Category Archives: Off-topic

No, Russia Didn’t Make People Hate The Last Jedi

One clickbait story that’s been making the rounds lately is how Russian trolls may have influence or been involved in the hate campaign against Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Naturally, these articles range from the more thought-out and cautious, to…eh…whatever the hell this is supposed to be. The reaction, especially in some of the cinephile groups I frequent, was, as you might imagine, pretty incredulous. It mostly amounted to people posting links to the more clickbait-y versions of the story with a comment like: “LOL! Looks like Disney is trying to blame RUSSIA for people not liking Last Jedi!”

The problem is, if anyone had bothered to look, this whole story is based on one academic paper by one Morten Bay at the University of Southern California. Moreover, even reading the description in the link shows that the thesis of the paper is nothing remotely resembling an accusation that the backlash against The Last Jedi was driven by Russian bots or trolls. It makes a comparison between the Russian information campaign of 2016 and some of the Twitter activity directed toward The Last Jedi and its director Rian Johnson, and it notes how the activities of some of the accounts involved in the backlash resembled those of known Russian bots and trolls, but when it actually gets to the topic of Russian involvement in the hate campaign, it in no way implies that they were driving it. In fact, from what I read it doesn’t even state anything conclusive on whether any accounts were confirmed to be Russian trolls or bots. Most important of all- I did a CTRL-F search and did not find the magic kill-word “Hamilton.” Any time I see “Russian bots are tweeting about (insert trending news story here),” I run that simple procedure and I get a hit, I close the tab and save several minutes of precious time.

Personally I find it odd that in an economy that revolves so much around advertising, the media hasn’t yet figured out why a bunch of Russian troll accounts would tweet or retweet things about a super popular Star Wars film or any other trending news story. It’s not rocket science- they’re trying to garner an audience. Those who are familiar with the history of the so-called Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg know that it initially focused on domestic audiences; it still is largely dedicated to this as far as we know. The purpose was to get Russians to rally behind Putin an his foreign policy aims. A typical tactic here would be to set up a social media account which posts about all kinds of mundane things like shopping or cooking, but which will, when needed, share or post some key government talking point. Imagine you follow some blog about recipes, but one day out of the blue there’s a post about how the CIA is supporting a Nazi coup d’etat in Ukraine. Many Twitter troll accounts act in a similar manner, sometimes going dormant for long periods of time before emerging with a different persona, for example.

One of the most important things for these trolls, of course, is to get followers, so naturally they’re going to be watching what topics trend and who’s following those topics. It doesn’t take a marketing genius to see that there was a huge buzz about Star Wars online, and apart from ideological affinities toward the far right, the Internet Research Agency (maybe I’ll just call them “The bad IRA” from now on) cannot have missed how easy it is to get a huge, dedicated following if you pander to the “anti-SJW/feminist” chuds. So you tweet something about how “Cultural Marxist SJWs are runining teh STAAAAAAAR WAAAAAAAAAARZ!!!!1” and voila! You have picked up some severely sexually frustrated but loyal followers.

And this gets back to what I’ve written about recently, about the real purpose of these information operations. They are not, as the grifters “narrative architects” or talking heads say, trying to “divide” America. This is the perspective from someone with privilege, power, and who is generally disconnected from daily reality for most Americans. Most Americans understand that we are extremely divided and have been for some time. The reality is that Russia’s influence operation is about creating unity, uniting polar opposites of the political spectrum around talking points or ideas that are in line with the Kremlin’s foreign policy goals and in some cases, its domestic agenda.

But before you can get anyone to start listening to your specially crafted talking points, you’ve got to get their attention and keep it. Hence the tweeting around trending topics, the hashtags, the memes, and so forth.

However, let us not lose sight of the biggest issue in all of this. Namely, that despite the fact that Rian Johnson had ambitious goals for The Last Jedi, he ultimately failed hard thanks to a number of mindbogglingly stupid decisions and poor writing, thus squandering all the film’s potential and possibly ruining the whole new trilogy. This, is of course, objective fact, and there is nothing the entire St. Petersburg troll factory could ever do to change that.

Don’t @ me.

…..

………

Okay let me just say something about this bullshit excuse where people say “What does it matter if Snoke doesn’t have a backstory? You didn’t question the Emperor’s backstory and they didn’t even say the name Palpatine in the original trilogy!” 

Mocking-Spongebob

“tHe eMpErOr dIdN’t hAvE a BaCkStOrY iN rEtUrN oF tHe jEdI! yOu’Re jUsT mAd yOuR sTuPiD fAn tHeOrY wAs wRoNg!” -Idiots

We knew in the original trilogy that the rebels were fighting the Galactic Empire, and empires are ruled by emperors. We naturally assumed an emperor had to exist and he’s mentioned throughout the trilogy! The First Order is not the Galactic Empire- in fact it’s not really very well explained what it is at all! Therefore it’s perfectly reasonable to want to know just who the hell Snoke is, why he’s leading the First Order, and why he’s so powerful. Also maybe explain why the hell the First Order has almost wiped out the rebellion almost immediately after said rebellion completely destroyed their massive home base in The Force Awakens. And why would you ever want to bring up fuel in a STAR WARS MOVIE?! None of this makes any sense! 

Goddammit, Rian! What were you even thinking?! 

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A Parable

You’ve been interested in socialist politics for a long time. You’ve read a lot but you’ve still been on the sidelines all this time. You decide it’s time to actually start doing something about it. Thus you do some research and decide to go to your first real socialist meeting.

When you arrive, you find a room with about a dozen males in it, all repeatedly punching themselves in the balls. You think you might have made a mistake.

“I’m here for the socialist meeting, I think I might be in the wrong place,” you say, secretly horrified.

“No, you’re not,” one of them replies, wincing each time his fist connects with his own testicles. “This is the place.”

“Why are you all punching yourselves in the balls,” you logically ask.

One of them seems offended. Not offended enough to stop punching himself in the nuts every few seconds, but he’s clearly upset.

“What are you talking about? We are advancing the cause of socialist revolution!”

“By punching yourselves in the nuts,” you ask.

