Thoughts on Christianity and Authoritarianism

If the reports are to be believed, one-third of Americans today approve of the President’s performance. The constituency most likely to go on approving of Mr. Trump is evangelical Christians, in particular middle-aged white evangelical Christians. Much has been written of this political alliance, along the line that Donald Trump is a man of un-christian character, angry and vain and materialistic, and so on. How can the faithful regard him as theirs?

They have done so by casting Mr. Trump as a modern-day Cyrus or Nebuchadnezzar, which is to say a flawed individual who nonetheless—perhaps even because of this—has been chosen by God and through whom the divine is achieving His will. Anyone who has been to an evangelical gathering, especially of the revivalist-testimonial type, knows that the best witness is also the most lurid. Invariably a solemn and clean-looking fellow will electrify his audience with a tale of debauchery, the lascivious details of his previous life of depravity serving to underscore the point that “if God could save a wretch like me ….” Before he was St. Paul, Saul of Tarsus by his own admission was a dangerous fanatic who went eagerly about the work of murdering the followers of Jesus. The tradition of playing up one’s nastiness in the service of a cracking testimony obtains from Saul through Augustine to the present day. Human wickedness is baked into the Christian religion in the way that class struggle is baked into Marxism, so that to point out Mr. Trump’s shortcomings is only to affirm a central tenet of evangelicalism, that God can and does work through even the most thoroughly fallen.

But why Mr Trump, when the field is crowded with flawed candidates? Perhaps a better line of inquiry is to consider what evangelical Christianity is, not as a religion, but as a political system.

When the plainly superstitious details of religion are removed, for example virgin births and ascensions to heaven etc, what remains is a set of propositions about the world and of our place within it. The propositions are as follows. The universe is a work of omniscience, governed by universal and immutable law. To go up against the law is to offend the Almighty and to invite His wrath. There is no court of appeal. God has put down His laws in writing from the beginning of time, and it is a work of supreme arrogance even to question. The only recourse of man is to follow the law and to conform to the natural order, which is to say God’s word. Do as you may, eventually everything is going to collapse in a conflagration of evil, a fate most of us deserve. The effect of St Paul’s teachings was to sublate the Jewish law into a doctrine of divine grace, but without altering the universal and fixed nature of God’s will. In the universe of Christianity, everything is presided by an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful Father whose wrath or love is ineluctable as well as non-negotiable. One’s only options in this life are to accept the offer of divine grace on the terms advanced or to suffer eternally.

It takes little mental effort to translate this notion of an all-powerful, all-seeing, law-and-grace-issuing Father into a political system, and that system is best described as totalitarian. Say what you will of monotheism: it is not a democratic system or a working out of an evolutionary process. The only role of the demos in evangelicalism is to follow the law and to affirm over and again the glory of the Dear Leader. Evangelical Christianity as a political system is less about the negotiation of consensus and compromise, of inching laboriously toward the good if imperfect society, than it is about sorting the world into good and evil so that the final battle might get underway. The human heart is wicked in an irredeemable way, and thus unreliable as a moral guide. From this it follows that human solutions to human problems are also unreliable, so that the chief political task is to ensure that the good prevail upon the wicked by imposing upon them the strictures of law. What Christianity proposes is an authoritarian and not a pluralistic, liberal view of society.

I am not suggesting that all Christians or even most of them are totalitarian in outlook. What I am suggesting is that evangelicalism and authoritarianism are fellow-travellers. Should authoritarianism one day overtake the United States, we should expect evangelicals to reconcile themselves to it easily, provided it is an authoritarianism of the “Travail, Famille, Patrie” variety. The only thing Donald Trump had to do to win over evangelicals was to make pleasant noises about the importance of faith while advancing a law-and-order agenda that broadly repudiated the liberal belief in a society made better through the work of human social engineering. The President’s hyper-masculine persona could only be reassuring to someone who has cast her lot with a Father Who Art in Heaven, especially a law-giving Father obsessed with a tribalist program of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Trump’s grievance and resentment based cultural war of us-against-them ought to be familiar to the most casual student of monotheism, whether the subject is Twentieth-Century Ireland or present-day Islam.

