What I’m reading lately: ACOUP, Kitbashed, the Atlantic

Military historian Bret Devereaux has a blog called A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry where he writes in-depth — very in-depth — dissections of pop antiquity such as Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and Total War.

His “The Practical Case on Why We Need the Humanities” (July 2020) is perhaps the most morally important thing I have to recommend in this post, so I’m putting it first. But, when you’re done with that essay, check out:

And so on, and so on.

Michael Heilemann has a site called Kitbashed: The History of Star Wars where he writes similarly deep essays, with beautiful pictures, on the historical evolution of all things Star Wars. (I mean the real Star Wars, 1977–1983, may it rest in peace.) I hesitate to call the site a “blog” because the entries are undated; his piece on the Millennium Falcon dates back to at least March 2016 but has been updated many times since then. Reading his essays reintroduced me to the term “greebles.”

Finally, this month’s Atlantic has a cover story by Anne Applebaum on “The Nature of Complicity” which seemed like the sort of thing I wish certain people at the peripheries of my life would read… but of course if they were inclined to read the Atlantic then they wouldn’t be in need of it. (A chicken is just the egg’s way of making more eggs; funding for schools and public libraries is just the Democrat’s way of making more Democrats.)

Anyway, Applebaum’s article serendipitously rehashes a notion I’ve seen over and over lately in various guises (Baader-Meinhof in action!):

The late Harvard scholar Stanley Hoffmann […] observed that many of those who became ideological collaborators [in Nazi-occupied France] were landowners and aristocrats, “the cream of the top of the civil service, of the armed forces, of the business community,” people who perceived themselves as part of a natural ruling class that had been unfairly deprived of power under the left-wing governments of France in the 1930s. Equally motivated to collaborate were their polar opposites, the “social misfits and political deviants” who would, in the normal course of events, never have made successful careers of any kind. What brought these groups together was a common conclusion that, whatever they had thought about Germany before June 1940, their political and personal futures would now be improved by aligning themselves with the occupiers.

That is, according to Hoffmann’s hypothesis (and to be fair it’s not clear whether Applebaum agrees with Hoffmann here), the Bad Other are simultaneously the very powerful and/or the very powerless, but in any event are certainly distinct from the Normal People Like Us.

Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascism (1995) touches on the same simplistic, cognitively dissonant moral — “the Other are both very strong and very weak” — but recognizes the dissonance and thus smugly attributes this attitude to his own Other.

The followers [of a man like Mussolini] must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. When I was a boy I was taught to think of Englishmen as the five-meal people. They ate more frequently than the poor but sober Italians. Jews are rich and help each other through a secret web of mutual assistance. However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.

(See also: Victory disease; tired of winning.)

“By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.” If you ever find yourself falling into this trap, catch yourself!

I ran across this “strong-yet-weak” dissonance also in Might Is Right (1896), a white-supremacist tract favored by the 2019 Gilroy shooter among others. The author’s “continuous shifting of rhetorical focus” leads him on one page to claim that some men are vastly more capable than others and thus naturally deserve power; and on the next page to claim that all men are so narrowly matched in ability that “[he] who finds it impossible to carry his own burden, had better sink down and die in his tracks than impose [upon] his kind-hearted fellow strugglers. For then they would be overloaded…” — as if even his Übermensch were living paycheck-to-paycheck. The running theme of this whiny sort of fantasy is: “I am stronger than the rest and thus deserve power. I do not have power now, merely because someone is keeping me down.” It is right that the powerful should be in power; it is right that I should be in power; thus I am powerful… yet for some reason I don’t feel powerful! Blame George Soros, or black people, or women, or all of the above, until the dissonant feeling has dissipated.

The only variation on this theme that I would classify as “healthy and reassuring” comes from Bret Devereaux’s anatomy of a classical general’s pre-battle speech, in “The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part 7” (June 2020). Devereaux gives as an almost comically stereotypical example of the genre the battle speech placed in Catiline’s mouth by Sallust:

You know perfectly well, soldiers, […] in what condition our affairs stand. Two hostile armies, one towards Rome, the other towards Gaul, block our way. We cannot remain longer where we are, however much we may desire it, because of lack of grain and other necessities. Wherever we decide to go, we must hew a path with the sword. Therefore I counsel you to be brave and ready of spirit, and when you enter the battle to remember that you carry in your own right hands riches, honour, glory; yea, even freedom and your nature land. If we win, complete security will be ours, supplies will abound, free towns and colonies will open their gates; but if we yield to fear, the very reverse will be true: no place and no friend will guard the man whom arms could not protect. Moreover, soldiers, we and our opponents are not facing the same exigency. We are battling for country, for freedom, for life; theirs is a futile contest, to uphold the power of a few men. March on, therefore, with the greater courage […]

That is, the Bad Other are strong and capable; but not overwhelmingly stronger nor despicably weaker, and certainly not both. The battle speech emphasizes not disparity in power but disparity in right.

It’s not about might; it’s about right.

Posted 2020-07-06