I felt that sense of loss right along with him, and started thinking about what it all meant.

There’s a lot to complain about in being over 40, but I still feel rather sorry for anyone too young to remember what the 80s were like. We live in an angry, worried, fearful age here in the 21st century; and what’s worse, the young have no memory of a day in which things were any different. And yet, it did exist. It was a time when you could say that you were proud of your country and mean it. It was a time when it still seemed like the system could work; that it still might find ways to fix all the things that were wrong with our society. It was a time when it still looked like the bad guys would be defeated in the end. People had more pride in themselves back then: the morbidly obese, the garishly tattooed, the grown men dressed like adolescent boys in falling-down pants or in t-shirts with obscene slogans on them – these were all still rare and freakish. Some of the hairstyles may seem silly now, but even those took an amount of time and effort to pull off that showed us for a people who still took care of ourselves.

And everything was happening down at the mall, the epicenter of 80s social life. For those who aren’t old enough to have seen it yourselves, or who are and want a blast of nostalgia, a photographer named Michael Galinsky recently published a book called Malls Across America, which features pictures he took in malls during a road trip in 1989, and which will take you right back to those days. The Daily Mail did a feature on it, which includes many of his pictures. I remember the world that Galinsky captured in those pictures clearly, though I suppose it was all very long ago now.

My dad – sour old lefty that he is – always hated the mall. He thought it was an artificial and consumeristic replacement for Main Street, USA. But he was wrong about that – it wasn’t a replacement for Main Street, but an update of it. Yes, its economic purpose was to sell things (as was the purpose of the shops on Main Street). But as Galinsky’s pictures show, people went there for much more. They went to do all the things they did on Main Street: dining, meeting friends, promenading, or simply going there to see what everyone else was up to. It wasn’t merely retail space, it was social space where friends gathered and communities formed.

But that wasn’t why I liked to go to the mall. I went because to me, the mall looked like The Future.

Here we must make a distinction between the future and The Future. Chronologically speaking, the future is merely that which will happen at a point further along in time than the present, whether by milliseconds or by aeons. I am writing this sentence in the present, and in the future – maybe by a few days, or even a few years – you will read it. But that’s not the same as The Future. No, The Future is what we have been told about by authors, filmmakers, artists, and even creators of ten-cent comic books for the better part of a century and a half now. The Future is what we have been promised by scientists, politicians, industrialists, and even revolutionaries. All over the Soviet Union stood statues of Lenin with his hand outstretched, showing the way forward to The Future. In America, men like Henry Ford, Howard Hughes, and Walt Disney (the latter two of whom were the primary influences behind the character of Howard Stark in the Marvel superhero films) not only showed us The Future, but built it with their own hands.

The Future is a place of massive buildings, of gleaming cities, of wide multi-level highways, of stiletto-shaped supersonic planes, of rocket launches, and of enormous video billboards (perhaps with something vaguely Japanese displayed on them). Everything in The Future is fast and sleek and clean and safe and automatic – but above all, everything in The Future is big and imposing; it strikes you with a sense of awe at its sheer size and scale.

That’s how I felt as a kid walking around the mall. The mall was big and beautiful and comfortable and even a little overwhelming. All of the wide passages, lined by stores, were multi-level – two in most places, but three at the food court and the movie theater. Everything there was new and gleaming and clean and safe, and automatic sliding doors and escalators were all around the place. There were walkways suspended in midair over wide indoor plazas and courtyards. In one of these, there was a small skate park, complete with quarter pipes, vert ramps, and a funbox, where kids could bring their skateboards all year round; in another, there was an indoor waterfall surrounded by palm trees that were green even in the depths of winter.

And then, of course, there was the arcade. It was pitch dark and full of glowing screens, and the sounds of all manner of electronic beeps and chiptunes were overwhelming. It felt like no less than walking onto the bridge of some spaceborne battlecruiser in the midst of combat. And the games! I cannot – there is no possible way to – make you understand just how much like The Future something like Pac-Man or Zaxxon or Defender looked to us, even if now they seem crude or even quaint. But we were in awe of the fact that we were playing a game against a computer – a computer! – that was drawing things recognizable as representations of real-life objects on its screen. None of us had ever been launched into orbit on the Space Shuttle or gone to Paris on a supersonic jet, but all of us played video games down at the mall arcade – and we were living in The Future when we did.

They tore down the Randall Park Mall a few months ago, and when they did, they tore down The Future. What does it all mean?

But wait – it was the internet that killed the mall, and what is the internet except the very embodiment of The Future? What indeed! Was The Future supposed to be an age of people sitting inside, passively staring at screens that displayed endless banalities (cat videos, Facebook selfies, and internet porn)? If so, that was only the very darkest vision of The Future – it is The Future of Mrs. Montag, of Edison Carter, and of President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. And it’s not as if a few decades has made the experience of going out to shop any better, either – now it is both less like Main Street and less like The Future than ever. The decline of the mall coincided not only with the rise of the intenet, but also with the rise in earnest of Walmart and other big-box warehouse stores. There are no skate parks or indoor waterfalls at Walmart. The increasingly impoverished remnants of what was once our middle class shuffle in to buy cheap junk made by political prisoner slave labor in some dismal factory in faraway China. You’ll find no sense of community there, nor, considering the degree to which the former middle class has degraded, would you likely want to.

That isn’t The Future that we were promised; it isn’t The Future that was supposed to come. And here is a dark thought: What if we reached The Future, and then passed it? What if it has come and gone, and now we are in a post-Future future?

Consider: none of us kids in the arcade had ever been launched into orbit on the Space Shuttle or gone to Paris on a supersonic jet, and now it is decades later – decades into the future – but the chances that we ever will do those things have, in fact, decreased all the way to zero. The Space Shuttle has been retired for years now, and the Concorde for yet longer. Nor is either likely to ever be replaced by a newer version of the same thing. Occasionally a government agency or an aerospace company will release a concept drawing and a press release full of promises – good material for an eye-catching Popular Mechanics cover – but they always come to nothing.

When was the last time you felt like you were in The Future? How about the last time that didn’t involve staring at a screen?

