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Friday, April 19, 2024

On George Scialabba and the Left Conservative Possibility

[A version of this piece is cross-posted to Current]

How might one politically categorize the following statement?

[M]y apparently disparate-sounding worries....all result from one or another move on the part of the culture away from the immediate, the instinctual, the face-to-face. We are embodied beings, gradually adapted over millions of year to thrive on a certain scale, our metabolisms a delicate orchestration of innumerable biological and geophysical rhythms. The culture of modernity has thrust upon us, sometimes with traumatic abruptness, experiences, relationships, and powers for which we may not yet be ready–to which we may need more time to adapt....If we cannot slow down and grow cautiously, evenly, gradually into our new technological and political possibilities and responsibilities–even the potentially liberating ones–the last recognizably individual men and women may give place, before too many generations, to the simultaneously sub- and super-human civilization of the hive. 

For those whose exposure to or engagement with political ideas is fairly minimal–whether by choice or by circumstance or both–the question would likely seem strange. After all, there are no obvious partisan markers anywhere in this statement, no references to presidential candidates or global events or policy disputes. So what is political about it? But for those who have some familiarity with the history of political ideas and arguments, as well as some of their attendant philosophical formulations and literary tropes, there are flags in this statement which suggest an answer–and that answer, in all likelihood, would be “conservative.”

Not “conservative” in the way most Americans would be likely to use the term today, to be sure. The passage doesn’t provide anything that connects to Donald Trump or lower taxes or tighter immigration or anti-LGBTQ positions or the Supreme Court, at least not directly. But astute readers would pick up on the final sentence’s reference to Friedrich Nietzsche’s “last man,” his vision of a humanity that has succumbed to nihilism, hedonism, and passivity, and thus falls into a kind of groupthink where all individual accomplishments are lost. The passage also speaks warningly about developments and innovations of modernity which humanity, whose embodiment reflects a deep evolutionary grounding in small-scale interactions, needs to be far more cautious about embracing. Hence, the politics of this passage could be–and, I think, would be, if read without any additional context–plausibly coded as small-c conservative, or at least as philosophically anti-progressive. Its implications include a preference for the local, a suspicion of intellectual abstractions, a discontent with the ennui that consumer wealth and technological ease has enabled, and a fear of a too-rapidly pursued future whose liberating possibilities will likely be lost unless they are approached incrementally (if at all). In short, it communicates a respect for, even a valuation of, a more limited conceptualization of our social world–and, aside from certain strains of environmental concern within the current constellation of liberal thought, talk of “limits” is generally seen as the provenance of conservatives, not progressives.

 And yet, the author of this passage is George Scialabba, a man of–as was once not infrequently said of writers like him–“the left.” Scialabba is a highly regarded essayist, book review, and public intellectual, whose latest collection, Only a Voice: Essays (Verso, 2023), is a brilliant collection of insightful readings and contrarian arguments about some of the most important thinkers and writers of the past century, and some from centuries earlier: Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, T.S. Eliot, Leo Strauss, Irving Howe, I.F. Stone, and many more. The essay “Last Men and Women,” a survey of criticisms of mass society and modern democracy, includes the passage quoted at the beginning of this essay, but also this plain self-description: “[This]...is where I also stand–with the Enlightenment and its contemporary heirs, and against Straussians, religious conservatives, national greatness neoconservatives, Ayn Randian libertarians, and anyone else for whom tolerance, civic equality, international law, and a universal minimum standard of material welfare are less than fundamental commitments.” Whatever else might be said about that self-description (which was published in 2021), it doesn’t sound at all “conservative,” even in the small-c sense. So should we conclude therefore that Scialabba is simply inconsistent? Or might there be a political categorization which can, in a theoretically consistent way, capture both his progressive Enlightenment aspirations, and well as his worries about the same?

I think there is–though, as with all ideological labels, it’s a categorization with greater use as a conversational reference than as an analytical tool. The label is “left conservatism,” and applying it to Scialabba’s writings–or, perhaps more accurately, using Scilabba’s writings to apply the label more broadly–is an intellectual exercise worth engaging in, especially in our moment when so many other political categorizations seem either overthrown or irrelevant or both.

 The term “left conservative” is hardly new; it’s been coined and re-coined multiple times over the decades. Most recently, the term been revived in some conservative publications to describe a mix of anti-globalist, socially conservative, pro-labor, subsidiarian perspectives which recognize the need for protectionist action to strengthen national economies and local cultures. Those considerations are accurate, so far as they go. But to really dig into the idea–and to assess its fit with Scialabba’s incisive considerations of our moment–we need to look to an earlier expression of it, one found in the third-person self-description Norman Mailer provided in his book Armies of the Night: “Mailer was a Left Conservative. So he had his own point of view. To himself he would suggest that he tried to think in the style of Marx in order to attain certain values suggested by Edmund Burke.” What is it that Mailer was describing there, this Marxian-style attainment of Burkean principles? By “the style of Marx” one must presumably mean employing a revolutionary, or at least structural, set of intellectual tools, ones addressed to emancipation of persons and goods in society; by “values suggested by Edmund Burke,” one must presumably be talking about local communities and the traditions they give life to, and the need to maintain and strengthen them. So how to put that together?

The most intellectual plausible articulation of this idea, I think, is to say that modernity–whether that is dated to the Protestant Reformation, the Declaration of Independence, the Industrial Revolution, or any other particular historical landmark or era–is simply different from what came before it. The 18th-century (and earlier) traditions and communities which Burke defended cannot exercise the authority they once did in a world in which individual subjectivity has conditioned our very understanding of the self. Technology, social fluidity, capitalism, democracy: all are genies let out of the bottle, in the face of which traditions of all kinds suffer. (Marx’s famous statement in The Communist Manifesto that, with industrialization, “all-fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away....all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned,” is an obvious support to this formulation, but Scialabba himself adds one as well, describing Burke’s own writings as “expressions of outraged common sense” in the face of the inevitable—and, he asserts, entirely justified—transformations that came with the expansion of suffrage and other “democratic truths”). Hence, the preservation of Burkean values–acting “conservatively,” in other words--now requires actions which go beyond the expansion of liberal guarantees or the amelioration of socio-economic disruptions.

This reading of Mailer may simply sound like the conservative insight famously expressed by G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy: “If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution.” But the “revolution” invoked by Chesterton in the name of conserving a particular state of affairs was a formal, not structural one, whereas the better understanding of Mailer’s point about “think[ing] in the style of Marx,” I believe, means something truly “left”in the structural, even radical, sense. Maybe, the left conservative thinks, only a radical shift towards the democratization, the socialization, and the equalization of the products and processes of modernity will be sufficient to enable people to continue to thrive in their communities.

