Every edition of The America First Weekly includes Five Questions (a Q&A with an interesting figure, pseud or otherwise), Links & Screeds (all editors get to weigh in on anything they choose), and a friends-link to an original Featured Article by one of the AFW editors.
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This week, AFW editor Untameable Native King speaks with photojournalist and author Chris Arnade.
Untameable Native King: After reading your book, Dignity, the concept of front row vs. back row America was one of the themes that stuck with me. Do you think this is an ever present dynamic in human societies or has America uniquely increased the divide?
Chris Arnade: Every society has some form of stratification, some type of elites, some framework to sort people. It can be about money, identity, religion, etc. What I try to point out in Dignity is that in the US we have many, but probably the most important division is education, because it is not just about material things, but about philosophical views, and how people find self worth and validity. It is also a divide many elites, who otherwise claim to be committed to eliminating inequality, embrace. Or at least pretend doesn't exist, or even worse, admit exists but suggest it is ok because it is a personal failure to not be as educated. Or they believe the solution is to provide/force more education to/on people.
When that attitude comes from leftists it is especially frustrating, because they claim to be so focused on eliminating inequality. The other issue with social divides is how much punishment does the “good” group inflict on the “bad” group, and with the educational divide it is harsh. The back row not only suffers economic punishment, but it also suffers social stigma.
The front row often view people who don’t prioritize school as bad irrational ignorant people who are backwards for wanting to put family, or friends, or place, over building a big resume. So what IMO is frustrating about the educational divide in the US (and other western countries), is it is either unacknowledged or if it is acknowledged it is seen as a “just divide.” The front row has made being in the back row humiliating, which is the opposite of dignity.
That is dangerous because as our division grows greater, and the punishment for being undereducated increases, the political and social backlash will increase, creating conditions for a more volatile and violent society.
Because humiliating vast numbers of people isn’t just morally wrong, it is the recipe for creating political and violent upheaval.
King: Why is religious belief and practice, which you referenced so often in Dignity, so present in back row America, but almost invisible in front row America?
Arnade: I guess I would reframe the question as, front row and back row have different religions, but the front row doesn’t call it a religion, they call it Science, and believe it is superior to all other religions.
Science is the religion of the highly educated because it provides them the answers to daily things, as well as deeper metaphysical meaning. It fits the definition of religion by Geertz — “A system of symbols which acts to establishes powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods in them by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”
Most importantly, like any religion, it makes them high priests, so it makes them, “more sacred, more moral, and better people.”
Whereas the front row has science, the back row has more traditional religions. Sometimes that means going to church, but it is more about how they approach navigating the world. Where as the front row believes in solving problems by running to the library to read books, the back row is more organic in how it deals with issues, often referencing their own personal experience, or using “common sense,” or by a more inspirational ecstatic approach that can involve contemplation (prayer, meditation, etc.) and self-surrender (giving yourself up to inspiration or fortune).
King: In your travels around America, what do different demographics (black/white/Latin/immigrant) have in common that you think would surprise people?
Arnade: To be blunt, normies of all races and faith are more similar to each other than they are to the front row. For the reason mentioned above on spirituality, and because they tend to be more focused on what I call non-credentialed forms of meaning. Which basically means things that bring you meaning and value that are not about having a big resume. Like family, faith, place, sports, relationships, etc. It is more important to be a regular at the bar, or bowling alley, or basketball court, or church, than it is to have another line on your resume to get the big job. That is largely true of most Americans, regardless of race or place. It is the resume chasers (the front row) who are the “weirdos” and outsiders.
King: What’s a concrete solution, either political/economic/social, to the back row/front row divide that you've seen work to bridge the gap?
Arnade: I am not sure I have any concrete solutions. I think limiting free trade, and refocusing more on national policy and less on foreign policy can certainly help.
The bigger issue is the front row has created a society and policy framework that is not conducive to local community health. They don’t view that as important as things like growing the GDP, or the stock market, or efficiency (whatever that is). The front row is in too much denial to see there is a problem and that they are a large part of it, because almost by definition the front row is who fills DC and NYC and make most of the rules for how everyone else has to live. Also: They really believe they are doing the right thing. People with good intentions are often the people who can do the most damage because they cannot be convinced they are part of the problem.
King: What do you see as your role moving forward within the American political/social movement?