A moment ago I alluded to “the work of human social engineering.” This phrase can be understood in more than one way. It can apply to the current materialist effort to deconstruct human sexuality and gender, the idea that male and female are nothing more than oppressive constructs. But the phrase also comprises the Enlightenment notion that human societies are malleable and not forever determined by divine precept. The term for this point-of-view, that our lot may be improved through the application of human reason, is liberalism. The ideology of liberalism emerged at about the time the United States of America was established, and against it stood the authoritarian principle—the Great Chain of Being, the divine sanctioning of the monarch and aristocracy, and so forth. To be a liberal is to believe in progress driven by human intelligence and reason and effort.

At bottom liberalism and monotheism are incompatible, although it is possible to hold both in one’s mind and to claim an allegiance to both simultaneously. Many of the monotheistic schisms are in fact over this exact question, and they take many forms. Jewish anti-Zionism repudiates the man-made state of Israel on the grounds that only the Messiah may establish the Kingdom. Likewise within Islam there is a disagreement over whether the Caliphate should be established now or only with the return of the hidden Imam. In any case the City of God will be by definition a theocracy, where votes are not cast and there are no protests or courts of appeal.

Even if I am wrong about everything I have written above, it is objectively the case that President Trump is the most perfect specimen of an evangelical President. Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower can not touch him for popularity. In an era when politicians are as a rule held in contempt, Mr. Trump consistently polls around 80% favourable among evangelical Christians—a useful fact, for it shows us what the ideal evangelical candidate looks like. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord, but of course this is not true. Vengeance is President Trump’s, and as a matter of proxy it is now also the province of evangelicals. For what must feel like the first time, they have something approximating real political power. They are set about the work of repudiating liberalism and re-establishing the law, if necessary at the expense of conventional politics itself.

Sir John A. Macdonald: a morally unremarkable man

By the time I have finished this little essay of mine, the Twitter storm which is its occasion will have passed, and a new and equally useless storm will be underway. Only a fraction of people take notice of Twitter, and only a fraction of the fraction treat it as more than a frivolity. The chief utility of Twitter, as any self-aware user knows, is to pass some time as tiny bursts of whatnot stimulate your vision, like roman candles.

A recent vote of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario has put forward the motion to remove the name Sir John A. Macdonald from all public schools in Ontario. Needless to say the idea was met with horror and outrage on Twitter, as all such proposals are. There is however a swelling of the call for such undertakings, and from a broader segment of the population than would have been likely even a decade ago.

Here are the more common arguments I have found against the motion:

– The Slippery Slope, Erasure Argument: No one is safe once the principle of removing names of the objectionable takes hold; soon all names from the past will be erased and forgotten, and Canadian history will disappear
– The Presentist Argument: Of course Sir John A. Macdonald was a racist, etc., but only by the standards of the present. By the standards of his day he was unremarkable, everyone at that time being a racist, etc.
– The Balance of Good Argument: Sir John A. Macdonald is a founding father whose positive achievements outweigh whatever ill he may have done
– The Revisionist Argument: It is wrong to re-create history to suit the tastes of the moment.

It is worth noting that, with few exceptions, the arguments against retracting the name of Sir John A. Macdonald concede that he “bears responsibility for the Indian Act and for residential schools” and for associated views “that are repugnant by today’s standards” — these are John Ivison’s words, from the August 24, 2017 edition of the National Post. I say “worth noting” because only twenty years ago it was common to find defences of this very same Indian residential school system in the pages of the National Post and elsewhere. It would be a matter of small trouble to produce a dozen examples, but one will I think suffice:

March 21, 2001
Healthy skepticism
National Post
In the past five years, Canadians have been led to believe that church- and government-run Indian residential schools systematically stripped Indian children of their identities. In 1998, Jane Stewart, then the federal Indian Affairs minister, conferred the federal government’s official blessing on this view when she expressed “profound regret” over the fact that residential schools “separated many children from their families and communities and prevented them from speaking their own languages and from learning about their heritage and cultures.” Ms. Stewart was no doubt taking her cue from the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which describes residential schools as inherently “abusive” institutions that continue to cast “a deep shadow over the lives of many Aboriginal people and communities.”
Statements of claim being churned out by law firms on behalf of Indian litigants similarly allege that residential schools tried to “kill the Indian in the child” and engaged in “organized cultural genocide.”
Challenging this view requires courage …

etc., etc.

