Season 9 of The Walking Dead is creeping upon us, and I watched the trailer with as much attention as a person can maintain while also trying to eat her Spaghetti-Os. I keep rooting for this show. There’s lots to like: the zombies, the grit, the fact that I still care when characters die WHILE ALSO coming to care about the characters who replace them. But something needs to change. The zombies haven’t evolved, so their menace starts to stagnate. The whole 28 Days Later bit about human morality was interesting, but we’ve had years of that. We need the next thing. Show us the wider world. Or show us a Patient Zero. Or show us a cure, or a mutation, or I don’t know… some dire weapon (like a nuke) that would stop the epidemic at the price of millions of lives. (That’s a little too Fallout maybe. But you get what I mean.) We need something big to progress. And although the establishment of an early-industrial civilization (and a glimpse of a helicopter) might be a baby step in that direction, I don’t want to watch twenty hours of people fighting over legal codices and a windmill. Nor do I want to come across another band of people who add a third (or fourth) variation on The Lord of the Flies. That sort of plot device really needs to shuffle off. (Get it?) And really, the next goal has to involve the zombies. Otherwise, we’re all just wandering around with them.
A is for Alt-Right, whom Trump primps and goads.
B is for Brietbart where Bannon implodes.
C, oh Covfefe, which flew from a tweet.
D is for Dotard, said Kim Jong with heat.
E’s for Election, long-plotted for years.
F is for Fox News and Fake News and fears.
G is for groping, both public and private.
H is for Hair hockered up by a civet.
I is for ICE Raids, Gestapo reborn.
J is for justices, pressured and worn.
K is for Kim Jong, a-wavin’ his nukes.
L is for lies upon lies till we pukes.
M is for Miller who pines for his fuehrer.
N is for NATO Trump put in a furor.
O’s for Obstruction, the tyrant’s best whore.
P is for Puerto, now Rico no more.
Q is for Quislings, the warts on this wart-hog.
R is for Russia, where Trump is the lap-dog.
S is for Spicer, and Sanders, and Sessions.
T is for Tariffs and brand-new recessions.
U is for Utterly over his head.
V is for Voters whom fraudsters mislead.
W is for Wanting a war where he’s wiener.
X is for Xenophobes—make ‘Murca meaner!
Y is for Yelling. They really should bleep him.
Z’s for the Zoo were the country should keep him.
(Thanks to my husband, James, for helping with everything.)
On a whim, last week, I bought Stephen King’s The Outsider while I flew from California to Iowa. Now I’ll say up front that I have some ambivalence about Stephen King. He has trouble writing women who don’t fit the 1970s tropes. (Even his most bad-assed heroines still pull their fingers and bite their lips, and say things like “Ooough!” and “Hold it right there, mister.”) On top of that, I have trouble with some of King’s gratuitous vulgarity. (Such as the sex scene in IT, and the pistol scene in the first book of The Dark Tower, and the nearly inevitable animal violence that crops up every which way.) But considering all of that, I think King can build a locale like nobody’s business. I admit that he can create a genuine sense of dread. And finally, the more I see how his books connect, the more I respect him for his staggering sense of scope. For me, Stephen King is usually a better storyteller than he is a writer. But the world needs storytellers—so props to him.
So The Outsider surprised me. (Minor spoilers here.) The story is about a boy’s horrific rape and murder. The story goes into all the spooky directions that King calls home. But before it gets there, it spends nearly half the book empathizing—that’s the word—with every character in the story. You have the detectives and the DA who make a public arrest that becomes more and more doubtful. You have the arrested man, and his family, and the media’s court of public opinion. You have the victim’s family. In short, you have this whole gamut of folks whom King puts, individually, into the palm of his hand, so that you can see them as the terrified, conflicted, and basically decent people that they turn out to be. This means that the first half of The Outsiders is a character study of community tragedy. It’s deep, and it’s humane, and in that sense it is more literary than King usually is. It speaks, in fact, for justice.