And it really is communities which are central here. (One could argue that “left conservatism” might better be expressed as “left communitarianism,” and there’s some value to putting it that way. But since the connections and commonalities which emerge in the context of communities are, I think, something that human beings, as political animals, always seek to construct and always mourn the absence of–and here I am heavily influenced by the writings of Michael Walzer and Charles Taylor, two political philosophers that were frequently labeled “communitarians” when that term enjoyed a boomlet 30 years ago–focusing on the concern to literally conserve that which is genuinely valuable about our communities is appropriate.) Our individualistic age puts an asterisk of suspicion beside all communities, however defined, seeing them all as potential sources of majoritarian abuse or undemocratic tyranny–which, of course, they too often are; as Christians at least ought to be quick to acknowledge, we are fallen beings, after all. But the conservative desire for belonging and rootedness and community, whatever evils it enables, also grounds both democratic and egalitarian possibilities: traditions are forms of meaning and fulfillment which cannot (or at least cannot easily) be turned into abstractions and thus be taxed away from you or turned against you by those who wield power. To the extent that the modern world sees profits, procreation, wars, borders, religions, holidays, families, markets, marriages, and more as institutions and events best understood, conducted, and transformed in light of some abstract principle--whether that be individual rights or personal conscience or democratic harmony or economic progress--one could argue, if one is of this particular conservative orientation (as I think Scialabba is, at least partly), that something in the modern world has gone wrong, or at least has gotten too far away from the instinctual truths and embedded necessities of human existence, truths and necessities which are the necessary (if not sufficient) prerequisites to treating all people as equally capable of self-rule and equally deserving of respect. That’s not necessarily a defense of all communities, especially not national ones, which too regularly employ the coercive power of the state to maintain the definition and borders which those in power decide upon; Mailer’s communitarianism, a term he probably would have blanched at, was decidedly small-scale and anarchic. But the centrality of being in connection with others, and defending those connections, remains.

Not many have picked up on this reading of Mailer’s ideas in the two generations since, to say the least. On the left or progressive liberal side of America’s intellectual divide, as it began to deepen and sharpen in the decades following the upheavals of the 1960s, leftism mostly focused its decreasing energies on various statist parties and platforms, while most liberals came to treat those who worried about the excesses of their individualistic liberatory language as either 1) accidental intellectual traitors (as it was frequently expressed at a UC-Santa Cruz conference on the “specter of  left conservatism” in 1998, these unfortunate folk are genuine leftists whose distaste for the latest theoretical developments has tricked them into allying with conservative forces), or 2) just remnants of an old rural conservative Democrat faction, soon to die out. That’s assuming White voters were the ones being discussed, of course; the religiousity and social conservatism of many Black voters was treated very differently, though not until Bill Clinton was its preferred language given much credence, and even that didn’t last–Barak Obama, our first Black president, reflected very little of that sensibility while in the White House (which, cynically speaking, is perhaps one of the reasons he was able to attain it.)

As for America’s rightward flank, the rise of a pro-business, anti-socialist libertarianism as a component of the Republican coalition from the 1960s through the 1990s made any kind of liberal egalitarianism, much less leftism, unwelcome there. Occasionally you see attempts to import into American conservative discourse “Red Tory” formulations more common to Western European conservatism generally, but despite gestures in that direction (George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” for example), none of them have in any significant way shaped the overall conservative coalition in the U.S. Of course, some would insist upon adding a “until the rise of Donald Trump in 2016” to that sentence, and it is true that Trump’s profound lack of ideological (much less ethical) grounding has arguably presented an opening for leftist ideas to experience a revival in Republican circles. But while in today’s America you are, in fact, more likely to hear talk of structural or revolutionary changes to our liberal capitalist and democratic order coming from the Trumpist corner of the Republican party than from the Democrats led by Joe Biden, that talk is generally, and tragically, reflective of a fascist-adjacent authoritarianism which too many social conservatives, following Trump, seem to have become comfortable with. Even thoughtful and nominally worker-friendly treatments of the integralist argument in favor of more firmly supporting traditional community-based values seem to presume egalitarianism itself to be the real problem, and what limited appreciation for the solidarist approach to building economic equality–meaning unions, mainly–which still exists in America today is found coming the Democrats and the White House, not Mar-a-Lago.

All of which means that the left conservative position lacks a broad constituency in American politics. But that does not mean it lacks a voice. Perhaps most influentially, the historian Christopher Lasch, long a hero to many dissident and contrary conservatives (even as he remained personally a committed Democratic voter and a firm-if-worried supporter of the liberal egalitarian project overall through his life), and someone who himself never used terms like “left conservative” or “communitarian” in a self-descriptive way (even as close students of Lasch work subsequently used both), articulated at least the outlines of what could be called a left conservative ideology as well as anyone. And Scialabba presents, in multiple essays, Lasch as perhaps the most valuable of all the “antiprogressives” (which is not the same as “conservatives”) whom he holds that fans of the Enlightenment, like himself, must learn from.

That learning, he writes, involves grappling with the best thinkers’ “combination of discrimination and democratic passion,” defining the latter as “the constant remembrance that democracy entails not merely that the people should be governed well but also that the people should govern.” Mourning the tendency of intellectuals and politicians of all stripes–including both what he calls “the business party” and “the Progressives”–to ignore this fundamental principle, Scialabba’s cast of heroes includes, as he lays them out in his introduction to Only a Voice, scholars and activists and writers who, in one way or another, demonstrate a “moral intelligence” that “allowed them to make relevant distinctions and get the difficult decisions right.” This means, rather than simple apologists for the Enlightenment, such figures as Randolph Bourne, George Orwell, Irving Howe, Barbara Ehrenreich, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Richard Rorty, Bill McKibben, along with Lasch, earn his praise. These are people who, in his view, take seriously their “democratic obligation to persuade people before legislating for them”–and that means taking seriously the “anxieties about modernity” which confront all those whom these thinkers and writers, like Scialabba himself, attempt to clarify the democratic options for. The responses to this anxiety which these writers all wrestled with obviously vary greatly, from Rorty’s advocacy of setting aside worries about “self-creation” in the name of a bland yet vital “tolerance,” to Howe’s insistence that the ideal of socialism “will need to be reimagined in every generation,” to, perhaps most centrally, Lasch’s populist insistence the “the democratic character can only flourish in a society constructed to the human scale.” Yet Scialabba thoughtfully considers–and by so doing, makes it possible to learn from–them all.

