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The Bearer of Bad News: Greta Thunberg and Social Revolution

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Greta Thunberg has recently burst onto the world stage as the champion of the climate movement. With some justifiable rage, she seeks to organize the world’s young people, and listening adults, to combat the threat to everyone’s way of life posed by climate change, and the stubborn inaction of entrenched economic, political, and military interests on this most urgent and universal of problems. Before addressing the substance of Thunberg’s activity, it’s important to look at core ways in which she is read or “interpellated” by her worldwide audience.

While celebrity culture is a trap in an of itself, people have become notable and deemed worthy of emulation and interpretation since time immemorial. Cultures are made by visionaries who show what is possible and invite others to join them. Such figures attract much attention, empty flattery as well as misguided hatred. In this, it is Thunberg’s courage as much as anything else which makes her exemplary. In considering dominant narrative frames surrounding her, we can help crystallize focus on her particular impact and resonance as a political and cultural figure.

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  1. Childhood

Pieces have already been written about the complexity of political readings of Thunberg arising from her age. Diana Georgescu explains:

The polarization [Thunberg engenders] is not down so much to political divide. Rather, the split in opinion is due to our deep-seated belief that childhood is an age of innocence and being dependent on adults, a time that aligns with the private, not the public and political sphere. Before the 1800s few adults held this view: it only gained acceptance with the rise of the middle-class in the nineteenth century.

With these words, we see that Thunberg is challenging much more than environmental policy, understood in the narrow sense of meteorological change. Thunberg is challenging norms of how people are supposed to engage in society. Of course, there have been child activists before—Malala comes to mind—but also, notably, child workers, from factory workers to child entertainers like Shirley Temple. Thunberg is different, in rallying for a cause which is truly global in scope, and complex in its appeal. The climate movement is an economic movement, calling attention to the imminent breakdown of our economic system; it is also a moral movement, issuing a challenge to those with influence, big or small, to act in the way that is right and not the way that is easy (for the moment); it is also a spiritual and cultural movement, exploring the ways in which people can interact with the world and other people.

In this, Thunberg has stepped out of the role of children which has increasingly become the role of adults as well: sit down, shut up, and listen to what the teacher tells you. Whether the teacher is at a school, in the courtroom, on TV, or in office, the time has come for all of us to put our childishness aside. The enthocentric view of childhood which has predominated is being destroyed by the obliteration of any protection of the private from the public. Climate change is coming for us personally, and so each person can become attuned to its challenge.

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  1. Asperger’s

Thunberg is also notable for embodying non-normative cognition in the form of Asperger’s syndrome. Those with this syndrome, such as Benjamin Banneker (pictured above), have been characterized to

typically have delayed access or no access to this phenomenon of human communication and share a problem that is called mind-blindness. Since interpersonal communication is approximately 65% nonverbal, you can quickly see that not being able to formulate a theory of mind leaves these individuals at a distinct disadvantage in relationship with others because the behavior of other people does not make sense to them.

It may seem counterintuitive that someone who lacks some of the normative foundations of empathy would lead a global movement for environmental justice. Yet the mystery dissolves when we think of how much in our environment is actually not trying to influence us for the better. How many things in life is it better to miss out on? Further, we see in Thunberg a change in the logic of the activist, especially the privileged activist. Instead of being inspired by the pain of others, this new activist starts with the self and its complexity, and moves into the social domain because the social is related to the self. This form of engagement is more authentic, since it leaves aside in its grounding the question of “looking right” to others or letting passion be overcome by politeness. Climate change is a problem because we are all worried about it; Thunberg was so worried she stopped going to school. Everyone should stop doing everything they can until we figure out this problem, not for other generations or the Third World, but because the ecological, metabolic disconnect in our society is tearing each of us apart, this instant. In this way we see that simpleminded critiques of Thunberg for “this focus away from personal responsibility” are misguided; far from blaming only corporations and governments for the problem of climate change, Thunberg is furious with the complacent people of the world who are allowing this to happen and not forcing the issue to solve this pressing economic, ecological, and psychological issue.