The common opinion-editorial view of only twenty years ago—that surely these well-intentioned residential schools couldn’t have been all that bad—is not without its present advocates, but there is no doubting that opinion on this issue has shifted. Today even the most reactionary commentator (Conrad Black comes to mind) will as a rule clear his throat with a qualifying phrase such as “of course there were some bad apples” or “although it’s true that terrible crimes were committed” before launching a defence. Few writers are willing to take the position that the Indian residential school system was on balance a good idea, with respect both to intentions as well as to execution. What has brought about this change? Above all else it is the result of a vigorous and sustained campaign led by the people who knew these institutions from the inside and who in many cases left them broken and diminished. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when I was working at the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, the fear was not of the erasure of Canada’s history but rather of its restoration. Against this effort of abuse survivors, to restore the historical record, stood the government and church lawyers and a good deal of the media.

Some unpleasant truths follow from the preceding. The first is that there is no getting around the fact that history is forever being re-written, that (as Auden put it) the words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living, and that “erasure” at one time or another is our universal fate. It is unlikely that a majority of Canadians know more about Sir John A. Macdonald than could be written on a Dentyne wrapper, and that even this small amount of knowledge would contain errors. No amount of statuary or school naming is likely going to help. Furthermore it is as easy to purge oneself entirely of inherited values and prejudices, and to apprehend the past in its purity, as it is to stare at the back of your own eyeballs. We celebrate heroic men and women of the past precisely because they did something exceptional: they defied the standards of their time (often suffering for it) and remained mostly unsullied of the gewgaw and falderal all around them.

We are living through a time when the very notion of objective truth is under obvious and stunning attack, but anyone who has studied the past knows that there is always some degree of war going on against truth, particularly against unpleasant and inconvenient truth. Thirty years ago I had bitter arguments with university professors over matters that would be uncontroversial today. Often the argument bogged down in banal human factors like aesthetic tastes. For example, I recall taking the position that Duncan Campbell Scott’s poetry should not be isolated from his work as a senior bureaucrat, a proposition that threatened to sully the enjoyment of his work. It is the case however that very few artists would come out of a thorough scrutiny of their lives with their reputation enhanced, and the same is true of politicians and editorialists and activists and of homo sapiens in general. The effort to suppress truth is often a rational effort, but in the interest of preventing dangerous lies to take root it ought to be resisted and repudiated.

The truth about Sir John A. Macdonald contains a good many unpleasant facts, but it happens that the facts are more unpleasant for some than they are for others. For some the unpleasantness of a history is abstract, and for others it is Uncle Roy, who never came home from the war. Or it is your mother, who got on a train in Łódź never to be seen again. Sir John A. Macdonald is not regarded, even by his defenders, as a man of the heroic mode, but he is regarded as an abstraction, and a powerful abstraction at that: he is “the father of Confederation,” the man who made Canada, and likely this is why the call to remove his name invoked the wrath that it did. He is bound up in an Anglo-Canadian nationalism which walks softly but carries a big hockey stick. I am tempted to say that no Indigenous person can feel in her bones what many Canadians feel about their symbols, but doubtless there are some who can. In any case, for a great many Indigenous people, Sir John A. Macdonald is a man who caused the suffering of our dead and living relatives, a man who described people not unlike us as barbarians and savages. Yes, by the standards of his day he was morally unremarkable, and that is precisely why we find him so hard to take.

When the Centre No Longer Holds: Trump and the Media

The day will arrive when the world is rid of this menace of a President, but just as the rot did not begin with him, neither will it end with him. The rot itself is that the centre cannot hold and that, as a result, America is today two warring nations. With each passing day it feels more and not less that mere anarchy will be loosed upon the world, or at least upon American streets. If recent trends continue, the President who succeeds Mr Trump will likely be despised by a large minority of the country, if not by a majority, and the disgruntled will immediately set to the business of conspiracy theory and dark-corner whispering and agitation-propaganda. In other words, business as usual. Optimistic invocations of healing and unity fall upon the ear like a sour quip. Who among us believes that sweetness and light await, and not blood and struggle?

