Follow The Lady

A recent episode of an alt-right podcast to which I am a subscriber turned to a discussion of high-trust societies versus low-trust societies. The upshot of the discussion seemed to be that high-trust societies are not only the natural state of Western man, but essentially an unalloyed good. It is, so they seemed to say, only lesser peoples from cruder societies who fail to build high social trust; their societies are worse because of it, and their people incompatible with our better, more advanced social structures.

Perhaps. And yet, whether I wanted it or not, I found something nagging at me from deep with my consciousness; something that told me that there were flaws with seeing high trust as an absolute good, to be aspired to by all men of acute sensibility and good intent. Not a philosophical argument; no, a memory. One from long past – cold, as all old memories are, but clear…

* * *

New York City, January 1986

It was a blistering cold day under a crystal clear blue sky as I made my way through Washington Square Park, headed southeast towards Broadway. Cold as it was, my thick winter coat – a full-length one that went all the way to my knees, still my favorite of all the winter coats I’ve ever owned – kept me well-protected as I wound my way past the park’s great central fountain, past the statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, and out onto West 4th Street. This was the old, rough New York of the pre-Giuliani days – the fountains had been dry for years; the statue’s base was covered in graffiti and Garibaldi himself was caked in birdshit that no one had bothered cleaning off in ages. As I passed Mercer Street, I saw a disheveled black bum, with a crazy look in his eyes and his pants down around his ankles, loudly straining as, in broad daylight on a crowded street, he defecated in the doorway of one of the buildings of New York University. In those days of the old, rough New York, the cops didn’t care, and everybody simply pretended not to notice.

I pretended not to notice, too. What would I have done about it? I was alone, and twelve years old, wandering through the great city. This was something my father not only allowed, but encouraged. We would come into the city, and he would turn me loose for hours upon end, to explore by myself while he did other things. This was before cell phones, so I couldn’t easily contact anyone if I needed to. I was expected to simply be cagey and street smart enough to get by, and so I was; it was supposed to make me independent and self-reliant, and so it did. We had a time and a place to meet, and if that failed an alternate time and place, and if that failed, I knew how to get to my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn on the subway. I had a little money in my pocket, and a little more tucked into my sock. This was “mugger money” – if someone tried to rob me, I could give him what was in my pocket, and the money secreted in my sock would still be enough to get home with. You had to be ready for anything.

Someplace around where Broadway meets East Houston Street (that’s pronounced “How-ston” – if you pronounce it “Hew-ston” everyone will know you’re a tourist) I came upon a small crowd gathered around two sets of buskers. The first, a troupe of breakdancers whirling crazily on a mat made of old cardboard boxes, held no interest for me, and I quickly passed them by. But the second made me stop and look, for it was a genuine sidewalk game of Three-Card Monte.

Three-Card Monte is a simple game of chance in which three cards, one a queen (of any suit, it doesn’t matter which) are placed side by side, face down, on a small table. The dealer then quickly moves the cards around for a few seconds to randomize which one is where. If the player is able to follow the movements of the queen and correctly pick it out after the dealer is done, he wins. If not, he loses. A simple game of luck and skill – if played honestly. Which it never is, especially not on a sidewalk in lower Manhattan.

I gently pushed through the small crowd, close enough to see the table (actually three cardboard boxes stacked on one another), but not close enough to be mistaken for someone who wanted to play. The dealer was a young black man in a Yankees cap; personable, charming, funny, smiling a lot. Behind him were two more such young men, similarly dressed. All wore nice running shoes as well. The player was an older black lady of maybe 70 years, nicely dressed, and doing very well indeed. She had won the first game and lost the second. This next one, she said, was going to be her last for the day.

The dealer turned the cards face-up. He pointed at the queen, to demonstrate to all that she was indeed there. He turned the cards over, and, with lightning quickness, began moving them, chanting as he did:

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

When he stopped, the old woman extended her arm to point at the center card, but then paused, grimaced intently, looked at the dealer, and pointed to the card on the right. A winner again!

