Forsaken

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”, that is to say, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” – Matthew 27

 

How disturbing those words are! And not just when one considers the suffering behind them; no, the theological implications of them are disturbing as well. These words have always particularly troubled me. If Christ is God, then how can God accuse God of forsaking God? Do these words not imply that Christ is not God? And beyond their meaning, why would the authors of the Gospels, who doubtless understood the implications of these worlds, include them in their works at all?

What does it all mean?

In considering this, let us ask ourselves two questions. First, what is the nature of God? Second, what is our relationship to God? To the first we may answer: the nature of God is perfection – God is omniscient, omnipotent, intelligent and wise literally beyond our ability to contemplate. To the second we may answer: God not only created us, but God will judge us. We will be rewarded or punished – harshly, eternally – based upon this judgment. But here we reach a problem; one that may not make itself apparent at first. The problem is that in some sense perfection is, in itself, an imperfection, or at least a limitation. There is one thing that a perfect being cannot be, and that is imperfect.

I am reminded of an episode of the 1980s revival of the Twilight Zone in which a professor (played by Sherman Helmsley, late of The Jeffersons) inadvertently makes a deal with a demon (played by Ron Glass, late of Barney Miller and eventually to appear in Firefly). The professor finds that there is one loophole by which he may be released from his deal. He will be permitted to ask the demon three questions, which he must answer honestly. At the end of this, he may ask the demon one final question, which he must answer, or assign him one task, which he must perform. If the demon cannot answer the final question or perform the task, the professor will be released from his bargain. Having asked the first three questions, which probed the extent of the demon’s powers, including determining that there was no point in space to which he could send the demon from which he could not return, the professor assigned him a task:

“Get lost”

At which point the demon disappeared in a puff of smoke. The professor had been smart enough to use the demon’s own degree of perfection against him by assigning to him a task that required imperfection. The demon, who could effortlessly and instantly find his way from any point in space to any other point, literally couldn’t get lost. A neat trick, and one that illustrates the counterintuitive imperfections of perfection.

Not only that, but a perfect being cannot even truly understand what it is to be imperfect. On an intellectual level, perhaps He can – but not really, not firsthand. Thus, one wonders, what makes a being who is incapable of experiencing true weakness, doubt, and hopelessness qualified to judge a being who not only can, but very often does? What can He know of what an imperfect being might do out of desperation when lost in the depths of the sort of despair that He can never truly comprehend? How can He condemn us for succumbing to a weakness that He is as incapable of experiencing as the demon in the story was incapable of getting lost?

After all, He cannot experience that level of despair firsthand – or can He?

This, I believe, is the true meaning of these words, which were the culmination of the passion of Jesus Christ. Not long after this, Christ died – but why only then? Why was it necessary for Him to live and suffer on the cross long enough to say them?

It is because only then, having been driven to such despair as to believe that God the Father had abandoned Him, that Christ really understood what it meant to be imperfectly human – terrified, alone, hurt, weak, desperate, confused, and left doubting that a loving God was there for Him.

And it was in that moment that the Christ became truly qualified to judge the souls of men.

Glanton’s Law

I like to think that I run a rather elite operation around here. I write with readers of a certain minimum level of intelligence (and I agree completely with Neal Stephenson’s statement that intelligence can be defined as the ability to comprehend subtlety) in mind, and thus what I shall say in this posting will be obvious to most of you, but it still bears saying anyhow.

Anyone who can comprehend subtlety and is not caught in the clutches of Totalism (either from lack of intelligence or for ideological reasons) understands that almost nothing in this world is an absolute. Such people all understand that degrees and exceptions exist for virtually everything. They all understand that there is some statistically rare edge case, theoretical or not, in which anyone would do, or countenance doing, that which they would normally find foolhardy or immoral. They all understand that in any population of people about whom a certain thing is generally true, there are a statistical few outliers about whom it is not true. Furthermore, they all understand that the existence of such degrees, exceptions, and statistically rare edge cases in no way invalidates general statements that are true the overwhelmingly vast majority of the time.

Having accepted this, I should hope we all find it unnecessary for a writer to qualify everything he may write with statements that explicitly spell all of it out. Unless there is some strong reason to suspect otherwise, we should – and here in this space, we will – presume that the writer and the reader are both smart enough to understand it without it having to be stated, restated, and re-restated, at every single turn. This is for the benefit of everyone. First because, as John Glanton of Social Matter recently pointed out, exhaustively qualified prose is a chore to read (it is also a chore to write). Second because this is not a “lowest common denominator” sort of place, and I have no desire to burden myself with the necessity of having to endlessly explain the obvious to people who are either unable to understand it or feign the inability to do so.

In honor of Mr. Glanton, I propose that this concept be called Glanton’s Law, a shorter formulation of which might be: “When making general statements, it goes without saying that degrees, exceptions, outliers, and edge cases exist. It also goes without saying that the existence of these in no way invalidates statements that are true the overwhelming majority of the time. As such, when making general statements, there’s normally no real reason to bother bringing those things up.”

It shall be the policy of this space (and my Twitter account as well) to conform closely to Glanton’s Law, and any readers who express unfamiliarity with the concept will be directed to this post for a full explanation. If, for some reason, they are still unable to grasp it, then I can safely say that my writing isn’t for them.

Why I Talk About Anime On Twitter

My dad once told me a story about a guru that he’d heard while he had been traveling around India. Dad is a Baby Boomer, and Baby Boomers have a special place in their hearts for India. The Beatles went to India, and then came back and recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Steve Jobs also went to India, and then came back and founded Apple. This sort of thing makes Baby Boomers believe that if they go to India, they too might come back enlightened enough to create something visionary and world-changing.

Which doesn’t really ever work. Mostly they just come back with diarrhea.

