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Culture War Roundup for the week of May 8, 2023

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Shakespeare, Honor, Unitary Leadership, and How To End the Culture War

As part of my continuing effort to give myself the Classical Education I believe in, I’ve been working my way through Shakespeare. I have been listening to the lectures in this class on latter Shakespearean works in a sort of random order, after listening to the play in question here and occasionally reading passages as I go. The beauty of the work is really making me happy. But in this case I want to talk about some events in the play Cymbeline.

Cymbeline is considered a “problem play” by many scholars. It is marked in different contemporary printings as both The Tragedie of Cymbeline and as Cymbeline, King of Britain; the former suggests the work is a tragedy while the latter suggests it is a history. Parts of the play definitely suggest a tragedy is oncoming, from the jealousy, trickery and banishment to the soliloquized contemplation of suicide by main characters. And Cymbeline is a pseudo-historical king of Britain

, probably familiar to the audience of the time from works in the Matter of Britain, who did have significant interactions with the Romans; though it is always unclear what contemporary educated Brits considered “Historical truth." Much of the play’s content suggests a comedy, with comic relief characters playing a major role, and the play concludes with all the “good" characters and warring sides reconciled, all the evil characters dead, peace and love reign and the true heirs are returned to the throne. It does not neatly characterize itself the way that headliners like Hamlet, Richard II, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream fit gracefully within their genres.

The play really does have it all, from a Blue Pill v Red Pill debate over whether AWALT, to hidden heirs returning to heroically defend British independence in battle, gender bending and cross-dressing heroines, wicked stepmothers, the courtship of the Rich English Doofus, questions of family and duty. But what really caught my eye about the play, and lead to my deeper examination and meditation on its meaning, was the political conflict between Rome and Britain, and the way it plays out through names. This play isn’t a comedy or a tragedy, it is primarily a parable, it is no more about Leonatus and Imogen than Animal Farm is about the windmill.

THESIS: Cymbeline is primarily a play about Roman Catholicism in England, a plea by a Catholic Shakespeare for England to return to communion with the church of Rome, which dramatizes to the positive impacts that the Roman Catholic Church had on English society and pointing towards a synthesis of Roman and British virtues and an accommodation that benefits both parties. Shakespeare writes this allegory in terms of ethnicity and honor, and considering Shakespeare’s vision of honorable victory and the resulting honorable submission reflects on how to navigate the dangers of our own times.

As background to the historical moment, most of you I’m sure are aware of the English Reformation and the basic circumstances surrounding it. Around 1530 the process of breaking the Church of England from papal authority towards Monarchical supremacy began, and ratcheted up its Protestantism over time. Many historians speak of a “Long Reformation” that stretched well into the 17th century, with the distance from Catholicism growing and waining over time. Shakespeare’s own lifetime would have begun just 30 years removed from the break with Rome, during the reign of Mary Tudor who reintroduced Catholicism, while his career largely fell within the reign of Elizabeth I who returned to Protestantism. William would have been 24 years old at the time of Spanish Armada, the great roll of the dice at which the Elizabethan reformation, and even English independence, could have failed and been consigned to the ash heap of history next to the Cathars and the Burgundians. Next to the Blitz, the Armada is arguably the greatest and most heroic moment of British History. For the audience at the likely premier of Cymbeline in 1611, the Armada was about as far back as 9/11 is for us; a very relevant and present part of history.

The Political plot of Cymbeline follows a fictionalized version of Britain’s gradual accession to Rome. Within the play, set during the reign of Caesar Augustus, King Cymbeline had fought an inconclusive war against the Romans (during which Leonatus’ father and Belarius served valiantly) signed a treaty with Julius Caesar wherein Britain would remain independent but pay tribute. Under the influence of the unnamed wicked Queen and her son Cloten (his stepson), Cymbeline has declared that the treaty was only in force during Julius Caesar’s life and ceased paying tribute to Rome, treating a Roman ambassador roughly despite the threat of war. Various romantic and comedic shenanigans ensue, and when the Roman’s invade only the timely and heroic arrival of Leonatus, Belisarius, and Cymbeline’s lost sons leads to a British victory over the Roman invasion force. After Cymbeline’s victory is assured and his happiness restored by the successful marriage of his daughter and the restoration of his heirs, he magnanimously declares that Britain will resume paying tribute and end the war with Rome, reconciling with the Roman leadership.