If you aren’t paying attention—or don’t want to let it register—you might miss an instance at the very beginning of the book, when two black kids see the police, and run. They’ve got no reason to do so, other than the fact that they fear the cops. The police have nothing to do with these kids—because, in fact, they’re on their way to arrest their prime suspect. The moment is just a vignette; the kids never show up in the narrative again. But here they serve as a prologue for a book that is, at least in part, about cops making a bad arrest and trying to decide how far they’ll go to condemn an increasingly-innocent-looking guy, just to avoid bad press. And in this sense, of course, the kids do show up– again and again, throughout every convolution of this case.
Is The Outsider a good book? Well, it’s good in a pulpy sort of way. But unlike a lot of King, you get more from this narrative than you pay for. The Outsider offers two stories that center on humanity and monstrosity, each. And because of King’s careful focus on humanity, the first story will haunt you at least as long as the one about the eventual bogeyman.
Today NBC reported how a religious kind of Netflix–known as Pure Flix–is on the rise among Trumpers. This is a “wholesome” programming alternative that produces–or at least distributes–everything from Bible-story specials to mainstream cinema releases such as The Case for Christ. Pure Flix isn’t new; it’s a decade old, but over the past few years, it’s swelled its subscribers to 125,000 folks. I have no problem with a network that seeks to provide PG-level programming as an alternative to the HBOs of the world. That sort of channel can even provide a service. But all this so-called wholesomeness becomes far less so when Pure Flix distributes films that claim how intellectualism is synonymous with atheism (as in 2014’s God’s Not Dead), or that Trump is another Lincoln (as in D’Souza’s current Death of a Nation). That sort of shlock heads into FOX territory–which is to say it becomes propaganda.
One could argue, of course, that much of Pure Flix’s programming does not intend to function as news. (D’Souza claims to produce nonfiction, but I’m not sure about God’s Not Dead.) And yet by my lights, the demographic most likely to embrace Pure Flix is the white evangelical. And the white evangelical gives Trump a 75 percent approval rating. And when it comes to Trumpers, the difference between fact and story is both muddy and increasingly negligible. Come to think of it, they are the people of the alternative fact. Or at the very least, they are the ones who dismiss the mainstream media’s critically-vetted facts. All of this is to say that the Pure Flix audience is particularly receptive to the self-serving story (as their FOX allegiance suggests). And this means that the Pure Flix propaganda can become just as influential as FOX itself. In fact, we could make the case that Pure Flix could become even more insidious than FOX, insofar as it presents itself as (particularly!) harmless entertainment while it reinforces the (particularly!) harmful idea that, say, religion (and other disciplines) should not be skeptical.
And that rejection of skepticism has been the point for a very, very long time. “Reject what they tell you,” says the despot. “Listen to me.” With facts increasingly suspect, narrative is nearly all that’s left*. So the narrative programming arrives, with conservative politicians (such as Carson and Cruz) attending its movie premiers and with its production budgets sometimes turning 30-1 profits (excluding marketing expenses). Whether it means to or not, the Pure Flix movement provides the next step in people control. It is the best ratification of that most hateful claim about how religion is the opiate of the masses.
If there’s any good news here, it’s that the Pure Flix propaganda provides the rest of us an opportunity. And it goes like this: If Pure Flix’s audience has truly shed the facts, this audience’s subscription to a “wholesome” entertainment channel suggests that the audience is still receptive to narrative. And narrative affords artists a very large opening. We storytellers–we novelists, filmmakers, painters, and photographers–we too operate through chronicle. We startle, we captivate, we give all the feels–and if we’re good enough, we also move. That is, we use empathy to transport our audience from one stance to another.
Right now, we have to tell our stories to those who cling almost exclusively to narrative. We must. And we have to tell them in such ways that are not egregious with the f-bombs, or gratuitous with the sex and the violence. Do we have to keep them PG? No. The truth is seldom PG. But the truth isn’t salacious either. It has so much power that it doesn’t have to be.
