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Culture War Roundup for the week of February 20, 2023

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Next They Came for the Dead White Authors

Apparently, Ian Fleming is next on the list for posthumous editing by sensitivity readers.

I've read a bunch of Bond novels. They are hilariously and unironically racist and sexist. Much moreso than the movies, which were already notorious for being un-PC even in an un-PC era (remember Octopussy?).

The Bond novels are fun but schlocky; Fleming's output was wildly erratic in quality. Casino Royale was actually pretty good (the Daniel Craig remake was the most accurate-to-the-book Bond movie ever made), while Dr. No was just hilariously bad (and bore almost no resemblance to the movie).

I guess I don't need to say much that hasn't already been said or that most people here won't agree with.

I will point out that editing children's books to be more acceptable to modern readers is much older than Roald Dahl. For example, I read the original, unedited Dr. Doolittle by Hugh Lofting a few years ago. I was actually unaware of just how racist it was. Modern editions have removed the "niggers" and other slurs, and the plot about the little African prince who wants Dr. Doolittle to turn him white. I don't actually object to this, so long as the original is still around. In itself, this isn't some new practice that only started happening in the woke era.

But it appears increasingly that it will no longer be acceptable to acknowledge that attitudes in the past were different; a warning label won't be enough. I expect the march will continue with Gone With the Wind. Margaret Mitchell's novel is a magnificent epic and a glorious, unapologetic paean to the Old South, and should be preserved in its entirety both for its literary merit and for being such a cringeworthy time capsule of Lost Cause mythology. The movie was actually toned down a lot even in 1939 (they removed the part where Rhett Butler literally joins the KKK, for example), but I would not be surprised if it's next on the block for expurgation.

Here is a good news/bad news thought for you to ponder: I think sensitivity readers will soon be out of a job. Why? Because scrubbing "problematic" texts out of old books seems like a really easy job for the next generation of ChatGPT.

So, I’m going to offer a tepid defense of the sensitivity readers, by drawing a comparison to what’s on offer as an alternative. In short, I think this is about the search for “a usable past” as we transition into a new political/cultural paradigm.

In comparison to the world in which you and I grew up, the sensitivity readers appear very extreme. They immediately bring to mind Orwellian horror stories and… real-life Communist horror facts. But, I would argue that the people trying to publish mostly-intact versions of old classics, with only the most “problematic” parts excised or modified, are actually the squishy centrists compared to what’s coming down the pike behind them. There is a real Year Zero contingent on the left, with real intellectual heft in the circles that are driving political developments. These people really would like the works of Ian Fleming and Ronald Dahl and all the other toxic white men consigned to the dustbin of history. Compared to them, what the sensitivity readers at these publishing companies are doing is quite limited in scope and preserves infinitely more of these works than the more radical activists to their left would prefer.

I’ll draw an analogy to a couple of things. The first is the Broadway musical Hamilton. For the first few years after it came out, it was one of the most popular and culturally-relevant pieces of media among the liberal/progressive-lite PMC. While many on the far right - especially the racially-conscious right - saw the presentation of the Founding Fathers as a bunch of black rappers as a desecration (the Great Replacement not only proceeds apace in the present, it has now been able to reach into the past!) some on the right had a more nuanced and perceptive take: they realized that this was liberals trying to preserve a usable past.