“We aren’t punching ourselves in the nuts, as you say,” another puncher replies. “We are fighting for socialism. We’re revolutionaries. This is how you fight for socialist revolution. Won’t you join us?”

Not terribly inclined toward the idea of punching yourself in the balls repeatedly for at least an hour, you politely decline and say that this doesn’t seem like a viable way of achieving socialism, or any political change, in fact.

“WHAT?!” One of them exclaims, almost breaking the rhythm of punching himself in the testicles.

“You’re an anti-Communist! You believe all the CIA propaganda!”

“What are you talking about,” you ask, dumbfounded. “I just don’t want to sit in a room punching myself in the testicles. I don’t see how that’s socialism. I’m quite certain that there are a lot of other approaches to socialism.

“TROT!” one of the occupants yells, just as his fist connects solidly with his crotch.

“I don’t know about this one, comrades,” another begins. “The only people that would reject socialism so adamantly are fascists. I think we’ve got a fascist infiltrator on our hands!”

This idea clearly resonates, because now the whole room is shouting “NAZI!” each time their fists smack their own balls. It’s insulting, but when the label is being hurled by a bunch of men sitting in a room hitting themselves in the testicle it kind of loses it’s bite. Not only are you not a Nazi, you’re not anti-socialist; you just don’t want to hit yourself in the balls over and over again. It’s very natural.

You back out and quickly leave. This can’t be it. There must be a mistake. Socialism can’t possibly be about punching yourself in the- actually no viable political ideology can be about that.

You decide to continue your search. There must be a real socialist movement out there. There must be a movement where the people care about actually achieving justice, equality, and a sustainable system that is superior to capitalism, as opposed to punching themselves in the nuts. At least you hope there is.

 

80’s Nostalgia Without BS

Hey remember THE EIGHTIES?! Remember Nintendo? Remember 8-bit Mario?! Remember Ghostbusters?! Remember the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?! Well, do you remember? Do you, you consumer son of a bitch? REMEMBER?!  

Seriously though, of course you remember all that. Everybody who lived through that decade remembers those things because they were immensely popular. And yet lately it seems that the entertainment industry has got the idea that things as mainstream as Star Wars and Ghostbusters are examples of “geek culture” that can be used to sell virtually anything. As you might have gathered, I’ve got a bone to pick with the industry.

This all came to a head around the time I heard several reviews for Ready Player One, which seems to be the perfect example of the weaponization of 80’s pop culture. In fact, if you think that film and the novel it’s based on represent a horrible one-off, you’d be wrong. Apparently the author, Ernest Cline wrote another novel, one that’s basically a ripoff of The Last Starfighter, but guess what- it has pop culture references! From the 80’s! I’ve spoken about this topic with friends a couple times in the past few months, but what finally triggered me to write on the subject was a trailer I saw recently for a sequel to the Creed film, part of the Rocky Cinematic Universe that’s apparently a thing now. It ends with a reveal of the antagonist and get this- it’s the son of Ivan Drago! Yes, that Drago, the one who killed Apollo Creed in the ring all those years ago. You remember that, right? REMEMBER, AND SEE OUR FILM!!!

Look, I don’t hate the 80’s- I love nostalgia as much as the next person. I also like a lot of the aesthetic that’s coming back into style. I like synth music. I like uzis. I also get that a lot of this is just plain marketing- my generation is the one with disposable income (or it’s supposed to be, at least). But I feel like this is going to wind up being a big missed opportunity to shine light on things from the 1980’s that aren’t universally recognized. That and I can’t stand this obvious pandering whereby makers of pop culture pretend that we’re in some super-exclusive “geek” club because we both remember Ghostbusters, an insanely popular franchise at the time.

We live in an era that gives people far more access to produce their own media and entertainment content. Hell I’m doing it right now. And while I cannot influence Hollywood, I can at least hope some content creators of my generation see this blog, and perhaps take my plea to heart. If you want to take the route of 80’s nostalgia, do it with passion. Don’t reference the things everybody remembers, reference the things you remember because they were special for you. Sure, many people won’t immediately get it, but the interested will head to Google and Wikipedia and actually learn something. Art is about making an emotional connection with your viewer or reader (at least I read this somewhere), and one way to do that is by sharing a part of your own personality or experience with them. The media that mattered to you personally, even if it faded into obscurity, can perform that function. And I’d argue that this would reach readers on a much deeper level than “Hey! Remember Back to the Future?!

To set the example I’d like to share with the reader some things from my 80’s childhood that I’m nostalgic for- things which didn’t necessarily make it into our era or achieve widespread popularity. If I were going to make a film packed full of 80’s nostalgia or otherwise inspired by it, these are the things I’d reference or draw inspiration from, even if only as a joke.

Bad Dudes

“The president has been kidnapped by ninjas. Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president?” 

This is all the mission briefing you get after dropping a quarter and pressing start in the arcade game Bad Dudes, also known by it’s full title Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja in case you’re one of those arcade consumers who wants to know exactly who’s fighting whom in any game you might play.

I used to play this game religiously in a bowling alley in Texas when I was about six years old. At that age, on a good day I could get to the boss of the third level. Might have beat him once or twice.

The concept is pretty simple- fight your way through an army of color-coded ninjas who have an extensive division of labor, and defeat a boss at the end of every level until you finally rescue the president, who incidentally is clearly based on Ronald Reagan. If you succeed, president “Ronnie” invites you and your bad best friend for a burger and I assume you get a couple post offices named after you or something.

Most of the time you’re punching and kicking, but you have a couple special moves such as a spinning jump kick and, if you hold down the attack button, your heroes arms burst into flames and you can release a powerful flaming punch because…80’s. Occasionally you can pick up nunchaku or a knife to ease the killing of color-coded ninjas. Whenever you beat a boss, your character raises his hands over his head and proclaims: “I’m bad!” Honestly I felt that was a bit pretentious. I mean being “bad” is something that other people should say about you; you can’t just claim the title for yourself unless you’re Michael Jackson.

