51p0X2UPjgLMy dad has told me for years I have to read this book, along with another of Roberts’ novels, Oliver Wiswell. Well, Wiswell isn’t on Kindle, but Rabble in Arms is. So the choice of which to buy seemed obvious, although as it turned out, it might have been better to go with a physical copy–more on that later.

Rabble in Arms is set in the early years of the American Revolution, and is told from the perspective of Peter Merrill, an American patriot and merchant who joins the rebelling colonists.

Peter’s brother Nathaniel also joins, but is constantly distracted by Marie de Sabrevois, a beautiful but devious woman who is obviously (to everyone except Nathaniel) a spy for Britain. Peter himself falls in love with her niece, Ellen.

Repeatedly, Peter is thwarted in his efforts to court Ellen by the actions of de Sabrevois, and likewise his attempts to look after his brother are thwarted by the same. Well, that, and the war gets in the way too, as the Americans–represented by a colorful cast of supporting characters, highlighted by the one-dimensional-but-still-funny Doc Means–continually find themselves struggling against the mighty British Empire, thanks to a blundering, out-of-touch Congress and a number of incompetent, bureaucratic officers.

Patriot officers are depicted as a pretty worthless bunch in Rabble in Arms, with one significant exception: General Benedict Arnold. Indeed, it became pretty clear early on that Peter’s romance with Ellen, and Marie’s seduction of Nathaniel, and all the antics of Doc Means and the other supporting characters, are just filler sub-plots. What Roberts was really out to do with this book was rehabilitate General Arnold’s image. (Peter at one point tells the reader, “It has not been my purpose… to tell the story of Benedict Arnold.” But he’s lying.)

And frankly, it seems like Roberts has some legitimate points. How many people know that Arnold was wounded fighting for the Americans in the invasion of Quebec? For that matter, how many people know the Americans invaded Quebec? The aftermath of this invasion forms the first act of Rabble in Arms, and Arnold’s heroics are the highlight. The fact that the action was a defeat for the revolutionaries is laid at the feet of other officers.

Likewise, in the American retreat, Arnold is portrayed as a master strategist and brave warrior. Presumably, Roberts made his fictional narrator a ship captain so he could have a front row seat for Arnold’s feats of daring at the Battle of Valcour Island.

Roberts seems to be on firm factual ground here. Wikipedia (As my statistics teacher used to sarcastically call it, “the most valid source ever.”) summarizes: “The invasion of Quebec ended as a disaster for the Americans, but Arnold’s actions on the retreat from Quebec and his improvised navy on Lake Champlain were widely credited with delaying a full-scale British counter thrust until 1777.”

After Valcour Island, our heroes are captured by a tribe of Native Americans, who later turn them over to the British, who then turn them back over to the Native Americans again. If anyone is wondering how the Native Americans are portrayed, I guess I’d say, about like you’d expect from a book written in 1933.

All the characters who aren’t actual historical figures are basically stock caricatures. The only two female characters who say anything of substance are the pure, sweet, innocent Ellen and the evil, manipulative temptress Marie. The Madonna/Whore complex is strong with this one!

After more misadventures, one odd interlude with a captured Hessian soldier, and more problems caused by Marie, Peter makes it back in time to witness Arnold win the battles of Saratoga, despite being stripped of official authority by the bumbling General Gates.

Again, Roberts has the facts on his side here: Arnold indeed performed bravely at Saratoga, and was again wounded–shot in the same leg as in Quebec.

The penultimate chapter is a summary of why Peter will always defend Arnold, in spite of his subsequent treason. Indeed, Peter (who is clearly acting as a surrogate for Roberts here) even defends Arnold’s betrayal, arguing that Arnold came to view Congress as a greater threat to the United States than the British Empire.

While I was doing research for this review, I came across something interesting: Benedict Arnold’s open letter “to the Inhabitants of America.” That’s right; back in 1780, shortly after his betrayal, Arnold tried to explain himself to the people he’d just sold out. I recommend reading the whole thing. But here’s the key bit:

I anticipate your question, Was not the war a defensive one, until the French joined in the combination? I answer, that I thought so. You will add, Was it not afterwards necessary, till the separation of the British empire was complete? By no means; in contending for the welfare of my country, I am free to declare my opinion, that this end attained, all strife should have ceased…

…In the firm persuasion, therefore, that the private judgement of an individual citizen of this country is as free from all conventional restraints, since as before the insidious offers of France, I preferred those from Great Britain…

If we take Arnold at his word–which admittedly is a dangerous thing to do with the most infamous traitor in history–he was defecting because he didn’t like Congress making an alliance with France. That’s pretty ironic, considering it was the Arnold-led victory at Saratoga that persuaded the French to enter the war.