If you are an artist, your job is to fight the Trumper propaganda with your work. Your job is to be accurate, efficient, clear, and authentic. And then your job is to publish your work. Put it on shelves, and in galleries, and in blogs, or even on Facebook. Put it out there in such a way that it says what you mean, and not just what’s catchy. Say what’s true. You are one of our last bastions of truth. And in that way you are vital to the cause.
Listen. We are past the point where we can fight for the Trumpers’ minds. We lost that war. Now the battleground is the soul.
* The other remainder is encounter–the homophobe, say, who re-examines his stance after his son comes out of the closet. Narrative artifice strives for the realness of encounter.
A few years ago, I found a friend’s suicide. She–Meg–was brilliant and solitary, depressed in a way that good people can especially become. We weren’t close, but a mutual friend had returned from out of town, and he said that he hadn’t heard from Meg in three weeks. So I drove to Meg’s section-8 apartment, where I noticed that she had drawn all of her curtains.
Around this time, I was also playing Mass Effect 3. This is a video game. Specifically, it is a role-playing game, where the player becomes Commander Shepherd–a spaceship captain who amasses an intergalactic team of allies in effort to stop the villainous Reapers from devouring the universe. Lots of people have at least heard of the role-playing video games. Meg played them–and she’d enjoy that I mention them here.
Nothing–and certainly not a video game–can make sense of her death. But in light of all the suspicion about video games instigating death, I think she’d be pleased to know that this video game helped me to cope with her death. I’m not talking about the grief of her death; that took both everything I had and some other things besides. But the ordeal of discovering her death received some help from Mass Effect 3.
These days, the ESRB bestows lots of video games with Mature ratings. These M-17 titles peddle the flashy-splashy sex and violence, along with the use of theft, drugs and profanity. And the fact is that these elements function a lot like profanity, where their presence begins to show the developers’ lack of imagination instead of any amount of artistic panache. But in addition to indulging in some of this more pedestrian material, the Mass Effect series asks for maturity by involving the player in relationships with characters–relationships that, though admittedly predictable, can last literally hundreds of hours. Then the game forces the player to make choices about these relationships, as the universe goes to war. In general the game requires the player to act the heroine all along, but it also gives her options about what kind of heroine she’ll become–whether she’s a Paragon who’s orderly, kind, and restrained, or a Renegade who’s chaotic, ruthless, and aggressive. These decisions happen frequently, and some of them must happen quickly. And it was with this character-crisis mindset that I stood on Meg’s blooming and neglected lawn.
I confess that I’d volunteered to check on her because I have a naive love for adventure. That is, perhaps, also a reason I play video games. I did not expect to find my friend three-weeks dead in her living room. Not really. But when I saw that Meg’s mail had piled out of her box, and when I spoke with the neighbors, I got scared at first. I mean a sick, unfunny scared. And then I surprised myself with a question: I didn’t ask: what would Commander Shepherd do? After all, Commander Shepherd isn’t Jesus. But I did ask: what would a Paragon do? I blinked in the sun and deliberated. I could almost see the choice on a computer screen. This was an illusion, of course—or at least an illusory framing of circumstance. But in crisis, the mind will do what it can–and even manufacture what it can–to grasp at any modicum of familiarity and training. Illusion allowed me to peer below the bottom of Meg’s curtains (Paragon), to remove the window pane (Renegade), to smell death, to back away, to call the police (Paragon), and to remain calm and lucid (Paragon) while the detective questioned me about Meg and my desire to break into her living room.
Before that last part, I sat on the steps of the apartment complex, while a neighbor stood before me with her silent, nine-year-old child.
“She’s dead?” said the neighbor.
“Yes,” I said.
“How do you know?”
“It smells like death.”
“How does death smell?”