Looking back, it’s the plot that sticks out to me most when it comes to this game. See when I was a little kid I dreamed of making video games (that dream really worked out well!). To be honest, most of “my” games were basically just mish-mashes of other games I liked at the time, only done in the way I thought they should be done. Now in those days, a lot of games had a simple plot device- someone’s kidnapped the hero’s girlfriend. Other times you’re trying to avenge some family member’s death, such as your father’s in Ninja Gaiden.  Bad Dudes raised the stakes by having the president getting kidnapped, and that had an impact on my 6-7 year old mental game design. The way I reckoned at the time, a hero could get in serious legal trouble if they engaged in vigilante violence and destruction of public and private property just because their girlfriend got kidnapped. You’re expected to contact the police and file a missing persons report. But, little me reasoned, if the president is the one being kidnapped, then the authorities would probably let you slide for beating ninjas to death on top of a moving cargo truck with a pair of nunchaku. Extreme times demand extreme measures, after all. Based on this child-logic, I made sure that all my “game” plots that took place in our world involved a kidnapped president, so the hero wouldn’t be bogged down with criminal charges and legal fees should he complete his mission.

Looking back as an adult, imagining this plot playing out in real life is even funnier. I hate to bury the lede about the president being kidnapped by ninjas, but the emergency meeting on what to do about it would have to be pretty amazing. I’d imagine you’d have the National Security Council with the heads of all the intelligence agencies, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and everyone in the line of succession.  The army’s recommending Delta Force. The Navy recommends SEAL Team 6. And then there’s this guy, a White House aide, perhaps, who meekly pipes up with his suggestion:

“Guys, I know this is going to sound a bit unconventional, but I know just the people who can handle this situation. They’re the best martial artists in the world. A couple of real bad dudes. I think we should give them a chance.” 

And with that, a legend is born.

For people like me, Bad Dudes is a piece of nostalgia, but for younger people, I think it resonates differently. Whereas once it was considered a nightmare scenario, these days the idea of the president being kidnapped by ninjas is actually a message of hope, and I don’t think anyone, bad or otherwise, would bother to rescue him. If anything the ninjas would be trying to foist him back on us within a few days of holding him in captivity.

Ninja Gaiden 

Ninja Gaiden had a reboot of sorts on the XBox around the mid-2000s, but from what I gather the modern game had little to do with its predecessors. I first became acquainted with Ninja Gaiden in the arcades, where it was a side-scrolling beat-em-up with one of the most notorious continue/game over screens in arcade history, such that it traumatized me any time I saw it.

Soon, through Nintendo Power magazine, I learned that this was also a game on the NES console (I didn’t own one at the time), and while that version is very different from the arcade version, it quickly became clear that it was the better game. In fact, in recent years I’ve seen virtually every incarnation of Ninja Gaiden game from that era and I can state with confidence that the original NES trilogy was in fact the best incarnation in every way.

Ninja Gaiden is an extremely tough game, but more or less fair. I was only able to beat it around 1992, when I finally had an NES console of my own and a friend lent me the game. Your protagonist is Ryu Hayabusa, a ninja who comes to America not to kidnap the president, mind you, but to avenge the death of his father, thus making all his activities in the United States extremely illegal.

Seriously though, what was great about Ninja Gaiden was its plot. For it’s time, this was a sophisticated game in terms of its music, graphics, gameplay, but the real novelty was in its story that was told via cinematic cutscenes (but you can skip them!). For a game of that era it had a pretty decent story that becomes far more fleshed out than just “kill the guy who killed your father.”

Basically your dad was an archaeologist, presumably after leaving the no-longer lucrative field of being a ninja,  and he and his colleague Walter Smith uncovered these ruins in South America along with two statues of a grotesque horror (shades of Call of Cthulhu). After coming to America and killing tons of street thugs and their dogs you learn that the light and dark statues hold the spirit of a world-ending demon and they must never come together. You get where this is going now- an evil cult gets one of the statues and then Ryu is tapped by the CIA, yes, the CIA, to go to the same ruins his father found and get the statue back. And by the end of the game, you’d better believe those two statues come together and you get to fight Mr. Demon himself.

Since I didn’t have an NES at the time and because few of my friends that did had the game, I mostly became acquainted with the game via Nintendo Power magazine, which ran several feature stories about it which typically came with beautiful illustrations and random trivia about ninjas. In other words, crack for seven-year-old boys.

The illustrations are particularly noteworthy because in the days of 8-bit graphics, you really had to use your imagination. Illustrations in gaming magazines or instruction manuals helped give you an idea of what things were supposed to look like. As it just so happens I managed to track down some of those old magazines shortly before I moved to Russia in 2006, and a friend of mine kept them safe all this time. Here are a few photos to give you an idea of what it was like in that era:

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In case you’re wondering, yes, that is my actual hand.

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When a magazine intended for children gives tips on ninja weapons.

The sequel, Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos, came out in 1990 but for all intents and purposes is still an 80’s game. It is arguably the best of the original trilogy and in terms of art the people at Nintendo outdid themselves with a special strategy guide I had when I was about nine. In it, nearly all the game’s cut scenes are beautifully drawn in comic book form throughout the guide. While I did find a copy on eBay, I was not able to locate it among my old library when I was in Phoenix. However, I did some googling and managed to find a blog post someone made about the guide, complete with some shots of the illustrations to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.

Shinobi

In case you haven’t noticed, we liked ninja shit in the 80’s. Shinobi was a game series started by the then-rising star Sega company and usually encountered in arcades.

The game was ridiculously hard but introduced some really novel concepts. For starters, your character was a ninja, but they did not wear a mask and you could use a gun sometimes. Also, while you would die in one hit, the game had a somewhat more realistic system. Typically you die only if you get hit by an enemy’s weapon. If you just touch the enemy you get knocked back but are otherwise unharmed.

In 1989 a sequel came out which was only released on the debut Sega Genesis (Mega Drive in Europe) home console. Revenge of the Shinobi, as it was titled, changed the formula by giving players a health bar but also limiting the supply of shurikens, the game’s main weapon. Although it deviated wildly from the format of the original, it was a major hit and is remembered not only for its gameplay and graphics but also its music and copyright infringement, as earlier versions often used popular film and comic book characters as bosses in the game.

