It’s All Papier-Mache

True Detective 62If Twitter is any metric, viewers have been struggling with this season of HBO’s True Detective. I discovered the show halfway through its first season and was immediately ensorcelled by its reinvention of pulp luridness into a contemporary setting: writer Nic Pizzolatto had stripped the genre of its fedoras and ratatat James Cagney patter but retained the outré crimes, dysfunctional protagonists, and hardboiled dialogue — this last refashioned from purple Chandler metaphors into philosophical, albeit sometimes plagiarized, poesy. It seems much of the disappointment stems from wanting a repeat of season 1, wherein Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson prowled the landscape of a Southern Gothic, uncovering decadent families involved in ancient conspiracies. But rather than retread the tires of the old Dodge Charger, Pizzolatto has damned his S2 characters to the wasteland of the California noir, where the politicans are crooked, the dames dangerous, and the cast of characters byzantine. This in particular seems to confound the Tweeple, though so far all of the chauffeurs have been accounted for. Some people can’t handle the deep trip.

Upon landing, film noir so reverberated on Gallic shores that it was the French who christened the genre; and Albert Camus deliberately wrote the first half of The Stranger in what he called “the American style,” perhaps best exemplified by Hemingway’s “The Killers.” Noir reflected an existential awakening on two separate landmasses. We are taught in school that existentialism was a Continental movement of the 1940s and 50s, and so it’s strange to think of noir as an expression of an American variety. But as George Cotkin argues in his book Existential America, the official canon of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, et al. was selected by American academics smitten with postwar Europhilia who deliberately ignored a homegrown strain reaching at least as far back as Hawthorne and Melville. “Existence precedes essence,” quoth Sartre, by which he meant there is no such thing as destiny, that God has no plan for us; we are born and proceed to invent ourselves by the millions of choices we make during our lifetimes. But noir — both the cinematic and the literary kinds — had been saying a similar thing long before Sartre formalized it.

“Man is condemned to be free,” Sartre wrote in Existentialism and Human Emotions. We are brought into the world without our permission, free to do anything we want, unrestrained by determinism or “a fixed and given human nature.” This, our universe, is not so different from the amoral dimension of noir, where there is no afterlife to punish crimes or reward good deeds — the only law is what you get away with. One of these worlds might have more chiaroscuro than the other, but in both we are free to murder our husbands for the insurance money, just as in both we are free to become fraud investigators and bring murderers before juries. We decide.

In a very tense opening to a recent True Detective episode, detective Ray Velcoro (played by Colin Farrell) confronts gangster boss Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) over whether Semyon knew the name of a man he had given to Velcoro — a man Velcoro believed to have raped his wife and whom Velcoro subsequently killed in vengeance — was, in fact, not the name of the actual rapist. Velcoro accuses Semyon of manipulating him into the murder to gain leverage over a cop. Semyon replies:

I didn’t get you to do anything. I gave you a name and you made your choice. And that choice was in you before your wife or any of this other stuff. It was always there, waiting.

There was no coercion or con; Velcoro had already chosen to be the kind of man who prefers vigilantism over the justice system: his wife’s rape just gave him an outlet to express it. “And didn’t you use that man to be what you were always waiting to become?” Semyon asks. We don’t need to actually visit the African savannah to know whether we will shoot the endangered lion; we’ve already chosen beforehand to be big-game hunters or not to be big-game hunters. “The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion,” Sartre added. “He will never agree that a sweeping passion is a ravaging torrent which fatally leads a man to certain acts and is therefore an excuse.”

True Detective 53Velcoro later tells his partner-in-investigation Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) that he’s a bad man. This isn’t exactly true; though he has done bad things, it’s after his confrontation with Semyon that he begins living authentically — he realizes he is responsible for his choices, which can no longer be foisted onto Semyon or circumstances. He sacrifices his custodial rights to preserve his son’s well-being; he refuses to take advantage of a drugged Bezzerides. Velcoro chooses to do good. The same can’t be said of Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), whose terror at being outed as the closeted homosexual he is ends up getting him shot. “You’d just been honest about who you are, nobody’d be able to run you,” Woodrugh’s lover and blackmailer tells him. Inauthenticity can leave you dead on the pavement as the end credits roll.

I have no idea how it will fall out in Sunday night’s finale; I have two competing theories of whodunnit. Afterwards I will miss Pizzolatto’s wonderfully overwritten dialogue and my Monday mornings will be robbed of the mp3 shopping by which I recreate T Bone Burnett’s moody soundtrack. I will just have to sit back and wait for the flat circle of time to revolve to season 3.

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A Shout-out Over Innsmouth

Innsmouth Olde AleNarragansett Beer has released the second offering in their Lovecraft Series of craft beers, Innsmouth Olde Ale.

