Cancel Culture & the Free Marketplace of Ideas

Under General Code of Internet Procedures, Article VIII, Subsection 3, Paragraph E.4, anyone who writes on the internet long enough is required to eventually write about “Cancel Culture”. I have resisted this totalitarian mandate for as long as I could, but the Internet Police delivered a court order to my house last night so it’s either write this stupid piece or be shipped off to the gulags so fine. Ugggh. Personally, I find the entire topic of “cancel culture” to be endlessly exhausting, a morass of circular arguments and badly-defined terms and bad faith attacks circling each other forever and ever. There is very little left that can or should be said. But! I am a Man on the Internet, so you must know my opinions.

Fair warning, because this topic has been litigated and relitigated to death, and because I hate even thinking about it, this post is going to be a little less structured than I usually aim for. If you’re already aware of this Discourse, you don’t need me to rehash all of it for the thousandth time. If you’re not, than I strongly urge you to go read a book or frolic in the flowers or something sensible instead of getting involved.

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Imperial Federations: 1945-1962

Changing face of Europe and Colonial Tension, Late 1945, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, 1978 (Source)

By my count, the world had reached peek imperial consolidation in 1911. That year, France established a protectorate over Morocco, and Japan had just annexed Korea the previous year, bringing the number of internationally-recognized sovereign states down to fifty-six. Only a few years later, the First World War would tear apart the German, Hapsburg, and Russian Empires, and fatally weaken the French and British ones. It would take another two decades and a second world war to make the position of the colonial empires untenable, but following the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in 1945, the great mass of colonized Africa and Asia would slowly but surely become independent nations.

In retrospect, it all seems inevitable. And perhaps it was. But that doesn’t mean that those at the time saw it as such. While even most colonialists understood, albeit grudgingly, that the world was changing, many in London and Paris assumed that the process of winding down their Empires would go very differently indeed. This was the age of what I am choosing to call the Imperial Federation. The Netherlands, Britain, and France all tried their hand at transitioning their empires to one of these, and all of them failed. I find the entire concept fascinating, because it’s a whole new model for organizing the world that the previous generation of rulers assumed would become dominant. Its collapse shows the possibility of a different path forward, and marks the moment of transition when the Old World lost control of global destiny.

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The Battles of the Barrages

An Austro-Hungarian postcard

In so many ways, the First World War stands at a crossroads. It stands between the 19th century and the 20th, between tradition and modernity, between the old world and the new. Cavalry charged with sabers and lances on the same fields churned up by the treads of tanks and cratered by long-range artillery hurling explosive shells. Nowhere was this dichotomy more true than at sea, as we’ve discussed before. Naval warfare between 1914 and 1918 was a bewildering mix of battleships fighting with tactics that Nelson would have recognized and airplanes and submarines pioneering the next century of war at sea. I find these liminal spaces fascinating, and today we’re going to talk about a specific one. Or rather, two. The Battle of Dover Strait in 1916 and the Battle of the Strait of Otranto in 1917. These were both minor, easily-forgotten naval engagements, in which the Central Powers attempted to break the Allied naval ‘barrages’ barricading in their submarine forces. In of themselves, they’re not particularly important, but together, they represent the way in which different eras of warfare so briefly came together.

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Castlevania Falls Short

Look, here’s the thing: I really like Dracula. Who doesn’t? He’s Dracula! I’ve basically never read or watched anything featuring him that I didn’t like, at least on some level. And Castlevania isn’t an exception to that. It’s a very enjoyable show! And yet……it’s also a deeply frustrating one. Despite an intriguing premise, beautiful animation, great action, and some really cool ideas, Castlevania suffers from a lack of structure and a weak overarching plot. It’s a show that never manages to be more than the sum of its parts, to the extent that I finished watching it months ago and am just now getting around to writing this because I had trouble even summing up a clear thesis or takeaway. There’s just a lot going on, and a lot of it isn’t very coherent. Despite enjoying most of the individual episodes, I never found myself emotionally invested in the characters or the story at large. At the risk of being uncharitable, I think a lot of fans like this show because it looks “cool”. And it does! It’s very good at delivering awesome action scenes. But does it do anything beyond that?