“It smells like bad meat.”
“So that lady’s dead inside there?”
“She’s been dead for three weeks?”
“I think that’s the case.”
“So you’re her friend? And you didn’t check for three weeks?”
I can be a heroine in a video game. That’s perhaps the primary reason I play them.
In Mass Effect 3, it’s possible to fail your friends. If you don’t heed your companion’s rather overt calls for attention, he won’t flourish enough to survive a mission. You’re left with his grayed-over silhouette on your ally screen. His story arc has closed. Any future moments that he could offer to the universal narrative have also closed. Most every benefit that he has given your character has ceased.
Video games have begun to return to the idea of Permadeath. This is the notion of the squashed Mario–three stumbles, and you’re done. Such a thing offers the challenge of the irrevocable, and as such, I think it can offer the instruction of the irrevocable. I’m reasonably sane. I teach college; I have a husband and a household; I participate in a liberal church. And yet, during one of the most visceral moments of my life, I relied on the conditioning that I acquired in a video game. And because of this, I wonder what would happen if something like Mass Effect 3 faced us with the irrevocable by employing circumstances that were better cloaked in the ordinary. We should still save the universe; few things can replace the allure of becoming a big heroine in a big way. But let’s make games that challenge us with something more subtle, more real. Some games, especially the indie ones, have lately allowed us toe these deeper waters. But I ask for more mainstream games to ask us to save the universe a little bit at a time.
I know a game of that sort would not have enabled me to prevent Meg’s death; I’m not that naive. But this game might have moved the world to be a little nicer to her–if only insofar as it moved me to be nicer. What is the Paragon response when a bleak friend asks you for coffee while you’re dealing with forty students and don’t have the energy to share another’s depression? Beyond the obvious prompts, how do you best nurture any one of your allies?
In 2015, the Entertainment Software Association reported that over 150 million Americans play video games. Of those folks, 42 percent play video games at least three hours a week. So: A significant number of people spend a significant amount of time giving a significant amount of attention to video games. They must be teaching us something.
I’m not saying that video games should offer us our moral codes. We have religions and philosophies that are much deeper wells for that sort of thing. But it is possible that video games could allow us to practice our morality–in every sense of practice, even if they granted us the Renegade’s gift of experimenting with that morality. We’ve done this sort of thing before. In fact, we do it all the time. We imagine what we’d do if we were Rick Grimes, or Starbuck, or King David. Stories let us practice ourselves. And when video games get to the point where they move us to achieve this same level of empathy–when they truly show us what it’s like to both save and be saved–they too will become art.
(This post describes fictional animal violence. Considering its subject matter, it’s particularly strange that GameStop would not let me publish this review on their website, partially on the grounds that it considers the word Nazi to be profanity.)
I looked forward to playing Wolfenstein: The New Colossus. I wanted the catharsis of putting some Nazis in their place. The prologue had the drama, technical smoothness, and professionalism of any Bethesda game. I was excited to start the adventure. Then (spoilers) I participated in a scene where my protagonist’s abusive stepfather shot and killed the protagonist’s terrified dog. If I hadn’t noticed that I had the freedom to defy the stepfather, I would have had to direct the protagonist to kill his dog himself.
I uninstalled the game after that. I understand that Wolfenstein deals with human atrocities that far outweigh the death of a single pet. Regarding all that, I also know that in wringing my hands about a dog, I risk echoing a perversion that the Nazis themselves shared when they passed stringent laws against animal abuse even while they were gassing millions of people. But in buying Wolfenstein I’d given permission to see a modicum of general wartime violence, in exchange for my feeling as if I were stopping a great, cathartic amount of white-supremacist violence. In contrast, the close-up killing of a terrified animal is almost on the same level as a close-up killing of a terrified child. That is, the death of non (or not-completely) rational innocents carries a special kind of brutality that I actually play these games to escape. This is especially true when in the real world, the border crisis and the climate crisis make the suffering of children and animals all too inescapable. I want to play a game like Wolfenstein, because I don’t want to feel helpless. In fact, I want to be an agent of heroic correction. And, yes. I know that if I’d stayed with the game, I would have directed BJ Blazkowicz toward some serious butt-kicking for goodness. I might have even gotten revenge for my dog. But I didn’t need to see the dog die in the first place. I didn’t need to stand there helpless, the way I do in front of so much of the evening news.