But whatever the case may be, after dad retired, he bought a plane ticket to India (of course he had the money – he’s a Baby Boomer) to go on the grand adventure at 60 (of course he was retired by 60 – he’s a Baby Boomer) that he had wanted to go on at 25, but hadn’t been able to. Dad didn’t come back and record any chart-topping psychedelic albums or start up a Fortune 500 company (I certainly wish he had), though in fairness to him, while he did not find what he was looking for in India, he nevertheless came to have a real appreciation for what he did actually encounter there. (A few years later, after my sister died, he took a portion of the money he intended to leave her as his inheritance and used it to found a small medical clinic, which bears her name, in a remote Indian village in which he had stayed for a time.)

But if dad was able to find something worth embracing in India, others were not so fortunate. Which brings us to the story of the guru and the Englishman.

The Englishman was also a Baby Boomer, and the Englishman had also come to India on an extended quest to find enlightenment of the sort that the Maharishi had imparted upon George Harrison. This was a task to which the Englishman devoted himself tirelessly. At some point in his travels, he managed to hear about the guru, who had a reputation for great wisdom and spiritual understanding even among other gurus. Unlike the Maharishi, whose taste for fame and all that comes with it eventually caused even the Beatles to disavow him, the guru was a hermit and an ascetic who lived in a humble cabin in an isolated spot many miles from the nearest town. The Englishman became determined to meet the guru. He rented a Land Rover (he had been told that many of the roads that he would encounter would be difficult) and with no more than a few rumors as his guide, intrepidly set out to find him.

And find him the Englishman did. After weeks of driving from town to town searching for information, he finally found someone who both knew where the guru could be found and was willing to tell him. First thing the next morning, the Englishman loaded up his Land Rover and drove off to find the enlightenment he sought. Paved roads gave way to gravel roads, which gave way to dirt roads, which gave way to a narrow footpath, but the Land Rover was designed for such conditions and made its way through them without any trouble. As the Englishman drove along the footpath, he noticed faint but unmistakable tire tracks on either side of it – evidence that he was not the first to have made this journey. Finally, as the sun began to reach its height in the clear blue sky, the guru’s cabin came into view.

The guru lived not on a mountaintop, but in the middle of a wide field, his cabin surrounded by a large garden in which he grew his vegetables. As the Land Rover came to a stop outside, the guru, who had heard the noise of its approach, opened his door and walked out to meet its occupant. The guru was a man of some years, thin and small of stature, but sprightly and energetic. As the Englishman got out of the Land Rover, the guru walked up to him, shook his hand, and gave him a few warm words of welcome. Surprisingly – or perhaps not, considering India’s history of colonization – the guru spoke pretty decent English. After introductions were made there was a pause, as the Englishman prepared to tell the guru about his purpose in coming, the questions he had, and the wisdom he was seeking. But before he could begin speaking, the guru broke the silence:

“Hey, that’s a really nice Land Rover. A newer model, isn’t it?”

The Englishman was rather taken aback. “Well, yes, but…”

“I believe this one has a V8 engine instead of the old straight six?”

The Englishman had to admit that he didn’t know one way or the other.

“Well, why not open the bonnet then…” asked the guru, “and let’s have a look?”

The Englishman answered in a tone of surprise, with just a hint of dismay: “Well… you see… what I really came to talk to you about was of a more spiritual nature…”

The guru had already started a walkaround of the car, and was now standing by its rear gate.

“Yes, of course. There will be plenty of time for all of your questions. You are welcome to stay as long as you like.” Here the guru paused, and then, almost apologetically, continued: “But there is one small thing I would like to ask of you.”

Suddenly encouraged by the possibility that now they were getting somewhere, the Englishman answered that of course, he would do whatever the guru asked.

Delighted, the guru replied: “Is there any chance that sometime later you might let me try driving your Rover a little bit? Don’t worry – I know how to drive, and this is such a fine piece of machinery.”

The Englishman, though more than a bit crestfallen, promised that he would.

It was then that the guru noticed a large cooler in the back of the Land Rover. The Englishman had left it open, and a few bottles of soda poked out of the ice.

“Oh, and… could I possibly impose on you by asking for a Coke?”

The guru’s level of asceticism was most certainly not living up to the Englishman’s expectations, and by this time the traveler’s reaction had gone from surprise to dismay to the increasingly upsetting feeling of having been duped, but he agreed nonetheless, opened the back of the vehicle, and handed the guru a bottle. The guru accepted, took a long drink, and smiled widely.

“Now, this is nice. Many thanks to you.”

There was a silence as the guru sipped his Coke. The Englishman was no longer so eager to interrupt it with questions, so after a few moments had passed, it was the guru, again, who spoke first:

“So you are from England! Have you come from there recently?”

The Englishman said that he had.

“In that case, I have an important question for you.”

Mustering the final bit of hope within him, the Englishman asked what the question might be.

With an interested look on his face, the guru asked: “How is Arsenal doing this season?”

The Englishman had had enough. He quickly concocted some pretext, closed the gate of the Land Rover, and left. As he had promised, he allowed the guru to drive the first half-mile or so back down the footpath, and then left him on it as he drove away alone. The last he saw of the guru was in his rearview mirror, as the guru, after smiling and cheerfully waving goodbye, turned around to walk back to the solitude of his cabin.

* * *

The Englishman had, of course, completely missed the point of everything that had occurred during the encounter. He had expected the guru to ignore the Land Rover, to have no taste for anything as artificial as Coca Cola, and to have no interest in banalities like football. He expected the guru, in fact, to actively wish to avoid such things in the interest of spiritual self-denial. But the guru understood something that the Englishman did not – that spiritual self denial is a point along a path; that it is a means, not an end. Its end lies in the ability of the individual to prove to himself that he can live without luxuries, comforts, and distractions. Once that point has been proven, once that lesson has been internalized, it is then possible to reapproach those things without excessive attachment to them. This is important because it is the attachment, not the thing in and of itself, that is harmful. This sentiment is expressed in the Bible as well. As some libertarians have pointed out, the oft-quoted remark from Christ that money is the root of all evil is a case of misquote by omission, one that changes the meaning of what was said in a subtle but important way. What Christ actually said is that love of money is the root of all evil. Money is simply a tool of trade, necessary in economies above the scale of a small village. It is the love of money – the excessive attachment it – that causes problems.