But of course she won – she was a shill. In a typical game, there are five or six shills – apparent onlookers who are in league with the dealer and assigned various jobs to help him out – sprinkled about the crowd. For example, there would be a lookout or two who would alert the dealer if a cop was coming, in which case he would make use of those running shoes, leaving the cop with nothing but a stack of cardboard boxes to inspect. There would be the “winner” – someone as respectable-looking as they could come up with – whose victories would convince the marks in the crowd that the game could be won. And there would be security, here represented by the young men standing behind the dealer, who would intervene in case a mark who lost a game got physical. Such labor was cheap and plentiful in the ghetto, which was where the entire crew lived, though we were a long subway ride away from it. All of them were, of course, on welfare and unemployed, which left their days free for pursuits such as these. Yes, food stamps covered necessities, but a bit of cash was always useful. After all, liquor stores didn’t take food stamps, nor could they be used for cigarettes, lotto tickets, marijuana, prostitutes, or (at least in those days; perhaps it is different now) expensive running shoes.

The old woman had done her job, and receded into invisibility in the crowd.

“Come on now, who’s next?! I can’t go home broke!!” the dealer cheerfully yelled.

Out of the crowd stepped a young white man of perhaps twenty-five years. In an accent that suggested an origin in the less wealthy end of Europe, he said “Alright, I’ll giff it a try”.

The dealer smiled broadly, doubtless already imagining the filled pipe and 40 of malt liquor that he was going to buy that evening with the mark’s hard-earned money.

“Come on up, mah friend, come on up!”

The mark came on up. The procedure was repeated. The queen was presented, the cards placed face-down, and the dealer’s hands began to move.

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Almost imperceptibly, one of the security men gave a nod in the direction of the breakdancers. I couldn’t see what move they pulled, but it was enough to get a loud cheer from the crowd that surrounded them. For a split second, everyone looked away – the mark, the crowd around our table, the shills – everyone except the dealer. And me, as I knew what was coming next. As quick as lightning, one of the cards on the table went up the dealer’s loose, long sleeves, and another card, drawn from the sleeve, replaced it. It happened so fast that, even knowing it was coming, I almost didn’t see it happen. The mark, distracted for a split second, didn’t see it at all.

Now it didn’t matter which card he picked. The lady wasn’t anywhere on the table. He chose. He lost.

It was as the dealer magnanimously offered to let the mark win his money back that I finally spotted the remaining members of the crew of shills. A thin young man who had been standing to the side of the crowd came up behind one of the onlookers, a companion of the mark who was playing the game. There was an ever-so-light brushing up of one against the other, and in a flash, the onlooker’s wallet went from the back pocket of his pants into the front pocket of the thin young man’s jacket. This was the final bit of revenue enhancement for the crew, and probably just as lucrative as the game itself. On a good day, they might lift half a dozen wallets, or maybe even more.

But not mine. There was more than one reason I liked that heavy, knee-length coat.

The thin young man casually but quickly made his way towards the old woman who had won the first game I had seen, and who was still in the crowd. The stolen wallet dropped into the large tote bag she was carrying. This part was key – get the wallet off the pickpocket as quickly as possible; that way, if the victim noticed that his wallet was missing and confronted the person who had just bumped into him (or worse, managed to summon a passing cop), the thief wouldn’t have anything incriminating on him.

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Two more games were played – both with distractions appearing at the appropriate times, and both lost by the mark. A couple more wallets were lifted. The crew was having a good day.

If my father meant for me to learn from experiences, I can say without doubt that, at least that day, he succeeded. As I observed the Three-Card Monte crew, it occurred to me that everything there was a fraud, a cheat, and a theft, and that everyone there was complicit. Even the marks, with their desire to make a quick something for nothing, were not blameless. And, in my silence as I watched them get cheated and robbed, neither even was I. There was much to be learned from that.