Throughout Rabble in Arms, Peter makes repeated reference to the Continental Congress giving undeserved military ranks to French officers, passing over more qualified Americans to do it. He doesn’t explicitly connect the dots between that and Arnold’s betrayal too closely, but the pieces fit.

(For what it’s worth, the most famous Frenchman to fight for the American colonies, the Marquis de Lafayette, went to France to secure military support for the Americans in January 1779. Arnold set the wheels of his betrayal in motion in May 1779. Make of it what you will.)

I’m not saying it’s accurate, but Roberts laid out a plausible case here: Arnold feels Congress is overlooking him. Congress is casting their lot with the French. Arnold doesn’t like Congress, and he doesn’t like the French. So, he thinks America is better off negotiating with the British. Arnold was perhaps the first (but not the last) American patriot who believed he had to fight the government in order to save the country!

Except…

Arnold wasn’t just betraying Congress. He was betraying the men who had fought with and for him, and the families of the men who died for him. He was betraying the trust Washington had shown in him by giving him command of West Point. (While Arnold was generally disliked and unpopular among his comrades, Washington seems to have been one of the few people who actually liked and respected him.)

This is where the “Arnold-had-to-betray-America-in-order-to-save-it” theory breaks down a bit, and other possible reasons for his betrayal start to loom large.

Despite his best efforts, Roberts’ novel comes up short in persuading me that Arnold’s treason was justified. Arnold was no doubt a brave soldier, and quite possibly a brilliant strategist. He may well have been badly treated by men not half as skilled as he was. But I just can’t buy the conclusion that Arnold did it, as the narrator claims, “to fight a greater threat than England.”

So, Rabble in Arms doesn’t fully succeed as pro-Arnold propaganda, but it makes a solid effort. Arnold gets all the best lines, and when he’s not around, I found myself longing for him to get back into the story. The rest of the book is pretty standard historical adventure type stuff, though it’s not without its charms. Roberts could make the occasional keen insight. For instance:

“The vainer a man is, the tighter he clings to his preconceived notions; he’s afraid of someone accusing him of changing his mind, which would show he hadn’t been the all-wise possessor of all knowledge from the moment of his birth.”

All in all, it’s a decent book if you like historical fiction and can stand a tale that takes a–well, let’s just say, a very old-fashioned approach to portraying its non-white and female characters. It’s actually pretty mild by the standards of its time, really. I’ve read other books from the period that just ooze racism and misogyny; this is more patronizing.

And now, a word of caution for those who buy it on Kindle, as I did. Whatever software they used to scan the pages of the physical copy to make the electronic version has some flaws. Quite often, a word was misinterpreted by the scanner, and an incorrect word inserted in its place. It was usually possible to figure out the correct word from the context–“lie,” for example, was throughout rendered as either “he” or “be”–but this got annoying after a while. I could never be sure if some characters’ names were really what they appeared to be. It would have actually made for an interesting meta-literary device had it been done intentionally and in another context–I was always second guessing what I read, like an unreliable narrator story.

I wouldn’t say this ruined the book for me, but it was irritating, and some readers may prefer to spring for the physical version and avoid the hassle of things like figuring out that when a character appears to say “TU he,” what he’s actually saying is “I’ll lie.”

First thing’s first: who recognizes this thing?

random weird picture

 

If you got it immediately, congrats! This was the icon I used when this blog first began, back on Blogger. (The old url is written at the top, in barely-visible red.) I got the idea from the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, and then I made it yellow, because… I dunno; the King in Yellow, probably.

When I started this whole thing, I had no idea where it would lead. I was on break from college, and felt like I should be doing something at least vaguely productive. So, I started a blog, and posted about whatever random things struck my fancy.

I don’t know if I’ve ever written about this before, but I almost quit blogging in 2012. I came very close to it. I had my farewell post written and everything.  But then I thought, nah, maybe a change of scenery is all I need. So I switched to WordPress, and here we are today.

I looked back at some of my old posts while I was writing this, and I noticed something: many of them–perhaps most of them–suck. I cringe while rereading them: Why did I ever write that? I ask myself.

But that’s okay. In fact, it’s a good thing–it means I’ve gotten better. Far worse would be if I looked back and wished I could write as well now as in the past.