(One could, in fact, say that herein lies the real reason why Marxism failed. Marxism attempted to abolish avarice, meanness, and envy – all artifacts of excessive attachment to property – by abolishing property. What Marx, whose understanding of human nature was woefully inadequate, could not understand was that property in and of itself was never the problem; excessive attachment to it was. Thus, when the Marxists did abolish property, the negative aspects of human nature that spring from excessive attachment to property simply attached themselves to different objects, like political power.)

The guru, having freed himself from excessive attachments to luxuries, comforts, and distractions, had been able to reapproach them with a proper perspective in mind. By doing so, he could once again allow himself to admit certain truths: for example that Land Rovers are nice machines, and fun to drive; that Coca Cola is delicious, and (as any southerner knows) does wonders to cut the heat and humidity of a noontime sun; and that there’s nothing wrong with a enjoying a bit of footie. To deny that nice things are nice is not enlightenment but only a denial of reality, and there is no evil in simply being happy to have something nice. What had changed in the guru was that now he understood that none of these things is worth the emotional and spiritual damage of getting angry about, much less worth hurting someone else over. If the Englishman had not let him drive the Land Rover or had refused him a Coke, the guru would have lived without these things and borne no resentment towards him. The guru’s smile and friendly wave as the Englishman left were genuine, and would have been genuine either way.

That was the lesson that dad had taken away from the story, and I think it is a good and valid one. But I also think there was something else to be learned from it.

This wasn’t the first time that some Baby Boomer westerner had come to find the guru, and by this time the guru knew perfectly well what they all wanted to see. And while he felt no ill will towards them, he also felt no obligation to stage a Mystical Maharishi Metaphysics Show for them. That would have been an act, and why should he put on an act? After all, the guru wasn’t an actor – he was the real thing. Back in New Delhi there were plenty of people (fakers rather than fakirs) who would put on a show that would make the westerners feel very spiritual indeed, and that they could tell all their friends about when they got back to London or New York or Vancouver. Perhaps they should have known that anyone who has to put on a show of being something isn’t really ever the genuine article. Then again, if a person prefers a show to the real thing, then they aren’t ready to truly understand or appreciate the real thing. This is one reason why the guru was willing to gently send such people away.

Beyond that, one of the attachments that the guru had let go of was attachment to the approval of others. He could have gained the approval of the Englishman – and doubtless many more like him – by giving them what they wanted to see. But for someone who’s the real thing, that is both completely unnecessary and rather unseemly. The guru wasn’t going to go out of his way to be off-putting to them or to hurt their feelings, but neither was he going to change who he was to suit their desires. He wasn’t there to impress the Englishman, nor was he going to accept the idea that the Englishman was qualified to set any standards regarding how a proper guru should conduct himself. So he simply acted naturally, without much concern for what anyone else thought about it. He talked about the Land Rover because he was interested in the Land Rover. He asked for a Coke because he wanted a Coke. If the Englishman had been able to deal with that, and had stayed, the guru would have eventually answered all of his spiritual questions, as promised. But if he couldn’t, the guru would smile and wave as he left, feeling no anger towards the man, but no desire to chase after him and promise to do whatever it might take to be liked, either.

In short, as the kids say, the guru was too legit to be frontin’. Not only that, but he was also too based to care if other people couldn’t handle it.

Which brings me to the title of this essay. Why do I talk about anime on Twitter? Because I like anime.

If some people out there are looking for a guy who will put on a Righteous Rectitude Reactionary Show for them – someone who will speak only of the manliest things that were ever manly, who will claim to have no vices, who will say that he enjoys none of Modernity’s comforts, and who will pretend to not like fun things on the principle that fun is for pussies – then I’m not who they’re looking for. I don’t feel the need to do any of that, because I’m the real deal, I don’t have to put on an act, and if there’s anyone who can’t handle that, I’m not interested in changing to suit them. They can pack up their truck and hit the trail.

But hey, no hard feelings: I’ll smile and wave as they go – hell, I’ll even drive them the first half mile down the road.

The Chipotle Effect

“The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” – His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI

Prologue: Moscow, June 1990

Natasha had great legs.

And she probably still does, wherever she may be. But on that summer day in the last full year of the existence of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Natasha, dressed in a businesslike white blouse and black skirt cut just above the knee and wearing a petite pair of black stiletto pumps, captivated the attention of the 16-year-old version of me. I was in the Soviet Union as an exchange student, with an itinerary involving several weeks of traveling around the western end of the USSR, an experience I have ever since regarded as the beginning of my life as an adult. Natasha was my governmentally-supplied guide and minder. She was 24, slender, pretty, with wavy chestnut-brown hair and round glasses. Influenced by American-made Cold War movies, I had expected my guide to be a dour middle-aged male KGB functionary in a trenchcoat and a trilby. Natasha had been a pleasant surprise indeed.

The small tour bus slowly chugged its way up the Sparrow Hills, and Natasha stood at the front of it, back to me, chatting casually with the driver. There were a few American exchange students in the bus, and some of their minders had come along as well. Moscow was where all of us came into the country, before splitting up and going on our separate itineraries. I would next go to Sochi, many years later the site of a Winter Olympics, where I would get drunk for the first time in my life, in a hotel bar with a group of young Afghanistan veterans reuniting as civilians for the first time since they’d come home from their service together in the war. Then I would travel to Donetsk, which as of this writing is the front line in a war that would in those days have been unimaginable. I would, in Kiev, walk through October Revolution Square, later renamed Independence Square, and future site of the Euromaidan protests that touched off that very war. And I would go to Leningrad, where, as the result of a hangover following my second youthful experience with drunkenness, I would, as Natasha looked on in horror, vomit my breakfast into the fountains of the Grand Cascade on the grounds of the Peterhof Palace.