Arnade: Ha! I am a gadfly on the outside who would just be happy to get the front row to focus more on the back row, in a genuine humble way. Not to scold them, not to try and “reform them,” but to listen to them and realize that part of helping people is to recognize it is offensive to think you know what is best for others. To maybe take a little humble pill, and start listening more, and explaining less. If I can do that by highlighting the divisions in the US, then that would be a great success. Otherwise I just want to hang in McDonald’s, talk to people, and feed my pet snapping turtles.
Links & Screeds
Every week, each AFW editor comments on the news, shares links, talks about what he’s reading, or just rants. Presented in the order they arrive in the Managing Editor’s inbox…
I recently subscribed to Niccolo Soldo’s concerningly named Substack “Fisted by Foucault” in order to join his book club, since he’ll be leading a discussion of the book Godfather of the Kremlin. It’s about Russian arch-oligarch Boris Berezovsky’s plunder of Russia in the Yeltsin era. According to Soldo:
The author, Forbes journalist Paul Klebnikov, was assassinated because of this book. Many have pointed the finger at Boris Berezovsky and his use of Chechen murderers, but the case has never officially been solved.
I’m looking forward to this, not merely for the inherent interest of a muckraking story about corruption, but also for the wider political import. Berezovsky rose to power and to stupendous wealth because of the sell-off of former Soviet state industries, the consequence of the “shock therapy” and privatization programme encouraged by neoliberal Western economists and presided over by Yeltsin and other Russian politicians like Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais.
After the fall of Communism, many of the eastern bloc nations came under the sway, to varying degrees, of neoliberal leaders and parties. And not just Russia, but also Poland, Hungary, Czechia, and Slovakia. Notice a pattern?
All of them are now ruled by nationalists and populists who reject liberalism (to an extent—some more than others). They occupy, or at least approach, that elusive corner of the political compass: economically left and socially conservative. The details differ in each case, but the general pattern holds.
(Please, if you haven’t already, enjoy this video of Vladimir Putin humiliating oligarch Oleg Deripaska for locking out factory workers without wages. “Give me back my pen,” is the chaddest moment ever caught on tape.)
One thing I’m wondering, going into Godfather of the Kremlin, is how directly you can trace the rise of populist nationalism to the ruinous effects of neoliberal economics. Further: Is there a lesson, or a prediction, hidden in there for America? Usually we think of America (and western Europe) as a political and cultural bellwether which eastern Europe (and the rest of the 2nd and 3rd world) will follow.
But what if eastern Europe, which experienced the devastating effects of neoliberalism in the ‘90s in a particularly unfiltered way, is showing us the way the west is headed? Neoliberalism has indeed held the upper hand here in the west too, but its corrosive effects have long been moderated by relative political and economic stability (as compared to the collapse of Communism), more robust civic institutions (especially churches), and social safety nets that didn’t get totally liquidated, as in the “privatized” eastern Europe of the ‘90s. As those moderating factors disappear here in the west, neoliberalism’s corrosiveness intensifies. As if here in 21st century America, we’re living in Russia’s 1990’s.
To this point, populist nationalism in the west is stillborn: Trump and Boris Johnson certainly resembled populist nationalists when they arrived on the delivery table, but they don’t really breathe. Perhaps Trump is the man for the moment, but the Republican Party is clearly not up to the task. Their inability to take a truly populist line on big tech—break them up and cast the pieces to the wind—is all the proof you need. Punishing Google, Twitter, Amazon, and Facebook would be politically popular on both the right and the left, but all that GOP legislators can do, including supposed populist nationalists like Josh Hawley, is whine about social media companies censoring conservatives.
Russia had the alcoholism epidemic. We’re having an opioid epidemic. We’re not even close to angry enough.
While working on my featured essay on the “trust the science” canard, I was struck with how those who truly do worship science and who have often been left-of-center on politics are now finding themselves combatting wokeness. I’m thinking of New-Atheist types who once lambasted Christians for their faith in things which could not be demonstrated scientifically. Their dedication to “follow the science wherever it leads” runs counter to the Woke’s agenda of total commitment to equitable outcomes.
The essence of this rift in the American left is best captured in Sam Harris’s podcast with Ezra Klein, which was the result of Klein having gone on the offensive against Harris for his decision to host a podcast with Charles Murray. Predictably, Klein accused Harris of giving cover to white supremacy while Harris insisted that avoiding scientific inquiries that don’t comport with politically correct narratives is both cowardly and foolish. Not only does the debate confirm my thesis that the Woke Left really doesn’t care about science, but it also reveals that “I F***ing Love Science” liberals, best embodied by Sam Harris, may yet be saved.