I was able to pick out a few of my personal favorite posts, though:

For a long time, at the top of the site, I had a motto:  Quis leget haec? which is Latin for “Who will read this?” Originally, this was just a joke. But over time, I have received an answer to that question: writers will read this.

I’m incredibly lucky to have so many writers who read and comment on this blog. That’s the main reason I’ve improved: I’ve gotten to know all of you wonderful folks offering feedback, as well as serving as great examples with your own work. It’s been invaluable to me, as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for commenting. And thanks for writing.

Here’s to many more years.

My dad and I love watching history documentaries. He sent me one the other day about Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Nazi propaganda minister.

I learned that, in addition to things like making newsreels and staging rallies and so on, Goebbels also served as a producer on German movies. Think Cecil B. DeMille but a Nazi, and you get a pretty good idea of his cinematic style.

The documentary showed a few clips from a film called Kolberg, an epic war film set in the early 1800s, depicting the German town of–you guessed it–Kolberg withstanding a siege laid by Napoleon’s forces.

I have to say, some of the clips I’ve seen from the film look surprisingly good, from a technical standpoint. Look at this:

Kolberg (1945) represented an attempt by the Nazi film industry to get ordinary Germans fired up to defend the Fatherland.

The film was intended to boost German morale–it’s supposed to be an Alamo or Thermopylae-like story of a small group of fighters defying overwhelming odds. Goebbels apparently was so hell-bent on making it that he required tens of thousands of German soldiers to serve as extras.

That’s right: between 1943 and 1944, the Nazi-controlled film industry was using military assets to make epic war propaganda films.  In case you needed any more evidence that these people were insane.

When the Kolberg was finally released in January 1945, it was a box office disappointment, owing possibly to the weather (winter ’44-’45 was extremely cold) or possibly to the fact that MOST OF THE MOVIE THEATERS HAD BEEN BLOWN UP BECAUSE GERMANY WAS IN THE PROCESS OF LOSING A WORLD WAR!

Anyway, Goebbels was apparently pleased with this thing. Supposedly he gushed after seeing it that the die-hard Nazis who fought to the end would be remembered like the city leaders of 19th-century Kolberg.

I assume a lot of Goebbels’s subordinates knew he was nuts, but just didn’t say anything.

What’s most interesting–disturbing, actually–about this is how much the Nazis thought about how they would be remembered. Hitler and his architect, Albert Speer, wanted buildings that would leave impressive ruins and endure into the future, like the Colosseum in Rome or the Parthenon in Greece.

Architecturally, their plan mostly failed since nearly all Nazi-era buildings were destroyed. But it bothers me sometimes how much Nazi iconography persists in modern media. Granted, it is inevitably used as a shorthand for evil, but I fear that sometimes the symbols trump the larger message. SS uniforms, for example, were designed to convey darkness and power, and those things are alluring to some people.

It’s no coincidence that lots of internet trolls use Nazi symbols as avatars, logos etc. Partly this is just because trolls like to be ham-handedly shocking in order to get attention–that’s almost the definition of a troll. But I think there’s also something inherent in the design that strikes a chord–and not a good chord either, but a chord of power and aggression.

I’d never heard of the story of Kolberg before, and, while I’m no expert, I’ve studied the Napoleonic wars more than most. There’s clearly good material here for a drama–indeed, a German writer named Paul Heyse wrote a play based on it in 1865. Heyse was apparently pretty well-respected in his time, because he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1910. The film is based on the play to a degree, although they didn’t give Heyse proper credit because he was Jewish.

I have a feeling I’d rather see Heyse’s version of the story than Goebbels’s. But this is exactly the problem I mean–the pages of History are filled with the words and deeds and icons of psychopaths who wanted to be remembered at any cost, not those of normal people who just tried to do good work.

Kolberg is available online, by the way, but I’m not going to link to it, because ownership of the rights is unclear, and I’m not sure if these are legal.

 

51Uao-BtASL-1._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_W.S. Gilbert is a major reason—possibly the major reason—I’m a writer. As a teenager, my mom introduced me to the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and I was fascinated by Gilbert’s lyrics, and then later, by his dialogues and his entire style of storytelling. He wrote stories that were clever and strange and witty, and that usually included some veiled social commentary. And as often as not, he did it in rhymes that were both intricate and yet easy to understand, thanks to his massive vocabulary. 

And the really amazing thing is that so much of his commentary still seems relevant. Sometimes, I read about politics, and immediately what comes to my mind is some line of Gilbert’s, though he died more than a century ago. That’s a testament to the power of his words and his ideas.