The bus reached the top of the hills. Below, the grand expanse of Moscow stretched out into the distance, with Lenin Stadium, which had been the centerpiece of the 1980 Olympic Games, in the foreground. I fumbled for my camera (Natasha had instructed me that she’d tell me in advance if I wasn’t allowed to take pictures somewhere), but before I could get it out of its bag, we were past the summit and the shot was gone forever.

A minute or two later, we stopped at what appeared to be a nondescript, whitewashed house along a four-lane road. We ambled off the bus. The air smelled odd. Everything in the Soviet Union smelled odd. Pollution – exhaust fumes and factory smoke and un-picked-up garbage. A faint smell of burning plastic was always in the air. It had rained early in the morning – small pools of rainwater still sat peacefully in depressions in the uneven pavement – but even that didn’t help much.

This place was, Natasha explained, actually a church – the only church in Moscow that had stayed open and active through the entire history of the Soviet Union – through the revolutionary fervor, through the Stalinist terror, through World War II and the Cold War. And now, in the last full year of the USSR, there it was still. I wasn’t much of one for churches back then. In fact, I don’t know that I’d ever actually been inside a church in my entire life. My mother was and is a lukewarm semi-agnostic of half-Anglican, half-Jewish background, and my father an embittered fallen Catholic who at the time was a convinced atheist, and has since become a devotee of whatever New Age pablum happens to be in fashion with aging Baby Boomers at any particular moment. I was, at the time… nothing, really.

The day was turning pleasant. Some of the group decided to go inside the church, and some decided to skip it and stand under the shade trees that lined the wide boulevard to relax, and flirt, and enjoy the warmth of the day. Natasha went inside, as this was on the tour and it was her responsibility to show it to me. I followed.

The inside of the church could not have been a greater contrast from the outside. Whereas the exterior was nondescript and unornamented, the interior, though not large, was almost indescribably beautiful. Every inch of the walls was covered in art, as is so often true of Orthodox churches. A haze of incense hung in the air, and its smoke made visible shafts of the light streaming through the few, narrow windows which hung close to the high ceiling. Three or four old women, the faithful who had, at tremendous risk, stayed faithful all their lives, were carefully cleaning the mosaics, and the icons, and the dark wooden floor.

The rest of the group, as disinterested in high culture as any normal American teenagers, poked about the place for a bit, glanced quickly at a few of the artworks until they thought their obligation to do so had passed, and then, one or two at a time, quietly shuffled out the door and back into the warm summer air. Even Natasha left. Before long, only I and the faithful old ladies, who continued going silently about their work, remained.

I stood at the center of the small church, in solitude. Particles of dust glittered as they danced in the sunlight coming in through the windows. The incense smoke made the cool air sweet and heavy with its scent. There was a moment of unearthly quiet and stillness, of clarity, and I felt…

I felt God, there, with me in that place.

It was not a moment of faith. It was a moment of knowing. God’s presence there, in that church, at that instant, was as real and tangible as the physical presence of Natasha, or my parents, or any human being. It was the same sensation as when someone you love enters a room when you aren’t looking, but you can feel their presence; you know who it is even without seeing them. God was there, with me in that place, and in one single blinding flash, I knew it.

I’m not sure how long it all lasted. Not long, to be certain, and it did not need to be. It passed, and yet it did not ever truly pass, for it is with me to this day, and will be with me forever.

Eventually, the front door of the church opened, and Natasha, looking a bit annoyed but not really angry, stepped inside.

“Hey, it’s time to go to lunch! Are you coming?”

Of course I was coming. She couldn’t actually let the bus leave without me, after all.

“Oh… yes… I’ll be right behind you” I stammered.

She turned her back and walked out into the warm air of the summer of that last full year of the existence of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. I followed, but paused before reaching the door, put my hand in my pocket, pulled out every dollar and every ruble that I had on me, stuffed it all into the donation box, and went away penniless.

Though it would be a couple of decades before I was formally baptized, it would be fair to say that I entered that church an agnostic, and left it a Christian.

* * *

Silicon Valley, Many Years Later

It was a lazy Saturday afternoon in the Silicon Valley in early autumn, a mix of cool sunshine and low, billowy clouds, and a temperature just to my liking. I was out for the day, with a little extra money on me, shopping, exploring, enjoying nothing so much as simply being there. And now it was time for lunch – with my bit of extra money I could have whatever I wanted. And what I wanted that day was Chipotle. For those of you who may not be from a land where Chipotle exists (more’s the pity for you!), it is a chain of burrito shops, a step up from fast food of the McDonalds variety and a step down from places with actual waiters. A step down in formality, at least – Chipotle burritos are renowned for tastiness, and have a particularly strong following among Silicon Valley tech types.

Silicon Valley is a nice place; flush with tech money and full of young, high-IQ optimates. On weekends, long lines of expensive cars carrying the wives of executives at companies like Google, Apple, eBay, and Oracle clog the entrances to upscale malls like Valley Fair and Santana Row. It’s not uncommon to see $250,000 Lamborghinis parked in front of coffee shops, their 25-year-old owners standing in line inside for a frappuccino or a bubble tea. It’s all very new, and very commercial. Locals joke that El Camino Real, the wide, traffic-choked boulevard that runs through the heart of the Valley, repeats itself every five miles – a store or restaurant from every imaginable chain recurring just as quickly as it makes financial sense for it to. The joke is only slightly an exaggeration.

Yet this represents something comfortable – something comforting – for a child of late-20th century suburban America. The shopping malls, the big box retailers, the chain restaurants, the wide streets lined by single-family homes with neatly-mown lawns, the office parks with late-model sedans lined up in freshly-pained spaces out front; all of these things feel like… normalcy. But of course, it is not just normalcy, but the normalcy of the most safe and prosperous age that mankind has ever known, or is likely to know again any time in the foreseeable future (it is, in fact, already in the process of slowly disintegrating).This is what generations to come, not as pampered as we, will never quite understand about this age. They almost certainly will be amazed at the aggressive hedonism that our prosperity has allowed us to fall into, but what they will never be able to truly feel (for while hedonistic pleasure is understandable to all creatures of the flesh, this will be quite alien to them) is the sheer comfort of it all, the safe and warm feeling of it, that sense of normalcy which contained as part of it in the belief, plausible for the historical blink of an eye, that it could all be maintained forever.