Let me explain.
It’s clear that wokeness doesn’t have any guiding principles besides power. They care neither for science nor justice. Harris and his ilk, though, despite their epistemological confusion, are standing firm on a principle. I say epistemologically confused, for their commitment to the supremacy of science above all is itself a principle which cannot be supported by science. Such confusion leads to much foolishness, such as Harris’ impotent attempt to build an ethical system upon science alone.
Nonetheless, the contradiction of claiming to trust only science while basing that trust on something pre-scientific is much preferable to the total consistency of the Woke. Everything from how one does science to how one understands history must conform to their ideological objectives. We could surely make common cause with Harris and co. in destroying the malignancy of Wokeness. Then we could go back to smashing their awful arguments for atheism. But the fact that they have always invited dialogue and continue to do so, in contrast to the deplatform-and-destroy MO of the Woke, gives me hope.
Untameable Native King
Dave Chappelle was a hero of mine. He spoke the truth about race in America and didn’t care if he insulted black, white, Asian, Mexican, whatever. My favorite Chappelle Show skit was the one featuring Wayne Brady where, while driving with Dave through the hood, Brady drops his “white-washed” persona and begins to act truly “black.” But even then, of course, he’s just a character playing a part. It’s still acting, just as he does on “Whose Line Is It Anyway.”
I was on the corner the other day chopping it up with one of my boys when a brother rolled up next to us to speak to him, emptied out a swisher and began to pack it, roll it, lick it, then light it up and offer it to my guy saying, “What’s up with my nigga, [name redacted], you want a hit bruh?” Before proceeding to state his intentions of driving to the nearest liquor store to acquire beverages for him and the mother of his child.
The question, dear reader, is this: Do you experience this behavior as a more authentic mark of blackness than Wayne Brady’s formal grammar and proper gameshow etiquette?
Watching the former participant of the mostly white (and mostly unfunny) improv comedy show “Whose Line Is It Anyway” and current host of the eternal homage to purposeless American consumerism “Let’s Make a Deal” as he pulls his car over and threatens a hooker, asking “Is Wayne Brady gonna have to a choke a bitch?” all while the other “authentic” black American man, Dave Chappelle, screams “run bitch, run!”—it captures the dueling roles black men are thought to play for both the media, for each other, and for themselves.
While “white people love Wayne Brady because he makes Bryant Gumbel look like Malcolm X” (an actual quote from the episode), black men are nevertheless expected to behave like Brady does in the streets: murking cops, imbibing drugs, shooting other black men, objectifying women, and liberally dropping the “n word.” And not just by white people. Black people expect it too; so do Mexican, Asians, people in the hood and people in Hollywood. The question every viewer thinks but nobody dares ask: Which is the real Wayne Brady? Which is the real Dave Chappelle?
And this brings us back to the corner in Town Biz. How has this happened? The answer Mr. Chappelle has come to, after much reflection, is that negative media portrayals of blackness are responsible for the behavior of people like my boy’s homie. But I can’t imagine my guy learned to clean, fill and roll that blunt by watching too many episodes of the Chappelle show, nor that he was deprived his whole life of watching any of the Cosby Show, notoriously free of any negative black stereotypes. (The irony being exactly what Bill Cosby was doing in his private life would cause most black men to be ashamed to share his melanin.)
See, what Dave Chappelle believes is that black men, his people, are oppressed into behaving and believing certain things about themselves. And yet, I wouldn’t ascribe normal black American beliefs about religion, gender and sexual orientation or child discipline to Dave. If anything, he seems to not be in step with the “black consensus”, as difficult as that might be for him to bear. Instead, his dominant political/cultural beliefs square more with other assimilated whites who share his “front row” status (see my Five Questions with Chris Arnade). And perhaps that’s where the confusion sets in for him and for us. As much as Dave might crave that black men assimilate into front row American culture, that brother who was driving to the liquor store for his baby mama probably cares more about Jesus than Dave. He also probably adheres to more traditional gender roles and would not want his own son to be gay. He would also probably kill for his people more than Dave (like the vaunted hero of Western Civ, Achilles, who piles up the Trojan youth on his best friend’s funeral pyre). And he has not chosen marital fidelity like Dave has. And has chosen to live a life outside of the American “system” more than Dave.
And this cannot sit well with any black American. So while my homie and Dave both seem to share common melanin and a common love of weed, unless we are going to head the way of “science” i.e. genetic determinism, we’d have to say they don’t share much else.