At some point, probably around the age of 14 or 15 years old, I unconsciously began thinking, I want to be like that!

Strangely, I was always drawn more to Gilbert’s poems and his stage works than to his short stories. So when I saw that Andrew Crowther, the secretary of W.S. Gilbert Society, had released a collection of Gilbert’s short stories, I realized I needed to seize the opportunity to correct that.

Most of the stories contain Gilbert’s trademark sense of humor—the concept of introducing tropes of fairy tales and stage plays with practical, everyday life occurs frequently. I admit that the stories about pantomime and harlequinade baffle me to a degree. I read about pantomime, and I still don’t fully “get” it, and as a result, don’t totally get Gilbert’s stories riffing on them, either. It probably made sense to people who were familiar with pantomime. I’m not saying these stories are bad—far from it. “The Fairy’s Dilemma” in particular is quite good, it’s just hard for me to appreciate the Harlequin references.

Many of the stories in the collection were later adapted by Gilbert for the stage. Such is the case withAn Elixir of Love”, which he later turned into an operetta set by Sullivan, The Sorcerer.

I’ve always thought The Sorcerer was one of the weaker G&S operettas. But “An Elixir of Love” is absolutely hilarious. I laughed out loud multiple times reading it—the humorous idea of ordinary, sober businessmen who happen to deal in supernatural curses and love potions etc. is played to great effect here. (It’s in The Sorcerer too, but in my opinion, it just kind of gets lost amid all the demon-summoning.)

“Wide Awake” is an exercise in one of Gilbert’s other favorite motifs: people disguising their pure, black-hearted selfishness with a sop to politeness and decorum. Most of the characters are out for themselves, but they try to cloak it with manners and solicitude. 

“A Tale of a Dry Plate” is short and very sweet.

“The Story of a Twelfth Cake” is extremely funny and clever. It is marred by one unfortunate thing that I’ll address shortly, but overall it might be the funniest story in the collection. It’s another that Gilbert later adapted for the stage. 

“Lady Mildred’s Little Escapade” is a delightful tale—probably packed more of a punch in Victorian times than today, just because of changing social mores, but it’s still very clever.

“A Christian Frame of Mind” is downright shocking, for its time. A Swiftian satire, I would say.

There are more stories in this collection, and all of them are must-reads for Gilbert fans, and should-probably-reads for everyone else. And now, about that one little thing I have to address.

To a degree, everyone is a product of their time and place. Gilbert lived in Victorian England, and was a middle-class and later wealthy man. As you might expect, he held many of the typical attitudes of his time on such matters as race and sex. He was, by nature, a kind-hearted man, and so generally he seems well-disposed towards people, but that doesn’t stop him from writing things that modern readers will find shocking. The “n” word occurs in these pages, so be warned. Similarly, while Gilbert is no misogynist, and many of his female characters are actually quite interesting, there’s no doubt he could be patronizing towards them at times.

The book also includes Gilbert’s own illustrations to accompany his stories. These are a nice addition, although here again there is a problem with how Gilbert depicts non-white characters. (Interestingly, they are often depicted sympathetically in the stories.) Nevertheless, I do agree with the decision to present the stories and drawings uncensored, as Gilbert originally intended. The point of these things is, at least partly, their value as reflections of a bygone era, and it’s important for history’s sake to get an undistorted view of it, for good or ill.

Now, I know this book is a departure from what most people read. Indeed, Mr. Crowther had to work very hard to find a publisher for it. In this world of thrillers and horror and literary fiction, the modern reader may ask, “Why should I read this book of satirical Victorian fairy tales?”

Well, I’m going to make that case.

First of all, I have to address the fact that most of the modern books I read aren’t discernibly Gilbertian, unless you want to count Noah Goats’s comic novels, but he’s closer to a literary descendant of Wodehouse than Gilbert. Moreover, the books I’ve written aren’t especially Gilbertian. The influence that H.P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers and various pulp and YA science-fiction authors had upon me is much more obvious. And yet, when you ask who got me into this writing business, there’s absolutely no question that the answer is Gilbert.

Precisely because Gilbert’s stories are mostly fairy tales and/or deal with superficially simple things like the stereotypical characters of low comedy, they are accessible as fiction. But because Gilbert was putting his own spin on them—playing with the conventions of fiction and of theater, they get at the most basic principles of telling a story. There’s always a lot more going on under the surface of a Gilbert story than you realize at first, and that’s what makes them interesting: they teach you how to think about fiction.