That this practice of thoughtful learning includes giving sympathetic attention to what he calls “perhaps the most significant strain of social criticism in our time,” the “antimodernist radicalism” of limits one can find in writers like D.H. Lawrence, Lewis Mumford, Ivan Illich, Wendell Berry, or Lasch himself, is not entirely pleasing to even some of Scialabba’s most enthusiastic readers. In a review essay on Only a Voice in Commonweal, Sam Adler-Bell gently suggests that Scialabba misunderstands that modernity’s anxieties and doubts are less to be responded to than embraced as actually one of its strengths: the modern person “is not necessarily a conformist, a face in the crowd, incapable of independent thought,” but rather “is someone who detects these frailties in everyone else.” This is a subtle point, and a good one, but it also strikes me as an inverted application of Robert Frost’s famous comment that a liberal is someone too broad-minded to take their own side in an argument. Scialabba is far too conscientious a thinker to deny the immense accomplishment of Enlightenment liberalism in teaching people to be skeptical of the limits and presumptions they inherit or which have been imposed upon them. But he also recognizes, as anyone with even a smidgen of leftist suspicion of the bourgeoisie should, that such skepticism, without a foundation in practices and places and, yes, even prejudices–in the sense of “pre-judgments”–to draw upon, will often result not in robust, democracy-defending free-thinking, but rather in a literally care-less disconnection, a tendency to abstraction which capitalist overlords will be more than happy to use to manipulate and oppress. As Scialabba writes in “Progress and Prejudice,” the first and most overarching essay in Only a Voice, he has come to recognize “with some reluctance” that thinkers like Lasch are correct: that “as long as modernization is involuntary,” then conserving our ability to draw upon and stay within “our own skins—and even, perhaps, within traditional social forms” is needed, if our “every liberation” is not to be “captured and exploited.”

Left conservatism is one way of articulating a set of political convictions that can, at least as a matter of theory, see this needle, the needle which modernity has presented us with, and thread it, thus enabling the continued project of weaving together (or sewing up tears within) our democratic political fabric. Scialabba, through his writing over the decades, like Lasch himself in decades prior, has been an insightful advocate for the kind of democratic learning which all of America’s diverse communities need–a learning which reminds us of modernity’s liberating and equalizing accomplishments, and what must be conserved if the left’s emancipatory project is to continue. Whether this political categorization fits him well or not, his position is one much worth contemplating–an action which would have to begin with reading his most recent, and excellent, book.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Thinking About Wendell Berry's Leftist Lament (and More)

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Wendell Berry’s sprawling, uneven, brilliant, and sometimes frustrating The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice will likely not, I think, be widely remembered after he leaves us as his greatest, most important work. But it is undeniably his longest, and arguably his most ambitious as well. Very late to the party, I have finally read through his wrestling with the entangled ideas of racism, history, patriotism, religion, public discourse, agrarianism, and more, and I’m glad I did. It is a book crammed with insights, thoughts that Berry has, as he makes clear in the book’s introduction, considered and re-considered, written, scratched out, and re-written, over many years. “I am surprised, slowly of course, by the slowness of my mind” he writes as a kind of apologia (p. 5). However, I was surprised as well to have retroactively discovered, long after completing the book, a through-line to his argument, one that mostly ties together most of its nearly 500 pages, despite the many zig-zags and dead-end observations (a few of which probably could have been eliminated or perhaps deserved further integrative reflection of their own) along the way. And surprisingly (or perhaps not), it was a work of Marxist economic history that helped me see it.

In my observation, conservatives who celebrate Wendell Berry's ideas deal with the seemingly leftist elements of his thought—his condemnations of corporate power, finance capitalism, and libertarian individualism most obviously, but his highly selective and somewhat distanced engagement with the traditionalist pre-occupations that define so much of our never-ending culture war is perhaps even more important--in a variety of ways. Some downplay those elements, some appropriate them into a post-liberal framework, and some insist that the localist or distributist character of the agrarian beliefs which he holds aren’t in any substantive sense leftist at all, but rather are actually conservative, properly understood. All of these approaches have their value—though given that Berry never makes, in all this massive book exploring prejudices in America, an explicit Burkean defense of prejudice, I am doubtful how far any of them can go in their attempt to claim these ideas of Berry's as "conservative" in any formal sense. Rather, while The Need to Be Whole will probably never be much read or appreciated by contemporary (and overly statist) socialists, I think his overarching intentions are clearly most at home with anti-capitalist radicals of the left. It is they, after all, who have most consistently lamented the destruction of the commons, and lamented all the divisive consequences which have followed its ruination at the hands of an expansionist capitalism which has, tragically, characterized American history from its beginning; their complaint is Berry's as well.

The destructive horror of slavery and its still-abiding legacies are, to Berry, not best understood in explicitly racialist terms, though obviously the primary way those horrors and those legacies were and are elaborated is via racial categories. Still, the millions whose lives were destroyed by the Atlantic Slave Trade and slave economy of the American South is, to Berry, of a piece with the—primarily socio-economic, though often also literal as well--destruction of millions of farming lives and hundreds of farming communities (which provided settled environments of provision and membership to families both black and white) by industrial agriculture. This is not some Heideggerian sublimation of human suffering to the logics of technology; Berry is excruciatingly particular in the way he talks about the ways in which Southerners of all races dealt with the Civil War and its aftermath, with reverberations that affect our historical assumptions and linguistic pre-occupations to this very day. But nonetheless, if Berry's book is to be understood as providing an alternative to the history of racial exploitation told in the 1619 Project, it isn't anything similar to then-President Trump's celebratory 1776 Commission; rather, it's a long, sad tale that begins with 1225's Charter of the Forest, and all the ways in which the fundamentals of common provisioning, which the gift of land makes available to all those willing to work it, have been continually whittled away in the name of profit. 

Some might question giving Berry even this much credit when it comes to his dealings with race, pointing to the sympathy he expresses towards Robert E. Lee in the book, and his dislike of those who attribute some kind of genetic trauma to any depiction or memorialization of those Southerners who fought for an understandable yet still evil cause from 1861 to 1865. All this attracted a fair amount of criticism when the book came out in 2022, and I’m not entirely unsympathetic to it. But an understanding of how Berry grounds his overall argument in the requirements of membership and community-building work should enable open-minded readers, I think, to see that he’s not minimizing the horrors of slavery when he shows some contextual sympathy for those born into its web of enveloping prejudices. Rather, he's extending the tragedy of those horrors and the devastation they justified, situating all Americans in the same destructive shadow that slaves and their masters were implicated in alike. 