Above I have perverted Yeats’ phrase “the centre cannot hold” to suit my own interest and ends. I subscribe neither to Yeats’ peculiar views of history nor his evident admiration of fascism. The centre that no longer holds is simply the proposition that America can be fashioned into a community of shared interests, a notion that has never been true but which has held enormous sway, much like the fiction that America has no classes or (what amounts to the same thing) one universal class, the middle-class. Still, even a lie can have its utility. As long as Americans believed in the universal middle class, the fiction obtained in a uniquely American form of positive thinking. Then, throughout the Reagan years and beyond, the progressive left took to chipping at the myth of a classless society, and by the 2000s the anti-globalist right had joined them in denouncing the elite. The Internet made it possible to cultivate and spread tribal grievances and provided adherents to the most outlandish views the comfort of knowing that they were not alone. With the election of Mr Trump, the conspiracy theorists and white supremacists could fancy themselves respectable and not the rejects of polite company they had long known themselves to be. The emotional charge that attended this must have been intoxicating.

The word I am reaching for is frisson—the vertiginous thrill at the thought that something extraordinary is occurring. Upon hearing of their election victory, the devotees of Trump doubtless felt what supporters of Mr. Obama felt in 2008. In the case of the Obama victory, intoxication led partisans to say plainly ridiculous things, for instance that America was now a post-racial society, healed of its past. Intoxication however is a passing state, as the alt-rightists discovered soon after concluding that it was now de rigueur to wave the Hitler flag in the Charlottesville daylight. Much has been written and said of the rally aftermath, but the pedigree of the present moment merits reflection also. For only a year ago, the generic Klansman knew to keep hooded and the fellow travellers of National-Socialism understood the public relations downside of chanting “Jews Will Not Replace Us” in the open air of a small American city. Only a long, occult incubation punctured by a sudden mainstreaming of fringe sentiment and style—and the resulting discharge of excitement—can account for the far-right’s present boldness. Once its nose is up against the unyielding glass of reality, however, Trumpism will probably fare no better than Obamaism.

Before we learned to decry the tribalism of social media, and to heap the blame for present ills upon it, the material world provided its own opportunities for tribal self-segregation. It is no mystery for example that a certain kind of person is attracted to the nation’s largest cities, whereas a different kind of person adverts to the rural heartland. Much is said of the liberal media, a category of person you will find clustered in New York and Los Angeles and not in Boise, Idaho or rural Arizona or the ranches of Montana. What makes the media liberal? Above all, an outlook formed by social class. Rarely will you find a big-city journalist who takes the Bible literally or who thinks that the biggest threats to America are abortion and gay marriage. Whatever his political views, the “liberal” journalist will look down upon evangelical Christianity not because it is conservative but because it is déclassé, hence a threat to respectability and advancement. And since the whole point of choosing where one lives is to ensure you are around others of roughly the same tastes, prejudices, habits, and outlook, the liberal journalist will feel himself no more liberal than the fundamentalist Christian will feel odd for believing the earth is only a matter of tens of thousands of years old. Most of the folks he rubs against will believe the same. Until Twitter arrived, it was unlikely that you would stumble upon your political antipodes in the course of daily commerce, and that’s how we liked it. The result of self-segregation generally speaking was that water found its level. Everyone felt that they lived in Their America, because the Other America was far away, in a city or town or heartland they would never, ever visit.

There is of course a way to connect two distant points, and that is to put something in the middle. The thing that is put in the middle is a medium, and more than one medium are media. The media bring us unpleasant word of the faraway, and we despise them for it, because they undo the subliminal mental and physical effort to which much of our interior life is dedicated, that is, insulating ourselves from unpleasant facts and people. Nor is this hatred of the media a recent turn. I can recall political phone-in shows of the early Reagan years where diatribes against the liberal media were a commonplace. The subtext of most liberal-media complaints, if not all, is that They (liberal journalists) are not Our kind of people. As a writer for the newspapers I encountered this sentiment as a matter of course. How dare I express the unpopular views of an outside caste! This attitude was evident also in the people who held me in high esteem merely because I happened to share with them a pet prejudice.