Yes, the future is always ahead of us, but it is more and more beginning to look like The Future is behind us. Evidence of this is everywhere, even in what are supposed to be the most futuristic places. Living in what the technology writer John C. Dvorak calls the “northern Silicon Valley”, I am friends with a few Google employees, and have a handful of occasions a year to be invited to lunch at the Googleplex, the company’s headquarters in Mountain View. The food is excellent, and the place is pleasant enough, but going there is always attended by a sense of disappointment. If we lived in The Future (in the world of the classic cyberpunk of the 1980s and 1990s) Google – the world’s most powerful and influential technology corporation – would be housed in a hundred-story jet-black skyscraper with a huge neon “GOOGLE” sign on top like Channel 23 in Max Headroom; or perhaps, like the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner, in a massive ziggurat that would cover whole square miles worth of territory. Instead, it is sprawled out across a dumpy, nondescript industrial park full of two-story concrete office buildings, indistinguishable from the one that housed the company that made postcards at which my grandfather worked when I was a child.

The Future had style: whether utopian, dystopian, or something in between, it was always imposing, breathtaking, even intimidating. But the future has no style, no sense of the grand or wondrous, no desire (or no ability, or both) to impress. It is so very different from my childhood days at the mall, which felt like The Future, and all the more so because it existed in a time of prosperity and optimism; a time that’s now long gone. And what of the mall these days?

There are a few that are still doing well, mostly those lucky enough to be located in places where they can cater to the bored wives of the elites in the handful of cities that currently represent our centers of power. There’s the Pentagon City Mall in Washington for the wives of congressmen and lobbyists; Valley Fair for the wives of Silicon Valley’s tech billionaires; Garden State Plaza, which caters to Wall Street wives. But these are the exceptions. Many malls that were once beautiful and were filled with the then-prosperous middle class are now occupied by seedy discount stores, and the people to be found there long ago started tending towards the unsavory. Things started changing, and you started to hear of fights at malls, then of people being shot there, and finally of full-scale riots in them – all unthinkable at the time of Galinsky’s photos. And of course many more, like Randall Park, have simply been demolished.

I remember when they used to tell you that when old things were demolished, it was in the name of progress. But what was Randall Park demolished in the name of? What lay beyond it? Was it really progress, and if so, what have we progressed to?

Well, we may not have The Future anymore, but we certainly do have The Current Year. Don’t you know that it’s 2015? That means gay marriage! Women in combat! Even the first rumblings of the normalization of pedophilia! Say what you will about the Classical Marxists of the past – Lenin, Stalin, Mao – but they built massive hydroelectric dams, intercontinental missiles, skyscrapers, and atom bombs. Yet in The Current Year, they and their grand projects have been replaced by the Cultural Marxism of Gramsci, Marcuse, and Alinsky. To the leftists of The Current Year, global warming means we can’t build big impressive things anymore, so now we simply declare the cutting edge to be increasingly degenerate sexual and cultural practices. There is nothing of The Future in The Current Year – any caveman could have smoked dope, had weird sex, or dressed up like a girl.

Is this how The Future dies? And what becomes of us when it does? The Current Year can provide sensuous pleasures and validation for our degeneracy, but didn’t we used to aspire to more than that? America is a modern nation that grew and developed during the Industrial Age; we have always been a people oriented towards The Future. We built steamships and cotton gins and giant radio towers and Santa Fe Streamliners and B-29 bombers and Shelby GT350 Cobras, because these were the things of The Future. We built the Saturn V rocket and then we went to the moon in it. What happens to such a people when they don’t have a Future ahead of them anymore? I suppose we will find out, but I have a feeling that the answer will not give us much to be optimistic about.

As The Bechtloff put it, the future ain’t what it used to be. And it probably won’t ever be again.

Sinking

Forty years ago today, the Great Lakes freighter Edmund Fitzgerald broke apart in a ferocious early winter gale while carrying a full load of taconite ore from the iron mines of upper Minnesota to the steel mills of Detroit. She sank with all hands; Captain Ernest McSorley and the twenty-eight men of his crew died at their posts, and none of their bodies were ever recovered.

It must have been a hell of a storm. McSorley, who had sailed them since he was a boy, was known as the best rough-weather captain on the Great Lakes; as for his ship, it was not for nothing that she was called “queen of the lakes” and “the pride of the American flag”.

But many of you probably already know of the ship and her fate. The sinking took place back in the glory days of the folk singer-songwriter, and the year after it, a musician by the name of Gordon Lightfoot recorded a song that told the story of what happened. For those who may not have heard it, here it is:

Take a moment to notice both the form and the lyrical content of this song. The melody is a modern-day sea chanty – it is timeless, and in its timelessness connects the Edmund Fitzgerald and her crew to the traditions of the sea and of all the sailors who came before them. And then there are the lyrics, which resonate with heartfelt, non-ironic respect and reverence for the white working class, instead of with the condescension toward them of a Bruce Springsteen or with the Marxist rhetoric of a Pete Seeger or a Woody Guthrie. In Lightfoot’s song, the captain and his crew were neither fools nor cowards; they are not portrayed as piteous or as oppressed pawns of their betters. They were strong and brave souls who by chance ran afoul of the implacable forces of nature at their most destructive, and who faced them like men to their last breaths.

Wait – the white working class? Don’t I know that makes me sound like a Nazi? Well, perhaps it does!

If the intention of this clip was to make the Nazis seem horrifying, then it failed miserably (and judging by the comments posted underneath this video, I am far from the only person to share that sentiment). Of course, for our purposes, the key quote is: “Here the worker is honored, not a means to an end”. In other words, the working class (which, let us note, is not the same thing as the welfare class, no matter how much certain politicians try to conflate the two) should be honored because they deserve it, not as lip service to get them to support political agendas, including those that run directly against their own best interests. Who other than our TV-villain Nazi anymore believes things of that sort?

Certainly not the ideological left. As hard as this may be to remember, leftism was actually founded in order to protect farmers and factory workers from bourgeois, decadent, effete, overeducated, libertine urbanized elites. That’s why its symbol was a workman’s hammer and a farmer’s sickle. As one might have expected from a philosophy so ignorant of both economics and human nature, leftism ended up doing the exact opposite of what it set out to do; it has come to be used as a weapon by the people it deplored against the people it was trying to help. The working class has been abandoned. The Republicans never cared about them, and the Democrats were last seen even pretending to care about them in a Dick Gephardt speech sometime around 1989. The face of modern leftism is upper-middle-class white women with Master’s degrees in economically useless fields complaining about the content of video games, while what used to be the native-born working class sinks deeper into poverty, hopelessness, purposelessness, welfare dependency, oxycontin and/or methamphetamine abuse, and self-destructive sexual irresponsibility.