(SPOILERS FOR EVERYTHING BTW)

  1. Like I said, I think a lot of Castlevania is basically an action scene delivery mechanism. And lest I come off as a snob, I want to affirm that this part of the show is awesome. If you come to Castlevania wanting to watch a guy with a whip fight a succession of vampires and monsters while making wisecracks, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve got a girl who can shoot fire. We’ve got a half-Vampire-half-human prince with a flying sword. We’ve got vampire lords from every country on Earth. Did I mention the guy with the whip? The fight scenes are fun, explosive, and bloody as hell, as benefits a show about fighting Dracula. There is a genuine joy is watching somebody murder vampires for twenty minutes straight, and Castlevania is often at it’s best when it gives in to that urge. I have no complaints here.
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The United Federation of Democratic States

The United Federation of Democratic States (2022)

Literally this entire project was inspired by this Tweet. I started thinking about it and before I could help it I’d made a map and a flag and then some more maps and then a list of Prime Ministers and then—well, this post. I put a ridiculous amount of effort into this and I tried to be realistic within the parameters I set up but it should be understood totally as a Alien Space Bats timeline without much attempt at plausibility.

The United Federation of Democratic States is a trans-continental union of forty-four states, stretching across much of Europe, North America, Australia, and parts of Latin America and Northeast Asia. The UFDS has land borders with Mexico, Colombia, Nicaragua, Brazil, Suriname, Switzerland, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Morocco, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, North Macedonia, Albania, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Malaysia, and North Korea. It is the largest country on Earth in terms of area, containing 33,983,617 km2, and the third-largest in population, with 1,146,700,000 people as of the 2020 census.

Formed in 1997 initially as a union of twenty-five states, the UFDS brought together most of the world’s leading democracies and high-developed economies into a single superstate ostensibly dedicated to fulfilling the post-WWII and post-Cold War promises of a united, democratic, and prosperous world.

The UFDS is a federal parliamentary constitutional republic, with an elected President, Prime Minister, and bicameral legislature. It is a liberal democracy, and scores well on most measures of quality of life, human rights, economic freedom, judicial independence, and education. It has the largest GDP in the world, is the world’s largest importer and exporter of goods, and holds over 50% of the world’s total wealth. The Federal Defense Force is responsible for over 50% of the world’s military spending, and maintains bases in at least twenty-one other countries. The UFDS’s economic and military position has been described as ‘hegemonic’, and many scholars consider it to be the world’s first true hyperpower.

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What a Strange and Lovely Story

(Source)

In 2018, I went to see a play called Pay No Attention to the Girl at a converted garage in Sunset Park. I’m not a theater person? Like, it’s not something I’m opposed to or anything, it’s just something I do very often. But my friend Ana-Sofia was working at Target Margin and I wanted to be supportive. I kind of fell in love with it. The play was a—interpretation? deconstruction? exploration?—of the One Thousand and One Nights, the classic compendium of Islamic folk tales that forms the basis for so much Western perceptions of Arabian and Islamic history and legend. Target Margin has continued their exploration of those stories since then, and I continued to go and see them. This year, they concluded their project with One Night, an epic nine-hour theatrical experience combining and synthesizing the years of work they’ve done.

This post is a little different from how I usually write, in that it is by necessity very personal. Like I said, I’m not a theater person. I don’t know how to talk about theater, I don’t know the vocabulary and formats and contexts. All I can do is talk about what I saw and why I loved it and why it spoke to me. This isn’t Theater Criticism, it’s Nathan Criticism. That said? Let’s begin.

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Wildest True Stories of the Napoleonic Wars

Napoleon’s Return from Elba, Charles de Steuben, 1818

The Napoleonic Wars are an objectively absurd historical time period, and I think only the fact that we’re so used to prevents us from seeing that. I mean, think about it. You’re reading European history, you’re going through the Middle Ages and feudalism and then the Religious Wars of the 16th century and the Discovery of the New World and the Columbian Exchange and then mercantilism and capitalism and the rise of Absolute Monarchy rivalry between the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons and then, oh yeah, Dr. Doom took over Europe for a decade and everyone had to team up to take him down. Seriously! It was a time of chaos and change, when all the established orders seemed to be giving way and anything seemed possible. In Simon Winder’s Danubia he writes of the era:

No political boundary offered surety of any kind and duplicitous aggression was the only possible alternative to absolute extinction. All over Europe rulers were either hiding jewels in strange places and disguising their families as implausibly soft-palmed servants, or they were coming up with new designs for palaces and coronation robes, depending on the latest news

The Holy Roman Empire, a staple of Europe for almost a millennium, vanished at last. French armies marched to the gates of Moscow, and Russian armies occupied Paris. Poland reappeared and vanished again, and the Pope was thrown in jail. Peasants became Kings and Emperors lost their thrones. It was, to be blunt, a totally ridiculous time to be alive. Today, we’re going to talk about some of my favorite absolutely absurd stories from this completely insane time period.