A loud whistle came from somewhere just beyond the crowd. I turned to look, and almost before I could snap my head back towards the game, the dealer and his security men were gone. It was a signal from one of the lookouts; as the crowd quickly broke up I could see two of New York’s Finest slowly lumbering their way north up Broadway. If they had spotted the game, they were in no rush to get to it, but one way or another they would be where we were very soon. The show was over, and, like everyone else, I turned to go.

I hadn’t made it more than twenty or thirty feet before I heard a loud voice behind me, in an accent that suggested an origin in the less wealthy end of Europe, shout: “Vhere de fuck is my vallet?!”

* * *

And what is it, dear reader, that you might believe is all on the up-and-up?

Do you believe that your government represents your interests; that it works tirelessly to address your concerns and solve the problems in your life?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that judges of the Supreme Court really decide matters on what the Constitution says about them, regardless of any personally-held ideology?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that the common man is independent-minded, full of republican virtue, and can organize in order to exercise the wisdom of crowds?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that the news media are impartial watchdogs who bring you the objective truth, free from distortion or biases?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that Hollywood has no political agenda, and exists only to produce art and entertainment that bring happiness to the masses?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that if you saw it on TV, or read it in the newspaper, it must be true?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that the schools and universities really have as their primary mission the sacred trust of educating your children in order to make them into productive and responsible citizens of a free republic?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that going to college makes you smart; that it necessarily makes someone who has gone through it an authority worth listening to on anything?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that scientists are all followers of pure rationality with no hidden interests – financial, emotional, or ideological?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that the people in charge of things at the highest level of economic activity – in Washington, on Wall Street, at banks and investment houses – are really wise and farsighted stewards of your money rather than easily-spooked, trend-following grifters going for the short buck at all costs?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that everyone – all individuals, and all groups of people – are really equal?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

Do you believe that our ancestors were all fools and that we, outside of the single area of being able to produce wondrous machines, are smarter or wiser than they?

Followtheladyfollowtheladyfollowtheladyfollowthelady…

* * *

So what have I learned from my experiences?

I’ve learned that trust either flows in both directions, or it isn’t trust – it’s just being a mark.

I’ve learned that trust should be like the money on the dealer’s table – hard to earn and easy to lose.

I’ve learned that nobody is an easier mark than someone who thinks they’re going to get something for nothing.

I’ve learned that only fools play rigged games, or play them at all without knowing for sure whether or not they are rigged.

I’ve learned that appearances are not only deceiving, but they are often meant to deceive; designed intentionally to deceive.

I’ve learned to see things for what they really are rather than what I wish them to be; to judge them by what they actually deliver rather than what they promise.

I’ve learned to assume that everything is a fake, a phony, and a fraud, and that everyone is a cheat, a shill, or a snake-oil salesman until I know for sure otherwise.

* * *

So with apologies to the hosts of that podcast, I cannot agree with the belief that a high-trust society is really so good or desirable a thing. It is too easily left at the mercies of unscrupulous people who for whatever reason (personal enrichment, ideology, envy, or perhaps just plain evil) will take advantage of that high trust and use it as a weapon. Some may see a high level of societal trust as the sign of a people who are noble or honorable, but within my cynic’s heart, I can only see it as the sign of a people who are a bunch of marks, soon to find themselves shouting: “Vhere de fuck is my vallet?!”

So do yourself a favor and heed my advice, dear reader – take care, know what’s what, and don’t allow yourself to think like a mark even if everyone around you does.

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The Scourge of Westeros

Game of Thrones has returned for its fifth season, and tuning in for the new episodes has left me with some thoughts I’d like to share.

Let me start by asking: Who is the real villain of Game of Thrones? A lot of names may come to mind. Is it the egotistical, conscienceless King Joffrey? Or is it maybe his mother, Cersei Lannister, with all her schemes and manipulations? What about the Boltons: Roose, who betrayed and murdered Robb Stark, and Ramsay his sadistic son? Or perhaps is the villain offstage, in the person of King Aerys II, whose madness and cruelty sparked Robert’s Rebellion?