For people who have one foot in the Successor Ideology and one foot in 20th-century liberalism, dealing with the past is a really difficult and fraught balancing act. If your values are sufficiently attuned to progressivism, staring straight at the reality of the American founding and the men responsible for it, shorn of all the mythologizing and contextualizing and white lies, at some point you’re going to realize you have to choose to either discard them or discard the values you hold dear. Something like Hamilton is an off-ramp from that dilemma. You can slap a fresh new coat of paint on the Founding, sand off some of its most problematic parts, selectively emphasize plausible readings of it that are most amenable to modern sensibilities, and suddenly it’s okay to love the Founders again. A new and diverse generation can hopefully see themselves in the Founding, carrying on a genuine love and admiration for a modified and sanitized version of them. Well, the real hardcore Left realized, correctly, that this was happening, and they tore Hamilton to shreds. It’s pro-Founder propaganda, trying to make us love cisheteropatriarchal slaveholders and rapists, thinking we’ll forget who they were and what they did by dressing them up as rapping POCs. They’re trying to deny liberals that off-ramp. Similarly, I can imagine one of these sensitivity readers, after chugging a pint of Truth Serum, saying to you, “You don’t like our bowdlerized version of James Bond with the yuckiest parts taken out? Okay, you know what you’re going to hate a lot more? Fifteen years from now when every last copy of a James Bond novel gets shredded and its spot on the bookshelf taken by a novel about a strong flawless black female super-scientist who kills conservative white men. We were trying to save this series and give you the best version that was political possible given the world that’s coming, and you rejected it. You let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and now you ended up with a result infinitely worse than the one we tried to offer you. Hope you’re happy.”

I also want to draw an analogy, drawing on a previous post of mine, to the Christianization of northwestern Europe. Part of the reason why the conversion of the Germanic and Celtic pagans succeeded is that missionaries found a way to adapt existing pagan festivals and cultural practices to the new Christian theological paradigm. This video demonstrates in great detail how, for example, what we now celebrate as Christmas is very obviously just a rebranding of long-existing pagan practices, with a thin paint of syncretized Christian gloss slapped on it so it didn’t have to be totally discarded. I can imagine some Christian monk telling a horrified pagan reactionary, “Look, man, do you want to be able to keep 80% of your tradition, or do you want to keep none of it? Those are the options on offer here. Is it really that massive a deal to you to let us fiddle around with certain aspects of this tradition to reconcile it with the new paradigm that’s already here whether you like it or not? Let us modify it, because there’s some hardcore dudes on the other die of me who would prefer we scrapped it entirely and started punishing you guys for celebrating it at all.” There were obviously aspects of pre-Christian society that simply could not be allowed to survive once the conversion took place. Explicit worship of idols representing pagan gods had to go; the theological proscriptions against it in Christianity are simply too clear to allow any wiggle room. Ditto for animal sacrifice, which used to be a ubiquitous part of the daily religious life of pagan cultures; Christ is supposed to have been the final sacrifice, so it would be too sacrilegious to allow people to keep doing what they had been doing. But some of the stuff that’s less problematic from the perspective of the new Christian system? Eh, let them keep it, and just call it something new and find some way to call it Christian.

Something like that is what the sensitivity readers are doing. There are certain aspects of these works that are a bridge too far, and their removal is non-negotiable. Assuming progressivism continues its ascent, there’s simply no way that kids in a hundred years will be able to read a book in which the main character insults black people or disrespects women. But there is a world in which they can still read Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming, with a new coat of paint slapped on and some of the yucky parts quietly removed. The future generations won’t know the difference. It’s that or Year Zero - take your pick.

Obviously I’m not happy that the continuing ascent of progressivism makes these the only two realistic outcomes on offer. I want to believe that the backlash is still coming, and that a collapse of this system is in the cards. If it’s not, though… those sensitivity readers might be the only think standing between us and something unimaginably worse.

Good post, but also the most doomerist thing I've read in weeks.

I can imagine some Christian monk telling a horrified pagan reactionary, “Look, man, do you want to be able to keep 80% of your tradition, or do you want to keep none of it?

But of course, the pagans kept little to nothing of their traditions. Christian conversion was complete, and quite thorough. As a Christian, I'm okay with that, since I think we have a good thing on offer. But the lesson derived is that it is important to understand the difference between compromise, and being compromised. Enlightenment ideology has no stable state on offer. There is no bright future coming. It will destroy everything it touches until it is itself destroyed. If we are going to lose to it, I would prefer that it inherit scorched earth, the better to hasten its inevitable demise.

“Look, man, do you want to be able to keep 80% of your tradition, or do you want to keep none of it?