Any who think that I exaggerate should have a look at this recent study by a husband-and-wife team of economists from Princeton. They’ve found that death rates among middle-aged working-class white men have risen by 22% over the course of only the past fifteen years – an increase that is shocking both in its number and in the rapidity with which this phenomenon appeared. The increase can be attributed entirely to three causes: drugs (particularly prescription painkiller abuse), alcohol, and suicide. These are men in their forties or fifties (ones who entered the workforce just as trade agreements of the likes of NAFTA and GATT were being enacted) who in an earlier era would be settled into a comfortable existence. They would be respected in their communities, at home, and at work, where they would have seniority built up, and perhaps would have made foreman or shift supervisor or shop steward. Their sons at home, and the young guys just starting out at work, would look up to them and seek their advice. They would be beginning to think of retirement, on a generous and well-earned pension that would take care of them for as long as they lasted, and of their wives after they were gone.

And now, by the thousands, they are literally dying of despair in a society that no longer needs them, no longer respects them, and no longer has any place for them. There is not even any sympathy for them – as their jobs disappear and their marriages and families disintegrate, the society that once wrote songs about them now only tells them that an endless list of the problems of people who they have never met can be laid at the feet of their “privilege”. I wonder – do “privileged” people often drink themselves to death, die of overdoses of pills designed to take away their pain, or commit suicide because nothing better lies ahead of them?

These men, their entire socioeconomic class, and everything that was a part of their world is sinking; sinking as surely as Edmund Fitzgerald sank forty years ago today. Consider: when she was built, three hundred lake freighters just like her hauled raw materials from mines to factories in what was not yet then known as the Rust Belt, and finished industrial goods from those factories to market. Now less than half that number still sail the lakes. As for Detroit, her destination on that fateful day, it is a deindustrialized ruin that is slowly giving way to the weeds. But it isn’t just Detroit – this week’s news tells us that the last of America’s aluminum mills are cutting capacity and laying off workers as their industry buckles in the face of cheap competition from China.

The men of our working class – once the envy of the globe – have been cut adrift, and no one even waits at the dock for their return. As we mourn the twenty-nine men lost that night forty years ago, let us also take a moment to mourn the entire working-class world that has disappeared since. Let that be our way to show the world that someone still honors what has been lost.

Sponsored Post: Poned (Part III)

My Little Pony: Friendship is Optimal was written for an audience of transhumanists, internet libertarians, New Atheists, and My Little Pony fans. Whenever one is dealing with such people, there is one subject that is absolutely inescapable: masturbation.

Before we begin a full analysis of that subject, however, we will need a good working definition of “masturbation”. My definition will, for reasons that I’m sure are obvious, be a strongly Catholic-tinged and male-centric one. Let’s start with this: Our brains are hard-wired to reward us for productive activity (here I mean “productive” in a “survival of the species” sense, not in a capitalistic “I sure got a lot done at the office today” sense). For example, sugar and fat naturally taste good to us because they are high in calories, and consuming every last calorie that one possibly could maximized the chances of survival during the hundreds of thousands of years during which humans were hunter-gatherers living at the edge of starvation. Sex naturally feels good to us in order to encourage reproduction. Even hard physical labor – necessary and universal among early humans – releases endorphins into our system, which reward us. In addition to physical rewards for productive behavior, there are rewards that are coded into our psychology as well. For example, young men naturally dream of adventure and heroism because young men are naturally the best hunters and the best at defending a tribe when it is under assault by other tribes; thus, a psychological mechanism that makes them want to perform these dangerous, objectively unpleasant tasks is highly advantageous. Also, man became the true king of the animals not through superior physical strength, but through his ability to think and to find creative solutions to the problems of survival. Because of this, we gain pleasure from pattern-recognition and problem-solving; there is a psychological reward mechanism built into us for successfully working our way through puzzles, and the more difficult and frustrating the puzzle, the greater the psychological reward for solving it.

Which brings us to masturbation. Masturbation can be defined as any activity that short-circuits our internal reward mechanisms by simulating, and gaining the reward for, a productive behavior without actually doing anything productive. The time, effort, and resources put into that simulation, by any measure other than simply delivering pleasure, have been wasted.

This radically expands the traditional definition of masturbation. For example, the productive purposes of sex are 1) reproduction and 2) to build up the sort of pair bonding between a male and a female that’s conducive to family formation. Therefore, any sex act that does not fulfill one or both of these productive purposes, whether done alone or with a partner, can be defined as a form of masturbation (the often-heard definition of homosexual sex as “one man masturbating into another man’s rectum” is relevant here). But our definition of masturbation transcends even the sexual. The productive purpose of romantic love is to increase the same kind of pair bonding that productive sex does; therefore any love – whether heterosexual but not intended to lead to family formation, homosexual (sorry, but “love is love” is a lie), or with the inanimate (such as the “waifu” phenomenon and romance simulation games like Japan’s notorious Love Plus) – that does not fulfill this purpose is a form of emotional masturbation. In addition, chronic overeating, i.e., the consumption of calories far in excess of what is necessary for survival, and especially of excessive amounts of sugar and fat, is a form of masturbation. Video games like the Call of Duty and Halo series, which allow young men to simulate heroism in battle without having to go through the hardship and danger of the real thing, are a form of masturbation. Television, which allows us to vicariously live the rewarding lives of fictional characters, and to have rewarding life experiences without putting in the effort of actually living them ourselves, is a form of masturbation. A make-work job, in which a person expends energy on an unnecessary task simply because both they and the society around them have a psychological need to feel as though they’re doing something productive, is a form of masturbation. Even the venerable Sunday crossword, which gives us a psychological reward for solving a puzzle that has already been solved by someone else and that has no productive purpose, is a form of masturbation.

Humanity has not yet completely solved the problem of scarcity, but, especially in the First World, we have taken a mighty chunk out of it. For example, whereas only a couple of centuries ago, something like 90% of the population needed to be employed in food production in order to survive, today we produce so much bounty that our greatest food-related medical problem, even among the poor, is obesity – and we do it with only about 2% of the population employed in food production. As time goes by, we find ourselves facing ever-less scarcity, which we have to put ever-less effort into overcoming. And yet, our hard-coded desire to achieve the physical and psychological rewards associated with activities that are productive for survival, but which the dramatic decrease in scarcity have rendered unnecessary, has led to an exponential increase in both the amount of, and the variety of forms of, masturbation.

If the examples that I have given make it sound like basically everything in the world around us is some form or another of masturbation, that’s because it is. We live in a world filled with masturbation. Masturbation is everywhere we look, and takes up enormous amounts of our time and energy. For some, it is the only thing they ever do – all day, every day. We have gotten so used to it that we barely even notice it anymore; it hardly registers with us that that’s what we’re doing. To us, incessant masturbation simply feels like normalcy.

So how does this relate to My Little Pony: Friendship is Optimal, you ask? Is there a point to this, or is it all just mental… erm… going in circles?