When I first read it, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” was not among my favorite H.P. Lovecraft stories; I was drawn to more cosmic works like “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Shadow Out of Time.” But “Innsmouth” has grown on me over the years, in part because I can better appreciate its sophistication and in part because technology has evolved to the point where the story is as much prescience as fantasy horror. Ken Hite’s discussion of Robert M. Price’s essay prefacing The Innsmouth Cycle made me realize the story is more than just a guy being chased by a bunch of inbred townies:

Among other things, Price makes the point that Obed Marsh is the prophet of a Cargo Cult, one which implicitly casts Lovecraft’s New England as a primitive backwater. … Lovecraft’s story brilliantly inverts the colonialist understanding of the Cargo Cult by demonstrating that the Other (the non-white, the “Kanak,” the foreign) is the far more sophisticated myth, one with a better claim both on the past and the future than white Massachusetts Protestant Christianity.

If you haven’t read the story, then spoilers crawlin’ an’ bleatin’ an’ barkin’ an’ hoppin’ after the jump.

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Short News, Altering the Past Edition

Danaus plexippus
CC BY Thomas Bresson

Down the Memory Hole. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, the only proper response for historians toward Hillary Clinton is a loathing both total and complete. The Clintons’ contempt for government transparency and the work of anyone who has ever stepped foot in an archives shouldn’t have come as a surprise even before she admitted using a personal server for her emails as Secretary of State or her lawyer’s confession that — surprise, surprise — said server was later wiped clean. Some of us have memories long enough to remember Sandy Berger’s plea bargain (and $50,000 fine) for stealing and destroying documents from the National Archives that dated to the final years of Bill Clinton’s administration — an action I’m sure Berger did at his own instigation, right?

No Gods or Kings, Only Matzo. Unlike BioShock Infinite, which was a slice of awesome no matter which way the cake was cut, the first two BioShocks were mediocre games buoyed by their amazing environmental graphics and a superb backstory. Creator Ken Levine revealed in a recent interview how the Jewish heritage of a number of BioShock characters — a Soviet refugee, a Holocaust survivor, New York doctors and artists — was integral to driving the storyline. To me it’s a great example of weaving together 20th-century history and experience to develop a very authentic alt-hist world.

America’s Creeping Confucianism

By now you’ve probably heard about the New Jersey antiques collector facing 10 years in prison for possessing an unloaded 1765 flintlock pistol. Earlier that day, the man and his friend had bought the gun from an antiques dealer in Pennsylvania:

On the way home, the pair were pulled over by a local sheriff. According to Van Gilder, the detaining officer told him that he wanted to search the car, and threatened him with dogs if he refused. “I didn’t mind,” he tells me, but he wanted to make sure that the officer knew that there was a flintlock pistol in the glove compartment, and that he had just purchased it. “Oh, man,” Gilder says. “Immediately, he wanted to arrest me. But when he called the undersheriff, he was told, ‘No, it’s a 250-year-old pistol; let him go.'”

The officer did as he was told, and gave the pistol back. The next morning, however, he came back — “with three cars and three or four sheriffs.” Van Gilder says, “He told me, ‘I should have arrested you last night.'” So he did. “They led me away in handcuffs” and, at the station, “chained me by my hands and feet to a cold stainless-steel bench.”

The man, Gordon Van Gilder, is a retired English teacher who lives in Millville, NJ, which incidentally is quite close to where I grew up. The geography is an added level of absurdity in this case: Millville is extremely rural and piney. By no stretch of the imagination could the pistol be considered a danger in a densely populated urbanscape; Van Gilder could probably walk out his front door and go full Aaron Burr without hitting anything besides a white cedar or a snapping turtle.

The I-told-you-so attitude of the officer highlights the growing Confucianism in American law enforcement. To Confucius, all crimes could be categorized. Context of the crime was to be eliminated and was even seen as undermining society; circumstances were to be stripped away from hypotheticals like, “Would you steal medicine to save your dying child?” leaving only the theft before the judge. What punishment to deliver was merely a matter of establishing what crime had been committed. Confucianism is characterized by its “respect for authority, hierarchy and social order,” in the words of one apologist. It is the ethics of despotism, which is why it’s been popular in China for millennia.

The fact that the officer threatened to unleash the hounds on a couple of old coots driving down a country road is reminiscent of a story Bill Lee, the cover artist for Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer, told me about him and some of his WWII buddies being boarded and searched by the Coast Guard in Bridgeport Harbor — apparently our brave USCG thought a boatload of Normandy Nazi killers was “suspicious.” The context of Van Gilder’s situation — harmless history buffs returning from an antiques dealer with an antique — is superfluous. The Confucian officer is sure a crime has been committed and it only remains to determine which one. This is precisely why police departments discriminate against hiring officers with high IQs: they want somebody with a binary mind who won’t consider bigger questions. Just like an insect’s brain is simply a series of on/off switches — is this food? is this an enemy? — the New Jersey sheriffs only care if the flintlock is contraband or not. Today a legislature could outlaw bread and tomorrow cops would arrest everyone with a loaf or baguette on their pantry shelf, never considering the sense or wisdom behind the law. Beetles and ants are not philosophers.