“Look, Joseph, do you want 80% of your grandfather to survive, or do you want to keep none of him?” – asks Dio's head from atop a possessed body.

Or put another way: the classical lesson of zombie movies, and many other horrors, is «this is not your mom». Characters who fail to strike down the contagious reanimated corpse get bitten and turned as well. This is, of course, yet another piece of cultural commentary one struggles to speak aloud. Maybe a building block for a more healthy tradition as well. Maybe if your mythologized past had been taken from you, new fiction is the best replacement you can get – just gotta spin it right. And anything can be spun whichever way, provided you have time and your spin doctors are good enough: Krylov's «The Golden Key» depicts a whole post-apocalyptic posthuman civilization built on the basis of the only surviving data source, that is, a single corrupt Russian MP's laptop hard drive – with the intricate, humane religion of «Daughter-Mother», its «icons» meditated upon by chaste «Pedobear monks». Naturally, going downhill is much easier.

Tradition is a means to an end, a set of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems. You say «usable past», but – usable to whom? Considering the kind of involvement we see –to the side sensitivity readers represent, evidently; they and their employees aren't doing charity for the nostalgic Red tribe. Usable for what purpose, then? To carry on some nebulous ancestral legacy? Or to pacify the suspicious pagans with hollowed-out symbols and rituals, as you solidify the power of your true Church that shall give their lives and deaths a whole new meaning, one where these beloved holy days celebrate not their tribe's deities, lineage and land, but a certain Palestinian God whose grave they shall conquer?

Perhaps this past and this tradition are now useless to heirs of those who had built both, and their ancestors would have endorsed oblivion for their work rather than suffer it being defiled and repurposed; perhaps the risk of the sense of familiarity and reliability being used as a backdoor is much greater than the value of whatever original lesson remains. A prohibited book, at least, may become a touchstone for an underground cult (though I wouldn't recommend Ian Fleming in this capacity). But you won't get back to a sacred Celtic grove or whatever from a Christmas tree farm.

Now all of this is admittedly distant from the specific question of woke edits in brainless entertainment. Catholics with their Latin Mass, discussed here, have more of a case, but even then it's unclear what exactly of substance is being preserved or tarnished; we are already quite distant from any premodern tradition that serves its purpose and is understood as such, instead of simply being fetishized. In any event, the reaction of reactionaries follows from a very reasonable prior: do not let your enemies edit your source code. Not even comments.

Krylov's «The Golden Key» depicts a whole post-apocalyptic posthuman civilization built on the basis of the only surviving data source, that is, a single corrupt Russian MP's laptop hard drive – with the intricate, humane religion of «Daughter-Mother», its «icons» meditated upon by chaste «Pedobear monks».

I suspect this fictional Russian MP browsed some 4ch boards...that, or read John Ringo.

Oh, that's a classic. For my sins, I managed to make it all the way through Ghost, but regretted it. That was before reading OH JOHN RINGO NO; I would have skipped the book had I read the blog post first. I have heard that the rest of the series (...because of course there's a rest of the series...) is worth reading if you match the target audience, however.

As per the book, he was a straightforward pedophile, and over generations, posthuman characters reasoned their way to a (barely) functional social arrangement approximating some Russian features (parodied by the book, on one of its levels) by erecting abstractions and esoteric readings on top of his laptop's contents.

But Krylov himself was intimately acquainted with 2ch/4chan culture, of course. There is a well-developed Equestria-equivalent domain, for one thing. Really it's a masterpiece. Very uneven, very rushed, deliberately trashy, smarter than virtually all of Western fiction.