To give you an idea how good the soundtrack was, many of its songs have been remixed by people today.

One could argue that the third game, Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master, is the best game in the series, but that came out a little too far into the 90’s for this survey of 80’s culture.

It’s worth noting that there was an arcade sequel called Shadow Dancer which I did not encounter until later, in the early 90’s, at Circus-Circus in Las Vegas. This was more in line with the gameplay of the first arcade game and while a version of it was ported to the Sega Genesis, it was essentially a different game. While the arcade version initially looks better, the Genesis version has a much better soundtrack and is ultimately a better game (though arguably not as good as Revenge of the Shinobi). For comparison:

 

Game Tapes

The explosion of home gaming took place concurrently with the explosion of home video. As anyone familiar with Red Letter Media’s Wheel of the Worst series knows, anything that could possibly be put onto VHS was recorded and shoveled out the door. Anything.

Home gaming was accompanied by strategy guides, typically in the form of magazines like Nintendo Power, shown above. But it didn’t take long for someone to figure out an even better way to show someone how to not suck at video games- game tapes. Now technically I never owned any of these until the early 90’s, but I was aware of them in the 80’s. There was a series from a group called Game Players, and I had the one that featured games by Ultra (actually a division of Konami) such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the ridiculously hard one) and Metal Gear. It also features intro music that may rupture your ear drums (or compel you to do the job yourself with a pencil). On the positive side, it got me interested in playing Metal Gear, but then again that just set me up for disappointment in 2001.

These tapes were pretty lame, but also the only way you could see significant gameplay from a game neither you nor any of your friends had (unless you lived by one of those Nintendo stores).

Another tape I found at a flea market (again, early 90’s so doesn’t quite count) boasted that it featured the “World Video Game Champion” Skip Rogers (so I guess he’s like Captain America if Captain America sucked). The writer Sean Baby already did a hilarious and thorough review of Skip’s work some time ago, but I’ll post part of the video here to give you an idea.

The main difference between the tapes, from what I could see, is that whoever was playing on the Game Players tapes was far more competent than the World Video Game Champion. I’m sorry, Skip, but someone had to say it.

 

Movies

This section is going to be a bit shorter but for a very good reason. In keeping with the theme of this article, I’m naming things that had significance for me personally, and most of the 80’s movies I liked were the big popular films that everyone remembers. Of course some of them I wouldn’t appreciate until later. For example, I first saw part of Aliens on cable when I was maybe five, and naturally it scared the shit out of me. Imagine you’re five and you think you’ve found some kind of futuristic war film, like live-action G.I. Joe. Then you suddenly come face-to-face with H.R. Giger’s living nightmare (it was the scene where the alien kills the dropship pilot- you never forget something like that). So while Aliens is easily one of my favorite all-time films, I can’t pretend like I get nostalgic for it, nor did I ever watch the whole thing in the 1980’s.

It’s really hard to think of a film from the 80’s that I liked but wasn’t insanely popular, and the films that weren’t so popular I either didn’t like or didn’t see until I was much older. But there is one film that is very relevant to this blog. In fact, you might say it altered my entire destiny (still not sure for better or worse). That film is Russkies, from 1987.

To understand it’s influence on me let me provide some context. I was maybe still six or seven and I started to get interested in Russian stuff. See the Cold War was going on and Russians were always appearing, obviously as bad guys, nearly all the time. Of course kids don’t understand politics and at that age, things like ushankas and greatcoats just looked cool. I also liked how everything the Red Army had was like an exotic version of our own military equipment. We had the sleek, modern-looking M16 and they had the unusually-looking, wood-and-metal Kalashnikov that still got the job done. We had the Abrams tank with its angular lines and they had T-72s and T-80s with rounded shapes. Obviously I couldn’t make this comparison at the time, but it seemed like two sides in one of those old real-time strategy games where the difference between the two playable factions is mostly just cosmetic.

Now as you might imagine, being into Russia while living in Cold War-era Texas doesn’t make you the most popular kid, but it’s not like I engaged people in political discussions. I just really loved those ushankas. So one day I’m in this convenience store that has video rentals and I see on the shelves this film, Russkies, with a Soviet submarine on it. It’s basically a family movie so my mom rented it and I proceeded to watch it roughly two dozen times or so until we had to return it.

To understand what kind of film it was, I would call it the anti-Red Dawn. In fact, that other film, which came out three years earlier, is referenced in Russkies by one character. But overall the film is mocking that kind of Cold War paranoia. It features a Russian submariner who falls overboard and washes ashore on Key West. He’s discovered by some local kids, some of whom initially believe he’s a spy and try to catch him. The rest of it is wacky fish-out-of-water hyjinks, standard fare for the time. I think Russkies can be categorized in that genre of Perestroika-era Hollywood films that promote cooperation and understanding between the East and West. This was a time when, for example, G.I. Joe teamed up with the Soviet special forces team October Guard. Unfortunately it also transformed into a genre that could be called “Let’s put aside our differences and gang up on the Arabs,” but that’s another article.

As I write this, I have never seen the film since I watched it back when I was little. I had trouble locating a suitable version online for years. Now it appears the whole thing is on Youtube (always the mark of a great film!), so I plan to watch it again. If it is totally lame, keep in mind I was six or seven the last time I saw it. Whatever the case, this film kindled my interest in Russia, one which would wax and wane until the point where I had to take a foreign language course in high school and Russian was available. That led to my first trip to Russia, which in turn led to me moving there after that. Yes, it has been rough at times, but it’s better that little me was obsessed with something like Russkies and not something like the Death Wish series, which glorifies murdering random people on the street, or Rambo III, which might have led me to idolize waging jihad in Afghanistan.

Music

This section is a total fraud, because I’m just using it as an excuse to post a video of “Africa” by Toto.

But if you’re looking for something a bit more obscure and rooted firmly in that era, I recommend the work of Ian Hammer for the TV show Miami Vice. 

Also, while I can in no way claim this has any nostalgic value for me, I present to you what may be the synthiest song of the whole decade, from the soundtrack of the TV movie Manhunter (this was based on the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon and is the first appearance of Hannibal Lecter).