The icing on the cake is that the pistol will probably be destroyed — or more likely find itself on the mantel of some petty Cumberland County potentate. If only New Jersey could be more like Connecticut and put those sheriffs out of work by eliminating county governments.

Yo Soy Fiesta

GRONK LIKE BEER

I was going to write a Super Bowl post and about how much I love the New England Patriots and being a Pats fan; about how I was never really into football until the arrivals of my sons, how Mrs. Kuhl and I began watching Pats games on winter weekends as we cradled a baby in one hand and a bottle in the other, and about how, years later, there I am, standing in front of the TV watching the fourth quarter of SB 49, my heart pounding like I just sprinted 800 meters; about how the Patriots appeal to me not because they win so damn much or often pull victory from between the lion’s jaws but because of their “Do Your Job” culture and Belichick’s insane work ethic; about how that buy-in culture discourages showboaters and demands discipline and how men like Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork are role models as fathers and husbands in an NFL that doesn’t care if a player punches a woman unconscious in an elevator; about how I was never more proud to be a Pats fan when they offered free exchanges on Aaron Hernandez jerseys; about how, in a Connecticut town divided between Giants and Pats fans, I use the Patriots to teach my sons to be lovers not haters, and to root for their team without putting down others (except the Ravens because many of the Ravens are thugs who should be in prison who try to injure other players); and about how hatred of the Patriots is a metaphor for contemporary America, a place where people no longer believe that success derives from hard work and good luck (with “luck” defined as being in the right place at the right time after being in the wrong place 99 times beforehand) but instead assume you must have cheated and stolen to win, even when there’s no evidence of it.

I was going to write all that. But instead I’m just gonna repost this photo from Twitter. Go Pats.

The Pledge of Obedience

Because January 2015 is never too early to battle for the soul of the Republican party, the conservative Washington Free Beacon is already kicking dirt on Rand Paul like a dog after doing its business:

A blogger who has been hired to do social media work for Sen. Rand Paul’s (R., Ky.) likely presidential campaign is not a fan of “stupid armchair jingoes” in the Republican Party, says Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) “will use anything to satisfy his blood lust,” and wants Edward Snowden to receive a Nobel Peace prize, according to her Facebook page.

Beacon writer Alana Goodman then continues with all the journalistic even-handedness of a cartoon housewife standing on a chair and hiking up her petticoats by noting in an update that said libertarian blogger, Marianne Copenhaver, also opposes the Pledge of Allegiance. As Robby Soave at Reason points out, this isn’t very unusual for libertarians: the pledge was written by socialist (and later local Nationalist Club president — ahem ) Francis Bellamy to promote nationalism in schools. Originally the pledge was accompanied by what became known as the Bellamy salute:

At a signal from the Principal the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the Flag the military salute—right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it… At the words, ‘to my Flag,’ the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, towards the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.

Ahem, ahem.

To not follow in the footsteps of a proto-Nazi is good reason to oppose the pledge but I can think of better objections. For years I’ve refused to recite the pledge on both the grounds of foolishness — a flag is a thing which exists separate and indifferent to my actions; and the ideals it supposedly represents are, as abstractions, even more remote and indifferent — and principle.

Ever wonder why the end of Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution is worded thusly?

Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:–“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The reason the Founders threw that bit in there about affirmation is because they, as residents if not frequent habitues of Philadelphia, believed it likely that one day a Quaker might be elected president (Richard Milhous Nixon!). Quakers swear no oaths. Quakers, like Mennonites — and this is where my Lancaster County blood rises to the top — believe that oaths sworn to things and people compromise one’s relationship with God. If I swear to support a man and that man tells me to kill and killing is against God’s law, then I have put the man before God. If I swear to support a nation and that nation commands me to do something contrary to God’s wishes, I have been compromised. Will that man or that nation be there to defend me when I stand in judgment before God? No. The most you can do in this lifetime is affirm a commitment to self-control: I can affirm to my wife I will not cheat on her; I can affirm to uphold the Constitution to the best of my abilities. And, in any event, both Quakers and Mennonites believe in always conducting themselves honestly, obviating the need for most oaths.

Of course, you don’t need God to reject the pledge. If I have decided that killing is wrong then why should I swear allegiance to a nation which, on a whim, may demand that I travel overseas to kill someone who has never harmed me? How or why does the will of the mob or some bloodthirsty politician trump my own principles? I have to live with what I’ve done.

To the statists of the world, an individual’s utility is only what labor or gold he or she can supply them. This is why the Pledge of Allegiance should be seen in its proper light not as a declaration of patriotism but as another link in the chains used by the rapacious to shackle and enslave. The pledge is meant to enforce conformity, and yet the United States is a country of dissidents founded upon dissidence: it’s more American-as-apple-pie to not recite it.