It was dark and smelt of smoke. There was a rotten incense sticking out of the cresset, and fine white ash floating in a bowl of water underneath it. The cat found another nearby, put it in the cresset and lit it with his left laser. The flickering flame somewhat moved the darkness aside. It didn't go far, though, but at least he could see the walls – uneven, dark. A huge chest, blackened by age, on the left side of the door, was almost entirely occupied by a massive rusty padlock. Above the chest hung an icon from the «Daughter-Mother With Nipples» series. The cat looked at the icon with interest: as far as he knew, such images were considered too old by most pedbears. Apparently, the landlord belonged to a rare Universal-Orthodox branch of the Cathedral Cult, which regarded all files from the Dead Man's Chest as equal and only variously revealing facets of the Eternal Image.

Some notes from the thesaurus accompanying the trilogy (a ton of context is missed with such shabby translation, sorry about that):

DAUGHTER-MOTHER. In the Land of Fools, the central object of the universal Cathedral cult, the standard of holiness. The origin of the image of Daughter-Mother is not entirely clear. The most common hypothesis is that it is the fusion of at least three ancient human cults - the patriotic cult of the Motherland Calling, the criminal cult of Mama Dear and the anti-fascist cult of the Tajik Girl. Very little is known about all these religious teachings.

"Too old" (eng.) is a popular mantra among the pedbears. Symbolizes disillusionment with decrepit worldly values and contrasts them with pure service to the Daughter-Mother. In colloquial speech, it is something like "long out of date", "banal and trite", "not worthy of attention", "let's not talk about it anymore", etc.

PEDOBEAR, PEDVED. An artificial A-base combining bear, elephant and other genes. Legend has it that it was created in the Directory at the behest of authority figures in the Land of Fools. Pedobears are bred as a caste of clergy supporting the Cathedral Cult of the Daughter-Mother.

Virtually all Pedveds are Kalushians, for although they possess sexual organs, they do not reproduce naturally, due to the sublimation of all thoughts for the holy image of the Daughter-Mother. However, they have surnames, with the knowledge of which pedobears are born. Usually the surname is related to a so-called honourable disease, which the pedobear will suffer in his or her advanced years in the name of the Daughter-Mother. The most common surnames are Asthmatics, Hypertensives and Prostatics. Prostatics are considered to be a particularly distinct genus, the highest pedobears are usually Prostatics.

For reasons unknown, Pedobears consider themselves to be Greeks. What they mean by this is unclear.

God, part of me wants to read a proper translation of this. I need more brain-melting content in the vein of Ring: Legend of the Nibelungen.

You've already been warned about slinging personal insults and given the way you doubled down last time, you've burned through any benefit of the doubt.

One week ban.

Jesus, just because you lose a few battles here and there doesn’t mean you hand over the keys to the castle. Let them come for all of history, it’ll be more honest.

I doubt your version of events, christianity in the beginning was hardly this unstoppable force, the priest probably threw in the winter solstice celebrations as a sweetener in the conversion of a pagan king. And I doubt he would have gotten anything had he lied down preemptively as you advise, if he was indeed threatened with more than hellfire.

When I see ‘deals’ like that, essentially bottomless blackmail, I hear a loud voice inside telling me the blackmailer should go fuck himself. I’m pretty sure for people in the past, or in an honor culture, it’s even louder. I have problems with those cultures, we are civilized, domesticated animals now, but this is handing the knife to your butcher .

I appreciate your framing and it's well put - but I'm not as sure we're quite ready to roll over, admit total defeat and start begging for neutered traditional aesthetics to be all that remains of liberalism. Not least because I am not confident at all that we'd even get that. There is more than children's books and spy series pretty much exclusively remembered because of their film adaptations at stake. These people don't believe in merit, they don't believe in investment or punctuality or colorblindness or genetics or free enterprise or objective reality. I do not think they will just change us, I think they will ruin us. It's worth pushing back here for the same reason it's worth pushing back everywhere, the same reason this is a culture war and not a culture dialogue. These people are not foreign invaders with a system at least functional to be invading and conquering, it's a parasitic meme, there is no guarantee that when the finish with the largess of our success that we don't all just die. The trajectory of them gaining power may look a whole lot more like south africa in recent years than Europe under Christian rule. Where we see their flags raise we should oppose, always and forever.