Linguistically, an analysis of the names tells us what the characters are meant to symbolize. Some names are clearly British in origin: Cymbeline, Imogen, Cloten. Then on the other hand we have Roman/Latinate names for characters in England: Leonatus Posthumus, Belarius who guards the two heirs Guiderius and Arvirargus. Then we have Giacomo, who is quite obviously Italian but not Roman, a Florentine or Venetian rather than a Classical Roman.*

Cymbeline, King of Britain, has rejected the heroic line of Roman-Britains (Belarius, Leonatus) under the influence of a native British-Welsh queen. Belarius takes the Roman-British heirs to the throne and hides them, instructs them in Roman-British virtue, rather than the brainlessness of the Celtic Cloten. Leonatus, the Roman-Britain, wishes to marry Imogen who represents the British people in her mix of virginal virtue and plucky courage, they are prevented by the king who wishes to marry her to Cloten. In the battle against the Roman invasion, the Roman-Britains pitch in and win the battle, but afterward the King chooses peace. British honor has been satisfied by the victory, there is no need to continue the war over mere money tribute. The British, especially the Roman British, have proven themselves worthy of equality with Rome, and an accommodation can be found.

The historical parallels with the Reformation are obvious. The message of the play is a Catholic Shakespeare, nudging the audience, hey we beat the Armada, we proved our point, time to come home to Rome. There is a belief within the play that war is brutal, war is death, but war is also purifying, war is healing, war reveals truths. War reveals the true natures of the hidden heirs, the threat of death reveals truths about the hidden Imogen and the lying Giacomo. In the clear light of war, after the lucky victory in the battle, Cymbeline sees that he cannot win the war, that Rome is bigger and more powerful and will not quit, and makes peace. The Armada revealed how powerful Britain was, but it was at the end of the day lucky, the stratagems and weather than combined to deliver Britain would not be repeated. The continental powers would return, it was better to rejoin the Catholic Church.

This ideal of personal leadership, and concomitant personal (for the ruler) and national (for the ruler and the ruled) honor is missing from today’s wars, both the physical and the cultural. We live in an era of total war, of mob war. Zhou Enlai said that the French Revolution has not yet ended**, we still live in the era we have inherited from it, SA says we all live in America, in many ways we all still live in Paris in the 1790s. It strikes as instantly morally repugnant for the warring sides to make peace after battle, if you were going to resume tribute why start the war? But in a global period, rather than a momentary utilitarian analysis, a system in which a people can exercise and demonstrate their power, and then be satisfied with their demonstration and resume peace, is preferable to one where the end of any conflict must be the extermination of one power or the other. At the end of Cymbeline (most of) the Romans and (most of) the Britons are still there, still alive, still in power.

Most CW conflicts are, at core, about power. “Mis"gendering is, at core, meaningless. Who says Nigger and who doesn’t is at core meaningless. Drawing a cartoon of Mohammed is at core meaningless. Whether one kneels after a High School football game, or kneels before a professional one, is at core meaningless. These acts, and their negations, are imbued with meaning because they are exercises of power, and to enforce them or to recognize them is to demonstrate and acknowledge power. All these efforts at exercising power, by groups that want to demonstrate their power, form the core of the CW. Why did White ethnics experience Trump’s victory as their own victory, despite his objectively doing almost nothing for them? Because it was a demonstration of white power, in the literal sense. Why do Black or trans advocates insist on enforcing absurd speech codes? Because they are a demonstration of their power.


Doesn't make sense. First off, Cymbeline is a fictional character. The actual kings of the era were declaring wars and causing schisms for the pettiest of reasons.

Secondly, assuming this play really is about the english reformation like you say: It’s obviously stupid to declare war and then agree to the same terms as before. We know it’s stupid, the people then knew it.