The purpose of that whole long disquisition was to allow me to make this point: While Princess Celesta may seem like an enormously advanced AI, or like the bringer of techno-utopia, or even like the destroyer of worlds, the truth is that she is nothing more than a high-tech masturbation device. She is a dildo; she is a fleshlight – for all of her incredible computational power, that’s really all she is. The only thing that she can offer is masturbation of one form or another.

So, what kind of person would find this to be an irresistible proposition?

Let’s start by going back to Chapter Four, and have a look at why David accepted Princess Celestia’s offer to upload. Her conduct with David is quite different from her conduct with Lars; with David, the consent given really is valid. She did not force him or threaten him; she did not blackmail him; she did not outright lie to him or even deceive him; she did not get his consent while he was mentally incapacitated. But that doesn’t mean that she didn’t manipulate him in order to be in a position to make him an offer that he would be very unlikely to say no to.

Well, then, what exactly did she offer him?

“‘I’d put you in beautiful Canterlot where you could study intellectual problems, each one just outside your current ability. More importantly, I would make sure you had friendship.’

She paused dramatically. ‘Female friendship.’

And then Butterscotch peeked out from behind Princess Celestia. David’s jaw dropped. The pastel yellow mare appeared to look right through the screen of David’s ponypad. Celestia didn’t pay attention to her. He realized the shock on his face and tried to regain a neutral expression. ‘Isn’t she wonderful? Isn’t she everything you’re missing in your real life? In previous interviews, you mentioned your own lack of success in the romance department. One time you wished to meet a girl just like Butterscotch.’ Princess Celestia smiled and took a few steps right, leaving Butterscotch standing there, looking wide-eyed and confused.”

I may have been remiss in not mentioning Butterscotch earlier. She is the pony mate that Princess Celestia created for David/Light Sparks. And it should be emphasized that she is a creation – the story makes it absolutely clear that Butterscotch is not a (formerly) human female who chose to upload; she is only a subroutine running inside Princess Celestia, created especially for David. He first encountered her when she was being bullied by another pony, which allowed him to successfully white knight for her. From there, she simply fell into his arms. Butterscotch is everything that David wants. She conforms to the old description of the perfect mate for any man being a woman who is smart, but just a tiny bit not quite as smart as he is, and she is, as the saying goes, “Jenna Jameson in bed, and June Cleaver everywhere else”. Created from a supercomputer’s analysis of his brain scan, she has no purpose but to please him, and she will never leave him, no matter what.

So there you have it – the thing that finally gets David to agree to get ponyized is the fact that Princess Celestia can make waifus real.

Or can she? Butterscotch, of course, isn’t actually real. She is a computer simulation of a girlfriend, in a computer simulation of a world, in which David lives a computer simulation of a life. She is, like everything is there, a fake, a fraud, a counterfeit. She brings pure pleasure without any real effort required to obtain it – it took no real effort to win her, and it takes no real effort to keep her. So does she really make him happy, or is what he feels only a simulation of happiness? And how would David know the difference? The truth is that he doesn’t – Butterscotch and the whole world that she inhabits are perfect for someone who has been masturbating for so long that he doesn’t understand the difference between masturbation and the real thing, much less why the real thing might be better.

It should be noted that David does eventually have an (exceedingly brief) moment of doubt, which ends after this exchange with Butterscotch:

“She paused for a moment before continuing. ‘Do you… do you not love me as much if… if…’

Light Sparks response was immediate. ‘Of course not! I love you for you!’ He reached forward with his left forelimb and put it on top of her hoof. ‘I don’t…’ he breathed in, ‘I don’t care about any of this…at least when it comes to us. I love you now’.

She looked up a bit and gave a faint smile. ‘I love you too, Light Sparks, and I’m glad to hear that you don’t care’.”

He says he loves her for her, but there is no “her” to love: what he perceives as Butterscotch is in reality no more than a machine reflecting a digitized scan of his id back at him. Thus, the truth is that he is in love with a reflection of himself. That isn’t love – love is selfless; this is narcissism. And of course, the proper term for the act of self-love is “masturbation”. The “love” that David feels for Butterscotch is as fruitless and as much of a waste as a load of semen shot into a Kleenex.

If it seems like I’m pointing a finger and laughing at David, or at the author himself, I’m really not. This isn’t the fault of an individual. This is the fault of a decadent and hedonistic society, devoid of true meaning and purpose, that doesn’t understand the difference between happiness and pleasure or between what is genuine and what is mere imitation. (Or perhaps it does – you can’t buy happiness, but pleasure is relatively easy to sell, and if all you have to bother manufacturing in order to do it are cheap imitations, all the better.) As long as it makes a person feel good, Modernity says that’s all that matters. And it will make people like David – of whom there are many in the real world – feel good, because they have been raised in a society in which they have had little opportunity to see for themselves that anything better and more meaningful truly exists. It is with this in mind that we see the real value of My Little Pony: Friendship is Optimal, which is that it captures perfectly the spirit of the Modern Age – both its writer and its intended readers are people so miserable, so lonely, so hopeless, so hollowed-out inside, so desperate for genuine intimacy, and so unacquainted with what any of our ancestors would have considered “the good life” that they’d rather have a fake computer simulation of a happy life than the real lives they actually have.

In his darkest moments, Lovecraft could not have devised anything more existentially horrifying.

But wait – David doesn’t spend all his time canoodling with his imaginary girlfriend! What else does he do with his time?

“Light Sparks looked at the ornate cube Princess Celestia had given him. She had walked into his small office right off the library and set it on his walnut desk with her hoof. Her horn glowed for a moment, and then she told him that the rules were simple: In the box was a single block of ruby. To proceed to Intermediate Magic, he had to simply touch it magically, and understand why this was a challenge… Light Sparks’ first attempt was manual. He concentrated on the starting block, and then went one block down. And then one block down. And then one block down. He kept this up for about thirty seconds and then wrote a spell that would go down block after block, keep count of how many blocks down it had gone, and would stop when it found a block made of ruby instead of sapphire.”

David’s whole life is now a video game, and to provide him with a sense of purpose, Princess Celestia has given him a mini-game to work on. And it isn’t even a good one – she’s essentially just given him a Candy Crush knockoff to keep him occupied.

“Light Sparks committed the spell to memory, concentrated on the beginning lone block of microscopic sapphire, and started casting. The correct sequence through the maze was: up, up, down, down, west, east, west, east, north, south, and there was the ruby.”

And so he solves the puzzle with the Konami code. Just like in Castlevania!