He does this by way of an impressively wide rage of arguments, including a thoughtful consideration of the Sermon on the Mount, a critical reading a Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a reflection on the origin of Kentucky's state anthem, "My Own Kentucky Home," and much more. But the clearest elaboration of his entwining of moral, environmental, and socio-economic themes in his treatment of race in America comes through the lengthy consideration he gives to a conversation with the famed defender of both white supremacy and states’ rights, John C. Caulhoun, recorded in the dairy of John Quincy Adams in 1820—a conversation which Berry calls “essential to the sense of this book." He writes:

Calhoun’s significant distinction is between work that is not degrading, and therefore suitable for white people, and degrading work fit only for slaves. Adams defines the trouble exactly—“mistaking labor for slavery, and domination for Freedom”—and he clearly thought that the trouble affected both races….By assigning specifically to slaves the manual work considered degrading, the slave-owning aristocrats degraded that work for everybody, black or white, who did it. By degrading the work, they degraded the workers….It became possible for people who could not escape hard manual labor to despise themselves for doing it, and, from that, possible to despise the land that required it of them. Thus the set of values and attitudes by which the Old South aristocrats placed themselves above the fundamental work of the world in their time, values and attitudes meant to define the superiority of a class, instituted a (so far) illimitable cycle of degradations. It degraded the fundamental work itself, in both status and quality. It degraded everybody, black and white, who did that work. And inevitably—provided that the workers consented to the aristocratic values and attitudes—it degraded the land on which the work was done….

In his argument with Calhoun, Adams was speaking in affirmation of the value to the country and to democracy of “the plain freemen who labor for subsistence,” presumably on their own farms or in their own shops. Calhoun, speaking self-consciously as an aristocrat and in defense of his class and its values, divides human life and work into the permanent grades of higher and lower. (He clearly could have granted no standing to Jefferson’s “aristocracy of talent and virtue,” with which Adams might have concurred, though he did not like Jefferson.) Perhaps the greatest irony of our history so far is that in our public life we have favored and democratized Calhoun’s values and pointedly disfavored Adams’s….We all, black and white together, want to be John C. Calhoun….

The superiority of Calhoun’s social class rested upon Negro slavery—which, if we understand slavery as the lack or the want of freedom, was only one kind of slavery…Consumers of industrial products participate in the industrial economy virtually as captives, because of their total dependence on the products, and because of their lack of responsibility for the quality of what they buy. The condition of industrial consumers is of a piece with the condition of industrial workers, who are captives of the “labor market” and their need for jobs, and who have no responsibility for the kind and quality of their products….Slavery did not begin with the capture and sale of African black people, and it did not end with their legal emancipation (pp. 298-300, 301-302, 374).

In retrospect, much of Berry’s meandering book is revealed as an explicit exploration of the many and perverse ways the “democratization” of Calhoun’s aristocratic prejudices have deeply warped American social and economic life. In his view (and mine as well), without consistently prioritizing a participatory, democratic, egalitarian respect for work--including both those who do the work, and the land upon which they do it--one will be invariably left with a divisive competition to separate oneself from manual labor, and a greedy desire to impose on those you have separated yourself from to make sure they continue to do it for you. While there have occasionally been successful efforts to arrange and maintain the environments within with such work can flourish throughout American history, Berry mourns how rare they have been. Rather than the ideal of seeking common membership in a particular context of work—the “American Dream” of “economic democracy,” of “self-sufficiency based upon ownership of a family farm or ‘forty acres and a mule’ or a small store or a small shop” (p. 98)—we have a public realm that “is not, except in the most remote and theoretical sense, a membership…. It is nobody’s home … the realm of extremely powerful, wealthy, childish, and badly spoiled adult humans typified by Mr. Trump, his allies, and his rivals” (p. 136). Why this Calhounian triumph, in Berry’s view? Well, at one point he observes that human beings are “most at peace with one another when they are reasonably prosperous” (p. 87). That might seem a brief and materialist aside, but it is echoed in dozens of similar asides throughout the book, when he remarks on the fecundity of well-respected land, on how even oppressed populations (including the slaves of the American South) could find some degree of independence through the natural provisions that wise observers could obtain from said land, and so forth. When one reflects upon the common resources that lay at the heart of prosperity, and how capitalist expansion throughout history consistently begins with robbing the people of those common resources, economic explanations emerge as a framework for understanding how all the divisive and racist prejudices which Berry is exploring take root.

Ian Angus’s The War Against the Commons: Dispossession and Resistance in the Making of Capitalism is a short and dense book, one which lays out in close detail both the centuries-old tradition of commons-based agriculture through most of human history (Angus’s research is explicitly focused on the development of expansionist capitalism in England, the United Kingdom, and its imperial territories, but it is clear that similar data patterns can be found around world), and the way that tradition came to an end. Many are at least vaguely familiar with the story of the “enclosure movement”—the repeated, and always expanding, efforts by aristocrats and early capitalists from the Middle Ages through the 18th century to dispossess the peasants who farmed, hunted and gathered in, and provisioned their families and villages from the streams, forests, and fields that they may have had any nominal ownership of, but by centuries-old common law had access to. Leveling woods to establish fenced in sheep pastures, leveling homes to oblige those who lived there to hire themselves out as laborers in cities—the sociological and economic consequences of the history of enclosures have been debated (and, depressingly often, defended) for centuries, with Angus’s Marxist analysis being just the latest contribution of the argument (though an excellent one). I strongly doubt that Berry and Angus are at all aware of each others’ writings; yet, Angus’s argument about the centrality of dispossession to understanding the roots of imperialism and slavery enables me to see their work as complementing each other in a small but essential way.

In a way, it’s not a Marxist argument at all, but one that goes back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his Second Discourse: all the pathologies of division and competition which plague humankind, according to him, begin with “the first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, said to himself, This is mine." But Rousseau’s philosophical jeremiad against economic inequality and private property is hardly a rigorous argument—and it certainly isn’t Berry’s, or Angus’s (or even, when you think about it, Marx’s either, as he was far more concerned with bringing to an end exploitation than he was with imposing any kind of propertyless economic sameness; he and Friedrich Engels explicitly stated in The Communist Manifesto that it was property employed in the process of bourgeois production, not personal property, which they were targeting). What Marx, and Angus’s use of Marx’s analytic framework, actually provides in this context is simply an understanding that dispossession—using competitive acquisition, whether legal or financial or military, to end the common access to landed resources which communities had for millennia learned (and sometimes, in some places, still do learn) to share and shepherd together—was and remains at the heart of creating the economic disruptions upon which plantation slavery in the American South, and so many other forms of economic imperialism today, were and are maintained. Angus’s quotes Marx, who in this light sounds downright Berryesque (though, unfortunately, not nearly as lyrical):

Large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population crammed together in large towns; in this way it…disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e., it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil….Capitalist production, therefore only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker (pp. 186-187).

Marx’s opinion about agriculture’s place in his vision of the historical inevitability of a workers' revolution is complicated. It is easy to assume that the above passage is merely descriptive of what he saw as an economically determined process, but there are also notes and letters from Marx (which Angus quotes at length) which reveal that Marx himself recognized the social power of the cooperative relations which existed among farmers and other small-holders, where the mutually sustaining and shared commons had not yet been absorbed in the name of elite profit. This, obviously, open up the possibility for a socialist conception of property and community that is leans in a more localist, republican, or anarchist direction, and decidedly away from the Marxist-Leninist assumption that overcoming capitalism can only be achieved through forcing workers--dictatorially, in necessary--down the path of industrial socialization.