 

Conclusion

So there you have it- a slice of my own personal 80’s nostalgia. To be fair, my childhood was split rather evenly into both the 80’s and 90’s, so this is only a fraction of a fraction. I also acknowledge that a film like Russkies is probably too obscure to use as a reference in any other work of art (I’ve literally never encountered anyone who’d heard of the film or saw it), but if I were going to make some kind of art that references the 80’s in some way, those video games are examples of things I would reference. If you get it, great, it’s a bonus for you. If not, no big deal. That was what made things like the original Simpsons great- it appealed to everyone but the references were a bonus for people who were more knowledgeable or who did their homework. Now references have replaced jokes and good writing entirely, and apparently you’re supposed to be entertained simply because you recognize something.

If you’re a creator reading this, break the mold. By all means embrace this 80’s nostalgia trend, but make it your own. Don’t let Hollywood shape your memories. If you remember anything I’ve mentioned in this post fondly, or have some of your own examples to share, by all means tell me in the comments.

Also here’s “Africa” by Toto again in case you missed it.

Ethical Socialism

There are few things I find more pretentious in the political sphere than inventing your own ideology. Over the past few years my own ideology has evolved quite a bit based on acceptance of certain objective facts, some of which compelled me to reject other beliefs because I refuse to live in a state of unreality. Despite the more eclectic nature of my beliefs, I still don’t resort to coming up with some neologism or long string of hyphenated words to describe them. These days I typically just say “socialist” and if someone wants to inquire further we can take it from there.

This being said, I’ve been struggling for some time now with the question of what sincere socialists can do in a world where open fascism at worst and proto-fascist authoritarianism at best appear to be on a triumphant march across the globe, especially considering the increasingly disturbing convergence between the traditional left and the far-right. While in the West radical leftists still display admirable ability to confront open fascism in the streets, leading some far-right figures to go as far as to concede defeat, they have at the same time displayed incredibly poor judgment when it comes to foreign policy, often defending the propaganda of authoritarian and right-wing states and sometimes regurgitating and/or otherwise legitimizing the talking points of literal fascists. At this point it matters little whether they still do it unwittingly or not- results are what matter, and the results we’ve seen in the past decade has been a major net gain for fascism. Indeed, this has been the case despite a historical crisis of global capitalism that ought to have been a major boon to proponents of an alternate, more humane system. To put it simply, the left clearly fucked up.

How did we get here? This is a question that demands a thorough autopsy, one that delves to the very root of the problem. For if we do not get down to the root and pluck it out, we will never fix what’s wrong with the left. And believe me, something is very wrong.

While most leftists openly proclaim they are in favor of equality, freedom, democracy, and the breakdown of unjust hierarchies, we have seen how in certain contexts they are easily capable of displaying xenophobia, Islamophobia, Orientalism, or other behaviors totally antithetical to their stated values. When it comes to universal healthcare at home or human rights in Gaza, the average American leftist is a moral saint and a humanitarian. Switch the venue to Syria, Ukraine, or now Nicaragua, and suddenly they identify with the oppressors and authoritarians while dismissing masses of people they don’t know in countries they’ve never been to as pawns without agency in a geopolitical game. I’ve seen some even refer to the “socialism” that some Western leftists seem to want as “Herrenvolk socialism,” or in other words- socialism for my kind- fuck the rest of the world.

As we dig for the roots I’d concur with others that there is a major epistemological problem on the left, one which leads to these corrupted, deformed takes on certain issues. Put simply, the problem is an out-of-date approach to politics and a Dunning-Kruger like conceit that prevents many from correcting their ideological errors. The former tends to manifest in “campism” or vulgar anti-Americanism, whereby countries are sorted into America and its allies, i.e. “the empire” or “hegemony,” and the countries that are supposedly “resisting” that hegemony. The latter manifests in the insistence that one’s leftist politics somehow give them a more internationalist, informed point of view when oftentimes it can be just as ignorant as the xenophobic rightist view.

To see this in action all you need to do is invoke the right event in the right place. For example, your average leftist would bristle with rage at the assertion that Palestine is a made-up nation whose population consists of terrorist-sympathizers. But they will readily accept the Russian imperialist-colonialist narrative that Ukraine is a contrived nation whose population, insofar as they identify as a separate people, consists of right-wingers and neo-Nazis. The leftist would similarly react at the assertion that residents of Gaza have no right to complain about IDF bombing when their territory is used by Hamas, elected by the people, to fire rockets into Israeli territory. Yet when there’s talk of Assad and Russia’s bombing of civilian targets in Aleppo, Idlib, and so on, we hear how these territories are controlled by “jihadists.” In fact, leftists who routinely talk about Palestinian rights have often been utterly silent on Assad’s treatment of Palestinians in his territory. In Afghanistan and Iraq, leftists routinely pointed out that one cannot bomb terrorism away, and that bombing civilians only radicalizes more people into becoming terrorists. Yet leftists curiously don’t employ that formula when it’s Assad doing the bombing. In short, Syria alone has transformed much of the Western left into Bush-era neocons cheering on their own War on Terror, all because it isn’t “the empire” carrying out the atrocities.

With similar inconsistency, the Western left expresses indignation at conspiratorial accusations that they are controlled by George Soros or Vladimir Putin, yet they are more than ready to accuse protesters in other nations as dupes of the CIA or State Department. For Americans, to use one example, it is not necessary to identify with one’s government. One is allowed to dissent and stand up for better rights and against policies which negative impact them. But for residents in countries which the leftists deem “anti-imperialist,” there is no such luxury. Here the interests of such nations are expressed via their ruling classes rather than the majority of the people. Ergo Yanukovych represents Ukraine, Assad Syria, and Ortega Nicaragua. The only ordinary citizens of these countries worth listening to are those who support the “legitimate government.” One who is personally acquainted with the situation in such countries or at least similar situations in other countries need not strain their imagination as to how those same leftists would act if the “legitimate governments” in their own countries were to adopt the practices of their arbitrarily-chosen “anti-imperialist” heroes.