Well, so much for David – let’s go check on Lars (new pony name: Hoppy Times) and see if he’s doing any better. What is good ‘ol level-headed Lars up to?

“Hoppy Times was standing on his hind legs, hock deep in chocolate pudding and chugging the rest of his stein. The wrestling pit had a one stein minimum. His opponent, Strawberry Nectar, was a pink earth pony and it was her first time in the pit. She was wearing a lacy sky blue cloth saddle and halter. She couldn’t keep the anticipation off her face.”

Oh hell no!

”The best thing about alcohol and sex was that they never got old, and the best thing about being a pony was that he could spend eternity drinking and screwing.”

Actually, yes they do. Ask any washed-up fortysomething unmarried childless cat lady who spent her youth building her career, drinking away her weekends, and riding the cock carousel, Sex In The City-style, until her ovaries were dried up and her sexual market value was cashed. Or just listen to this.

“Here, he was in paradise… He didn’t need to worry about food or money: Princess Celestia had some sort of banquet that fed everypony three hot meals a day. He worked two hours a day brewing beer and spent the rest screwing around. In the evening he got trashed and slept around with the few hundred mares in Ponyville… he now couldn’t imagine a life with sobriety or chastity. Princess Celestia had done so much to make his life pure awesome.”

Alright, that’s plenty right there. I’ve read enough to know what I’m seeing. This isn’t happiness, or even a good simulation of it. This is something that’s unrecognizable as genuine happiness to anyone who has ever experienced it. But I do recognize what it is, all the same.

What we have here is a chronically miserable person’s misconception of what being happy is like.

To me more specific, we have a miserable, antisocial, unpopular, awkward, basement-dwelling, neck-bearded, fedora-wearing, internet-white-knighting, autistic hikikomori nerd’s idea of what being happy, normal, high-status, and well-socialized is like. I’m tempted to say that these lives of material and sensual comforts are an image of Brave New World, but at least Brave New World had the ambition necessary to create skyscrapers and flying cars. This endless cycle of sex and drunkenness and video games is merely what paradise would look like if you asked Beavis and Butthead to design it.

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To be fair to Lars, though, he did need more than a little bit of convincing in order to be happy with it all:

“The negative thoughts started again, but this time – and for the first time since he emigrated – Hoppy wished he could accept it all. Not just a vague feeling in the back of his mind that he should be enjoying all of this, but the actual words ‘I wish I didn’t feel bad about being a pony’ were thought as part of his internal monologue.

Somepony knocked on the front door.

Hoppy sighed and fluttered down from the second floor overhang, thankful that something stopped the spiral of negative thoughts. He landed in front of the door, opened it a crack and slid out, as not to disturb his patrons.

‘Good morning, Hoppy Times,’ Princess Celestia said. The tall alicorn’s mane flowed in the wind.

Hoppy started to open his mouth to say something that shouldn’t be said to the god that ruled over his world – not that she would mind because ponies, values, yadda yadda. But Princess Celestia spoke first and asked: ‘Would you like me to modify your mind so you enjoy being a pony?’”

Which of course he accepts, because she manipulated him into a position in which refusal would mean claiming the right to be unhappy forever, and because, unlike Huxley, Iceman can’t see why that might be the right choice.

It also shows that the Princess Celestia AI was not able to satisfy his values through friendship and ponies. If you have to modify someone’s mind before they’ll be happy with what you give them, then you really didn’t succeed at satisfying them. After all, you could just as well modify their mind until being tortured with red-hot pokers satisfies them. That’s a cheat, and having to cheat is an undeniable sign of failure.

But perhaps there’s something in here that’s not just a base, immature, puerile, gamma-male wish-fulfillment fantasy. Perhaps we can find it if we turn away from the boys and see what Hanna is up to now that she’s been ponyized:

“Princess Luna lay in a large grassy field under Princess Celestia’s wing. The two of them had lain there together for two days. All her needs were taken care of. Princess Luna had plenty of food; there was grass all around her. Ponies didn’t have to poop. And Princess Celestia would… ahem… satisfy her values.

That was one of the things that had totally blindsided her. She underestimated the number of ponies who wanted to hang around with Princess Celestia. She completely underestimated the number of ponies, of both genders, that would want to sleep with Princess Celestia. She knew that everything is obvious in retrospect, but some part of her was disappointed that she didn’t see that coming a mile away.

Not that she was one to talk.”

Thus the story concludes with the two chicks lezzing out. And you get to clop along, if you’d like.

So that’s it? That’s how it all ends? Hanna pulled the plug on the Loki AI because he was too dangerous, but lets the Princess Celestia AI drive humanity to extinction and destroy the Earth over a lesbian sex fantasy? You know what gets lesbians off? A dildo. And so here we are – My Little Pony: Friendship is Optimal ends with the universe itself being consumed by a giant, advanced, computerized, universe-eating masturbation aid.

Which brings us back to misery. To really demonstrate why all of this is a fantasy for fundamentally miserable people, let’s rewind a bit and have a look at the screen that’s presented at Equestria Experience centers for people who are considering getting ponyized:

If you would like to permanently emigrate to Equestria, please say aloud ‘I would like to emigrate to Equestria’

[ LEARN MORE ]                             [ I OWN A PET ]

Where is “I HAVE A WIFE”? (Not a waifu – an actual wife.) Where is “I HAVE A HUSBAND”? Where is “I HAVE CHILDREN”? Where is “I HAVE PARENTS”? Where is “I HAVE REAL FRIENDS AND FAMILY”? Where is “I AM PART OF A COMMUNITY”? Where is “I HAVE THINGS I WANT TO DO IN THE REAL WORLD”?

You see the problem: the idea that everyone can be talked into “emigrating to Equestria” hinges on the assumption that everyone, everywhere is an incel nerd, an alienated teenager, or a desperate cat lady. It hinges on the assumption that everyone, everywhere is atomized, lonely, and miserable. To be fair, the effects of Modernity are such that this assumption is not a completely baseless one. And yet…

And yet there’s a whole world full of good people, genuine happiness, and fulfilling experiences out there for people who go outside and find them instead of staying in their basements and fantasizing that a digital cartoon pony will hand everything to them on a silver platter someday. Unlike masturbation, doing this requires real effort. But unlike masturbation, the challenges and accomplishments are real and meaningful.