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  1. Conspiracy Theories

The most detailed conspiracy of the many surrounding Thunberg is the idea that she is really an actress, Estella Renee. This theory mirrors the idea that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an actress. We see here how political paranoia and art are intermingled, a long-running theme in Western, and indeed world, culture:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

These lines from Shakespeare iterate the poetic truth that we are all actors, that all of life is a play-act in some sense. This poetic truth resonates in the way that people account for anomalous social events by characterizing them as phony, in the literal sense that witnesses to a mass shooting may be “crisis actors” merely playing the role of traumatized bystander. In a way, all this is logical. Governments regularly intervene by staging “set-pieces” to corral public attention and opinion; Donald Trump would then be the greatest crisis actor of all time, as he has raised the aesthetization of politics to the highest level yet seen.

Back to Thunberg. Her movement for the climate fits neatly into paranoia surrounding Agenda 21. Proponents of such thinking may hold “that Agenda 21, a 23-year-old non-binding UN resolution that suggests ways for governments and NGOs to promote sustainable development, is the linchpin in a plot to subjugate humanity under an eco-totalitarian regime,” or other symbolically equivalent theories. From this perspective, ecological activism is “concern trolling” initiated by shadowy government operatives and fallen for by simpleminded liberal virtue signalers. Fundamentally, it matters not from this perspective whether Thunberg is herself “in on the game,” or one of those duped. Either way, he activity is accounted for within the logic of “traditional society vs. communist, collectivist innovators” which has become the dominant narrative in world discourse.

 

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Underneath it All

All this to say that Greta Thunberg clearly represents the forefront of social entrepreneurship at this time, and that her meteoric rise and dynamic sustained presence on the world stage represents an invitation to all of us to follow in her footsteps. Not only in the service of her project, but our own. We must take heed of Thunberg’s youth, and see that advanced societies have domesticated their populations so as to make them infantile. Now, even children are called to action by a world situation that requires the attention of each one of us. We should see in Thunberg’s challenge to childhood the invitation to challenge our own childishness. In Thunberg’s condition, Asperger’s, we should see one aspect of what is important now: truly valuing our selves and being able to “shut the world out.” Only in this way can we meet our own challenge in the world, and find the intrinsic motivation to change our way of life. Finally, in the conspiracy theories surrounding Thunberg, we should see how we are all susceptible to reading situations in a way which confirms our own pet theories, and how this tendency tends to dismiss or defame anyone who rises above to live according to a higher challenge, and disseminate that sense of personal overcoming to the whole world.

Thunberg is the Joan of Arc of the 21st century. Already, in the past two years she has dramatically impact global culture by helping to normalize a new role for children, and indeed for all people. In a word, Thunberg possesses assertiveness, a boldness she has honed and is in complete communion with. I mean not to reduce Thunberg to her age or cognitive mode, but rather to show that aspects of her experience likely helped her to find her passion and articulate it. Hence, we should feel no guilt about “tuning out” the world for a time, surrounding ourselves with our passions and comforts. Only in this way will we find the personal resonance, leading to dramatic social intervention, this historical moment requires of us.

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Hegemony of Hypocrisy: Aspiring to Democracy in United States & China

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By Adam Wadley & Colin Hill

The ancient proverb “The Enemy of my Enemy is My Friend” ignores the stark reality that most conflicts are not between heroes and villains but two or more asymmetrically odious villains. As much as we love to watch underdogs take on the big bad, most of the time in global politics we are forced to watch the New York Yankees play the New England Patriots in an insufferable game that can be best described as the unholy marriage between celebrity golf and amateur cricket. So it goes with Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist party (CCP) and United States, iterating a meme war ongoing since time immemorial.

When Hong Kongers began to protest against their treatment by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it was natural for them to appeal to Western governments and publics for moral, political, and financial support. After all, Hong Kong wants democracy, it wants a system like the West…! Right? In fact, to the extent that the movement in Hong Kong stands for the spirit of freedom, it cannot be given aid in its expression by Western powers or peoples, because the idea of freedom has died in the West. This is not to say that China is undeserving of challenge; China remains locked in the same cold global civil war waged since 1945, and it, like all powers, must be confronted in order to force the issue of misguided bureaucratic meddling.