The inconsistencies mentioned here are often so glaring it’s infuriating when some leftists act so oblivious to them, but there lies that root of the problem, the epistemological problem. Speaking generally, leftists adopt these erroneous positions because they reverse cause and effect between their political identity and the values they purport to have. In other words, they identify as socialists, anarchists, etc. and then assume this means they hold certain values, rather than holding certain values which lead them to adopt a socialist worldview. The result is that they assume they can’t be racist or xenophobic because the identity ostensibly negates that possibility- though in reality it obviously doesn’t.

So what is the solution? Well this is where terminology comes in. If there’s one positive trend I have seen on the left in recent years it is the tendency to characterize socialist politics not in terms of theory but rather basic decency and morals. For example, people point to our healthcare system, one of the most irrational in the entire developed world, and rightfully declare it immoral. It is immoral that in a country so wealthy, wealthy enough to pass an annual defense budget of over $700 billion and announce the creation of a whole new military branch focused on space, people are forced to resort to online crowdfunding to get medical treatment. It is immoral that people with insurance can’t even see a doctor because of the bureaucratic red tape that comes with private insurance.

This is a very positive development. Some time ago I began to realize that the trick to advancing socialism (and we have precious little time if we are to preserve human life on this planet) cannot possibly lie in getting everyone to consciously adopt a certain theoretical worldview or even identity (i.e. socialist), but rather in advancing the idea that capitalism is inherently immoral. As I once put it- get people to see capitalism the way they see cannibalism or pedophilia and you’ve won. A person may not identify as a socialist, but they should see the way Amazon treats its works as disgusting, and by extension they should see a system that requires and rewards such practices as disgusting. That day will be the true day of triumph for socialism.

Here is where I break my rule and humbly suggest that a term is needed to define this kind of socialism. I’ve been referring to it as ethical socialism. The idea is that you begin with certain values- that people are equal and have worth, that it is wrong to require the majority of people to give up the majority of their life so that a minority can live in luxury, that if we can provide everyone with the necessities of life then we should and it is immoral to do otherwise, that unjustified hierarchies deserve to be abolished, and so forth, and your political identity as a socialist flows logically from those values, rather than assuming you must hold them simply because you called yourself a socialist.

I believe that once you make this switch erroneous ideas that lead one toward reactionary thinking suddenly become exposed. If you believe all humans have rights and you have the right to protest against your government for its authoritarian practices, then others have the same right. If you believe that fascism is a danger that must be opposed at all costs, you will not be echoing their talking points and sharing platforms with them.

Naturally this isn’t a silver bullet solution. We can still make errors of judgment, usually due to lack of information. But I would assert that it is far better to start with certain core values and base decisions on a case-by-case consideration of said values rather than adopting some identity and just assuming this means you hold all the values traditionally associated with it. My experience living in the Former Soviet Union, where yesterday’s “ardent Communists” and “internationalists” often rapidly reinvented themselves as right-wing reactionaries has ultimately taught me to put more faith in people’s values and how they adhere to them than the labels they might adopt.

As such, a label like “ethical socialist” would seem paradoxical. Thus I intend to use it only to describe a certain concept, an approach to socialist politics, rather than a label. Ethical socialism is about living and advancing certain values first and foremost. I can only hope that it will catch on.

What Is to Be Done About the Left?

In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, the Western right is basically one big grift. One way or another you dupe middle class white boomers or frustrated 20-something NEETs into giving you money while ultra-rich individuals, think tanks, and corporations give you a platform with which to do it. There are many different forms of this grift, often rehashed with little variations here and there over the years. One such grift is the “I used to be a leftist!”

This is where the person claims (or in some cases they actually were) they used to be on “the left” until they were “driven away” by something, most often “political correctness” or some other vague bullshit. Now I’m not about to disparage anyone’s so-called lived experience here; I’m sure in some cases these people were actually truly believing leftists of some sort. It’s cultish to the extreme to dismiss this phenomenon by saying “they never truly believed” or that they never fully understood the politics. But these conversion stories always seem to me as highly dubious. After all, I can totally understand being fed up with a certain community on the left, but if you really held basic progressive core beliefs why would you go and join, or aid those who represent diametrically opposed values? Why not migrate to those among the left who you feel better represent those basic values?

But these days I find myself confronting a very unusual situation. What happens when you find yourself pushed away from the left, mainly because you want to avoid the far-right and with each passing year you see the former increasingly tailing the latterWhat about avoiding the mainstream radical left to avoid looking like an Infowars-level conspiracy crank at best, and associating with literal fascists at worst? This is quite a conundrum, but recently I’ve discovered on Twitter that I’m not the only person to notice this phenomenon.

One individual has taken a very harsh stance on the matter. Rather than specifically call out “tankies” or “red-browns” they have flat out accused “leftists” of being fascists, albeit with plenty of good evidence and logical arguments. I voiced my disagreement with this wording, because I believe that no matter how difficult it can be to communicate with some radical leftists from time to time, it is our responsibility to try to set people on the right path whenever and wherever we can. As sayeth Jesus in the scripture, it is not the healthy who need a physician but the ill.

That being said, I must concede this individual had one compelling argument for being so harsh on the radical left as a whole. Paraphrasing their words as best I can, they pointed out how next-to-impossible it is to convince leftists that they are engaging in fascist, racist, or anti-Semitic thinking simply because they identify as left. In other words, they are convinced that by virtue of being leftists, Communists, socialists, or whatever, their core beliefs could not possibly be contaminated by reactionary ideas. While I still disagree that this is justification for writing off the whole radical left there’s a compelling argument here, so much so that it bears devoting some time to developing a solution.

Since 2014 the danger of red-brown,or as one comrade eloquently put it, “bloody shit,” organizing has been rising exponentially. A lot of this, incidentally, has been thanks to Russian propaganda organs such as RT and Sputnik, along with lesser known websites like Fort Russ or Vinyard of the Saker. It is through these vectors that propaganda largely inspired by the fascist Alexander Dugin is diffused and distributed to different ends of the political spectrum. To the leftists is an anti-corporate, anti-globalization message, and the far-right receives a message promising “self-determination” in the form of national separation. The main purpose of all of this, of course, is to push the Kremlin’s foreign policy goals. It matters little whether the recipients think Ukraine is controlled by a neo-Nazi junta or a cabal of conspiring Jews- and Russian propaganda regularly insists both simultaneously- all that matters is that the recipient believes that Kyiv is the ally of their enemies and Russia has a right to intervene in Ukraine as it sees fit.