The particular Chipotle to which I had come had a few outdoor tables, which on a day like that were preferable to the noise and artificially-processed air inside. I sat at one with my burrito and my Coke Zero; it was past the lunch rush and I was blissfully (as I am an introvert by nature) alone. I removed my iPod from my pocket, put on my earphones, and scrolled through my podcasts for something to listen to over lunch. Being in a light mood, the RetroMacCast caught my fancy. I love retro tech from the 80s and 90s, and old Macs especially. Were the world not in the shape that it is in, were it not necessary to write what I do as AntiDem, I would probably write a blog or do a podcast along those lines myself. I ate, and listened. The food was satisfying, the air was cool, and it was quiet except for the podcast. The discussion turned to the short-lived Macintosh clones of the late 1990s – Ah, yes, I had one of those! My old Power 100! A quirky machine, but it sure served me well, and for a long time! – and I felt a bit of wistful nostalgic cheer. Everything was good, everything was comfortable, and I had not a single care or a complaint at all.

It was then that the thought came to me: What really is so wrong with this world? Surely, all this comfort, all this ease, all this prosperity – it should be enough to make me contented, shouldn’t it? Is it not a waste – of time, of energy, of happiness to which I could devote these moments – to make myself miserable by railing and raging against this, of all things? Shouldn’t I just enjoy it all instead?

This was not like those times when, in despair, I find myself wondering whether my efforts are futile in the face of a system that is far beyond my abilities to affect; or even worse, when I wonder whether the left may actually be correct, and this – in all its materialistic, soulless, hedonistic existential horror – might really be the end of history. No, there was no dread in what I felt; quite the opposite. I felt safe and warm and comfortable, and all of the things wrong with this age suddenly all seemed very distant and abstract and not so very worth worrying about.

And it was when, in one single blinding flash, that I felt the touch of Elua upon me.

But perhaps here some explanation is in order.

Neoreactionaries often speak of Gnon, the “crab-god” they have created to embody the ideas of teleology, of consequences, of inevitability – no more and no less that the simple yet somehow, in the current age, revolutionary idea that implementing bad ideas will lead to bad consequences. The implications of the existence of Gnon, whose horrifying visage hangs heavy over the merry bustle of every civilization (whether they believe in him or not, for he is one of those realities that continues to exist no matter if you do or don’t), is that maintaining a civilization is hard, tireless work; that monsters are always waiting in the darkness to devour those who slack off in this task, whether it be because they have become soft and lazy, or incapable and feeble, or even (perhaps especially) due to the hubris of believing that they are so advanced that such drudgery is beneath them and they can instead devote their energies towards utopian schemes meant to perfect the human condition. Gnon – who is compatible with both a theistic and non-theistic worldview – punishes these sins: this sloth, this gluttony, this foolishness, this pride, this hubris. Gnon is seen both in the God who rained fire and brimstone down on Sodom and Gomorrah, and also in the collapse of Marxism in all of its supposed “inevitability”. Gnon is to be feared, for he is a destroyer god, and a merciless one. There is no bargaining with him, no reasoning with him, no begging for mercy with him. If you fail, if you slip, if you trust the wrong people or the wrong ideas, if you are foolish or careless, he will destroy you and everything you care about. He exists as a caution to you, and you had better take heed.

In opposition to Gnon, Scott Alexander has placed Elua, a god who he has appropriated from the novels of science fiction author Jacqueline Carey. Rather than explaining Elua to you myself, I’ll let Dr. Alexander explain it in his own words (with apologies to him, I’ve mashed up bits of two of his columns here):

“Somewhere in this darkness is another god. He has also had many names. In the [Carey] books, his name was Elua. He is the god of kindness and flowers and free love and all soft and fragile things. Of art and science and philosophy and love. Of niceness, community, and civilization. All the other gods are gods of blood and fire, and Elua is just like ‘Love as thou wilt’ and ‘All knowledge is worth having’. He is a god of humans.

Other gods get placated until we’re strong enough to take them on. Elua gets worshipped.”

Elua is not the god that humanity deserves, nor the one that it needs – but he is the god that we want. Indeed he is a god of humans, and he is the reason for the warning that if you agree with your god about everything, take caution, because you made him up. Whereas the God of the Bible has commandments etched in stone that must be obeyed, and Gnon is the heartless god of consequences, Elua is the god of no commandments and no consequences. “Love as thou wilt” – and worry not about disease, or about the effects on your children, or about inheritance, or about the descent of your culture into coarseness and licentiousness. “All knowledge is worth having” – even terrible yet seductive ideas that have led to the pointless deaths of millions. Elua, always, in every circumstance, tells us what we want to hear. He tells us to spend, and that the bill will never come due. He tells us to eat and drink, and that we will never get fat, and there will be no hangover the next morning. In other words, Elua is a charlatan. If in Moscow I met the genuine God, then at Chipotle I encountered a fraud of one.