But either way, seeing in Marx’s observations above a parallel to Berry’s concern about how economic competition introduces class distinctions, which in turn introduce a contempt for the economically poor or legally enslaved who are obliged to engage in manual labor on the land, and thus result in a degradation of all landed work as well as the land itself, isn’t difficult. Hence, my original description of The Need to Be Whole as a leftist lament. The kind of respectful and cooperative and forgiving communities of work and fair membership that Berry locates in the civil religion of America, as well as within the Christian vision, were (and still are being) undermined, with depressing rare exceptions, by the legacy of labor degradation and slavery, America’s original sin. That legacy was most prominently and destructively embodied in the chattel slavery of the American South, but it is tragically more accurately reflected in the acquisitive stifling—both at the beginning of the American experiment and today--of the “land need,” the “sensible need for independence” which common resources provide, a need expressed by “early settlers and freed slaves” alike, and which is felt today by anyone who wishes, as they search the want-ads and punch the clock, “not to be a starvling, a pauper, a scrounger, an underling, a peon, a slave” (p. 365). For us all to be economically free and respected by our fellow human beings, free of prejudices that stigmatize and separate us from one another and from the land and from the labor of our own hands, and for there thus to be no truly poor among us—what could be more leftist than that?

Friday, March 22, 2024

Why Even Uneventful Primaries are Better than Raucous Caucuses

[This is an expanded version of an Insight Kansas column which appeared in the Wichita Eagle today, March 22, 2024]

When my wife and I went to vote last Tuesday, in the first organized presidential primary which Kansas has authorized in over 30 years, our usual polling station was unusually quiet and empty. I talked to one of the election workers, the volunteers who do the real ground-level work to enable our creaky electoral democracy to continue to function. She told that, as a veteran of multiple elections, this was the least busy she'd ever been. Others who reported on the vote here in Wichita basically said the same thing--which, as a political junkie, ought to sadden me. It doesn't really, though.

I say that despite the dismal turnout: overall, barely over 8% of all registered Democrats in the whole state participated, with the Republicans doing only slightly better, with not quite 11% showing up to cast ballots. Given that the 20-year average for turnout across the nation for presidential primaries is somewhere around 27%, Kansas voters clearly weren’t fired up by the choices available to them. But then, no one expected them to be. President Biden and Donald Trump had already secured more than enough delegates to win their parties’ presidential nominations, and all of the candidates who posed even the remotes challenge to either of their re-nominations had dropped out. So what substantive reason was there to participate, anyway? Why did my wife and I, along with thousands of others?

First, because the substantive results aren’t the whole story; sometimes, voters have symbolic goals in mind. Some Republicans wanted to run up Trump’s totals as much as possible as a show of support in the midst of all his crimes and controversies. (He received 75% of the Republican vote, which wasn’t quite the record some Republicans were shooting for.) And some Democrats cast protest votes as a way of communicating their disapproval of some of Biden’s policy choices. (This was my wife's reason for voting; she, along with about 10% of the Democratic voters state-wide who participated, chose “None of these names," over the current president, who did end up with 84% of the results anyway.) But second, there is also the civic value of the procedure itself.

True, the civic process of this primary election was exceptionally tame--and while this election was particularly lacking in substantive electoral value, even those primaries where the selection of delegates in support of a party's presidential nominee is hotly contested would still be pretty low-key, in comparison to the caucus system which dominated the way the parties organized voters and vetted candidate support for more than 150 years. Some, including Governor Laura Kelly, have talked wistfully about how they prefer the “energy and excitement” of the caucus system, during which those party leaders and voters and activists who are able to gather in specific places at appointed dates and times, arguing and yelling, giving and responding to speeches, casting (or sometimes re-casing) nomination ballots or sometimes just literally pulling one's fellow caucus-attenders one way or another, as supporters of the different candidates line up and get counted.

I participated in the Democratic presidential caucuses in Kansas in 2008 and 2016, and observed the Kansas Republican caucus in 2012, and I agree—the level of engagement on display there is appealing, or at least was very much for me. But then, I'm quite intentionally a political animal, like our current governor and probably pretty much anyone else who ever actually runs for political office--while most citizens are not. For everyone who doesn't vibe with blocks of voters shouting down their opponents, with the hurry-up and wait and rushing to line up or stand up and cheer (or boo), all of which makes the halls that parties have to rent out to handle the crush of voters who show up confusing and cacophonous--well, for folks like that, the whole thing can be pretty alienating, especially if you know your preferences are in the minority, yet you still have a symbolic stand you wish to take. And all of that, of course, doesn't even begin to touch upon all the impassioned yet introverted citizens out there, or the opinionated folks who can't get off work or don't have reliable transportation or can't find child-care or are dealing with physical disabilities, etc., etc., etc. The fact that caucuses are simply not the best way to represent the great majority of folks who actually affiliate with our political parties is indisputable.

I can understand the argument that, for all of these costs and limitations, the participatory democratic virtues of caucuses make defending that system worth it. I certainly respect that a lot more than the grumpy attitude of Kansas's Secretary of State Scott Schwab, who thinks that spending state money to allow Republicans and Democrats to vote for their preferred presidential candidates is a waste of money, and should be left solely for the parties themselves to handle through caucuses (or not--don't forget that many times state parties don't even bother with them, and just select delegates for their party's conventions internally). I'm strongly of the belief that the processes of electoral democracy, however flawed, shouldn't be subject to demands for economic efficiency, and certainly not when you dealing with as relatively cheap an expenditure as $5 million dollars. But should they be subject to, as a matter of theory, a direct and participatory ideal?

In the end, my attitude here hasn't changed in 16 years, when I wrote up my thoughts after participating in the rushed, chaotic, in many ways enjoyable but ultimately just exhausting and frustrating Democratic caucus that was organized here in Wichita in 2008. The fact is the, for all the differences in the many ways the different states and the two major parties have employed the caucus method of selecting presidential delegates over the past century and a half, their one commonality is that they presumed more rural, more spatially intact, less diverse, and less divided and demanding political and socio-economic environments than the great majority of American voters live in today. For all the direct democracy that caucuses supposedly provide, in the much more generally urban and disparate and hurried social contexts which obtain across the majority of the United States of America, simply allowing for a straightforward in a statewide primary makes far more democratic sense. I'm not going to claim that there may not be parts of the country (Iowa, maybe?) where the prevailing political culture and existing democratic practices still fit relatively well with the participatory, caucus ideal. And, to be sure, I'm talking about the presidential election process; I'm more than happy to grant that caucus or caucus-type arrangements might well be an empowering improvement in how many parties struggle to connect with those voters sympathetic to their platforms on a local or state level. But yes: practically everywhere in the country, including Kansas, presidential primaries, staid as they may be, are best.