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Too often, we think that our job in interpreting the news is to figure out who is “more right,” and go all out in supporting our champions and answering for their inconsistencies. Rather, thinking must continue in a methodical procession, a dialogue of arguments, counter-arguments, and counter-counter-arguments that continues until we can make sense of our reality (or die trying). At the ordinary of political thought, we see that Hong Kong wants democracy, that United States claims to have democracy, and that the West is assembling the firing squad to crucify China on human rights. The first impulse of millions of Americans is to side against China, but crucially with United States. Our next response might be to defend China from Western criticism, making a metacognitive choice that the normal interpretation is wrong because United States is the aggressor in the situation. Thinkers, we must go further! It is necessary to engage in meta-metacognition to see that simple-mindedly agreeing or disagreeing with the dominant opinion is foolish.

At this level, we can see that United States claims to stand for democracy, and that many people believe it. At the same time, United States is the empires of public relations. For over 100 years, it has poured ungodly wealth into the project of molding its people’s minds in the most efficacious manner. By this time, the populace is so simple-minded that many are shocked to discover that just because you say you are something doesn’t mean you are it. This is an example of something that a pre-spectacular mind would grasp intuitively, but which has been lost in generalized childishness.

This is all to say that someone’s true motives can be something other than what they say they are, and that our own motivations can remain a mystery even to ourselves. It is not necessary to have one’s papers in order before one speaks to power, yet when one’s blind spots are pointed out it is proper to accept the revision, and not double down on dreary dreams of dogmatism. This is a plea not to drop criticism of China due to Western hypocrisy, but to reform Western hypocrisy if we are to have any hope of assisting the Hong Kongers, like David facing down a much larger and more powerful enemy. Indeed, most likely the project of instituting democracy for the first time will involve simultaneous engagement at a global level.

My fellow Americans, what is our station? We Americans, with our precious rights, solemn oaths to country and constitution: our littered trail of bloody corpses on the road to freedom. United States has responded to movements for increased democracy with political assassinations and systematic persecution, forced electroshock therapy and solitary confinement. The deaths of JFK, Malcolm X, MLK Jr., and RFK showed that America is a land of bloodletting of those who challenge the ruling military junta. And all this in a 5-year period! From the start, United States has operated as an oligarchical military junta, with violence directed outward in every direction to maintain the fantasy of tranquility and freedom within. The “freedom” of United States is unmasked by the misery and desperation of its people.

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Those in United States are not able to see China in a disinterested manner due to the inculcation of vulgar anti-communism in the American public. This is an example of how Western dogmatism holds even the West back: in seeking protect property rights, allegedly the most sacred rite in the world, the West has endeavored to teach its children and even leaders foolish stories of the simple superiority of our system. Any wise ruler, or citizen, of any land, must consider all the ways it is possible to fall into error. To establish blinders for thought, “Communism is Evil,” is to murder the mind, and, in fact, doom the nation. No blinded nation has yet won a lasting victory.

The Red Scares in United States following the Russian revolution betray the bad conscience of the American elite. They know that they preserve human misery for personal profit; and not even absolute but relative profit. Our entire system is set up to worship the objective virtue—property—at the expense of anything timeless or sublime, simple or dignified. We see it in the non-stop glorification of the military police on monopoly propaganda outlets known as CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, in the drive to consume more and more of what is not worth eating, and feel less and less of all worth sensing. The Red Scares were great crimes, which cut down the noble and sensitive few who may have helped avert the tragedy of the last century.

This is not to say that a satisfactory communist vision has yet been articulated. Instead, it is to say that the conversation is not settled, and those who reinforce their cognitive biases with wealth and capital make themselves no more right. Illusion must give way, and cannot be forever sustained; in fact, we already have the critical mass of those uncomfortable and questioning which is the raw material of the moment. To fashion something like democracy, it is merely necessary to see the true target: not just China, Iran, or those other objectionable governments who also happen to be official enemies of the resident junta, but rather the entrenched weaponry, ignorance, and drive to control which is present in mankind.