Short stories are better suited to experimentation than novels are. If you write a whole novel with an odd twist or a “meta” ending, there’s a huge risk you’ll leave the reader feeling like they’ve been shortchanged—like they invested in something that didn’t pan out. Whereas short stories encourage twists and unexpected endings. The goal of a short story is to surprise, to take a common trope and turn it on its head. This is what Gilbert excelled at.

As I was reading The Triumph of Vice, I realized Gilbert has a lot in common with my other unlikely storytelling hero, the great game-designer Chris Avellone. Both of them tell stories that upend the common conventions of their chosen medium. Gilbert wrote of honest burglars and incompetent demons, just as Avellone writes Dungeons-and-Dragons fantasy with chaste succubi and super-powerful rats.   

This willingness to play with tropes, to subvert convention, is the sign of somebody who really knows their stuff. When you’re a master of the craft, you know which rules you can break, and you’re always testing the limits. Gilbert was a great stage director because he was always pushing the edge of what stage directors could do.

And that’s what I want you to take away from this: Gilbert was great at what he did, and reading his work offers you a chance to see a brilliant creative mind working in a time very different from our own, without the constraints of current fads and fashion. Somebody who wrote nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, and his work is still read today. That’s what every writer wants, isn’t it?

donavons_reefThe title is a quote from the Roman politician Cicero, meaning something roughly like “Oh, the times! Oh, the customs!” He was bemoaning corruption in the Roman senate, and the refusal of the senators to punish an obvious criminal conspirator.

Fortunately, we have no problems like that in the modern-day United States. So this post isn’t about politics. It’s about a 1963 movie called Donovan’s Reef. A friend of mine lent it to me the other day. This isn’t going to be one of my movie review posts, though. I’m going to talk instead about what the movie says about culture.

Donovan’s Reef is a comedy about a sailor named Donovan, played by John Wayne, who has been living on a Polynesian island since World War II. Several other sailors live there as well, including one, William Dedham, who had several children with a native of the islands.

Dedham’s daughter Amelia arrives from Boston, seeking to prove that her long-lost father is not a “moral” man, which will allow her to claim his shares of the Dedham Shipping Company.

Donovan gets word of this plan and pretends that Dedham’s children are his own to deceive Amelia. Although the prim Boston lady and the rough sailor initially clash, they eventually–shocker!–fall in love. And Amelia ultimately finds out the truth, but although she fights with Donovan about it, in the end, they still get married.

There’s one hilarious scene where Donovan and Amelia race each other to the shore from Donovan’s boat. It’s mainly an excuse to show Amelia in a swimsuit, but what I found funny is that right before diving in, Donovan has to extinguish his cigarette–and yet it’s apparently supposed to be a surprise when a young, fit woman beats him to the shore?

The ending of the movie is bizarre: throughout there has been a running joke that Amelia and Donovan will fight about something, and then make peace by saying “pax”. The movie ends with them arguing about what they will name their son if they get married, and ultimately Donovan says “From now on, I wear the pax in this family!”, before grabbing Amelia, spanking her a few times, and then kissing her. She resists at first but then kisses back.

Yeah.

(Keep in mind that John Wayne was 22 years older than Elizabeth Allen, the actress playing Amelia, and honestly, I would have guessed he was more like 40 years older. That doesn’t help matters at all.)

There are also some racial slurs, some jokes directed at the Chinese and the Polynesians, and other stuff that would typically shock modern audiences. It’s not all mean-spirited; there’s even a rather sweet scene where the island’s inhabitants–of all different ethnicities and nationalities–celebrate Christmas together. But still, it wouldn’t pass muster today.

At this point, some readers are probably thinking, “Wow, we’ve come a long way since 1963.” (Well, maybe some readers are thinking, “Ah, for the good old days, when men were real men, and women were men’s property real women!”)

I don’t mean to pick on Donovan’s Reef specifically here. I’m sure there are lots of old comedies with elements that people nowadays will find cringeworthy, or even downright offensive. But these were completely invisible to moviegoers in 1963. And there are probably things in modern movies that will strike subsequent audiences the same way.

I actually don’t think we’ve come a particularly long way since 1963. Human nature evolved over millennia and so is about the same as it was in 1963. (There are still plenty of people who were alive then, for one thing.) We just have different taboos. Audiences in 2073 will probably be watching our movies shaking their heads and thinking, “Wow, and they thought that was OK in 2018? We’ve come a long way.”