Of course, if that's the case, and simply asking people to show up and vote for the candidates they want their party to support, then one has to accept that you’re only going to get a large turnout if the results are expected to have an actual impact on what those parties do. Which, in Kansas this year, they didn't.

A couple of local pundits I know have their suggestions. Joel Mathis, more ambitiously, points out that since the candidate being voted on are "running to be president of the entire country," the only solution is "a national primary." His arguments for this are good, but they run smack into the reality of state control over elections (when the Supreme Court allows that, of course). I suspect that what Joel wants will only be possible when--or if--the Electoral College itself is on the table. But functionally we might get closer if we move, as Bob Beatty suggests, the Kansas primary to Super Tuesday. The earlier Kansas's primaries come in the election year calendar, the more likely they are to have some substantive weight in determining what presidential candidates parties select--and while Bob doesn't make this explicit point, since there are already 16 states--nearly a third of the whole country--that hold their primaries on Super Tuesday, encouraging Kansas to join that bandwagon would just get us functionally closer to Joel's ideal.

Whatever happens though, I was glad this primary happened, and I hope the legislature will organize another one in four years’ time, no matter what they naysayers complain about. True, a straight-up primary vote isn’t an exciting, participatory democratic process, and this year was especially predictable. But giving citizens broadly the chance to democratically express themselves doesn’t have to be exciting; sometimes, it just needs to be.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Do We Really Not Need Another Hero? (Thoughts About Dune)

Exactly a week ago, I and bunch of local Dune-loving friends caught Denis Villeneuve's Dune Part 2 in IMAX. It was glorious--a fantastic, rousing, compelling science-fiction spectacle which built upon and brought to a satisfying (but also very open-ended) conclusion the story which was begun in his Dune Part 1 back in 2021. I thought it was fabulous, and strongly recommend who hasn't seen it yet and has even the slightest interest in doing to go see the movie immediately, preferably on the biggest screen you can.

But that's just the spectacle part--what about Villeneuve's two-part Dune as a story? Here, as always, there have been opinions aplenty, everywhere on the internet; my friends and I definitely had more than a few of our own. For me, after thinking about it and reading about it, I believe I have to say that, as much as I praise these two films, they're missing something: they aren't mythic. Does that matter: as a matter of cinematic narrative, or--perhaps more importantly, especially to us geeks who know and love Frank Herbert's original story--as a matter of adaptation? Maybe.

As I confessed when I watched Dune Part 1--with mostly this same group of dorky sci-fi-loving friends--nearly 2 1/2 years ago, I'm biased here. My first exposure to Dune wasn't, in fact, Herbert's novel(s); it was David Lynch's seriously compromised, definitely flawed, but still delightful 1984 adaptation. I was a 15-year-old Dungeons & Dragons-playing, Lord of the Rings-reading, "Star Trek"-watching (both the Original Series and the 1980s movies, of course) teen-age nerd; while I was familiar with Dune--I regularly saw Herbert's first four Dune books in a nice boxed set sitting prominently on a much-perused shelf at a gaming store I often visited, and was generally familiar with the story--I'd never read any of them. Watching Lynch's Dune on the big screen changed all that for me. By 1984 I'd already begun to develop an at least somewhat critical appreciation of film as its own story-telling medium (enough that I can distinctly remember thinking to myself, while sitting in the theater opening day watching Return of the Jedi, "you know, parts of this movie aren't very good"), so I think even then I probably was aware, even while grinning like a madman when Toto's guitars blasted out during the worm-riding sequences, that I wasn't watching any kind of masterpiece. But I didn't care. The movie's visionary story of Paul Atreides, a product of both generations of secretive breeding and training but also of a mother's genuine love, surviving terrible betrayal only to emerge as the foretold messiah of a persecuted and honorable people, was romantic and sumptuous and I loved it. So, of course, I had to buy the books, and devour them. Which I tried to do, with some success: I loved Dune, mostly enjoyed Dune Messiah, had serious problems with Children of Dune, and couldn't handle God-Emperor of Dune at all. (And yes, I know, much later there were a couple more, but by then my interest in Herbert's epic was completely exhausted.) My declining engagement with Herbert's treatment of Paul Atreides and his world was, in retrospect, perhaps predictable, for reasons worth exploring.

Those who know the books well--like some of my friends, for whom Dune lives much stronger in their imaginations than it ever did in mine--might have already spotted my difficulty. Lynch's version of the first Dune novel profoundly downplays one of the book's explicit plot-threads: that the messianic prophecy held to by the Fremen of Dune (or Arrakis) was in fact spread among them over a period of millennia by the Bene Gesserit, an all-female cult whose use of the spice melange, which is only available on Arrakis, has enabled them to read minds and see into the future, and they've used those skills to master strange physical and mental arts, and plan for the eventual emergence of the "Kwisatch Haderach," a male who would wield the same powers as the Bene Gesserit. The messianic prophecy of the Fremen, the promise of an off-world "Lisan al Gaib" that would lead the Fremen in a holy war against all the other powers in the known universe, was therefore actually one of presumably hundreds, if not thousands, of legends which the Bene Gesserit had purposefully cultivated to enable their Kwisatch Haderach, when he is finally born, to more easily step into the domineering role which the sisterhood imagine for him (and through which they would control him, from behind the scenes). Paul's messianic role, in other words, was manufactured on his behalf, not organic to Fremen, much less a reflection of the actual eschatology of the universe.

[I'm really proud of that one-paragraph summary of the dominant--though by no means exclusive--plot in Herbert's intricate and multifaceted overarching story, by the way.]

While Lynch's Dune is up-front about Paul Atreides being the genetic inheritor of a breeding program which the Bene Gesserit planned out, it basically elides the Machiavellianism which lurks behind it entirely. Lynch's troubled journey to his finished Dune included a 4-hour rough cut, which he aimed to turn into a 3-hour film (after the plan for two films which he'd originally scripted was shot down), and which he was then obliged, with great frustration, to turn into a finished movie of just a little over two hours. A huge amount, obviously, was left on the editing room floor, and a many last-minute reshoots were made to stitch the drastically shortened film together. If Lynch had been able to follow through with the sequence he'd originally imagined, then after Dune he would have turned to Dune Messiah, the second book of Herbert's original series, and the partially completed script for that movie which has only recently been finally recovered makes it clear that the Lynch was ready to dive into the plots-within-plots story of the Bene Gesserit attempting to take back control of the power which Paul, as the Fremen's messiah, had unleashed, as well as his own doubts and frustrations over the enormous costs--over 60 billion lives--of the wars his rise as resulted in. But even without that sequel, in the best, unofficial, reconstructed versions of Lynch's never-completed 3-hour cut (like the famed SpiceDiver cut, which my friends and I all gathered to watch before Dune Part 1), you can see the Lynch truly wanted to bring in details from the book which would complicate the story, make Paul's tale less of a revelation and more politically ambiguous.