I would argue that the real villain of Game of Thrones is none of the above. The real villain is the kindly, frail Maester Aemon of the Night’s Watch.

For those needing a reminder about Westeros lore, Maester Aemon is also known as Aemon Targaryen. Once, many years before the events of Game of Thrones, he was first in line for the Iron Throne, and could have taken power, but refused, and let the crown pass to his brother, who became King Aegon V. Aegon was the father of Aerys II, and it was when the crown was passed from Aegon to Aerys that the troubles of Westeros began in earnest.

So if Aemon had just taken the crown when he was younger, none of the troubles we see in the story would have happened. No Mad King Aerys, no rebellion, no Joffrey, no War of the Five Kings, no Lannister coup d’etat, no beheading of Ned Stark or Red Wedding or burning of Winterfell, no journey of conquest by Danerys through Essos, and a unified Westeros ready to back up the Night’s Watch if anything went bad at the wall. The Seven Kingdoms would, to the very day we join in on the story, have been ruled by the wise and kind Aemon, and everything would be alright.

Well sure, you may be tempted to say, but that doesn’t make Aemon a villain; it just makes Westeros the unlucky victim of a choice he made long ago that seemed like a good idea at the time. But this ignores a crucial concept that should have been a factor in his decision of so many years back: the Mandate of Heaven. The Mandate of Heaven is an ancient Chinese idea that deals with many facets of leadership, but in modern times it has been adapted by reactionaries into a deceptively simple three-step process to be followed by those in, or seeking, positions of power:

I. Become worthy

II. Accept power

III. Rule

One of the difficulties presented by this concept is that it is easy for people to make a very basic mistake when contemplating it; that is, to believe that this is (in order) a list of one responsibility and two rights (or even privileges). It is not. This is a list of three responsibilities. It is not the privilege, or even the right, of the worthy to accept power and to rule; it is their responsibility. Often, it is their responsibility to do so even if they must be ruthless in going about it; even if they must break vows or shed blood along the way. Because if they don’t accept power, and if they don’t rule, then someone else will. That someone else may not be all so very worthy, and if they are not, everyone will suffer.

One of the interesting aspects of the moral universe of Game of Thrones is that, in true pagan fashion (and Game of Thrones is very pagan in moral outlook) too much of any one virtue is not seen as a good thing. Instead, a balance of virtues is seen as optimal. Perhaps most notably, Ned Stark was too honorable, and the entire realm suffered because he wasn’t more cunning and ruthless when dealing with dangerous enemies. Maester Aemon had a similar flaw springing from an excesses of virtue – too much selflessness and too much humility. Certainly, it a character flaw to have too much ambition. But for the worthy to have too little ambition only results in them effectively ceding power to the unworthy. And what good does this do for anyone (other than unworthies who are not hindered by a similar lack of ambition)?

No, it is the responsibility of the worthy to accept power and to rule, even if they don’t want to. And the proof of that is hardly restricted to fantasy kingdoms full of fire-breathing dragons. Our own world is, and long has been, filled with problems caused by the abdication of the responsibility to accept power and rule by those who are worthy, and whose leadership is needed.

Our kings gave over their effective power power to parliaments, and by doing so left us all at the mercy of King Mob. The Church, through Vatican II, gave up its authority to intervene in worldly politics, thus handing its power over moral leadership to the fanatical utopian cult of leftism. The “Greatest Generation” refused to adequately rule over their own children, ensuring their unworthiness, and then, as soon as those unworthy children demanded it, ceded power over the nation and its culture to them without any real resistance. The mainstream right, as embodied in the Republican Party in the US and the Conservative Party in Britain, suffers defeat after humiliating defeat even when they have the raw power to win because they refuse to fully accept and effectively wield the power that they have. Most importantly, their refusal to roll back even the tiniest bit of Cultural Marxism when they have the electoral majorities to do so is what makes the “ratchet effect” possible and ensures their own continued irrelevance. And why do they refuse to do so? Because they have granted the right to judge their actions to people who hate them, thus effectively handing every group of leftists that throws a hashtag hissy-fit when something doesn’t go its way the power to veto any and all of their policies.