It is no longer possible to keep the old ways going, but it is also difficult to get beyond them using the tools of conventional electoral politics. The centre, where debate and nuance and consensus building used to live, no longer holds. In theory the media might be able to do something about this, but in theory television and the Internet were also poised to deliver us into the new enlightenment. There appears to be no way forward but toward the precipice. This, in a thimble, is the American problem today, just as it is a problem everywhere tribalism has taken root. Mr. Trump will soon be a memory, and the sooner the better. If we are lucky he will not do irreparable damage. The most we can reasonably hope for is that narcissism will keep him tethered to his obvious, chief concern—how he is spoken of on television. Incompetence and laziness might limit his reach, as may his utter lack of interest in anything that does not, or will not, bear his name. In the meanwhile the media have acquired a central place in the drama of this administration. It is worth considering to what extent journalists comprehend the position they are now in, the nature of the opportunities and dangers, and the probable consequences should the media themselves no longer hold.

Bloomistry Live at Zaphod’s (Solo Show)

Bloomistry Live at Zaphod's Solo Show

If you’ve spent any time in Ottawa, you know about Zaphod’s. For 25 years it hosted live performances by countless bands. In May, Zaphod’s closed. Recently while I was going through the Bloomistry archive, I found a recording of a solo show I did there in 2009. I’d forgotten all about it. So I dusted off the CD, did a bit of editing, and put together this post.

These recordings, made by Ottawa music veteran Tom Stewart, are from the soundboard.

Set list:

1. I Guess I’ll Need a Miracle
2. Wrecking Ball
3. Late Bloom
4. Bitter Sense of Melody
5. Four Leaf Clover
6. Higher Cloud
7. Come Down Easy
8. Unlucky at Luck

Sonny Daze Meets the Orange Menace

The two August Leaders, one the President of America and the other the President of that country somewhere in the vicinity of America, clashed in a fierce battle of handshake. The Orange Menace grimaced, jerking the arm of his rival. Sonny Daze stood his ground, dreamily smiling, his core muscles taut with alacrity. The Orange Menace worked the resolute limb, twisting and yanking as if extirpating a root. Yet the mighty tree could not be felled. The Orange Menace has met his match: he who spends an hour each morning at his hair now contends with he who also spends an hour each morning at his hair. One lives for the camera, the other for the camera lives. Each adoration craves. The Orange Menace applies brutal force in service of dominance, while Sonny Daze has charmed his way to this mountaintop.

– I am King of this Mountain, says the Orange Menace.

Sonny Daze does not speak. He adopts a Yoga pose and gazes dreamily into the cameras.

– I have done more in 100 days of being President than any President in the history of the world of Presidents.

Sonny Daze says nothing. He puts on a fringed buckskin jacket and portages to the river, dropping his canoe into the water. He paddles his vessel toward the cameras.

– Look upon my tremendous works! says the Orange Menace.

Sonny removes his buckskin jacket and rends his shirt. Bare-chested, he dashes four miles westward to a couple busied at their nuptials. Henceforth and forevermore shall he be immortalized on the mantelpiece photo where this day will be eternally commemorated.

A jealous and enraged Orange Menace takes to Twitter in an effort to regain the world’s attention. Sonny Daze puts on a faux Indian headdress. It is the War of The Manchildren, a force of personality against the force of personality, a clash of surfaces, a contest of brands, a struggle of perception against perception. They are different and yet the same. They are what you want them to be. They are yours and you must love them, if for no reason other than they are created for you and in your image.

Who will emerge victorious in this battle of the vanities?

– Look upon my mighty works, says the Orange Menace.
– Strong Together We Middle Class Better We Good We, says Sonny Daze.
– I will smite America’s enemies! says the Orange Menace.
– Love We Middle Class Together Good Together Canada Strong, says Sonny Daze.

They take their places. The battle proper has begun. Now we will see and judge them by their works.

The sky darkens as the Orange Menace lifts his adamantium scimitar heavenward. The mighty instrument draws an electric stream from the firmament. Energy ripples from the Orange Menace like an angry stone thrown into water. He shouts a primal scream

– Yyyyaaaaaaawwwwwwwwaaaaaaoooooooorrrrrrrraaaaaaaaggggggggaaaaa!

The Orange Menace points his scimitar to the West. He issues a tremendous bolt of energy with a roar that splits the Earth. The bolt in an instant strikes the ground at 719 Church Street, in Nashville, Tennessee, 666 miles distant. When the smoke dissipates, the Orange Menace gestures with pride toward the awe-inspiring deed.

– Look upon this hole, which by my own hand I now designate the future Fred D. Thompson Federal Building and United States Courthouse!