But that was not to be. And honestly, I'm not entirely bothered by that. A little bothered, to be sure--but not entirely.

Before catching Dune Part 2, I went with some of these same friends to see the 40th anniversary re-release of Lynch's 1984 original on the big screen--and seeing it that way, as a whole, separate from alternative cuts and closed-off possibilities, reminded me of what I'd see four decades ago: a science-fiction story of a myth brought to life, of a promised messiah acting out their own legend and becoming more than human as a result. It's absolutely hokey, that's undeniable. The film is crowded with too many details from the books, all of it designed to serve a straight-forward hero's journey. And yet I could only, once again, applaud the genius of how Lynch compressed and rewrote elements of Herbert's Dune so as to tell a story--almost certainly not the one he'd wished to tell, but the one he was obliged to carry across the finish line anyway--that truly works, dramatically speaking. 

Just one example: the Bene Gesserit's "weirding way," a set of physical and mental disciplines, including extensive combat training, appears only as a commanding voice in Villeneuve's films--which is, admittedly, its most famous (and plot-important) aspect. But in the midst of all the other stuff he crammed in--the Mentats, the Navigators Guild, and more--Lynch decided to turn the weirding way into "weirding modules" which Jessica, for the love of her husband, let House Atreides in on the secret of, and by which the Bene Gesserit's trained vocal powers could be weaponized. This gives the Fremen a secret weapon to use against their enemies, one that Paul is essential to their mastering. And, of course, it turns out that Paul's own Fremen name, "Muad'Dib" is a particularly explosive force. In these and other ways, Lynch's film works to make everything, all around Paul, manifest his legend, whatever the pain involved and whatever the cost may be.

Villeneuve's films reject that approach, which is an eminently defensible way to tell the story. First, because he had the budget and the technical skill to put on the screen five hours worth of Dune adaptation, so he could take much more time to emphasize characters and scenes (the expanded focus on Liet Kynes, the Judge of the Change when House Atreides arrives on Arrakis, is a great example of this) that contextualize the complicated, plans-within-plans reality of Paul's fate. But second, and more importantly, Villeneuve clearly loves the original books, and as such, really doesn't love the prospect treating the story Paul's rise as something explicitly heroic, and definitely not as the authentic embodiment of a mythological truth contained within an otherwise manufactured Fremen myth. Hence Villeneuve introduces factions among the Fremen, with Paul's great love and the eventual mother of his children Chani being presented as one of the most vocal resistors to accepting the Lisan al Gaib legend, insisting at multiple points in the film that such stories only exist to pacify and control the Fremen. And while that colonial-resistance spin isn't at all present in the books, since Herbert truly did believe that 1) all messiahs are to be feared, and 2) all messiah stories are manufactured anyway, this addition of Villeneuve's really does reflect Herbert's bottom-line secularism and cynicism well.

All of this is fine--it's Herbert's story, after all, and while the author may be dead and authorial intentional nothing like it used to be, there is still something to be said for respecting the explicit text. Except that is exactly the problem, or at least one potential problem. Because Herbert was too good a writer to turn his whole epic in the just plots-within-plots, all the way down. Paul Atreides really does have something special about him, and he really does become something more than he was. He really does put on a Fremen stillsuit the correct way the very first time, without any previous instruction; that's right in the text. He really does summon a massive worm to ride upon, without any ability (and that point in the story, anyway) to communicate with them. Herbert actually voices this mysterious ambiguity--that a person bred to step cunningly into the role of a prophet might actually, innocently, be a true prophet all the same--explicitly, having Princess Irulan (the child of the emperor who set up House Atreides to be destroyed, and whom Paul and his Fremen will completely overthrow) at one point write in her diary about Paul, "How much is actual prediction…and how much is the prophet shaping the future to fit the prophecy? Does the prophet see the future or does he see a line of weakness, that he may shatter as a diamond-cutter shatters his gem with a blow of a knife?" In other words, could the Kwisatch Haderach, this immensely skilled and impossibly perceptive individual, also be a figure in some actually, only-coincidently-Bene Gesserit-orchestrated, prophesied eschaton? As Timothy Burke--who supports whole-heartedly the approach which Villeneuve has taken in these films, seeing it as a way to avoid a "sad but necessary"-type of justification for White imperialism arguably present in the story's subtext--put it, "the problem in the end is that Paul Atreides is both a fake messiah and a genuine superhuman." Villeneuve has his own, still unfolding, way of responding to that dilemma, Lynch had his much more direct solution. And maybe there's something to be said, beyond just my own 40-year-old nostalgia, for the latter? 

I can think of three possible arguments. The first is the question of the dramatic style incumbent upon any story told in this particular genre. Dune, in any of its incarnations, is not a romantic comedy, is not a documentary, is not a one-act play. It is a sprawling science-fiction epic about the dramatic reversal of fortune which those who thought to destroy House Atreides and take control of Arrakis suffer at the hands of Paul Atreides and the Fremen, filled with vicious betrayals, spectacular action, and terrible violence. If you're going to film this story, you simply have to make your protagonist at least somewhat mythic; otherwise the whole project collapses. Freddie deBoer, in a delightful piece in which he admits that, on the level of imagination anyway, he's totally ready to sign up for the Fremen jihad under Muad'Dib, put it this way:

On a serious note--if Paul and his movement aren't seductive, if the audience doesn't feel the pull to romanticize them, then there's no movie. It's like Fight Club, another story that gets aggressively explained a lot--driven, to be fair, by misinterpretation from both fans and critics alike. It's true that Tyler Durden is not a figure to be consciously admired, let alone emulated. (Please do not emulate him.) But he has to be cool. If he's not seductive, if there's no sense that we want to be like him, then there's no stakes and no lessons; there's nothing to be gained by holding up a figure that we all admit is wrong and bad, in that kind of story.