The play is just Shakespeare trying to retcon history, 4D chess style, against opponents who would rightly point out that that ship – recatholization- had sailed, and was sunk by storms and the royal navy.

In Shake’s telling, the english were only pretending to be retarded. The pope and the rest of christendom would only respect them more for stacking injury upon insult. As we know, once the bloody point was made, the english were welcomed back into the fold, more admired than before.

History has determin’d that the guy was bullshiting.

And because our conflicts are structured as Who, Whom class conflicts in which one must overtake the other, these conflicts can only end in the social death of one group. What we need is an American Cymbeline. We need a leader that says “Hey, we demonstrated our power, we proved our point, time to head home.” Rather than continual acceleration towards armageddon, we need the ability to see a point proven, and to respect a point that has been proven, without continuing to push it. But I am as trapped in the matrix as any, I don’t even know what that would look like.

*Giacomo’s character is a fascinating anachronism, he is clearly coded as an Italian in the Renaissance stereotype. Crooked, Machivellian, horny, prone to gambling and to cheating. His subplot revolves around Giacomo’s claims that he is essentially the ultimate PUA, and that AWALT. His debate with Leonatus could probably form a whole CW post in the “la plus ca change” genre, but I’ve written too much as it is.

**This is itself kind of fascinating to me, most accounts at the time seem to say that he was speaking not about the French Revolution, but about the 1968 riots in France which also inspired the Rolling Stones Street Fighting Man. But I like the other way of looking at it better, something can have meaning even if that meaning is a misinterpretation. A sort of very short death of the author.

We live in an era of total war, of mob war

Only by negation, in that people act like it despite being so far from it. Our total war is less this and more maga racists and woke libs arguing on twitter (or more likely, scrolling other people arguing on twitter) for thirty minutes before driving to work. Where they'll, directly or indirectly, serve desires of consumers of all political stripes, contributing to the general peace and prosperity we all experience. The troubles are still recent, weren't even close to total war, and are a thousand times worse than American internal conflict. A thousand people get fired for saying the wrong thing - it sucks, but it's not a thousand car bombs, it's not half a city being firebombed. Is such a dramatic solution really necessary?

What is an honorable, monarchial victory for one side in modern politics? "The left" wins both on democratic numbers, 'elite' numbers, or raw skill of believers, so ... imposed racial quotas on all jobs? You giving up your political beliefs and accepting Gay Space Communism as your new ruler? The 'purifying nature' of historical war wasn't a new empire conquering your nation and then everyone hugging and making up. Maybe local life would be mostly undisturbed - new elites, occasional conscription of your men to fight more of the empire's wars (not very peaceful). Or maybe you convert to an entirely new religion, with new rituals and social arrangements. The magnanimity of the king is to not continue to kill the conquered, because conquered men are more useful to him than dead men. The king shows his power when claiming new territory so he can use that territory later, not just to 'be powerful' in some abstract sense that's never used. What does the libs 'using you' look like?

preferable to one where the end of any conflict must be the extermination of one power or the other

Nobody's being exterminated! Neither the trans nor the conservatives. Both are almost entirely "free" to live their lifestyle as they wish. Again, notably contrasting to the strict cultural codes of historical societies ruled by monarchs.

Who says Nigger and who doesn’t is at core meaningless. Drawing a cartoon of Mohammed is at core meaningless

So was the Filioque, so was the long-past successor of Muhammad, and yet millions were killed under "personal leadership" for "national honor" from that. One could make the opposite argument - the diffuse social-media war over a thousand different topics eats up man's instinct for conflict, greasing the wheels of the cooperative global economy, or something. If democracy and mass media gives people a mode of conflict-resolution that isn't war - and the conflicts are, as FHM suggests, meaningless - why isn't democracy better? (this paragraph was exploring an idea, not something I believe is good)

I'm not sure your analogies work.

tangent on literal war, to not seem like a l*ftoid: Actual war finely separates the most capable, complex individuals and structures from the slightly-less-so, and as such is a grand, civilizational elaboration of the evolution that produced every trait we hold dear. But it's not peaceful, and it's not clear modern war, even from a consequentialist HBD darwinist nietzche [...] perspective, is particularly useful for anything.