And yet Elua really is a god of humans – he is a god that humans want to worship, because he is the reflection and embodiment of their own desires, whether noble or tawdry – and I, too, am human. There in that place – though I must admit, far from the only time in my life – I was seduced; I allowed myself to momentarily drift into the dominion of Elua and the lotus-eaters who follow him. As in Moscow, the experience lasted for only a moment, and, as in Moscow, the experience never completely leaves me, nor can it, because in Modernity the pull of Elua is everywhere around me: in the shopping malls, in the chain stores, in the wide streets and the mown lawns, and even in my lunch. It is in the ease and comfort and security of it all – things to which, because I am human, I cannot help but have an attachment. But if I am able to break free of Elua – to reject him as a liar and a cheat, to face the true ugliness hidden not far beneath the surface of Modernity, and to rebel against it – most Moderns, understandably, cannot. Elua comforts them, placates them, assuages their doubts, and gives them lotuses to eat – 500 channels of cable television, craft beers, oversized SUVs, spectacularly dirty internet pornography, and wonderfully tasty burritos. In return, they embrace Elua (they may voice an occasional “It’s an awful shame” about the worst aspects of the moral state of the world he presides over, but little more), because they so desperately want to believe his promises, and to not believe that what he offers will result either in Gnon’s consequences or God’s judgment.

The reason that I cannot maintain faith in Elua is both because I have come to understand the truth embodied in Gnon and because I have felt the touch of the one true God. Gnon will not allow illusions, no matter how beautiful, to carry on forever. And as for God, his commandments are often unpleasant, wearying, and burdensome – they require discipline and hard work and self-denial – but in them are also truth, nobility, and decency. Those who follow them – who fight for them – may at some point find themselves denied the comforts that Elua promises, but down that path is also a measure of greatness (perhaps the greatness of a martyr or a saint, or only the simple greatness of a traditional wife and mother), and that is the one thing that Elua cannot offer.

La Rue Sans Joie (Pt. 2)

I’ve decided to post a second favorite excerpt from Dr. Bernard Fall’s nonfiction masterpiece Street Without Joy for you to read:

*  *  *

“A last chapter of the of the Foreign Legion’s colorful history in Asia was written, in, of all places, the drab surroundings of an Israeli Navy court-martial in May 1958.

The defendant was a 25-year old man, in the neat white uniform of the Israeli enlisted seaman. Eliahu Itzkovitz was charged with desertion from the Israeli Navy, but this case was not an ordinary one, for he had deserted from a peacetime hitch in Haifa to a twenty-seven months ordeal with the Foreign Legion in Indochina.

Eliahu had grown up in a small town in eastern Rumania when the country threw in its lot with the Nazis at the beginning of World War II. Soon, the Rumanian Conductorul (the “Leader”) Antonescu began to emulate all the tactics of the Nazis, his own version of the Brownshirts calling itself the “Iron Guard” and practicing mass murder on a large scale. In fact, according to the British writer Edward Crankshaw in his book Gestapo, they “offended the Germans on the spot by not troubling to bury their victims; and they offended the R.H.S.A. (Reichs-Sicherheitshauptampt, the administrative section of the Nazi police in charge of mass exterminations) by their failure to keep proper records and by their uncontrolled looting.”

The Itzkovitz family did not escape the collective fate of the Rumanian Jews. Eliahu and his parents and three brothers were sent to a concentration camp, no better and no worse than most Eastern European camps; one lived a few days to a few weeks and died from a wide variety of causes, mostly beating and shooting. Rumanian camps were not as well equipped as their German models, the “death factories” of Auschwitz and Treblinka with their sophisticated gas chambers. Again, according to Crankshaw, “the Rumanians showed a great aptitude for mass murder and conducted their own massacres in Odessa and elsewhere,” and the Itzkovitz family paid its price – within a short time, only Eliahu, the youngest boy, survived.

But he had seen his family die, and he had remembered who killed it. It had been one particular brute, not the coldly efficient SS-type but a Rumanian from a town not too far away from his own home town and who enjoyed his new job. And Eliahu swore that he would kill the man, if it took all his life to do it. More than anything else, it was probably that hatred that kept him alive; he was a skeleton but a living one when the Russians liberated him in 1944. Eliahu then began his patient search from town to town. Of course, Stanescu (or whatever name the brute had assumed in the meantime) had not returned to his hometown for good reasons, but Eliahu found his son there and took his first revenge; he stabbed the son with a butcher knife and in 1947, a Rumanian People’s Court sentenced him to five years in a reformatory for juveniles.

Eliahu served his time but did not forget. His family’s murderer was still at large and he had sworn to kill him. In 1952, he was finally released and given permission by Communist authorities to emigrate to Israel, where he was drafted into the Israeli army in 1953 and assigned to the paratroops. Training was rigorous in the sun-drenched barracks and stubby fields south of Rehovoth, and thoughts of revenge had become all but a dim memory. There was a new life to be lived here, among the people from all corners of the world who still streamed in and who, from Germans, Poles, Indians, Yemenites, or Rumanians, became Israelis. To be sure, Eliahu still met some of his Rumanian friends and talk often rotated back to the “old country”, to the war and the horrors of the persecution. Camps and torturers were listed matter-of-factly, like particularly tough schools or demanding teachers, and Stanescu came up quite naturally.

“That s.o.b. made it. He got out in time before the Russians could get him,” said a recent arrival, “then he fled to West Germany and tried to register as a D.P. but they got wise to him and before we could report him, he was gone again.”

Eliahu’s heart beat had stopped for an instant, and when it resumed its normal rhythm, he had shaken off the torpor of peacetime army life. The hunt was on again.

“Do you know where Stanescu went then? Do you have any idea at all?”

“Well – somebody said that he had gone to Offenburg in the French Zone, where they recruit people for the French Foreign Legion, and that he enlisted for service in Indochina. The French are fighting there, you know.”

On the next day, Eliahu’s mind was made up. He reported to his commanding officer and applied for a transfer to the Israeli Navy; he liked the sea, had learned something about it while in Rumania, which borders the Black Sea, and would be happier aboard ship than as a paratrooper. A few days later, the request was granted and Eliahu was on his way to the small force of Israeli corvettes and destroyers based in Haifa. A few months later, the opportunity he had been waiting for came true; his ship was assigned to go to Italy to pick up equipment.

In Genoa, Seaman Itzkovitz applied for shore leave and simply walked off the ship; took a train to Bordighera and crossed over to Menton, France, without the slightest difficulty. Three days later, Eliahu had signed his enlistment papers in Marseilles and was en route to Sidi-bel-Abbès, Algeria, the headquarters and boot camp of the Foreign Legion, and again three months later, he was aboard the s/s Pasteur on his way to Indochina.