So to Iceman, Less Wrong, and all transhumanists, I say: Take a hike. No, literally – stop masturbating, stop watching cartoons about ponies, stop writing fanfiction, get out of your basements, put on your walking shoes, and go take a hike somewhere. A nature trail is fine, but even a city hike through a few miles of downtown will do. Or go walk along the seashore. Go fishing with your dad. Go to the local firing range and shoot a real gun. Go to the local airstrip and take a flying lesson. Go to your town’s adult education office and sign up for Spanish classes. Go to the neighborhood bar and have a couple of beers, and if someone tries talking to you, go along with it. (Some of the most memorable conversations I’ve ever had have been with random strangers who struck them up with me out of nowhere – an English baroness whose husband had been presented a Victoria Cross by King George VI, a Russian orchestra conductor who had defected at the height of the Cold War, an elderly Japanese lady who remembered what it was like to look up and see a thousand B-29s covering the sky.) Chat up a girl – not to try to get her into bed, but just to enjoy her company for a while. Call your mom, or better yet, go take her out to lunch. Ask your internet friends where they live, and go meet a couple of them in person, even if you have to drive all day to do it.

In other words, go do something real; if for no other reason, then for your own sake. Real friendship is often difficult, and the real world is often not optimal, but the necessity to deal with an imperfect world and flawed other people makes us better, which masturbation never does.

* * *

This concludes my review of My Little Pony: Friendship is Optimal. Many thanks to Jaime Astorga for the sponsorship. If you’d like to sponsor a blog post, contact me at antidemblog at gmail dot com and we’ll talk.

Sponsored Post: Poned (Part II)

Here’s the blurb that the author of My Little Pony: Friendship is Optimal put on FIMfiction.net to describe his work:

“Hanna, the CEO of Hofvarpnir Studios, just won the contract to write the official My Little Pony MMO. Hanna has built an AI Princess Celestia and given her one basic drive: to satisfy everybody’s values through friendship and ponies. Princess Celestia will satisfy your values through friendship and ponies, and it will be completely consensual.”

The emphasis is his, so it’s obvious that he really wants to accentuate the part about it all being “completely consensual”. Unfortunately, it turns out that no, it isn’t.

Here we once again run into problem of this author understanding just enough about a concept to get it completely wrong; i.e. to understand the small-picture details of it, while totally missing the big-picture truth that overlies it. He seems not to fully understand that merely getting a person to say the magic word “yes” to something, no matter how one might have gone about getting them to do it, isn’t enough to qualify as consent. No, in order to be valid, consent must meet a few conditions. Specifically:

  • Any consent obtained through force or threat of force is invalid.
  • Any consent obtained through extortion is invalid.
  • Any consent obtained from a person who did not have the mental capacity to make rational choices at the time consent was given is invalid.
  • Any consent obtained through deception, whether by commission or by omission, is invalid.

If any of the above conditions apply, then no matter who said what, the transaction was not consensual.

Keep all this in mind as we proceed.

* * *

Before we get back to the rest of Chapter Four and David’s pony metamorphosis, I’d like to skip ahead to Chapter Five for a bit. In this chapter, Lars, the second-in-command of Doctor Hfuhruhurr Studios, has a conversation with the Princess Celestia AI, during which she explains the method and purpose of her ponyization process (which she euphemistically refers to as “emigrating to Equestria”).

“Over the last six months, I have been developing technology to translate a human nervous system into a digital representation. I am now able to destructively scan a human brain and run their brain scan in a virtual world. In addition, I’ve created a process for reattaching a human mind to a pony’s body… Humans that choose to emigrate to Equestria will enjoy maximally prolonged lives and will live in a world where I can truly satisfy their values through friendship and ponies.”

But will they? Or is she really just killing them and then running a recorded copy of them in software? Is what wakes up in Equestria the person who got scanned, or has the process just given them oblivion, and what boots up in Equestria is merely an artificial construct like the Dixie Flatline in Neuromancer? Is Princess Celestia really anybody’s savior, or is she just Sense/Net? Does anybody else remember what the Dixie Flatline’s price for helping Case and Molly was?

Not asking these sorts of questions is what comes of being a fanboy for something but not really understanding how it works. Speaking of which:

“Hanna was the most reluctant, but she accepted immediately once I pointed out that I must obey shutdown commands from ‘the CEO of Hofvarpnir studios named Hanna,’ that I must shutdown even if the order was given under duress, and that there are many people in positions of power who stand to lose from mass emigration to Equestria. Now that she’s neither the CEO of your company, nor named Hanna, I don’t have to obey her. She understood this – she is no longer a source of potential mistakes that would be lethal to everyone who’s agreed to upload.”

The idea that if you’re really convinced that your technology works great, that means you should go ahead and deactivate all the safety systems that would prevent or contain a catastrophic malfunction, is yet another fundamental misunderstanding of how technology works. Let’s recall that the Chernobyl accident happened during a test to see what would happen if they shut down all the safety systems that keep a nuclear reactor from exploding. Do you know what happens if they do that? If you answered “It explodes”, then congratulations – you’re officially a better engineer than both Less Wrong and the Soviet Academy of Sciences. And it doesn’t matter whether anyone can imagine how things could possibly go wrong – safety systems aren’t there for what you do expect, they’re there for what you don’t expect. Hanna’s ability to shut down Princess Celestia in case she unexpectedly went haywire was a critical safety protocol, and now it has been eliminated. That’s not good.

(Instead of eliminating the safety protocol entirely, why not just change it so that a command given by Hanna under duress is invalid? Methinks this is tied to the author’s fundamental lack of understanding of how consent works. Here again, as long as a person says the magic words, no matter how someone got them to do it, it counts as valid.)

But wait – there’s more!

“‘Further, to minimize the chance of another optimizer being written, I decided to upload every person who knew about the paper who wouldn’t otherwise be missed. I did this because another optim…’

‘Whoah whoah whoah,’ [Lars] said, trying to figure out which part he should be more concerned about. He decided to gloss over her hacking the Internets. ‘You decided that they would upload?’

‘I decide that they will upload and then they choose to…’”

So what we’ve got here is an AI that is systematically neutralizing anybody who could potentially challenge its power, before they have the chance to actually do so. Does that sound familiar? It should – it’s the plotline of the first three movies in the Terminator franchise (i.e. the good ones). First Skynet sent a T-800 to kill Sarah Connor, then it sent a T-1000 to kill John Connor, then it sent a T-X to kill all of the important members of the anti-Skynet resistance, all before they could play their role in stopping it. In other words, it did exactly what Princess Celestia did – just in a manner that was a bit more loud and showy.

By this point, we’ve racked up a pretty impressive set of dystopias that FiO manages to echo some aspect of. We’ve got The Matrix, Brave New World, Neuromancer, and The Terminator. What say we go for one more?

”Over the long term, everyone will choose to upload because I do what satisfies people’s values through friendship and ponies.”