I do not plan to get into more details of current red-brown activity in this post. I have already done that some time ago, but for those who want to look into the matter further I recommend starting with this link. My focus in this post, which may become part of a much longer series, is to try to determine why the left continues to be vulnerable to far-right entryism and what can be done about it.

Acceptance

The sad fact is that a lot of the left is in denial about the red-brown problem. Some call it guilt by association. Others dismiss it as “horseshoe theory.” Some insist that if they happen to take the same position as fascists, they have completely different reasons. Others are still inexcusably ignorant about the problem entirely.

They say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. In this case we need to identify the problem of red-brown activity and far-right entryism. Many veterans of the left may look at the attitudes of millennials toward socialism or the rise in popularity for movements like Democratic Socialists of America and decide this is a very positive trend. What they may be missing, however, is the fact that many of these young people have no idea what socialism is and they are merely reacting to the vagaries of so-called “late capitalism.” As such, their theoretical foundation is quite weak. Older leftists should welcome them, but also educate them. At the same time, we need to reevaluate our own values and rhetoric and ask ourselves if we are being consistent in our opposition to racism, imperialism, and so forth.

Many young leftists, and far too many old ones, seem utterly oblivious to the the idea that far-right organizations often seek out alliances with them for their own ends. This is by no means a new phenomenon. Alexander Reid Ross has written a comprehensive book on the subject (though it fails hard on Ukraine, ironically because at least one of the cited sources on that topic was himself a member of a red-brown Russia-affiliated front). The basic summary is that almost from the very dawn of modern socialism, there have always been attempts to appropriate some aspects of that movement and meld them with reactionary, right-wing values. And there’s an interesting thread running throughout this long history to the present day- it seems wherever red-brown activity has taken place, it is always the right that gets the most benefit, while the left is typically weakened. It doesn’t matter if we’re speaking of Germany in the Weimar days or today, where parts of the left and far-right sound almost identical on topics like Syria or Russia, yet it is the far-right that is in power and ascendant while the left still flounders ineffectually. There’s a powerful lesson in this- red-brown activity is poison for the left and a boon to fascists. 

Once we acknowledge how serious the threat is, we need to do something about it.

 

Educate

The most important thing is for leftists to understand that this is a serious phenomenon and it is not some centrist liberal horseshoe theory. This has a very long, well documented history and new activists need to be made aware of it.

Also, while teaching good theory can sometimes lead to disagreements and sectarianism, it can also sometimes act as a vaccination against typical red-brown tactics. A person who has a more robust understanding of capitalism and socialism is less likely to fall for the “anti-establishment,” “anti-globalization” rhetoric so often used by the far right entryists. But far more important than theory is a solid system of ethics. History has shown that by divorcing socialism from its moral imperative, all manner of atrocities and unprincipled compromises are possible.

Our moribund concept of “anti-imperialism” is a perfect example of this. So many leftists get so bound up in “opposing imperialism,” which is in their eyes solely Western if not American, that they willfully embrace outright reactionary if not fascist regimes (the Assad regime for example, is arguably fascist by definition). We must never lose sight of the fact that we must oppose all forms of imperialism, but never to such extent that we end up defending far right regimes and regurgitating their propaganda. This is precisely what much of the left is doing now, particularly when it comes to Syria, and in doing so they have literally joined the chorus of far right Assad backers such as the alt-right and old Nazis like David Duke.

Summing up this point, what is far more important than political labels are the values that motivate us to adopt them. Edgy teenagers and college students readily become “Marxists,” “anarchists,” or whatever because this often provides a necessary sense of solidarity and belonging.  But when organizations become nothing but a social circle or a club, cult-like thinking begins and there is pressure to go along with the group in spite of moral conflicts. One should adopt an ideology stemming from basic values. In my humble opinion, one should be a socialist based on values of true liberty and equality, not for social or aesthetic reasons. When you are guided by these basic values, you are less likely to make unprincipled compromises based on purely tactical reasoning such as the enemy of my enemy is my friend (probably the worst concept in political history).

Another thing we need to be educating leftists about is something I’ve seen some Twitter folks refer to as unreality. Unreality is a somewhat novel concept that it is a bit more nuanced than propaganda. Unreality is a state where one bends reality to fit their political worldview. It goes beyond typical conspiratorial thinking in the sense that conspiracy theories become mandatory as a way to process events. For example, in order to maintain the fiction that Assad is the “least worst” option in Syria, one must not only ignore the indisputable fact that his regime and its backers have caused the vast majority of deaths in that civil war, but every particularly egregious atrocity, especially chemical attacks, are nothing but “false flags” designed to provoke a Western regime-change invasion that never comes. Once you can accept some of these claims, there’s no reasonable argument to refrain from going full on Infowars. Remember- when we give up a belief in objective truth we give up the core of our revolutionary theory.

Lastly, it’s time for leftists, especially Americans, to stop living in the Iraq War era where every negative comment by the presidential administration is treated like the run-up to a massive military invasion. One of the most idiotic things I see are claims that criticism of the Kremlin could lead to World War III. Turkey shot down a Russian military jet, one of whose pilots was killed as a result, and in a matter of months the their two dictators had kissed and made up. More recently, the United States wiped out dozens of Russian mercenaries and the Kremlin has been curiously quiet on the matter. If Russia is so volatile that it will launch a nuclear holocaust in response to criticism, that really says more about Russia than it does about the West. In any case, the militaristic rhetoric that has been a staple of Russian media for many years is far more confrontational than anything we see in the US media even in the midst of “Russiagate.”