Once in the Foreign Legion, Stanescu’s trail was not hard to pick up. While no unit was made up of any single nationality, each unit would have its little groups and informal clans according to language or nation of origin. It took patience, but in early 1954, he had located his quarry in the 3d Foreign Legion Infantry. The last step was the easiest; the Foreign Legion generally did not object if a man requested a transfer in order to be with his friends, and Eliahu’s request to be transferred to Stanescu’s battalion came through in a perfectly routine fashion. When Eliahu saw Stanescu again after ten years, he felt no particular wave of hatred, as he had somehow expected. After having spent ten years imagining the moment of meeting the killer of his family eye to eye, the materialization of that moment could only be an anti-climax. Stanescu had barely changed; he had perhaps thinned down a bit in the Legion; as for Eliahu, he had been a frightened boy of thirteen and was now a trapping young man, bronzed from his two years of training with the Israeli paratroopers, the Navy and the French Foreign Legion.

There was nothing left to do for Eliahu but to arrange a suitable occasion for the “execution;” for in his eyes the murder of Stanescu would be an execution. Stanescu (his name was, of course, no longer that) had become a corporal, and led his squad competently. The new arrival also turned out to be a competent soldier, a bit taciturn perhaps, but good. In fact, he was perhaps better trained than the run of the mill that came out of “Bel-Abbès” these days. He was a good man to have along on a patrol.

And it was on a patrol that Stanescu met his fate, in one of the last desperate battles along Road 18, between Bac-Ninh and Seven Pagodas. He and Eliahu had gone on a reconnaissance into the bushes on the side of the road, when the Viet-Minh opened fire from one hundred yards away. Both men slumped down into the mud. There was no cause for fear; the rest of the squad was close by on the road and would cover their retreat. Eliahu was a few paces to the side and behind Stanescu.

“Stanescu!” he called out.

Stanescu turned around and stared at Eliahu, and Eliahu continued in Rumanian:

“You are Stanescu, aren’t you?”

The man, the chest of his uniform black from the mud in which he had been lying, looked at Eliahu more in surprise than in fear. For all he knew, Eliahu might have been a friend of his son, a kid from the neighborhood back home in Chisnau.

“Yes, but…”

“Stanescu,” said Eliahu in a perfectly even voice, “I’m one of the Jews from Chisnau,” and emptied the clip of his MAT-49 tommy gun into the man’s chest. He dragged the body back to the road: a Legionnaire never left a comrade behind.

“Tough luck,” said one of the men of the platoon sympathetically. “He was a Rumanian just like you, wasn’t he?”

“Yes,” said Eliahu, “just like me.”

The search had ended and the deed was done. Eliahu was now at peace with himself and the world. He served out his time with the Legion, received his papers certifying that “he had served with Honor and Fidelity” and mustered out in France. There was nothing left for him to do but to go home to Israel. The Israeli Armed Forces attachè in France at first refused to believe the incredible story, but the facts were soon verified with the French authorities and a few weeks later Eliahu was on his way to Israel. At Haifa, two Israeli M.P.’s, perfect copies of their British models with their glistening white canvas belts and pistol holsters, took charge of him and soon the gates of Haifa military prison closed behind him.

The three Israeli Navy judges rose. Seaman Itzkovitz stood stiffly at attention as the presiding judge read out the judgement.

“…and in view of the circumstances of the case, a Court of the State of Israel cannot bring itself to impose a heavy sentence…. One year’s imprisonment.”

*  *  *

I believe that this excerpt illustrates something not only about seriousness, but about commitment, dedication to family, and selflessness.

And honor as well… he carried his dead enemy’s body back to friendly lines because he was a Legionnaire, and it simply is not done that one Legionnaire leaves another behind, living or dead; he turned himself in at the end of his quest and faced the legal consequences of his desertion, no matter how justified it may have been morally for him to have done it, because it was still a violation of the law of a government that he had sworn allegiance to and of a solemn commitment he had made.

There is something in this story about what it means to be a man that should be deeply considered.

La Rue Sans Joie

I was recently contemplating why history’s winners win, and why history’s losers lose. It cannot be simply size and strength of armies, nor amounts of money or political influence they hold, nor momentum from long periods in power, because those with less of all of these things than their opponents have often ended up as the winners. I wonder if perhaps the secret ingredient is most often not these, nor intelligence, nor leaderly charisma, nor even (in the clichéd words of football coaches) “wanting it more”, but is instead seriousness. We live in a superficial age full of unserious people with unserious desires who cling to unserious ideas, and it may be difficult for native-born sons of Modernity (as we all are) to fully understand such a quality. To try to illustrate it, I will here reprint (without anyone’s permission, for I am a rebel and an outlaw) a short passage from my personal favorite non-fiction book, Street Without Joy – Dr. Bernard Fall’s firsthand account of his experiences during the early 1950s traveling among French expeditionary forces fighting in the First Indochina War, while he was doing research for his doctoral dissertation at Syracuse University. The short vignette he relates took place only a few months before the decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu that resulted in the French withdrawal from its Indochinese colonies.

(As a short aside, if any readers perceive any similarity between Dr. Fall’s narrative writing style and my own, it is because his writing has been a strong influence on me ever since I first read Street Without Joy during middle school).

* * *

“Sometimes, there occurs an almost irrelevant incident which, in the light of later developments, seems to have been a sign of the gods, a dreamlike warning which, if heeded, could have changed fate – or so it seems.

One such incident occurred to me in October 1953 in Cambodia, at Siem-Reap, not far away from the fabulous temples of Angkor-Wat. I has been in the field with the 5th Cambodian Autonomous Infantry Company and was now in need of transportation back to Phnom-Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Siem-Reap, a quiet and pleasant little place with two hotels catering to the tourist trade and a few French archaeologists working around the ruins of Angkor, might as well have been a small garrison town in southern France, such as Avignon or Nimes.