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Among us all—United States, China, and their respective publics—we constitute the Hegemony of Hypocrisy.

Group Hypocrisy
United States Government Claims to support democracy, is military junta
People’s Republic of China Claims to fight oppression; is a totalitarian bureaucracy
United States Public Claim to support democracy, accept servitude and ignorance and serve interests of junta by denouncing official enemies
Hong Kongers Claim to want democracy, but really just pay lip service to get support from the West, don’t question injustice internal to Hong Kong

 

With the talk of China’s genocide against the Uyghurs, we should note that United States treatment of its internally colonized so called black population also constitutes genocide. Enforced poverty, brutalization by internal colonial enforcers known as police, and sequestration in solitary confinement, all on the basis that “this is simply how things are.” Property relations do not simply “exist,” they are political conventions that we can challenge. The Western public has lost the stomach to acknowledge that we are, on the whole, completely subservient to a military and corporate elite which is blundering us all into extermination.

This intervention is made to try and prevent the descent into simpleminded jingoism and support for the establishment which have been the trap laid for Americans dozens of times over the years, and into which we ‘til now have ever fallen. Luckily for we Hum(a)ns, the future need not resemble the past, and we may yet dream of a better mode of life, as yet unarticulated, but eagerly waiting.

November 3, 2019

 

Towards a Baudrillardian Transversal Science

Recent theory on Baudrillard.

My theory hinges around the idea of the unity of mystification and clarification, the unity of the worlds of symbolic exchange and scientific rationality. This is the endpoint I seek to reach.