Yeah I would actually rather have all of my history erased and forgotten than have the credit stolen by the woke. I would rather nobody know who George Washington is than have the minstrel show musical version be the only one that survives. It's more dignified be Ozymandias, king of kings even if all of your works are forgotten, compared to watching another miniseries about the Apollo program where Neil Armstrong is a strong, independent black woman.

a strong flawless black female super-scientist who kills conservative white men

Isn't that Glass Onion, more or less? The super-scientist is replaced by her twin sister, and she doesn't actually kill the white guy in the end, but she burns the Mona Lisa and leads an orgy of destructive glass-smashing.

That video is a bit New Pagan; there weren't really Celtic Christmas traditions since Christmas as such wasn't a Celtic tradition. Germanic and Northern Europeans traditions do exist, but the fudge-up in that video about the Scots and Hogmanay is terrible. Norse Trolls, Old English, and Lalland Scots all mixed up to try and prove that Hogmanay as a New Year's Celebration is actually the Winter Solstice which is actually Christmas. As for the Fomorians being trolls - go away for yourself 🤣 New Age Pagan stuff is really trying to prove too much that all Christian feasts are really pagan in origin.

Sensitivity readers are not trying to preserve anything, as you can see from their use in YA literature. This is publishers trying to wring the last few coins out of existing properties before they expire. Roald Dahl, as a children's author, is pretty much more likely to survive than Ian Fleming. You won't read the Bond novels because you have the movies, which in some ways are better. You may very well keep on reading "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" despite the remake movie.

As for Hamilton, yes, I noticed the sudden U-turn on "greatest musical ever" to "celebration of horribleness that should be cancelled", but I don't think that was a concerted hard leftist campaign. Lin-Manuel Miranda became Problematic largely because he became so freakin' successful, and the 'crabs in the bucket' paradigm started. He wasn't Afro-Latino, how dare he presume to represent those people! This was colorism! Miranda was from a privileged background! Basically jealousy in action. And of course all the nice white allies fell in line.

And that's been my experience of sensitivity readers - they started out in YA and allied genres, and now are moving into mainstream work. A lot of envious little wannabe writers started pulling down others who were getting contracts and announcing publishing deals, and set themselves up as arbiters about what could and could not be written, especially by white authors. I remember from a few years back someone on Tumblr who was allegedly Chinese-American doing pages and pages of instructions about "you can't say this, you can't say this, you can't say this". Some of it was informative, e.g. about Chinese naming conventions and why historically Chinese people would never do the equivalent of naming their kids after George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but it pretty much was a grift; the advice in the end was to consult a Real Chinese or other Asian Person to look over your writing for you and correct it, and of course you should pay them generously for the privilege of insulting you.

You can get ten different "sensitivity readers" who are Real Trans or Real Latinx or whatever, and they'll all give contradictory advice about what you can and can't include, so whatever you do, you'll get into trouble. I think mainstream publishers are a little at the mercy of blackmail campaigns: hire us on as sensitivity readers or else we'll conduct a PR campaign about how you're horrible racists and transphobes and all the rest of it. It's not about preservation in even a sanitised form, it's about the money.

are actually the squishy centrists compared to what’s coming down the pike behind them

"They are the grease on the slippery slope" isn't exactly what I'd call a "defense', even a tepid one.

My argument is that they are fences on the slippery slope, catching us from slipping even further down, or at the very least slowing our descent substantially.

No, they're the ones ripping up fences on the slope downhill. What is being preserved when you change the wording describing a fat kid from "fat" to "enormous"? Or replace the caricature of a horrible fat aunt with her being still horrible, but now a brute? Child-killing witches are now scientists, not shop assistants? The next revision or two, because there will always be more sensitivities being irritated by language like "brute", will be to make the witches the ones being persecuted.

They're not slowing the descent, they're paving the way.

The problem with that idea is that I don't see how the radicals could plausibly get their way, without the "centrists" softening everybody up first.