With a nice and supple hand, Sonny Daze takes up the Unicorn-feathered holly wand, gifted to his father by a once-Potentate of the Levant. He raises the wand to a swell of birdsong. Of a sudden, the air is redolent of neroli and mandarin. Across the world the humble pause momentarily their toil to hold the hand of a neighbor. The cameras chatter. Sonny Daze points his wand north to the Langevin Building of Ottawa, Canada, 565 miles away. A stream of glowing pixie dust issues from his magical tool, crossing Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and the US-Canada border into Ontario at the eastern edge of the Great Lake. Up goes the pixie dust, along Highways 401 and 416, turning east at Highway 417 where it exits at Bronson Avenue to travel north toward Wellington via Queen.

When the pixie dust arrives to its destination of Parliament Hill, Sonny Daze tucks the Instrument of Dreamy Wonder in an inner pocket of his suit jacket, designed specially for this purpose. He pauses dramatically, before saying

– I hereby re-name the Langevin Building “The Building Where Governmenty People Do Governmenties Stuff.”

The people cheer. Look at his eyes, he is so dreamy, they say.

Not to be outdone, the Orange Menace next names the Department of Veterans Affairs community-based outpatient clinic, in Pago Pago, American Samoa, the Faleomavaega Eni Fa’aua’a Hunkin VA Clinic.

Not to be outdone outdone, Sonny Daze renames National Aboriginal Day “National Indigenous Day.”

Not to be outdone outdone outdone, the Orange Menace renames the Department of Veterans Affairs health care center, in Center Township, Butler County, Pennsylvania, the “Abie Abraham VA Clinic.”

Sonny Daze renames the ten dollar bill the “Indigenous People Are Wonderful Bill.”

The Orange Menace re-renames French Fries “Freedom Fries.”

This goes on for hours and then days, with no clear victor emerging. Incapable, or perhaps unwilling, of anything of substance, they lock themselves into a shambolic war of pandering gesture. Their tribes applaud them, as the cameras record every word and facial expression. Meanwhile, for the rest of us, life goes on.

Introducing Ken Detective

Ken Detective takes the last of the bourbon. He of broad shoulders, square chin, chaws chaws the glass to tabletop, until a waitress arrives on a circuit that will soon return her bearing another.

Ken Detective eyes the courtyard. Birds fall from the clouds to walk the earth. The birds tell men secrets of sky-gods. The birds whisper to the sky-gods tales of human disappointment: the corn that does not grow, the infertile wife, the idiot President. The gods are bored but also indifferent. They do not listen. They have witnessed the efforts of men, Icarus on his waxy feathers, Neil Armstrong tumbling through space in a bucket. Long ago they decided that mankind is absurd. The birds return to earth, where the impotent men take note of their flight or eviscerate them, spilling the entrails for divination.

Today the birds reveal nothing to Ken Detective. The only thing certain is that the President, Mr Crusher, is a dangerous idiot. Detective takes the last of the bourbon, chaw chaws on the table, awaits his blessed comet of booze. The bar is dark, and if not for him it would be empty also, an ebony nothingness where no comet would bother to go. A good thing that he likes the darkness, likes to hunt it down, to invigilate it for intel. His best work, the real and true art of his occupation, happens in back alleys and taverns. Ken Detective has no use for the bright nonsense of men and their lucent delusions, or for people in general, unless they have information to spill. Then, by all means, find a dark place to slice em open. Shed some light on a shady subject.
*
The President is a shady character, a narcissistic con artist with a lot of low friends in high places. Russian mafia, Chinese crooks., pimps, hustlers, dirty operatives. The kind of people your mother told you to steer clear of when you were a child. You know the type: grubby and snotty-nosed lowlife bastards who pulled to the curb and offered you candy. Hucksters and shysters, perverts, liars, and creeps. All the President’s men. I haven’t nailed him yet, but jesus I will I swear, on whatever you got in those pockets of yours. I’ll get the bugger, if it’s the last act and the curtain is hitting me in the face. Shit on my corpse and never speak of me again if I don’t.