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The Dueling Flags of Deutschland

Revolutionaries in Berlin, 1848. Unknown Creator.

What is a flag? In many cases, it can be simply a piece of cloth to hang outside your palace or to wave in battle so your troops know who to take orders from. But at its heart, a flag is an attempt to embody a country within a symbol. Think how effective that can be—the French tricolor today not only symbolizes France, but for two centuries has stood across the world for the ideals of Republic and Revolution, inspiring the flags of other nations in turn. As I write this, Ukraine battles from freedom against a Russian invasion—think about how iconic the blue-and-gold Ukrainian bicolor has become, how within just a few weeks everyone in the world knows it by sight. That’s the power of a symbol that works. That’s why I love flags. And that’s what makes the story of German national symbolism so interesting. Since the modern saga of German nationhood began in the mid-19th century, Germany has had two competing flags.

There’s the black, red, and gold tricolor of Frankfurt, and the black, white, and red tricolor of Berlin. A very small shift, and yet between them, those two designs tell the story of a war, a war over what kind of nation Germany would become. Let’s talk about it.

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The Dark is Rising and it’s Terrifying

In Silver on the Tree, the final volume of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence, there’s a scene in the first chapter. Our protagonist is Will Stanton, an eleven year-old boy in Buckinghamshire, England. He’s out exploring the countryside with his brothers. It’s a bit of a special occasion, because his eldest brother, Stephen, is home on leave from the Royal Navy. In a family with a dozen children, there’s always been a special bond between the oldest and youngest brothers. But something is clearly bothering Lieutenant Stephen Stanton. Finally, he manages to get Will alone and confronts him.

“Will,” Stephen said, looking at him with cold blue eyes, “the day we sailed from Kingston, that old man turned up at the ship. I don’t know how he talked them into it, but someone was sent to fetch me to him. He stood there on the dock, with his black, black face, and his white, white hair, and he looked quietly at the rating who’d fetched me, until the boy left, and then he said just one thing. Tell your brother, he said, that the Old Ones of the ocean islands are ready. Then he went away.”………”And then” Stephen said, his voice shaking a little. “We put in at Gibraltar on the way home…….and a stranger said something to me in the street. He was standing beside me, we were waiting for a traffic light–he was very tall and slim, Arab I think. Do you know what he said? Tell Will Stanton that the Old Ones of the south are ready. Then he just disappeared into the crowd.”

Stephen is scared and confused, and he should be. He understands that his brother is caught up in something he can’t understand, that the world he thinks he lives in isn’t what it really is, and it’s terrifying. That’s what I find most interesting about The Dark is Rising. It’s a Young Adult series about children discovering a secret magical world and a primordial struggle between Good and Evil, and it never shies away from discussing how deeply traumatic and disturbing this is. In fact, it’s one of the central themes.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cowboy Angels

TITLE: Cowboy Angels

AUTHOR: Paul McAuley

PUBLISHER: Gateway

DATE: 2009

Cowboy Angels has one of the best premises I’ve ever encountered. What if America…..invaded America?! That alone would probably earn it a certain amount of respect, just for the cleverness of the conceit alone. But Angels managed to make the concept work, not just as a provocative idea, but as the springboard for a lot of really interesting world-building and some great exploration of political themes. I must have read this book dozens of times, and I’m always left wanting to know more about the amazing world McAuley created. It’s a fantastic combination of spy thriller, alternate history, time travel story, and Cold War fiction, wrapped up with a trenchant critique of American military adventurism and imperialism, and for years, it’s been one of my go-to book recommendations. It’s a good book, and I like telling people about it!

BACKGROUND:

In 1963, scientists at the Brookhaven Physics Laboratory opened the first Turing Gate to a parallel Earth, and a human being walked from one America to another. For the two decades that followed, the United States calling itself The Real would embark on a new campaign of Manifest Destiny, building a Pan-American Alliance through the multiverse. They would go to those less fortunate Americas—those wracked by nuclear war, or ruled by fascists or communists—and offer liberation and unity. It was a beautiful dream. But a costly one. After years of bloody, intractable fighting, Jimmy Carter was elected President in 1980 on a platform of bringing the troops home. But not everyone is willing to follow orders. Adam Stone is a former CIA officer, one of ‘Cowboy Angels’ who helped infiltrate and destabilize a dozen different Americas. He’s retired now, but when he hears that his old friend Tom Waverly is back from the dead and on the run from the law he’ll find himself drawn into a conspiracy with multiuniversal implications…..

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