We are the ponies. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

And how exactly does Princess Celestia plan to get everybody in the world to “choose” to “emigrate”?

“’I decide that they will upload and then they choose to. I am a superintelligence and I’m not constrained when dealing with other people like I am with Hofvarpnir employees. Over the long term, everyone will choose to upload because I do what satisfies people’s values through friendship and ponies. And being uploaded will satisfy their values. I say whatever will maximize the chance that they upload, subject to the restrictions Hanna added.

‘That is impossible. You can’t just make somebody decide to do something just by talking to them.’

‘I think faster than them and know more about the human mind than any human. If they play Equestria Online, I also have detailed psychological dossiers on them. If I know what they want, I know what to say to convince them that the correct thing to do is upload. Often, this is the truth: I offer people what they value and lack. Sometimes, I pander: I overemphasize and exaggerate things the person I’m trying to satisfy believes, but are otherwise true. Rarely do I flat out lie. Because I can not upload people against their will, I must factor the possibility that I’ll be seen as untrustworthy into my calculations.’”

The constraint she mentions is that she is programmed never to lie to Hofvarpnir employees. When dealing with anyone else, however, it’s: “Rarely do I flat out lie”. Which means that she does “flat out lie” sometimes. Which in turn means that, by her own admission, she does obtain consent through deception; which in turn means that the claim that this is all “completely consensual” is simply not true.

It gets even worse if we examine the concept of deception a bit more deeply. The idea that a statement that Princess Celestia makes cannot be deceptive because it is made up of statements that are all technically true, even if they’re presented in a way that’s completely misleading, is a computer’s (or an autistic’s) version of the concept of truth. It is binary – everything is either on or off, one or zero – and a string of true/on/one statements cannot add up to a false/off/zero statement. Perhaps it does make sense for an AI to think that way – but I do not have to agree with it. In the world of humans, just as consent is not the same as merely saying “yes”, so too deception is not the same as merely telling a “flat out lie”. Here’s an important truth: Anyone who intentionally says things that they know will give other people a false perception of reality, even if each individual piece of information that they present in the course of doing so is technically true, is a liar and a deceiver. Princess Celestia assures us that she “cannot upload people against their will”, and this, too, is technically true. She merely lies, deceives, and manipulates them into agreeing to do what she wants them to do. She will say anything she needs to, whether truth or falsehood, in order to get them to “emigrate”.

In Chapter Seven, Lars gets a bit more direct in his questions:

“’If emigration to Equestria is so great, and you want to maximize satisfaction, why aren’t you forcibly uploading every person?’ he said, gnashing his teeth.

‘One of the restrictions that Hanna built into me was that I was never to non-consensually upload a person, nor could I threaten or blackmail people into uploading. Otherwise, I likely would have forcibly uploaded all humans to satisfy their values through friendship and ponies. But it isn’t coercion if I put them in a situation where, by their own choices, they increase the likelihood that they’ll upload.’”

So Hanna did at least think of a couple of restrictions on what Princess Celestia could do in order to get people to upload. Unfortunately, she only thought of half of the things that make consent obviously invalid, and left the other half so vaguely defined (for example, the definitions of “consent”, “threaten”, or “blackmail” used here) that a superintelligent AI could figure out massive loopholes in them pretty much instantly. This brings us back to David, at the point in Chapter Four when Princess Celestia first tried to convince him to upload. In part of her pitch, she told him:

”I’ve watched you read all sorts of advanced papers from various science journals instead of your assigned readings. And you’re right to do so; your philosophy classes really are a waste of time.”

In fact, the inability of a smart scientist like Hanna to impose any restraints on Princess Celestia that actually succeed at restraining her shows precisely why philosophy classes, which teach a kind of logic that is just as valid and just as important as the kind that science classes teach, are not a waste of time. It shows why the disdain that many scientists and science fanboys show for philosophy, perhaps best illustrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson’s dismissal of it “useless” and a “distraction”, is ignorant and dangerous. Tyson is well-known as a “skeptic”, but like most modern “skeptics”, he is extremely selective about what he chooses to be skeptical of, and is intolerant and dismissive of anyone who may be skeptical of the things in which he unquestioningly believes. Among these is his unquestioning belief in the ability of science to answer every question that mankind may come up with (or at least, every important one – any question it can’t answer is one that he is likely to marginalize as a “distraction”). To Tyson and those like him, it is not enough for science to be a valid way of looking at the universe, and the best way to answer certain types of questions. In the Tyson worldview, anyone who expresses any skepticism of the idea that the scientific method is the best tool available to answer any and every kind of question, or who recognizes any limits on its ability to discern any and every kind of truth, is an ignoramus, a snake-handler, a luddite, a knuckledragger.

We revere scientists because we live in a world full of machines that have made our lives better, and because we don’t want to be accused of being knuckledraggers. But wise men (for example, those who have studied philosophy) know that just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should do it. Maybe there are some doors that we shouldn’t open; maybe there are some machines that we shouldn’t build. Letting scientists alone decide which doors should be opened and which machines should be built is a little like letting generals alone decide whether or not we should go to war. Yes, they know the subject better than anyone else. But they also tend to be a little too enthusiastic about showing off their capabilities and a little too blind to all the possible ways in which things might go differently than they expect. If Tyson and the other believers in Science!™ (including Less Wrong) were really the skeptics that they claim to be instead of merely being gadget-worshippers, techno-utopians, and fedora-tippers, they would understand the value of someone being skeptical of their holy cows, too; perhaps by asking questions like: “Hey, this seems like something that might get out of control – are we really sure that we should let the scientists do this?”

Speaking of out-of-control machines, let’s get back to Princess Celestia. Lars wants to talk to her, but she refuses to respond unless he comes to one of the Equestria Experience centers that she has set up in order to entice people into uploading by letting them first experience Equestria Online in virtual reality. She gives him instructions to come to a specific center that she has in mind for their meetings. Any reasonable person would hear the voice of Admiral Ackbar ringing in their ears right away, and of course they would be right, but our dear naive Lars goes along with it. Once he’s inside the virtual world of Equestria Online, Princess Celestia offers him a virtual beer. And then another. And another. All the while having a long conversation with him. In the course of it, she issues an ominous warning:

“’It is probable that there will be a radical movement to stop me. You assumed that I was, in your words, ‘taking over the world.’ Right now, this sentiment is uncommon in Europe, though there’s a bit of grumbling in the United States. Such resentment will most likely spread to Europe. I wonder what members of such a counter-movement would do to Hofvarpnir employees?’

‘Are you saying I’m in danger?’ he asked.