Who knows what it is the 2073 audiences will find unacceptable. Maybe it will be all the violence.  Or maybe they will be neo-Victorians, and find the idea of seeing so much as an ankle to be too much nudity. Or maybe they will just wonder why people in 2018 had such a fondness for washed-out blue-grey color palettes.

Strange as this may sound after I’ve gone on an Ignatius J. Reilly-style rant about a 1960s comedy, this is why I enjoy watching old movies, and why I like history generally. It’s a way of getting perspective. The first part is the shock of discovering all the weird stuff people in the past did. The second part is the realization that people haven’t changed that much.

[I wrote this a while ago, but never posted it. Then I saw Mark Paxson’s post today and thought “why the heck not?”]

Pericles was an ancient Greek politician who presided over what is sometimes referred to as the “Golden Age of Athens”. During this period, the Athenians made many artistic and architectural achievements that are still admired in Western Civilization.

However, what sometimes gets neglected is that Pericles also presided over the end of the Golden Age, and the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. The Greek city-states turned against one another, and Athens collapsed into war and plague, the latter of which killed Pericles himself.

“Life”, as the commercials say, “comes at you fast.”

What’s this got to do with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell?

Well, he presided over the Golden Age of Football in the United States. The NFL drew huge viewership numbers and was easily the most lucrative of the major professional sports during his tenure. In his tenure, American football has gone global, and stadiums have become bigger and more ornate than ever. Even the NFL’s premier event has changed from being a predictable blowout that it used to be into, more often than not, a highly-competitive and exciting game.

But now, the end of that Golden Age is at hand. A lot of it is the self-inflicted hubris of all great powers: from making teams play awful games on Thursday nights (dressed in hideous uniforms to boot) despite the fact that players and fans alike hate it, to relocating beloved teams to richer, but less football-loving markets, the NFL’s own greed now works against it.

And then there are political divisions that turn the organization on itself. The National Anthem controversy has made the league a lightning rod for criticism, and it has reacted by trying to come up with a “compromise” that has angered people on both sides of the issue.

Then there are the concussions, which are causing fewer children to take up the sport in the first place. The NFL’s supply of gladiators to feed to the brutal sport is drying up, and so they are changing rules to try to compensate. In the process, they are destroying football in order to save it.

For all these reasons, I think the NFL is in sharp decline, and that it will soon cease to be the dominant sports league in America. And yet, it was only a few years ago that it appeared to be an invincible juggernaut.

OK, maybe this post is a little unfair to Pericles. Although he and Athens fell on hard times at the end of his career, he at least was by all accounts a charismatic orator, competent general, and left the world some marvelous ruins that still stand today. I doubt anyone will be looking at NFL stadiums a thousand years from now.

But the general point holds: when you’re at the height of your power, always remember that there’s nowhere to go but down. Or, in the words of another legendary statesman, Abraham Lincoln:

“It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.'”

 

The biggest problem in American politics is not the Republicans. It’s not the Democrats, either. It’s not even Donald Trump, the man who broke and domesticated the former in order to run roughshod over the latter.

No, all these things are mere symptoms of the disease. But what is the disease? We have to understand the affliction before we can cure the body politic.

The disease is nothing less than a fundamental breakdown in human communication itself. It takes time to analyze something and appreciate all the nuances of a given issue. And people don’t have time for that. They would rather pass judgment immediately than take the time to think things through.

Indeed, people who even attempt to think about things in-depth are automatically condemned as traitors by their own side. Pointing out nuances or subtleties is never something zealots are interested in, and in today’s climate, you’re either a zealot or you’re intimidated into silence by the zealots. “The best lack all conviction,” etc.

Back in the ’90s, there was an extremely popular business book by Stephen Covey called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Like all self-help books for business types, it contained its share of platitudes and buzzwords, but there was also some very sound advice. The part I remember most was habit number 5: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

This is extremely good advice, and it’s something that seems to be rarely heeded these days. Certainly not in the world of online political debate, where humanity seems to have regressed to its most primitive societal constructs: small villages of like-minded individuals who venture out only to engage in raids against rival tribes.

Pamphlets

There is some historical precedent that we can use to guide us in understanding how social media has changed communication. In the late 1500s, the spread of the printing press made it easier for people to create and distribute  pamphlets. These were used to attack or defend certain people, ideas, nations, religions etc., much as social media is today. As Wikipedia helpfully summarizes: “In addition, pamphlets were also used for romantic fiction, autobiography, scurrilous personal abuse, and social criticism.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The most famous pamphlet in history is probably Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which advocated for the independence of the American colonies and attacked the British monarchy. This was pretty late in the pamphlet game, though. The real high point of pamphlets-as-propaganda seems to have been in the 1600s, when they played a major role in fomenting and prolonging the English Civil War.