Video games (and fiction in general) can get away with violence toward the non (completely) rational innocent—but only if they earn it with a very good reason. All Bethesda earned with this scene is the point that racist abusers need to be stopped. Well, duh, Bethesda. You’re usually smarter than that.
Having just studied a bit about the eugenics movement, I’ve been thinking of HP Lovecraft and his xenophobia. Much of his horror writing centers on the Other, of course—be that something from another dimension, or the deep, or even the otherness in the self. One of the most chilling details I know about Lovecraft is that after spending his life obsessed about tentacled horrors, the man died at age 46, of that terrible invader, cancer. But a still more disturbing aspect of his stories is his fear of the other races within humanity—the swamp tribes, and the jungle cults, and all the other ululating “primitives.” And if that isn’t enough, check out Lovecraft’s poetry, which involves these lines from 1912: ” A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure/Filled it with vice, and called the thing a N-gger.”
I won’t say any more on the subject. I don’t want to. And if you know Lovecraft at all, you’re aware that there’s plenty more terrible where that stuff came from. My overall feeling of Lovecraft is that he is the antithesis of the Transcendentalist—someone who looks at the wilderness, and finds not an oversoul but an underspite, where humanity is not sublime but actually destined to be subsumed into the great awful (without the e). Lovecraft was part of the post-Transcendentalist movement that feared what nature held, where scientists (such as Henry Goddard) looked for bestial traits in the so-called lower races. In this way, Lovecraft both inherited and propelled the racist attitudes of his time. But with that anxiety, his fiction does an interesting thing. An anthropologist stumbles upon a tribe of brown people, and he discovers them in ritual conversation with a relic. He becomes imprisoned in their fecund swamps, and he finds them in contact with an Old One—the true reality—a god.
In other words, if much of Lovecraft focuses on the blissful ignorance that (white) humans enjoy while they build their civilizations on the surface of the deep, the ones who know (at least more of) the truth are Lovecraft’s social “degenerates.” More often than not, it’s the white man who doesn’t have a clue*.
Does this excuse Lovecraft? Not in the least. In fact, it makes him worse. Because this revelation pokes at the very anxiety that makes Lovecraft’s writing so dangerous. In other words, Lovecraft’s most persistent assertions show that 1) all along, the elite white man has been wrong, and that 2) the other man—the so-called degenerate man—has more power than Whitey can even imagine.
To the white supremacists, civilization belongs to them. They are the outpost against savagery. You can hear it even now in the Trumpers’ rhetoric about outsiders destroying our City on a Hill. They fear their temporality, their sudden overthrow, a return to a time when dominance does not belong to them. They fear when power rests in the hands of the people they ignored, at best—if not outright colonized and oppressed. Lovecraft’s greatest material still circulates in slightly-different verbiage on FOX News, where, these days, Cthulhu has something in common with Allah. And as the white conservative clutches her heirloom pearls and her blood diamonds, she fears for her culture, yes. But deep down, she also fears that everything she believes is wrong.
*But, you say, “The Dunwich Horror” is all about white New Englanders. And that’s true, until you look at the cultists’ “fishy” physiognomy of bulging eyes and prominent lips. That, and although Lovecraft was concerned about preserving whiteness in general, he was especially interested in aristocratic whiteness. Hence his stories about pure families cross-breeding themselves into squalor. It’s typical of bigotry how Lovecraft’s desire to protect whiteness narrows to his desire to protect certain kinds of whiteness.