  1. The poverty of clarification
    1. We can never capture the world in certain terms because the world is fundamentally ineffable; as such, there is no objective world in the sense that the world is, properly speaking, not an object for us.
    2. As such, we can label the secret the set of salient “facts” which escape our perception due to the limitations of our own perspective.
    3. The Secret encapsulates what would be called one’s “true nature” if such a thing could be an object.
    4. The Secret concerns an alternately vague and foundational sense of complicity and antagonism which is not universal but transversal.
  2. The glory of mystification
    1. Mystification is valorized due to the veneration of skepticism. We seek to induce the state of the suspension of judgment because it is the most apt response to the challenge of the world.
      1. The suspension of judgment is not an end, but a beginning.
    2. Mystification takes places when given terms are destabilized.
      1. When we encounter a math problem, 2 apples plus 4 apples, we expect to get something denominated in apples at the end. Our understanding of apples didn’t change the entire time.
      2. Meanwhile, when we pursue critical activity, our object of study vanishes into its parts, or regional/global flows which constitute or determine it.
  • This insight gains its greatest traction when applied to the human faculty of reason itself, at which point reason defeats itself and we enter into the post-rational age.
  1. After the inauguration of the greater game, which takes as given the mysteriousness of the world and the arbitrariness of communication, there begins a relentless competition of whimsical metaphors.
    1. We have forgotten the game of specifying reality, of wondering who we really are. Instead we wonder how much of ourselves we can forget, and in what delicious ways we might provoke ourselves, our companions, our enemies, and the world.
    2. Forgetting rationalism’s petty frame of the individual, we once again directly encounter the world as our symbolic challenger. It is the world that did this to us, that just had to go and exist. The world did this to everyone else too, so that you can almost feel bad for them; but that would require moving one’s focus for one moment from the challenge the world presents to oneself.
  2. Mystification as Clarification
    1. Certainly, we must hold that skepticism is the most logical doctrine to uphold, and the one which is most faithful to sensuous experience. Still, the highest form of expression must be silence.
      1. Any symbols related to one’s understanding can only be understood as fingers which are close to the moon, or look just like the moon, etc. No symbol is the moon, is the ineffable substrate.
      2. Hence, we are “reduced” to silence, in reality seeing for the first time a world beyond breath, beyond rhythm in its timelessness; and knowing, for lack of a better term, that we ourselves can be in no way delimited from this timeless silence.
  • We are already bored with the divine silence. There is a reason we have created the world, to forget ourselves, to forget the divine silence.
  1. This is the spiritual analogue to Terror management theory, which says that people respond with anxiety when reminded of their death. Well, so too do people rankle at their immortality, in their communion with the divine which ensures that they are already set up with the spirit in the sky, that all of life may as well be in all good fun, a whimsy to pass the eternal moment.
  2. We reject the silence because we are attached to seemingly determinate forms, in ways that are not immediately conquerable; for example, we are seemingly trapped in our corporeal vessels, only to see what must happen to us when we die. Yet since we cannot wake up from being in our bodies, we identify with our experience. Hence, we hate to break away from whatever passing forms have caught our fancy (meaning not just media images but psychological frameworks of self), since we have given ourselves over completely to this world. We fear that to be divine silence is to be nothing, which it is.
  1. If something like skepticism is right, then it is a clearer way of looking at the world than conventional science, and has greater explanatory power, and all the metrics which scientists might value. It also musters the power to create the highest theory of all kinds, being able to dissolve all antagonisms into the root impasse of reason. In this way, the new skepticism will usher in a new era of theory, as positively pre-historic concepts such as linear time will be cleared away, and the ground made bare for the next phase of the skeptical project.
    1. We have reasoned in a circle, defining Mystification as that which makes things less clear, but which in the end must make them clearer, if only because things are themselves unclear—Bigfoot is blurry.
    2. The statement “things are unclear” sums up this contradiction, which hinges on the functioning of the word “unclear.” Is unclear a quality that a thing can have, or is it a status of qualities, so that to say things are unclear is not really to say that they are anything in particular.
  • Perhaps we can go further and clarify the problem by positing that things are “clearly unclear.” What can this mean? In this case, it is a discernable and verifiable fact that things are inscrutable and unverifiable.
  1. So, if we want to say that the world is unclear, such that it is unreasonable to conceive of oneself as knowing or even believing anything, then the status of the clarity of this statement is called into question. What can it mean?
  1. Mystification also clarifies by directly opening the door from science onto the metaphysical landscape of Nagarjuna, Nietzsche and Baudrillard. In this way, contemporary discourse is referred to a set of discourses which must overcome it.
    1. Scientific discourse is itself an inadequate response to skepticism. It posits a mishmash of verificationism, vulgar empiricism, Platonism, and fallibilism in order to feel secure in its set of statements which are never contradicted in experience.
    2. Science must take the world as given, it cannot give an inch when it comes to our certainty of an objective world, despite the fact that the science on the matter is, in fact, muddled. This betrays the fact that faith in science is the weakness of the age; as such, the weakness of science must allow for a new faith of the age.
  • The charm of science derives from its more intelligent participants, those who are able to retain intellectual humility and courage; most, like those in all fields, have succumbed to dogmatism. These sages proclaim that science opens up new mysteries for humankind.
  1. A further charm of science is its predication as a field where statements need not be true, nor thought to be true, in order to have practical effect. In this sense, science is the highest form of poetry, since many a rogue may have wished to destroy a city at one instant, but only the US army finally accomplished it at Hiroshima. This special effect was accomplished in the same way as any ballad, for scientific theories are not presumed correct; they are simply trusted until they fail.
  2. The fact that science works so well is an indication that we are on to something in our investigation of the cosmos, but also that the cosmos is on to us.
  3. Yet as soon as we realize that the most ontologically pure discourse, science, is really simply a matter of poetry and ritual as all else, the weight of this statement is itself deflated. Science has been cast as what is reasonable, the straightjacket which the mad artist seeks to escape. Now, the artist finds the scientist inside his head, and the scientist finds himself in the world. What is so special about the flights of fancy found in poetry if science partakes of the same register?
  • The emptiness of emptiness. We have shown that science is empty, it is a paper tiger. For science is contingent on events, it awaits the appearance of the world, and tries to summon the primal forces of nature, as at CERN. Science waits for the world to appear, and then studies it. Hence all scientific knowledge is provisional, as no serious scientist can contradict radical new evidence, if plausible, with the credo “But it contradicts our theories!”
  • Yet the emptiness of science is also empty, which another way of saying that it is full of Gods as is all else. As such, it too is a fertile field of inquiry for the sage. Above all, we must do away with the allergy to radically other symbolic forms which all cultural milieus possess. Hence the direct thrust into the heart of the matter, and the need to confront each person with the radically indeterminate state of the world.
  1. The object of mystical science is to respond to the challenge of the world. The challenge of the world is incarnation, the tying of awareness to a physical body and the attendant mysteries of identity and morality. Hence, all activity is directed toward responding to this challenge.
    1. Response to the challenge of the world has to do with operating under the given terms of incarnation in ways which destructure the predominant modes of signification present in society.
      1. There is no sense of vilification of society. We are fundamentally disinterested in matters of justice and dignity. What matters is that there is no drive toward anything except benevolence, as we seek to befriend all others in order to further our sense of the mystery.
      2. The challenge has to do with what is set before us. This is obviously open to interpretation, and this is where a subjective sense of what is important enters. We all choose our own starting place, and this is an important method of individuation.
      3. Responding to the challenge has to do with destabilizing the terms of the challenge. If I feel I am challenged as a person with a dysfunctional society, then how can I return serve and challenge my own sense of self or concept of society in order to move forward, or at least to move, relative to the problem space?
      4. Hence mystical science looks a lot like normal science. It is simply that statements which imply certainty are heavily policed and denigrated as incorrect and arrogant assertions.
      5. In addition, mystical science, through cognitive science, pursues the complete assimilation of philosophy and theory to the field of inquiry of science proper. All pretensions of “hard” sciences must melt into the quantum ether, and will be met in the middle by a social studies which will in the next years grow considerably more sophisticated and intricate.