Governments gradually adapted and shut down such publications, mostly by use of copyright and libel laws. It’s possible that down the road, the same thing will happen with social media. However, this is not a great solution, since it could very easily turn into a totalitarian dystopia where all speech is controlled. Paradoxically, history suggests that nothing clears the path for rigid totalitarian control so smoothly as anarchic mob rule. I suspect the internet is no exception to this pattern.

Besides the role of laws and censors in reducing the relevance of pamphlets, there was also a change in social norms. Now they are ignored or seen as the hallmark of political fringe elements. If somebody gives you a printed pamphlet about their cause, it makes them seem slightly kooky. These days, if you want to be seen as legitimate, you have to have a website and a Twitter account, or at least a blog.

It’s possible that with time, social media as we currently know it will fall out of favor, and be replaced with something else.  It’s already skewing away from the written word and towards pictures: in 2004, blogs were all the rage. By 2010, it was Twitter. Now it’s moving towards things like Instagram, which by design is meant for pictures, not words.

In a way, I think this is a good thing. People who like fashion (and by fashion, I don’t just mean clothes, but everything, from movies to political views, that is seen as fashionable)  can have their site, and people who don’t care about fashion—that is, people who do care about substance—can stay on their stodgy old blogs and have real discussions.

Charisma

The internet isn’t the only issue, though. The rise of mass-media, which acts as a force-multiplier for charismatic leaders, has been gradually paving the way for this for decades.

I’ve talked about this at length in other posts, but I want to briefly make some points about the role of charisma, because it’s the single most important force there is in modern politics. Televised political events, debates, ads, and so on were the equivalent of atomic energy as far as revolutionizing politics, and charisma is the reason why.

The average person does not have the time to understand all the issues they are voting on. It’s hard enough to hold a job, raise a family, take vacations and live a normal, healthy life without having to also be an expert on the multiple dimensions of policy that they are electing officials to manage.

A person naturally looks for shortcuts to make the decision easier. This has been true certainly throughout U.S. history, and probably the history of all democracies. Once mass communication technology became widespread, politicians were quick to leverage it to their advantage, just as those in an earlier era used bribes and grift.

It will always be easier to vote for the candidate who “seems like a better person” than it is to study and fully understand all the potential policy implications of a candidate’s platform. I would say that no one person can fully understand all the different spheres of policy that the president, for example, can affect. People dedicate their entire careers to understanding just one of them.

People vote for the person they like better. And what determines whether you like someone or not has very little to do with a rational weighing and measuring of objective facts, and a great deal to do with hardwired human instincts combined with subconscious associations based on your past experiences.

Thus, politicians try all kinds of tricks to associate themselves with things that people like–they seek the endorsements of movie stars, championship-winning athletes, other popular politicians, etc. They try to prove that they are “just regular folks” like the voters. But that only helps with the subconscious association part of the equation. The instinct part was decided centuries before, as people developed their instincts to survive in a very different world than the one we live in now.

Here’s an example: the fundamental thought-process underlying sexism is that, in our primitive mind, we think of men as stronger than women because men, on average, have greater upper-body strength, and in ancient times, that was important because you wanted your leader to be able to climb, or carry heavy animal carcasses, or win a physical fight.

Of course, that’s irrelevant to the present day for two reasons: first, the strength gap between men and women is narrowing, and second, because the modern day leader doesn’t need to do any of that–but the hardwired instincts in the average human brain don’t know that.

Charisma is about appealing to our instincts; our so-called “lizard brains“. And we voters are all too happy to let them appeal to us this way; because it’s much easier than the fundamentally impossible task of learning about all the issues.

The way mass media has changed politics has been a gradual shift. It started with small things, like Kennedy beating Nixon by knowing he needed to use makeup in televised debates. A half-century later, a reality TV star won the Presidency.

Trump

I’ve tried to avoid talking about Trump too much on this blog, partially because it’s nearly impossible to get away from news about him as it is, and partially because the mere mention of his name tends to bring out strong negative emotions in people–both his detractors, who become enraged, and his supporters, who viciously attack his detractors. It’s unproductive.

But there is no way of writing about this subject without discussing him. Trump’s entire PR strategy depends on appeals to deep, instinctual feelings. Tribalism, nostalgia, fear of the unknown, etc.–Trump taps into all of these things in order to galvanize his supporters. And he largely relies on TV and social media to do it.