A few French officers were still around, mainly as advisers to the newly-independent Cambodian Army. Their chores were light; there were no Communists in the area and the handful of obsolescent Renault trucks and World War II-type weapons needed a minimum of maintenance and care. An assignment to Siem-Reap was as good a sinecure as could be found in Indochina in October 1953 and the officers made the most of it.

When I went to the Transportation Office that afternoon at 1530, the Cambodian orderly told me apologetically that “le Lieutenant est allé au mess jouer au tennis avec le Capitaine” and that they might well stay there for the rest of the afternoon. Since a convoy which I expected to catch was supposed to leave at dawn, I decided to stroll over to the mess in order to get my travel documents signed there.

The Siem-Reap officers’ mess was a pleasant and well-kept place; with its wide Cambodian-style verandahs, its parasol-shaded tables and the well-manicured lawns and beautifully red-sanded tennis court, it was an exact replica of all the other colonial officers’ messes from Port Said to Singapore, Saigon, or even Manila, wherever the white man had set his foot in the course of building his ephemeral empires.

I found the two officers at the tennis court, in gleaming white French square-bottomed shorts (no one in Europe would be caught dead in the ungainly Bermuda pants called “shorts” in the United States), matching Lacoste tennis shirts and knee-long socks. Their skins had lost the unhealthy pallor of the jungle and had taken on the handsome bronze of the vacationer engaging in outdoor sports; their wives, seated at a neighboring table, were beautifully groomed and wore deceptively simple (but, oh, so expensive!) cotton summer dresses clearly showing the hand of a Paris designer. Both officers played in the easy style of men who knew each other’s game and were less bent on winning than on getting the fun and exercise of it. Three Cambodian servants, clad in impeccable white slacks and shirts, stood respectfully in the shadow of the verandah, awaiting the call of one of the officers or women for a new cool drink.

Since the men were in the midst of a set and I had little else to do, I sat down at a neighboring table after a courteous bow to the ladies and watched the game, gladly enjoying the atmosphere of genteel civility and forgetting for a moment the war. At the next table, the two women kept up the rapid-fire chatter which French women are prone to use when men are present. The two men also kept up a conversation of sorts, interrupted regularly by the “plop-plop” of the tennis ball.

Then emerged from the verandah a soldier in a French uniform. His small stature, brown skin and western-type features showed him to be a Cambodian. He wore the blue field cap with the golden anchor of the Troupes Coloniales – the French “Marines” – and the three golden chevrons of a master-sergeant. On his chest above the left breast pocket of his suntan regulation shirt were three rows of multi-colored ribbons: croix de guerre with four citations, campaign ribbons with the clasps of France’s every colonial campaign since the Moroccan pacification of 1926; the Italian campaign of 1943 and the drive to the Rhine of 1945. In his left hand, he carried several papers crossed diagonally with a tri-colored ribbon; travel orders, like mine, which also awaited the signature of one of the officers.

He remained in the shadow of the verandah’s awnings until the officers had interrupted their game and had joined the two women with their drinks, then strode over in a measured military step, came stiffly to attention in a military salute. and handed the orders for himself and his squad to the captain. The captain looked up in surprise, still with a half-smile on his face from the remark he had made previously. His eyes narrowed suddenly as he understood he was being interrupted. Obviously, he was annoyed but not really furious.

“Sergeant, you can see that I’m busy. Please wait until I have time to deal with your travel orders. Don’t worry. You will have them in time for the convoy”.

The sergeant stood stiffly at attention, some of his almost white hair glistening in the sun where it peeked from under the cap, his wizened face betraying no emotion whatsoever.

A vos ordres, mon Capitaine.” A sharp salute, a snappy about face. The incident was closed, the officers had had their drink and now resumed their game.

The sergeant resumed his watch near where the Cambodian messboys were following the game, but this time he had squatted down on his haunches, a favorite Cambodian position of repose which would leave most Europeans with partial paralysis for several hours afterwards. Almost without moving his head, he attentively followed the tennis game, his travel orders still tightly clutched in his left hand.

The sun began to settle behind the trees of the garden and a slight cooling breeze rose from the nearby Lake Tonlé-Sap, Cambodia’s inland sea. It was 1700.

All of a sudden, there rose behind the trees, from the nearby French camp, the beautiful bell-clear sounds of a bugle playing “lower the flag” – the signal which, in the French Army, marks the end of the working day as the colors are struck.

Nothing changed at the tennis court; the two officers continued to play their set, the women continued their chatter, and the messboys their silent vigil.

Only the old sergeant had moved. He was now standing stiffly at attention, his right hand raised to the cap in the flat-palmed salute of the French Army, facing in the direction from which the bugle tones came; saluting, as per regulations, France’s tricolor hidden behind the trees. The rays of the setting sun shone upon the immobile brown figure, catching the gold of the anchor and of the chevrons and one of the tiny metal stars of his ribbons.

Something very warm welled up in me. I felt like running over to the little Cambodian who had fought all his life for my country, and apologizing to him for my countrymen here who didn’t care about him, and for my countrymen in France who didn’t even care about their countrymen fighting in Indochina…

And in one single blinding flash, I knew that we were going to lose the war.”

Two Years Together

Today marks two years since the founding of this website. On this occasion, I felt it appropriate to extend a heartfelt thanks to the people who have made this all worth the effort – you, the readers. Traffic numbers here have increased close to tenfold in the past year, and in the same period I’ve gone from eight Twitter followers to a little over two thousand, so it’s been a good year for my efforts. With God’s grace and a bit of luck, next year will be just as good; but I never forget that it is you, dear readers, who are the reason why I do what I do – so my sincerest appreciation goes out to you all.

If you should want to find me through other channels, you may find me here, as well:

Twitter: @antidemblog

Ask.FM: @Antidem

Email: antidem at yandex dot com