The thing about being a detective is you care about the facts like you care about oxygen and the kind attentions of a pretty woman. It’s in me like the piss and vinegar is in me, like the bourbon is in me, and although it burns and sometimes makes me go mad, I keep coming back for more. If I have to crack a head for my facts, by god I’ll crack a head. It’s only business. I get to the bottom, and sometimes, my friend, the bottom is a long way down. Not many men have the iron for it, I’ll tell you that. Look at the folks who went punch drunk mad building the Brooklyn bridge, diving and surfacing, diving and re-surfacing, until their brains turned to mush. But I ain’t like that, somehow. I keep on going, I push, I go to the bottom. And I come up and do it again, and then again some more, because the drive is in me. If there’s anything I hate it’s an up-to-no-good liar, covering his lying ass with a sack of lies. I want to kick that ass clear all the way to damn hell. So because I have it in me that’s the thing I’m going to do, so help me god.
*
Ken Detective takes the last of the bourbon and rises, dropping a bill on the table. He has an appointment in a dark place, with a fellow whose head just might need some cracking.

The Blue and the Red

They had absorbed WhoMeaning, as it came to be known, much the way a sponge takes water. WhoMeaning, if you are among the uninformed, refers to the now-common habit of assessing a message by noting the messenger.

Today it will be sunny, says the weatherman.
Today it will rain, says the other weatherman.

Both men are standing in the public square, pointing to the sky. The people have assembled, as they do every morning, to hear the forecast. The Red Shirt People heed the Red Shirt Weatherman, who is calling for rain. The Blue Shirt Weatherman, say the Red Shirts, is a fake weatherman and a liar and a scoundrel. Although it is sunny at that moment, without a cloud in sight, the Red Shirts prepare for rain.

It is the same in every fold of human existence. The Red Shirts watch the Red Shirt News. They shop at the Red Shirt Stores. The Blue Shirts keep to their side of the city, where they patronize the Blue Shirt Restaurants and the Blue Shirt Theatres and the Blue Shirt Temple. It used to be that, now and again, you would see a Blue Shirt Person in the Red Shirt Temple, but those days are long behind. Now, a heedless fool who transgresses the many unmarked boundaries is dealt a mob’s justice. The sight of a blue shirt inflames the Red Shirt People, just as a red shirt arouses Blue Shirt contempt. Everyone learned long ago that it was better to keep to one’s tribe. Certainly it was safer.

All agreed it was in everyone’s best interest to adopt the wearing of a colored shirt. The common spaces were abolished. The wearing of the shirt was only a minor imposition, a small step from the habits many had already adopted—for example the voluntary disclosure of affiliation, whether to the Blues or to the Reds, using symbols affixed to one’s house or automobile. Even in the absence of these symbols, it was a trifle working out the side on which a stranger stood. The shirts didn’t change anything, they merely made life easier.

It was not uncommon that a man would beat a woman to death in the street. In the past, justice had been a messy and complex business. But now, thanks to the shirts and to WhoMeaning, justice was easy. Whenever a Red Shirt bludgeoned a Blue Shirt, the Red Shirt People would deem the event just. The Red Shirts would advert to Blue Shirt crimes of a similar, indeed (they would say) worse, nature. The Blue Shirts would denounce Red Shirt acts but defend Blue Shirt People as patriots. In the Blue world everything blue was noble and majestic, everything Red diseased and evil. In the Red world, nothing Blue was to be trusted. The Blue were not even human, according to the Red People.

The arrangement worked, for a time. After the war and the introduction of the colored shirts, the Blues stayed in Blueland and the Reds in Redland. For a time, there was peace. Then came the tests of loyalty. Among the Blues, there were efforts to determine who among them was insufficiently Blue. The Reds began to purge themselves of those they called The Purples. Now that tribalism ran the land, there was no staunching its flow.

The Red Shirt People re-wrote the history of the Republic to satisfy Red desires. The Blue schools taught the young that their past, present, and future miseries were the work of the Reds. Everyone accepted that another war was on the way. Perhaps this time they would vanquish and extirpate their enemies.

I am writing this to you from the prison where they keep the ones who refuse to wear the colored shirts. By the time you receive this, I will likely be dead. Time is not on my side, perhaps also not on yours. There was a period when we thought, naively, that the war could be averted. Then the world went mad, as it often does. You don’t see it happening—or you do, but only when it is too late. The world is normal, and then, mad. In the meanwhile all that we had in our defence were words, principles, appeals to humanity’s higher nature. Truth and justice, in that small window of opportunity when these could mean something real, something solid, and not just anything that one pleased. And then, the madness, and it was too late.