Of course, he isn’t the first politician to do this. All of them try, to some extent. Trump is just better at it. His competitors in 2016 felt like they had to keep at least one foot planted in the world of policy. But they were living in the past. In the new system of politics, being a reality TV host is far better training than service in government or the military.

This is where the charisma-infused cult-style politics, with mass media acting as a catalyst, combine to create an extremely potent brew that tells voters to revert to their most basic urges, and do what is easy and comes naturally.

Taking the time to understand others does not fit into that equation. Nor does analyzing policies and examining complicated issues with ambiguities and shades of grey. Ironically, in this regard as well, modern technology has once again just made it easier for people to revert to the ancient practice of following the tribal chieftain.

Solution?

The human tendency to fall in line behind a charismatic leader and the acceleration of technologies that gratify our desire for easy answers and acceptance by our tribe have combined to make politics poisonous. 

Is there a way out?

For a lot of people, I think the answer is no. Many people have no interest in thoughtful debates or analysis; they just want to say their piece and have instant agreement. Trying to debate such people is a waste of time for everyone. It just makes both sides mad.

One of the most common pieces of advice for dealing with a toxic relationship is simply to leave it. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the hardest pieces of advice to follow, because usually people feel some strong urge, be it guilt, money, fear, or something else, that tells them to stay in the relationship. 

The same dynamic is at work most political arguments. In the majority of debates, no minds will be changed, and all that will happen is that people will get angry. That’s practically the definition of toxic. And yet, to just quit arguing altogether seems wrong. It feels like giving up on your own beliefs. After all, if you don’t argue for your own beliefs, who will?

You should stand up for your beliefs, absolutely. In that regard, it’s actually OK to follow the crowd and just put your opinion out there. Say what you think and why you think it’s true. Instead of reacting to someone who you think is wrong, just say what you think is right. That’s what’s really important anyway. After all, there are a theoretically infinite number of wrong ideas in the world; right ideas are a far more limited and therefore valuable commodity.

“But won’t that in itself lead to group think and insularity?” you ask. “Isn’t this how the dreaded ‘epistemic closure’ begins?”

I agree that it certainly sounds like it could, but it’s going to take a lot to prevent like-minded people from flocking together. As we’ve seen, technology and human nature are both pushing us strongly towards doing that. We can’t fight that trend; nor would we even necessarily want to, as like-minded people grouping together can produce great things. But we can and do want to mitigate the trend of different groups getting into protracted and pointless fights with each other.

The key part is that when people try to argue with you—and inevitably, they will–you will have to use your judgment as to how best to handle them. I don’t want to offer too much advice on this, as there are lots of possible angles from which they might attack, from the most childish insults to actual threats to strong, well-reasoned arguments. Each one requires a specific response.

That said, here are two key things to keep in mind: first, every argument feels like a personal attack, whether it is or not.  And in fact, almost none of them are; even the ones that are designed to seem like it. The natural instinct is to strike back immediately (I’ve been guilty of this) but it’s better to take a little time to ask yourself “Is this worth responding to?” Often, it isn’t. If it is, it probably means that somewhere, it contains a nugget of useful or interesting information. Address that, and disregard the chaff.

The second thing is that the vast majority of arguments online are all formulaic lines that the arguers themselves didn’t originate. They just got them from some source of pre-made arguments for their side. If you read an online political debate as a neutral observer, you’ll realize that it’s not organic—it’s a choreographed dance where each side unwittingly follows the pattern their party has set down for them. It’s an understatement to say both sides do this—all sides do this. Most people don’t know how to argue, so they look to others (often charismatic leaders) to show them how.

Don’t be like most people. Focus on having something new to say, both in your original statement and your counter-arguments. You can quote others as supporting evidence, but your central point should be your own. After all, if somebody else already said it, why should you say it again?

This method has two good results, which act as antibodies to the disease that’s killing communication. One is that if you strive to create something original, whatever ideas you come up with are likely to be well-thought-out and robust, because you’ll have to work hard to think of them. And the second benefit is that to a degree it protects you against the charismatic leaders who are trying to cajole you into echoing them.

Ultimately, political debates will be settled by the test of which ones have the most success in the real world. So don’t worry about trying to correct people who are wrong, unless they signal that they’re open to correction. Wrongness is its own punishment, in the end. Focus on getting your own ideas right, engage with the people who have something useful to contribute, and ignore the others.