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Category: Culture

2020 Non-Fiction Reading

For all the obvious reasons, I spent some time this year refreshing my knowledge of a rough cluster of subjects centering around the dangers of extremism, particularly on the Internet. I haven’t finished reading all of these, but I’m on course to get them done by the end of the year. It occurred to me that it might be an interesting list for others.

My thanks to Shane Burley, whose article “The Best Books on Fascism in 2019” supplied much of this reading. Subscribe to his Patreon.

In no particular order:

Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power, by Anna Merlan. You know how people rightly complain that some journalists don’t make an effort to understand the fringe? Anna Merlan really gets the subject of her work, and she’s even-handed. There’s a great chapter on conspiracy theories in Black America that acknowledges how easy it is to believe that the government deliberately breeched levees during Katrina when you know that the FBI tried to convince Martin Luther King to kill himself.

Key Thinkers of the Radical Right, edited by Mark Sedgwick. Fairly academic in tone but a very good dive into the last century or so of radical right theorists. It was really interesting to learn more about Spengler, given his influence on James Blish’s Cities in Flight series (which I need to re-read now). I also put a mental marker in the chapter on Julius Evola, because I want to think more about Rudolf Steiner’s influence on him (PDF).

William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur’an, by Michael Muhammad Knight. I tripped over this while I was being moody about the Seattle protest zone getting tagged as a Temporary Autonomous Zone. The term was invented by Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey, who of course turned out to be a literal pedophile, and while TAZ is a great concept I can’t mentally separate it from the creator. Anyhow, Knight’s autobiographical book turned out to be relevant in a million ways: look, there’s Wilson joining an Iranian religious order arising from the Traditionalist School! Look, there’s Knight coming to some kind of peace with his father’s white supremacism! And really the whole thing is a map to one corner of one hidden culture of the United States. Everyone should remind themselves that the patchwork of our society is and has always been much more complex. I want to read a lot more Knight.

Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, by David Neiwert. This is sort of cheating, I read it in 2017 when it came out, but it was worth re-reading so I did. Neiwert has been working the right-wing extremism beat for a very long time; this book comes out of decades of experience. (If you want a depressing read, go back and check out his blog series “Rush, Newspeak and Fascism.” He called it almost 20 years ago.) There’s some overlap with this book and Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate, of which more anon, but I think they complement each other well.

Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life, by Natasha Lennard. We’re all the way on the opposite side of the library from the academic shelves now. You need to read this to understand what it’s like being antifa, even if you don’t think those are the right tactics. It will jar your assumptions loose. It’s personal and raw and brilliant and meaningful.

Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate, by Alexandra Minna Stern. Whereas Alt-America is sort of focused on effects, this book digs into underlying ideology. It also complements Key Thinkers of the Radical Right nicely; if you start out with that then read Stern’s book, you’ll recognize and have a deeper appreciation for some of the ideological players. By the by, as Burley notes in his recommendation, this book isn’t just about the Proud Boys — that’s a convenient title hook. It’s about white nationalism.

Active Measures, by Thomas Rid. This book is of course not about fascism per se, but it is about the weaknesses in our collective information ecosystem. I don’t think Qanon is a deliberate operation. I do think it accidentally took advantage of the vulnerabilities Rid discusses. I feel like you should read this side by side with Republic of Lies, because Rid’s true stories about disinformation campaigns are exactly the kind of rabbit hole that predisposes you to believe in other wild stories. It’s always a struggle for balance.

Failed Führers: A History of Britain’s Extreme Right, by Graham Macklin. I’m in the middle of this sucker right now. It’s six mini-biographies of six British far right leaders in the 20th century. If for some reason you weren’t going to read all of these books, this is probably a skippable one — I picked it up because I’ve always been interested in Sir Oswald Mosley, or more precisely, the climate that allowed him to do as well as he did. However, it’s still a good exploration of how fascist parties succeed or fail in a country fairly similar to the United States, plus it’s got some really good material on international fascist cooperation.

Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, by Kathleen Belew. Don’t skip this. It’s about the white nationalist movement in the 1970s and 1980s, and it explains how we got here. In those decades, the movement was heavily influenced by Vietnam. These days, hey, we’re in the middle of another set of forever wars that aren’t terribly successful. It’s not surprising that we’re seeing similar effects.

Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us, by David Neiwert. Mr. Neiwert gets two books on this list because I’m fiercely hungry for a book that talks about saving conspiracy theorists. (Still looking for more recommendations.) The first two thirds of this one is a recap of significant conspiracy-related violence in the last few years; if you’re up on current events you won’t be surprised. Although he lays out the evidence for Stephen Paddock’s conspiratorial beliefs really well, so that was nice. The last third, though, is a practical guide to talking to your misguided loved ones and it reads pretty solid to me. The quotes from CV Vitolo-Haddad land a little flat these days, but not much to be done about it, and I don’t think they affect the overall value of the book.

A Face In The Crowd

I was perusing the Criterion Channel’s themed collections the other day and realized that the Caught on Tape collection was a) smack dab in my wheelhouse and b) mostly unseen by me. So in an effort to get my money’s worth out of my subscription, I decided to work through the whole collection. I’ve seen Diva and The Lives of Others before, but both are well worth revisiting.

The first movie was A Face in the Crowd, which doesn’t actually fit into the collection theme but never mind that. I’m a sucker for a good old-fashioned evil American populist movie, mostly because of my Huey Long obsession. This was that.

Andy Griffith was really awesome. Like everyone else in the world I think of him as the down to earth charming guy. His “Lonesome” Rhodes had all the charm plus a huge helping of self-centered evil, so that was great. He’s always just on the edge of over-acting which is a perfect fit for his kinda dumb drifter character.

His downfall is a great exemplar of the myth of exposure, which is particularly poignant lately. “Trump can’t possibly wriggle out of this one… ah, yes. Well. Nevertheless.” We know better than to believe that exposed contempt will strip away popularity these days; it’s wryly amusing to see one of the early expressions of that trope. To be fair the public turned against Nixon, so perhaps Kazan and Schulberg weren’t completely off-base.

They got the rest of it right, though. A billionaire and a Senator backing the populist for their own ends? Yep. Nativist sentiment as a political tool? Yep — and that was the most chilling scene of the movie.

One Year of AMC Stubs

I generally always feel like I want to see more movies. A year ago I decided that if I signed up for an all-you-can-eat movie theater membership I might actually see more movies. Mostly thanks to the sunk cost fallacy. Accordingly, I signed up for AMC’s version of the program and waited to see what would happen.

This cost me $21 a month. In order to avoid having to make a spreadsheet, I decided my break even target was 2 movies a month. In Seattle, the average ticket runs around $12, but matinees are like $6, so I figured 2 movies a month would be a simple target.

As it turned out, I saw 28 movies at AMC theaters in the following 12 months. Definitely worth the while! July was my most rapacious month, in which I saw five movies. I saw nothing at AMC in February, cause it’s a bad month for movies and I was busy watching noirs, and I saw nothing at AMC in September, because I spent two weeks on vacation and then got sick.

I only really regret one of them, The Hustle, not to be confused with Hustlers which I just saw and really enjoyed. Even the relatively bad movies like Glass or Godzilla: King of the Monsters — I mean, I’d take those four hours back but it was worth the risk. (I knew The Hustle was gonna suck and I saw it anyhow. I don’t know why.)

And man! I would not have stumbled across the dark slice of neo-noir, Destroyer. I would not have caught Overlord. I probably would have put off going to see The Favorite and it’s one of the best things I saw all year. The slight sense of wasting money pushed me to take more chances. That worked out perfectly.

Overall? Well, I’ve watched 51 movies this year and it’s not over yet. Last year, I watched 49 movies total. Year before that, just 37. That was about typical, so looks like the membership paid off in general. That’s a happy ending!

Review: Yesterday

That was sure a couple of movies jammed into one two hour window!

And I liked it. Danny Boyle’s a great director working with stylistic flair. The primary beats of the movie are completely fantastic. It’s a dream, perhaps literally: it’s constantly playing with space and time. The titles tell us we’re in Los Angeles before we get there. Conversations don’t miss a beat while characters instantly teleport over the space of miles.

