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Category: Culture

John Sandford, Politics, and Extremism

John Sandford has always been both an author I enjoy and one who fascinates me from the political perspective. His writing is aware of politics, and often revolves around politics, but few of his protagonists have any interest in discussing their political views beyond the immediate. Perhaps this reflects the author. Who knows?

Lucas Davenport shoots and kills people, a lot. He’s a cop. There’s also a strong thread of police corruption in those books. Nobody is a hero just because they wear a badge.

Here’s the blurb for The Empress File, from the Kidd books:

One stifling summer night in Longstreet, Mississippi, fourteen-year-old Darrell Clark ran home thinking about two things: the ice cream he couldn’t wait to eat and an algorithm he was working on, a way to generate real time fractal terrain on his Macintosh computer. The cops who shot him in the back, mistaking him for a purse snatcher, found the ice cream in the paper bag on the ground next to Darrell. They’d never know anything about computers, or about the events they had just set in motion.

When the predictable cover-up occurs, a group of blacks, led by Marvel Atkins, decide the time for action has come. The city government must go. Through Darrell’s computer, Marvel, with the incredible liquid eyes, links up with Kidd, who takes on jobs that may be a little beyond the law. She lays out the objective, but he makes the plan. The mayor, city council, city attorney are all corrupt. The firehouse is the center for drug dealing, and the recreation director skims money like algae from the municipal swimming pool. And then there’s Duane Hill, the dogcatcher/enforcer who uses Dobermans to get his way. Kidd will simply find the crack in the machine and work it until the city comes down like a house of Tarot Cards.

Written in 1991. I haven’t reread it in a while so I’m not making any claims about anything other than to say that Sandford is keenly aware of the state of the world.

So: The Investigator. I read most of Sandford’s books eventually, once they hit paperback or from the library, and I added this one to my queue without knowing much about it. To my surprise, the antagonist group turned out to be an anti-immigrant militia. I could nitpick the depiction; for example, there’s a little bit more weight given to the economic anxiety theory than I’d have liked. On the other hand, Sandford did his research. He treats the militias as a real threat, he understands the distributed nature of the beast, and most interestingly he understands the military to extremism pipeline. I don’t know if he’s read Kathleen Bellow’s Bring the War Home, but he might have.

There are a couple of threads in there that lead me to think we’ll see some of those militia members again in this series. Even if we don’t, I have to be pleased that a book with this plot hit #1 on the NYT bestseller list.

Letterboxd Feed Update

I love copying my Letterboxd reviews over here, but I hate how much they dominate my feed. This week I started rewriting my script so that it’ll batch reviews up a week at a time. Gonna take a little more thought about formatting and such, but I’ve got the basic aggregation working and the output looks like this:

Year: 2022
    Week: 9
        Polytechnique, 2009 - ★★★★★ (contains spoilers)
    Week: 10
        Forbidden City, U.S.A., 1989 - ★★★½
        The Last Days of Disco, 1998 - ★★½
        A Bay of Blood, 1971 - ★★★

So that’s cool. This’ll also let me comfortably grab the whole backlog from Letterboxd via their export feature, which I didn’t want to do because a lot of my older reviews (from, say, Fantasia) are one-liners.

Slow Horses, Episode 5

Saskia Reeves is awfully good in Slow Horses. As with more or less everything in both the original novels and the TV show, it’s a slow reveal. They show us the failures that the Slough House denizens have become, and you have to be patient to see the talents — however rusty — that balance out the failings.

So up front, Catherine Standish is an aging grey haired alcoholic. I’ve just finished episode 5 of the first season, which is where she lifts her head and sees a chance and takes it. The really good bit is when Reeves makes it clear that her character is incredibly pleased to have gotten this one right, with the slightest shy smile.

I won’t spoil the books but I did say that the talents “balance out” the failings, didn’t I? Not “overcome.” Such a good series. I’ve read them and can promise that reading them won’t mar your enjoyment of the TV show.

Episode 5 shows that transition for a few characters, actually, protagonists and antagonists alike. People get serious. It’s a nice inflection point before the season finale, in which much of that seriousness will be at cross purposes.

Czech New Wave as Gaming Inspiration

I watched The Firemen’s Ball recently and enjoyed it quite a bit. The way Forman extracts humor from the banality really struck me. It also reminded me of the Electric Bastionland mini-campaign I’ve been chewing on.

I mean, tell me this isn’t a Bastion Council at work.

The leadership of the local firemen, gathered around a table, looking at something off-camera.

You could just run the whole movie as a background thread while other things are going on. “Ah, no, Monsieur Bagatelle can’t speak right now, he’s at the Firemen’s Ball.” “Well, I’m willing to do you that favor, but you need to make sure my daughter wins the beauty pageant.” “Huh, when did that building burn down?”

But it also intersects nicely with the Piertown Borough ideas I’ve been toying with. Don’t read after the cut if you’re playing in my mini-campaign. By which I mean if you want to play in this, drop me a comment, I have two slots I need to fill.

Review: Slugblaster Turbo

Mikey Hamm is Kickstarting Slugblaster, “A tabletop roleplaying game about small-town teenage hoverboarders who sneak into other dimensions.” I’m a sucker for gonzo plus an old pal of mine is editing it plus it’s a Forged in the Dark game, so I backed it. But what’s really interesting to me is the way Mikey released the quickstart rules. I’ll quote him.

“With pandemic-era online play in mind, Turbo is built entirely inside a shared google spreadsheet which includes all the rules, playbooks, dice rollers, shared progress tracks, and monster generators you need.”

So that’s interesting. I don’t know if Mikey Hamm is involved in the Gauntlet, but that sounds like a turbo-charged version of their character keeper concept. What’s it look like?

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.