Or consider the case of Germany in the 20th century. The Kaiser ceded power, first to General Ludendorff, who proved himself unworthy enough, and finally to the even greater unworthies of the Weimar Republic. One could say that he was forced to do the latter, and perhaps that’s true – but still, he did. Once in power, the Weimar Republic proved itself unwilling or unable to effectively rule. I carry no brief for Adolf Hitler (sorry, white nationalists), but even I will not claim that all of his complaints were entirely invalid. Hitler complained of the moral degeneracy of Weimar-era Berlin, and indeed the Weimar Republic was unable to effectively restrain that degeneracy. Hitler also complained of the unfair provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, including the disastrous and extortionate reparations to be paid by Germany to the Western powers, who demanded ever more in order to deal with their own economic problems in the face of the global Great Depression. Hitler claimed that Germany could, and should, have simply cut off these reparations and told the Western powers to go pound sand, and he was right – that’s precisely what they should have done. It was what Hitler eventually did. But what if the Weimar Republic had done it instead?

That is, of course, a moot question. They were unworthy, they only half-accepted power, and they refused to effectively rule. Because of this, the people of Germany, to borrow a phrase from The Dark Knight, turned to a man who they didn’t fully understand. He was unworthy, too, but he did fully accept power, and he did rule. Unfortunately, the results were worse, not better. It was the end of a downward spiral, in which each unworthy ended up ceding power to someone even more unworthy, until everything, predictably, came to horror and ruin.

Understanding these consequences, then, we can see why the refusal on the part of worthies to accept power and to rule not be regarded as noble or selfless, but as villainous or even treasonous. The only circumstance in which a refusal by the worthy to accept power should be seen as a credit to them is if they live under an immoral system and their refusal is motivated by a principled desire to not do anything that would perpetuate that system. Where this is not the case, any worthies who refuse to accept power and effectively rule when the time comes and the need arises must be actively shunned and shamed. The nation and its people consistently suffer when they refuse to do so – in Westeros, in Germany, everywhere – so why should that be looked on kindly? No, for the sake of all, worthies must – they must – accept power and rule. Where they demur or defer to others who are less worthy, they should be seen as, and treated as, villains.

And that is why, as gentle, wise, and kind as he may be, Maester Aemon must be seen for what he really is – the greatest villain in all the Seven Kingdoms.

UPDATE: In reflecting on this piece, it has occurred to me that there was another Targaryen who was equally guilty of causing the series of events that ended in so much calamity for the Seven Kingdoms, and for essentially the same reason: Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. Ser Barristan Selmy once called Prince Rhaegar the “finest man I ever met”, and every account of him that wasn’t from one of his enemies (e.g. Robert Baratheon or Ned Stark) seems to agree with this assessment. He was brave, beautiful, kind, soulful, brilliant, scholarly, loyal, moral, and decent. And yet Prince Rhaegar twice – once through action, and once through inaction – managed set in motion the events that led to the war that resulted in his own death, the deaths of his wife and children, the end of his dynasty, and untold suffering among nobles and smallfolk alike in Westeros. The action (taking Lyanna Stark, willingly or not, away from her betrothed) was bad enough, but almost certainly would not have caused a war just by itself. The inaction was worse. Knowing that his father Aerys II had gone murderously insane, Rhaegar did nothing to stop him, long past the point where he should have taken some manner of action. Even Rhaegar himself understood this, too late, as evidenced by what he said to the young Jaime Lannister as he rode off to a battle from which he would never come back: “When the battle’s done I mean to call a council. Changes will be made. I meant to do it long ago, but… well, it does no good to speak of roads not taken. We shall talk when I return.”

As with so many things let go too long by people who should have been more responsible, that never happened. Rhaegar was (his indiscretion with Lyanna Stark aside) worthy, and his refusal to take power from his unworthy father came at a great cost not only to himself, but to everyone and everything he loved.

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.