Actual war finely separates the most capable, complex individuals and structures from the slightly-less-so, and as such is a grand, civilizational elaboration of the evolution that produced every trait we hold dear. But it's not peaceful, and it's not clear modern war, even from a consequentialist HBD darwinist nietzche [...] perspective, is particularly useful for anything.

Interesting points overall. I think there are things we could learn from modern war, though.

In actual war, the combined might of NATO failed to defeat the Taliban, a fairly small group of religious fundamentalists supported by next to nobody! We had all the wealth, firepower, training and logistics. We totally failed to achieve our objectives, whatever they were. We are missing something vital here! There is something the Taliban has and we don't, something that let them win where we lost, despite having every materiel advantage. There's something the British had and lost, when they ruled 1/4 of the world. Could modern Britain even rule 1/2 of Iraq, today? I doubt it - they can barely field 80,000 men in the army!

Maybe it's some combination of heartfelt desire for victory, self-confidence, good leadership and coherent politics.

Even the Soviet puppet government of Afghanistan had more integrity than the clowns we put in charge - it lasted until September 1992, longer than the Soviet Union itself.

I don't think that war merely reveals small details, like whether Lockheed Martin has better engineers than Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group or Sukhoi, whether AirSea battle is better than whatever Beijing is cooking up. It can show if there's a beating heart inside a civilization, or whether there's been a lobotomy.

Two things.

First I think your analysis conflates disputes that will be resolved by exercises of power (persuasive or coercive) with disputes about who is more powerful. When people argue about misgendering or the use of slurs in certain contexts it's not because of some perceived power differential, it's a genuine dispute over how it's appropriate to use words. When people object to using "Nigger" in even the "mention" sense it is generally because they think it is inappropriate when used that way. Similarly when people defend its use they think it is because using it in the context is appropriate or valuable. This is a dispute that might be settled by exercises of power but the dispute is not centrally about who is more powerful.

Second I think the emergence of a Cymbeline is impossible due to the distributed nature of the groups involved in Culture War disputes. The reason Cymbeline can credibly capitulate Britain to Rome is that the Britons, as his subjects, are obliged to follow his wishes on the matter. There is no similar entity or institution (or set of entities or institutions) in our modern distributed politics.

Imagine I'm a trans person and I want to negotiate a Truce With The Transphobes. Two questions arise. First, who am I? What entity or institution can credibly claim to speak on behalf of trans people everywhere? Second, who am I negotiating with? What entity or institution can speak for all the anti-trans groups and organizations out there? International relations are a bad model for intra-national group relations because in international relations there are generally well defined entities that can credibly make commitments on behalf of their nation. Not so with Culture War groups! We often talk about groups as if they were agents, with wants and desires and engaging in actions, but it is important to remember this is an abstraction, a convenience, not reality.

As an aside I think this second thing is a powerful contributor to the degradation of political discussion. It leads us to unclear thinking or, at least, substantial inferential distance with the people we are conceiving of this way.

I want to make clear that I'm not sure I have a solution, I'm as trapped in the matrix as everyone else. I'm not sure I can imagine anything that looks like a realistic solution, at best we're all in the gutter but some of us are looking up at the stars.

I broadly agree with your second point. The lack of organized groups, with leaders to whom loyalty is owed and goals that are to be met and not exceeded, has been a significant contribution to the CW spiral. BLM isn't a group with demands, it is a gag reflex that engages whenever a Black person is harmed under sufficiently dire (apparent, reported) circumstances. One can't negotiate with it.

And the way that you, as an individual Trans person, would work toward negotiating a truce in whatever small way, isn't by actually negotiating. It is by engaging in loyalty and working on building groups within your own community that are well run and loyal, encouraging your compatriots to show loyalty and deference. It is only once groups exist that command loyalty that negotiation is possible.