Ambivalence with the Western Hero: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Hippies, and Action Stars

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[Spoiler alert for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood]

Are Rick and Cliff good guys?

At the end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the people who killed Sharon Tate in our timeline instead decide to attack Rick Dalton, who was the star of a Western they saw from an early age. This ends poorly for the “hippy” family members, who are brutally killed by Brad Pitt and his dog. Rick cleans up with the flamethrower we saw him use at the beginning of the movie to burn up Hitler. The whole thing is executed in a way that feels good for the boys: Cliff Booth is wounded, but heroic, having done the heavy lifting (as usual) for Leo, who was floating in a pool for most of the incident. Dalton, meanwhile, is invited up the hill to Sharon Tate’s house, who in this timeline has not been killed (yet?) and whose company Rick revels in as the film ends, lingering on the mystery of what could happen in this house, with people who are dead in our timeline, now spared, and Rick, whose career and personal fortune has been resurrected. Cliff’s fate is uncertain, but we assume he will be well cared for.

So, are we to assume that Tarantino wants us to feel great about the boys? Is this movie a vindication of Hollywood, and the images it has inscribed into the minds of Americans from an early age for nearly one hundred years? In other words, is the film squarely on the side of Rick and Cliff as opposed to the Family members? If we are willing to read the film sympathetically to the family, the final fight scene is a brutal extermination. Each attacker faces complete humiliation, excruciating pain, and prolonged agonizing death. Meanwhile, this is the scene that finally delivers on the audience’s expectation for obscene violence from the Tarantino flick.

Why would we want to be sympathetic to the family? In our timeline, those people brutally murdered Sharon Tate and her entourage, also torturing those killed in the way that the assailants die in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. They died horrific, agonizing deaths; it was an atrocity. Yet just as we can see that this attack, though disproportionate, had its share of justice—by seeing that the “benign” social forces constitutive of Tate et. al.’s fame themselves were in league with darkness and depravity—so to can we see that the hippies in the movie are punished justly, but disproportionately. They are properly punished for what they did not do in the film, but for that which the people who the characters represent did in real life. These actions did not happen in the film, since the killing of Tate et. al. was diverted through the hippies’ choice to attack Dalton.

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What if the hippies had a point?