Given that deBoer is talking about the Paul Atreides played by Timothée Chalamet in Villeneuve's Dune Part 1 and Part 2, I should emphasize that I'm not attempting to flip his comments against his own appreciation of these films. Villeneuve really does give us an exciting, engaging Paul; his story, as played against a tableau of remarkable sci-fix visuals, is compelling and great fun. But there is nonetheless, I think, a degree in which Dune's story, as it is told in these two recent films, cannot be carried by Paul alone. Which again--is fine! The story is not made any less, at least not in terms of the overall sweep of it, by introducing additional protagonists with agency, humor, and anger. But if we were to focus solely on Villeneuve's and Chalamet's Paul, it's undeniable that they want him to recede before the whole weight of Dune's epic-ness. He treats his visions as frightening, disturbing, an annoyance, a threat: in other words, as a disruption. Lynch's Paul, as played by Kyle MacLachlan in a way which makes his every interior thought explicit, with a kind of radical openness, is clearly communicated to the audience as believing his visions, of making them a part of him, and growing along with the story's unfolding myth accordingly.

Second, let's think about the cinematic situating of characters who, because of the story they are part, are arguably necessarily mythic. That is: grand, awesome, larger than life. There are plenty of ways to tell stories which invert those myths, the focus on the god's clay feet, etc. But at some point, if that is all you're doing, you then have to ask yourself: why tell this story at all? Surely there are better ways to dramatize the stories of the little people that those in power use or abuse or pass over, than to spend a great deal of time reconstructing the life of these characters, and not allowing them to be seen in the way that history, for better or worse, as brought them forward to us today, the audience. Noah Millman makes this point very thoughtfully by considering four recent films that he considers sad failures: Napoleon, Ferrari, Maestro (about Leonard Bernstein), and Priscilla (about the wife of Elvis Presley):

All of the foregoing films are, in some fashion, telling stories about greatness: world-historical greatness on a political and military level, the race for glory in a competitive sport with death and bankruptcy always around the corner, the drive to create great art and to touch a mass audience. I can certainly understand the desire to avoid simple-mindedly worshipping great people, or people who sought greatness. But these are not films that focus on the price exacted by that quest for greatness, or that are alive to the ironic role of contingency in history, or that emphasize how any great achievement rests on the shoulders of innumerable unknowns, or any of the many ways that one might complicate a “great man” narrative and make it more interesting than hagiography. No, what they have in common is an apparent disbelief in the quality of greatness itself. 

Again, it would be wrong to directly apply this against Villeneuve's adaptations of the Dune story, not least because Noah is talking about movies that were all, to one degree or another, biopics, while none of the faux-documentary conventions which attach themselves to that genre apply to science fiction. Even if you can make the comparison, it's not as though Chalamet's Paul isn't presented as competent, smart, charismatic, etc. (the extended Fremen attack on the spice harvester in Dune Part 2 nicely fits into making Paul larger than life among his fellow rebels). But once again, I can't help put wonder if telling a story about an individual who achieves universe-changing significance, who is received by the Fremen who brought him as the universe's messiah, and who demonstrably manifests--in the books, definitely in Lynch's version, and even in Villeneuve's as well--awesome powers, isn't served as well quite as it might have been otherwise by constantly reminding people (mostly, in Villeneuve's films, through Paul's mother Jessica, who becomes increasingly Machiavellian with every scene) that the prophecy Paul is inheriting isn't a "real" hope?

(I feel like doubling down on this point. Once more, I really enjoyed the divisions Villeneuve introduced into the world of the Fremen; in the by-now classical model of the hero surrounded by doubts (including their own), it's handled very well. But when Chani, after Paul has drunk the Water of Life, after he has become what the Emperor's Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother denounces fearfully as an "abomination," after he is just casually reading the minds and telling the futures of everyone around him, Chani still denounces the whole idea of Paul being the Lisan al Gaib as a myth that oppresses the Fremen. Really? For that acting choice to make sense to me, I'm going to have to go with Chani being angry, confused, frustrated, whatever--not as her being a reliable narrator of what's "really" going on in the story, because what's really going on is that Paul, whether or not it was something the Bene Gesserit ever wanted, has kind of become a god. Perhaps Lynch's underlining of this point by having Paul make it rain on Arrakis was too much--it's not in the reconstructed 3-hour versions of his film--but damn, it actually kind of follows, whereas I think Chani angrily riding away on a sandworm in the final scene of Dune Part 2 doesn't entirely.)

Third and finally, let me invoke one Max Rockatansky, the protagonist of the Mad Max films, a property that admittedly doesn't have anything remotely like the political, emotional, or ecological range and depth of Herbert's Dune universe (but which has some great stories under its belt nonetheless). Specifically, let me talk about Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, where Max, wandering the post-apocalyptic desert, is adopted by a community of child survivors, who imagine he is the legendary "Captain Walker," returned to them, to help them return to and rebuild a world which none of them have any real memory of:


Mad Max, of course, isn't Captain Walker--we know this, because we'd just seen the latest turn in Max's history in the first 45 minutes of the movie, and it has nothing to do with being a returned or resurrected airline pilot, a messiah, that could fly these children to a new life. And yet, in fighting to make it possible for this small community to live and escape and build anew somewhere else, didn't he fulfill their crazy, chanted prophecy after all?

My point, in the end, is no more than the heart of The Music Man: "I always think there's a band, kid." There's something to be said for stories that are centered on myths and heroes, because embracing myths, believing in them, is part of making it possible for heroes, for people who transform the presumed possibilities of one's world (or for boy's bands, for that matter), to be. Of course, this is kind of pedantic at this point: it's not like we're lacking in movies with heroes! Every Mission Impossible film, every movie the Rock stars in, is actively engaged in the myth-making business. So why complain that Dune, a book which makes the manipulation of myths a key part of its overall tale, is adapted in such a way as to center that manipulation, rather than the myth itself?

Maybe no reason other than nostalgia after all. Or maybe because the book itself, as reflected in Lynch's flawed and interfered-with but still majestic interpretation, makes it impossible, arguably even against Herbert's own intention, to thoroughly dismiss the possibility that the Bene Gesserit, like any group of story-tellers anywhere, may have mythologized better than they could have possibly known. That wasn't Herbert's own self-understanding of what he wrought, and that hasn't been the dominant understanding of what Dune has to say over the decades; most readers, I think, have always gotten the point that Paul Atreides is supposed to be understood at least as much as a pawn as a protagonist, as least as much a murderous villain as a national liberator. Lynch himself saw that in the books as well. But in being forced to finish his adaptation on terms other than his choosing, he still found a way to double-down on the book's heroic, mythological elements that didn't, I think, entirely undermine what Paul Atreides meant, or at least could mean. I'm going to hold out the hope that when Villeneuve finishes his three-part tale, with an adaptation of Dune Messiah, he'll leave the door open for us viewers to see that Chani, or even Paul himself, may be scrambling to understand just how real the myth they are a part of, the myth which inspires Stilgar and the other Fremen, the myth which has arguably outstripped the Bene Gesserit's millenia-old machinations, may be. Because for this view, at least, if only for the time I'm taking in the story on the screen, it's real to me.