I can't find the quote, but I remember a bon mot about, I want to say Syria on gaining independence?, that went something like "Today, 50% of the population thinks they are merely major religious or political leaders, 40% think they are great writers, 5% think they are Prophets, and the last 5% think they are God." I'm probably butchering it from a history book I read a long time ago. But one of the things I do think Moldbug gets right is that what is missing isn't leadership, it is obedience. We can't all be leaders, we can't all think of ourselves as leaders, or nothing will ever get done. I guess we can take it back another three hundred years and say that we're still living through the consequences of the Protestant Reformation?

As to the first point: I disagree. The increasingly confusing restrictions on the use of the word Nigger, or the application of pronouns, or which sports teams people practice with, are all exercises of raw social power. Performed by their advocates for the purpose of demonstrating power, resented by their targets because they are exercises of power. I'd compare the use of speech codes by analogy to this kind of exchange:

Imagine you've just gone through a bad breakup. You're a little sick of everyone talking about it, asking you how you're doing, asking you what happened, you just want to move on and talk about something else for a bit. You go over to your brother's house to watch the game, you say "Hey, listen, I don't want to talk about the breakup, I'm tired of talking about it, let's just watch the game." He proceeds to ask you about it, over and over, even though you remind him that you don't want to talk about it.

Most people in that scenario, even if they weren't that upset about talking about the breakup to begin with, will become furiously angry at being forced to talk about it. Talking about the breakup was merely embarrassing or unpleasant, but being told that you aren't allowed to say you don't want to talk about something is saying that you have no power to determine that. The other party, your brother, will in turn become angry that he "isn't allowed to ask questions." Because that is limiting his power.

The goal of symbolic actions, like banning words, is to exercise power. Power that cannot be exercised arbitrarily does not exist. Make it clear to your enemies that you can do symbolic, or absurd, things, and it will be clear that you could do dangerous things too.

Thanks for writing this up. I wish I could comment on the play itself but unfortunately I haven't read it.

What we need is an American Cymbeline. We need a leader that says “Hey, we demonstrated our power, we proved our point, time to head home.”

Ok, but... which side is he saying this to? Would you accept a rightist Cymbeline who told you "ok, you proved your point, but now it's time to let MTFs in women's sports and institute permanent DEI quotas and all the rest of it", just imagine him asking for total capitulation on whatever CW issue is nearest and dearest to your heart. Would you be ok with that?

If not, then why would you expect leftists to accept a leftist Cymbeline?

Conflicts always happen for a reason. It's not like people are stupid and they're just failing to realize that they could, like, not fight each other or something. Most CW issues aren't very amenable to compromise either - there's no physical piece of territory that you can split up 50/50. You either accept MTFs as women or you don't, you either pay reparations or you don't, etc. That's part of what makes the conflicts so interminable.

Would you accept a rightist Cymbeline who told you "ok, you proved your point, but now it's time to let MTFs in women's sports and institute permanent DEI quotas and all the rest of it", just imagine him asking for total capitulation on whatever CW issue is nearest and dearest to your heart. Would you be ok with that? [emphasis added]

I am neither an orthodox leftist nor an orthodox rightist, so I don't want to pretend I can speak for anyone. But I think the obvious flaw in your theory is that avoiding total capitulation through partial accommodation is sort of the whole point. In an existential struggle, we can be certain that one side will cease to exist. I would have liked to see Leftists respond to the 2016 Trump victory in a way that didn't lead me to link that one Brecht poem constantly. And I would like to see Republicans respond to the 2020 Trump loss by coming to terms with the facts, rather than denying them.

And to be frank, I disagree with the idea that...

Most CW issues aren't very amenable to compromise either - there's no physical piece of territory that you can split up 50/50. You either accept MTFs as women or you don't, you either pay reparations or you don't, etc.

For the most part, we had compromises on most of these positions that were broadly perceived as "good enough" in the Washington Consensus period of 1992-2008. People who want to transition are allowed to, with their own funds, and will be accepted or rejected on an ad hoc social basis. Most high concept and many lowbrow sit coms had a [now considered insensitive] very special episode on the topic. Affirmative Action is accepted in a limited way, but not at a scale that would present significant problems to advancement for talented white people.

One could say those weren't stable equilibria, that it was a slippery slope to a decision one way or the other. I'm not sure I agree, but I'm not sure by what mechanism to disagree.