Next, consider other aspects of the film. Pussycat, the hippy woman who gets a ride from Cliff to the Spahn Ranch, makes a remark about the Vietnam war as Cliff listens to a report on the radio about nearby murders. She is justifying the murderous behavior of her group by referencing the murderous nature of the United States government in murdering millions of people overseas. Cliff is dismissive of this point. Earlier in the movie, there is radio reporting about the Vietnam war, which is noticeable; to be alive while that war was ongoing: both incredibly immoral and incredibly unsuccessful. Here we have on display that Western Hero writ large: the war machine. If the US is the Sheriff, the military apparatus is the pistol, what carves the hero’s way through the tough and uncivilized wilderness.

And where did that instinct lead us, as shown in the film? The tough guy, macho fighter mentality, as typified by Cliff’s incredibly violent killing which supplies the bulk of the action at the end of the movie, lead to a country which was dominated by people who knew they had incredible power but lacked the wisdom to use it effectively. Their policies failed not only on moral grounds, but on their own grounds. It’s not really about “the hippies didn’t deserve it,” just like it’s not really about how Sharon Tate didn’t “deserve” what happened to her. No one really deserves anything; the question is why what happens is what happens. Hence, the question must be: why did the members of the Family become murderous maniacs? And what was the real impact of violent television programming for the American public in the post-WWII period? These are deeply ambiguous questions, the raising of which undermines the reading that Rick and Cliff are “good guy” type heroes. If they’re not that, what are they?

Rick is a striver. He had a known quantity as a TV star, and sacrificed it to shoot higher. He failed, but at the end of the movie he’s higher than ever, as an audience with Sharon Tate is liable to be life-changing for him. Meanwhile, Cliff is lackadaisical and is content to revel in his easy relationship with Rick; perhaps their arrangement will even continue as Rick moves on. Or perhaps Cliff’s injury will prevent him from being a stunt double. It’s unclear what will happen to Cliff, but it seems like he’ll be fine. Rick is very invested in how high he can climb, and is hard on himself for not performing as well as he can. This is because he wants to work out of where he is, to get back to being the leading character and killing other guest star bad guys.

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A Tale as Old as Time

We can boil down much of Western culture to this presentation of Good Guys who take on puppet Bad Guys who can never really win. Glorification of heroes of course goes back a long way. This is mirrored in the wrestling terms Face and Heel. The Western man, the white man, is the Face of the system, while all others are cast as different versions of the heel. In this case, we have the hippies, who are a sort of traitor or thought criminal. Hippies are not down for the program in supporting the war effort, and undermine confidence in the military. They corrode public norms and threaten to entice young people into being different and bad. Hippies are associated with communism, and act as a kind of fifth column for the Soviet Union in the United States. Since they are potentially attractive to even the inner circle of power, the children of the powerful, they are especially dangerous.

Yet in this film, the hippies are set up as the Big Bad only to be unceremoniously eviscerated, stomped, thrown against the mantlepiece, gored by a ferocious dog, and burned with a flamethrower. Similarly, the hippies were set up as the Heel, or the Heavy in the stage act of the late 60s, and were a dominant force culturally with bands like the Beatles and the Doors displaying a clear rebellious and counter-cultural form of expression. We can read the hippy movement as the Heel in a different way: not as a true threat to the power structure, but as a threat to any movement against the power structure. Hippy culture is a double agent: not a force for radical change that can creep into the halls of power, but a honey pot, a simplistic anti-systemic movement to attract those who began to question the system and distract them from meaningful organization by popularizing drugs, sexual fetishes, and other diversions. We can see the complicity between hippy culture and corporate profit seeking easily when we consider how many “classic” songs have been used to sell this or that execrable product.

Seen from this critical perspective, the movie portrays two bad guys fighting it out: the movie star and his buddy, who typify the stupid arrogance of Western men in their standing in for their blundering civilizational power; and on the other hand, the misguided rebels, so lost in their enmeshment in mediatized images that they resort to brutal killing of the person, the image of society. For the hippies, Dalton is guilty because in him the system builds up in violent force and puts its most brutal crimes on display for all to see. The Western man sacrifices everything—his property, his honor, his family—to defend the corporation, the body of the Church of Western Whiteness. This image can take a different form for different European men, but there is a family resemblance of those who can fool themselves into thinking they are the best and having the imprudence to try and set the whole world in their favor, rewriting everything in accord to the measure of their success. The failure of the hippies, meanwhile, is that they try to translate their discontent into violence, even though they explicitly say right beforehand that the system itself taught them to be violent. What does it say about the audience, except to underline the tragedy that we watch such gaudy spectacles of violence instead of engaging somehow more directly with the violence present in our lives?