Kate McKinnon is playing a Suffolk schoolteacher’s imaginary version of a music executive. It’s a fantasy! If you’re critiquing this movie because it doesn’t make sense, well —

Noir City 2019 Streaming

For reference and for my friends who can’t make it to a Noir City showing this year. (San Francisco, Seattle, Hollywood, Austin, Boston, Chicago. Make it if you can.) I’m just listing movies with subscription/free streams here.

Subscription service info is mostly from Lettrboxed. One of the many cool features they have: you can click on a movie and find out where you can see it. You can also filter film lists by services, so if I wanna feel classy I pull up the list of TSPDT 21st Century Top 1000 Movies and find out what’s on Netflix.

Happy Public Domain Day

As explained by the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain, today is Public Domain Day! Since the copyright term was extended in 1998, old works haven’t been entering the public domain regularly, but we just reached the end of the extension period. Much text, art, and music has been freed.

I cheerfully recommend Carl Sandburg’s charming stories for kids, collected in Rootabaga Pigeons, and P. G. Wodehouse’s first Jeeves “novel,” The Inimitable Jeeves. The latter is comprised of previously published stories but is delightful even if you’ve seen them before.

New Daniel Keys Moran

This is unexpected but pleasing. Fortuitously, I’ve been reading the four extant Continuing Time novels in reverse chronological order. And lo, now there’s a new short story collection including a lot of Continuing Time material! I guess I’m going to pause before The Long Run.

Daniel Keys Moran’s The Long Run was thrillingly exciting to me in the 90s. It fit roughly into the cyberpunk category, and the author was clearly technically savvy. The computer technology rang true. Even today: yep, of course it’s possible to figure out who wrote a chunk of computer code based on their stylistic quirks. DKM is a very good stylist, unapologetic about his quirks, versed in pop culture. I could have mainlined his stuff.

Then in his next book it turns out that this cool near future cyberpunk series is actually a huge future history. Mind-blowing. And he has the whole thing planned out, cool!

And then stuff happened and he went quiet. If you search my blog for his name, I was pretty cynical about it for a while. Sorry: I was younger. I just wanted it to be true so much. Thirty books, millennia of story, huge themes, a completely confident author. It was so exciting.

Now it’s fine. He should be first and foremost happy, except that the Lakers should not win NBA championships. But anything else is just fine, and any more words are gravy. The existing books are good by themselves.

And now there’s another one, so that’s awesome!

Some of the short story collection is previously published stories; “Realtime” and “Given the Game” were both magazine publications back in the day. The Continuing Time stories look to be new. There’s a teeny bit of time overlap — “The Shivering Bastard at Devnet” is dated 2676, which is also when Lord November: The Man-Spacething War was set. “The Shepherds” is set in 2049, which is the middle of the years in which the Castanaveras telepaths were born, but perhaps more interesting is the evocative line “Peter Janssen is shot from Jupiter orbit by a Zaradin Cathedral Starship” from the timeline.

Going back to the 1994 press release on the state of the Continuing Time, “The Shepherds” is listed as a short story set in 2049. “Platformer” is listed as a novel set between 2964 and 3031. The vision has stayed remarkably consistent.

Late edit: “‘Tales’ is more than half new material, btw — more than 175 pages out of the 365 or so. None of it’s ever been collected before.” So there you go.

It’s been a while since I played the reference-hunting game in the Continuing Time. If you want to play it yourself, the old Kithrup archive is still there.

Three Billboards and the Moral Rot of Chief Willoughby

I watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri the other night, finally, and then (as is my way) devoured as many reviews as possible and man, my take on Chief Willoughby is different.

Before I hit spoiler territory — yeah, this was a flawed movie. Vox has a backgrounder which is mostly pretty good. I agree that Dixon is not redeemed at the end of the movie, but McDonagh’s black characters are in fact just plot devices. It’s a painful flaw. That said, onward.

Nordic Museum

We hit the new location of the Nordic Museum in Ballard today. It’s been open a month or so. The space is great — a two story atrium themed after a fjord cuts down the long center of the building, with the permanent Nordic and Nordic America exhibits on either side connected by bridges. You’re crossing the Atlantic to get from one to another. The signage doesn’t go as deep as I’d like, particularly for the temporary contemporary Nordic art exhibition, but I still enjoyed myself a bunch.

The cafe is also very nice. Get the oatmeal raisin cookie.