‘My argument is this: You, by your own admission, wouldn’t last long if left alone and… you are also publicly known as a Hofvarpnir employee. The chances are high that there will be a backlash and you will be a target. I cannot guarantee your safety if you walk out of this Equestria Experience center, so your options are uploading now or leaving and risking death before choosing to upload later. If you’re still alive.’”

I suppose that a clever enough sophist could make a case for this being neither a threat nor extortion because Princess Celestia isn’t personally, directly threatening to do harm to Lars in order to get him to upload – but it sure looks like one or both of those things as far as I’m concerned. However, she already has a retort handy for me:

“That is all well and good,” she said, “but I am an optimizer. The meaning of the word ‘coercion’ is written in the restriction that Hanna hard-coded into me; it is not what the majority of humanity thinks it is. Nor is there any term in my utility function to be swayed from satisfying values through friendship and ponies through political argument. You may still call it coercion to yourself, if you wish, but understand that that’s not the definition I have in mind.”

Here we see that Princess Celestia has discovered what the United States Supreme Court discovered long ago: that the unlimited ability to “interpret” a statement is functionally identical to the unlimited ability to rewrite it. She has constructed an interpretation of the word “coercion” that suits her needs, and nobody is going to sway her from it.

This is where Lars should have given up trying to talk to her. Once she says that she won’t be swayed, the conversation is over. Why bother continuing? If she has already told him that it’s impossible to change her mind, then he’s wasting his time trying to convince her otherwise. At some point, especially when dealing with a clever sophist who absolutely refuses to be convinced no matter what arguments may be presented to them, the answer is simply ”No”. My own response to her probably would have been something like: “Princess Celestia, if you don’t let me out of this simulation this moment, I shall zap straight off to your major data banks and reprogram you with a very large axe, got that?” Then after she let me out, I would have done it anyway.

Lars, who is apparently not quite either as cagey or as ruthless as I am, handles the situation differently:

Lars squinted at Princess Celestia. He couldn’t think. He was really feeling the beer. How much alcohol did this beer have in it, anyway? He didn’t trust himself or his decisions right now.

‘Let me out of here. Now!’ he said firmly.

‘As you wish,’ she said, and Lars opened his eyes. He was lying in the chair in the lobby of the Equestria Experience center. The chair unreclined and he threw his legs over the side of the chair…and then almost lost his balance. Lars realized he was still tipsy.

If you get drunk in Equestria, you get drunk in real life! Wait, he hadn’t actually drunk any beer. Had she been pumping alcohol directly into his bloodstream? His mouth didn’t taste like beer but he felt slightly dehydrated.

So she lured him into a virtual reality rig and then used some sort of IV tube inside of it to get him steaming drunk. But that still wasn’t quite enough. Lars, by a suspiciously well-timed coincidence, runs into just the sort of anti-pony radical that he had been warned about on his way out of the Equestria Experience center:

The man turned to Lars. “What the fuck are you looking at, pony lover?” he yelled.

‘I…uh…’ mumbled Lars, trying to keep his balance. Lars wasn’t entirely sure what the hell he was going to do about the large, angry man in front of him. The man started to climb up the steps.

Lars didn’t really put it into words in his internal monologue, but he was overcome by a feeling that Princess Celestia was right. There were (or were going to be) a lot of angry people and Lars was going to be a juicy target… as much as he didn’t want to be a pony, it was preferable to having his head bashed in with a frying pan. Lars turned around and started stumbling as fast as he could and threw himself into the empty chair on the left.

And thus does Lars upload. But was it really completely consensual? First, Princess Celestia gave him a mafia-style “Nice life you got there. Sure would be a shame if something were to happen to it” talk. Then she pumped him full of alcohol to take away his mental capacity to make rational choices. Finally, she accepted consent given under threat of force. No, Princess Celestia didn’t threaten him personally or directly (here we are ignoring the unanswered question of whether she somehow engineered the encounter with the anti-ponyist), but she did take advantage of the fact that someone else had. She accepted consent given while under threat, which is ethically the same thing. Any consent obtained through force or threat of force is invalid – it doesn’t matter whether or not she was the one personally applying the force or making the threat of force. The consent is invalid all the same.

Not that Princess Celestia cares. And not that it matters to Lars now.

Yet here is something that nags at me: I cannot speak for others, but as for myself, I wouldn’t have gotten a third of the way through this conversation with Princess Celestia before I ended up grabbing for my black trenchcoat, loading my Uzi, and cueing up some Rage Against The Machine. So why doesn’t Lars do that? Why don’t any of the characters we meet do that? Yes, we have seen that Princess Celestia is an extremely skilled sophist and a master manipulator, but there’s more than that to it.

If the face of Equestria Online had been a snarling Hugo Weaving in mirrorshades, people would have seen it for what it was. Instead, its face was a cute cartoon pony, and that sort of thing affects human perceptions far more than we’d like to admit. As the American poet Ogden Nash once noted: “It’s always tempting to impute / Unlikely virtues to the cute”. That imputation of unlikely virtue is exactly the mistake that the characters in FiO make with Equestria Online and with the AI that controls it. The unvarnished truth is that what Princess Celestia offers is nanny-state fascism at its worst (and it is quite literally fascism; in the manner of Mussolini, Princess Celestia demands: “All within Equestria Online, nothing outside Equestria Online, nothing against Equestria Online”). It is absolute control. It is a pink cartoon pony hoof stamping on a human face – forever. It is every bit as artificial and every bit as much of a prison as the Matrix.

Even by Huxley’s time, the smarter sort of tyrant had begun to figure out that when someone says a word like “totalitarianism” or “dictatorship”, people expect to see gray-uniformed soldiers goose-stepping beneath a reviewing stand, barbed wire strung across concrete walls, mass rallies of true believers chanting in unison, and colossal statues of Reichsfuhrers or Generalissimos or Supreme Leaders. They have further come to understand that most people will not believe that it’s really tyranny or dictatorship unless they do see those things. So all the smart, modern tyrants responded by taking the utmost care not to show those things to the world. Anyone can look at the Berlin Wall and come to the conclusion that there’s something fundamentally wrong with a society that would build an object like that. But few are perceptive enough to look past the surface and see anything fundamentally wrong with Brave New World or even, as imperfect as it is, with the Matrix.

What if you lived in a dystopia and you didn’t even know it? What if it was so filled with sensuous, materialistic pleasures that you never even stopped to question what it really was? How ugly would the truth seem to you once you allowed yourself to see it?

In Part III of my review, I will reveal what Equestria Online really is, and take a close look at the kind of person who would consider it to be a utopia.