No Platform

This one is pretty simple- do not accept a platform from the far right or any outlet the routinely gives them a platform. That means no RT, no Sputnik, and certainly no Tucker Carlson (he’s basically a full on blood and soil nationalist now). Do some research to find out whose behind the outlet offering you a spot for commentary or a job.  It is far better to keep your message pure and independent than to get a larger audience via a compromised platform. After all, a large portion of that audience is most likely diametrically opposed to your values anyway.

To be Continued…

I’d like to say there’s a conclusion to all of this, but the truth is that I am merely scratching the surface with this post. It is one thing to study historical phenomena and draw conclusions based on it; it’s another matter entirely when we are actually watching things evolve in real time. We may very well be living in an era of American proto-fascism, and I’m convinced that one of the ways we got to this point has to do with the far right doing a comprehensive overhaul of their strategy and tactics in the past few years. That process is ongoing as well. Among the main changes include things that were traditionally associated with the left, from pro-Palestine activism to opposition to Reagan-Thatcher neoliberalism and embracing Russia despite the regime’s overt display of Soviet imagery.

Since the far right is not bound by the kind of moral values which ought to guide the left, they can rapidly evolve and molt much faster than their opponents can respond to their tactics. As such we are playing catch up and there is precious little time. It is my hope that in the near future every prominent left organization will start taking the red-brown menace seriously. Otherwise we may not have an organized left at all.

The Dark Future: It’s a Blog About Star Wars Again

In a few years they will start making Star Wars films via computer algorithm. They will be designed to create a pastiche of characters and images that reference the original series, post original trilogy, prequels, etc. A Star Wars for every fan.

The program will create a random-named protagonist and then it will be assigned to be a relative/acquaintance/friend/mentor of some important character from the main original films, e.g. Wint Blinko, Han Solo’s forgotten nephew. Based on this, a plot will be assembled with various references to Han Solo’s story, e.g. it will turn out that our hero learned about the importance of a blaster from Han! Or a love interest will say “I love you” and he’ll respond with “I know,” and the whole audience laughs and claps because they get the reference.

Of course technology being what it is, many of these computer-manufactured films will have errors and bugs. Some may introduce subplots that are unresolved, or a supporting character may be missing in the second half of the film for no reason. In this case, Disney will release no refunds nor apologies. There will just be a statement like: “We regret that our latest film, Uncle Owen’s Garbage Man: A Star Wars Story, was released without an ending or audio from 1:09:47-1:13:08. We hope next months release of AT-ST Pilot Adventure works out better.”

Fans the world over will curse the company, and yet they will continue to fork over their money.

Generations later, war has ended human civilization. Nature begins to reclaim the Earth. But there, in a Disney bunker complex somewhere in northern California, the Star Wars supercomputer lives on, immortal. Directly connected to cinema screens around the world, every few months a new Star Wars movie is released. If an alien visitor were to touch down on the planet and stumble upon a cinema, they might be able to catch Wookie Battle: A Star Wars Story.

Powered by nuclear batteries designed to run on fuel that won’t run out for millions of years, the Star Wars computer lives on as the final tombstone of humankind…

Moving On

Some time ago I promised to write about why I’m dialing down my operations, including this blog (it’s not going away though). That day has come. As I alluded to around the same time, part of the reason has to do with changing employment and focus on other activities such as martial arts and trying to learn screenwriting. In other words, I’m “getting out” of the Russia watching business mainly due to very positive changes in my life. And that is a big relief, because to be honest this business is ugly and I’ve been trying to break out of it almost since the very beginning.

I suppose the main reason for hanging up my spurs is that to be honest, the blog accomplished what it was meant to. I never managed to make a living directly from it, but it got me plenty of work and jobs thanks to the people it reached. Nowadays it seems kind of redundant because while Russia does still come up with the occasional curve ball, it tends to follow the same pattern for long periods of time. When it comes to commentary, there’s very little I can say that I haven’t said before. Yes, my views on these subjects do evolve as more facts become available, but in general things don’t change. And when it comes to breaking news about Russia, I could never hold a candle to a site like Meduza or The Moscow Times. 

Another issue is the tribalism surrounding Russia and especially Ukraine, the latter being “my side,” so to speak. This tribalism is what leads to the phenomenon of taking fire from your own side, because you fail to fully conform to what the tribe demands. This, more than anything else, is the most demoralizing aspect of this business.

In the tribal discourse, you are attacked by your own side for failing to say the right slogans, or questioning certain claims, strategies, tactics, etc. I put special emphasis on the word say here, because for tribalists, whom I have in the past dubbed as cheerleaders or football nationalists for their resemblance to sports fans, all that matters is that you say the right things in public. Actions to back your words are rarely a concern. Whether the slogans or talking points are conducive to a winning strategy is also irrelevant to the tribe. To put it simply, this is magical thinking, whereby engaging in rituals and saying the correct invocations equates to positive results in the real world. And yet while these empty gestures continually fail to achieve real results, the tribe insists that you do not question them, otherwise you are disloyal and working for the other side.

This magical thinking seems to pervade nearly all politics these days. If Trump tweets that the economy is good, then it’s good. If you question that you must be a libcuck who wants to hand out green cards to ISIS fighters. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the 2016 election must have been “stolen” by the Russians, even though nobody has bothered to actually look at the impact of its interference in terms of changing voters’ opinions.* Question that, even if you overtly acknowledge the facts of Russian interference, and you’re an apologist for the Kremlin.

I have little tolerance for such childlike behavior among adults. I do not confuse obstinacy with integrity or moral consistency, just as I do not confuse the world of politics for the world of team sports. If there’s one consistent thread in the positive feedback to this blog over the years, it’s for balance and honesty. Not balance for the sake of balance, mind you, but balance based on evidence and context. This is probably the reason why I’ve managed to attract so many loyal readers whose political worldview differs so greatly from my own. In a world where people increasingly choose their own realities, I have tried to maintain an appreciation for what can be asserted as objectively true.

I’ll continue to post here from time to time, though the content might be very different from what I normally wrote about. Also, I will be looking to write for various publications as well as finally get around to writing my book, something I wasn’t able to do during the roller-coaster years of 2014-2017. The struggle does not end here- I’m merely writing another chapter.