For if the hippies are misguided and vicious, and those in the movies are vapid and destructive, at least they are out there, doing something worth watching. Or so it would seem from our having watched the movie, and this being seriously considered as a work of art. If hippies murdering movie stars is the wrong way to fight the spectacle, what is the right way? It certainly is not what I, and what many other people are mainly doing right now: actively wallowing in the signs of our own discrimination and trauma (culture of “victimhood” increasingly present everywhere, even among the powerful). Everywhere we have simply turned our suffering into distracting and time-consuming diversion, accelerating the cycles of repetition which trauma has conditioned us into expressing.

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Breakout

At least Cliff is willing to smoke the acid cigarette; at least Rick is willing to walk up the hill and see what’s going on. Meanwhile, the hippies had it right to question the logic of the system, and seriously think about the implications of an all-powerful system with a faulty steering mechanism. Each side has part of the truth, and to me it seems that the point is to bring all this together. The problem is that it requires a two-fold sacrifice, either half of which seems highly unlikely:

  • Sacrifice of victims of the shade of moral superiority; recognition of the moral neutrality of the crimes perpetrated up until now.
  • Sacrifice on the part of the ruling classes of their property rights.

Both of these are required to set a new ground floor for human culture. It is in everyone’s interest to ensure that we more forward, and hence the macho man must discover that in order to survive, he’s got to recognize all others as equals. Likewise, for the weak, who must see that the powerful are not categorically different devils, but are rather also human, molded by the same harsh school all humans have lived in.

As regards Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the upshot is that Rick and Cliff are not “bad guys” or “good guys,” but rather relatable and lucky members of a caste (movie actors/stunt men) within a caste (white men) who are caught up in a swirl of cultural and military forces they do not understand. Meanwhile, the hippies are obviously not considered heroes but they are not really villains either: they are the shadow of the dominant order, the cruelty and violence that get turned on anyone and everyone once the corrupting nature of our culture has fully taken hold in a vulnerable person.

We might be most inclined to compare the Family to those who murder others in mass shootings these days. Once Upon a Time can be read as a mass-shooting flick, where those who want to inflict a massacre are themselves massacred. Here, the lesson is the same: we, the people who are baffled and horrified by mass shootings, correspond to Rick and Cliff in the movie. We don’t understand how anyone could do that, but we’re caught up in the violence in ways we don’t understand. Meanwhile, the hippies correspond to those who have seen the abject despair and horror at the end of the road for our culture, and who experience the emotional and material events that can drive people to question their own life and wish to end others’. We may wish to affirm both sides, or else negate them: how can we bring together the activity and affability of Rick and Cliff with the critical perspective and rebellious spirit of the hippies? Or, how can we avoid the boorishness and complicity of Rick and Cliff along with the simplemindedness and pathetic nature of the Family?

All this of course pertains only to the dynamic between the hippies and the two male figures in the movie, and there’s a lot I didn’t get into. Yet I think I have shown that the film is an interesting document for reading our current moment of a faltering of Western morale, the rise again of communism and anticommunism, and the advent of mass shootings and violent actions of all kinds. The Manson crimes shown in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood were an early but clearly related incident in a society at war with itself. That same war is still ongoing, with Tarantino become the king of counterfactual revenge movies. In the end, what are we reveling in, and what are we questioning? There seems to be an opening for a new heroism, one which is able to thread the needle between carelessness boldness, willingness to sacrifice and tender guile. Obviously, this endeavor is immediately beset by the problem that “hero” is itself now a contested word. It lies to us to pick up the pieces of our fragmented mythology and try to craft a new chapter of the story of the world.