While Dave lives his life in small-town Ohio, insulated from the harsh realities of life outside the system, preaching to adoring white people about America’s racial issues current and past, dude got his babymama a Brisk Peach Iced Tea and come back to the corner, got out the car and dapped me up, lit blunt still hanging out the corner of his lip.
Ulysses S. Musculus
It is the year of our Lord 2020, but suddenly, also, the year of the Great Reset. Because, you know, Science says. Welcome to year 1. The French Revolution changed times, dates, holidays. They called it rationality back then, same thing. The revolutionaries knew what they were doing; they knew what time it was. Do we? To paraphrase one of our own great writers the French revolution isn’t dead, it isn’t even past, and we are now experiencing the truth that it was never just French. Ask yourself: What conservative holiday has been created in living memory? Now go enjoy Thanksgiving, instituted in 1870 by my namesake. Since then you’ve had Labor Day, Columbus Day, Martin Luther King Day. The holidays tell you where you’re going: worker-leftism surpassed quickly by identity politics. Even Veterans Day fits the pattern: Being a veteran is an identity. We already had the older, and more conservative, Memorial Day to remember our war dead (originally, “Decoration Day” since the day was for adorning the graves of the war dead—its name denoted not even a group of people but, like Thanksgiving, an act of piety). Ares takes the best. Do you predict the next holiday will be in honor of a shared vision of America or will it be for political pandering? My money is on Prime Day. The revolutionaries are always obsessed with what we honor. They desire nothing more than to make us believe that what they imagine is the truth. And that we honor the images they craft for us.
The intriguing thing about living in year 1 is that through “redpills” or other awakenings masses are coming to see that the world is not as we have been commanded to imagine it. The World Economic Forum explains that in the near future we will own nothing and have no privacy. But then they jump the shark as they command us to say: This is happiness.
I have said no to all this. What time is it? It is time to react. Follow me if you wish but as you do so, dear reader, do so with circumspection. Let me offer an image of the reactionary nature in its education.
The last man was lost in a forest. It was cold and dark. The grey conifers blanketed in snow. The last man spent his days in an endless repetition; he would wake up and feed himself a few handfuls of the moss soup he made the night before. Then, going out to gather more moss he would stop and relieve himself in the hole he’d dug with his hands before the cold came. Return, cook the moss in some melted snow, eat, and return to sleep in his hut. He had lost track of the days he had spent here. One day while gathering moss he fell into a snow drift. His leg hit something hard, a rock, he thought. But on inspection it was cold and grey but shining. It was sharp on one end and flat, hard, and heavy on the other. Digging this from the snow drift it was clear that this was a hammer. It had been ages since he’d seen one. What would I even do with this. Attached to it was a note: “Use in case of emergency.” It was handwritten in a thin and spidery script. That night was cold and the last man kept the hammer close to his body, though it drew the ever present cold nearer. The next day, looking at his moss soup, he struck it, suddenly, knocking the bowl into the snow, surprising himself. Gripping the hammer he ran from his hut towards the lake. Out onto the ice he ran until, stumbling he fell into the snow and with large swooping motions of his arms he cleared the ice until the frozen lake was bare for several feet before him. Lifting the hammer above his head he sounded a Yawp, as of despair and struck the lake, once, twice the hammer was brought down. On the third strike the ice cracked with the splashing sound of liquid water. A steam was rising up and the feeling of warmth licked the last man’s face. He looked, shocked, into the lake and there, below, was a ruby red and emerald green dwelling shining through the sapphire blue water. He leaned in and in the steam he could smell the sweet broth-rich scent of lobster thermidor. Madness and death, to be sure, he thought. He shook himself, looking around at the bare frozen landscape, as he braced for a dive.
In every week’s edition of The America First Weekly, we provide a “friends link” (no Medium subscription required) to that week’s original article written by one of the editors.
Scientists disagree! Consensuses change! Theories are refuted! How could we be so foolish as to put all our eggs in a basket that may fall apart the very next second? At what point scientific conclusions are “settled science” is never itself answered by science. Are we not always just one study away from overturning previous conclusions?
Rembrandt (painter of “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” above) watched his only son predecease him, and then died penniless on account of his prodigality, and was buried in a pauper’s grave. As was the custom for paupers, his corpse was dug up and destroyed twenty years after this death.
Is this the fate that awaits the mad reactionary who cracks the ice to catch a whiff of thermidor? Perhaps, but I would prefer such a beautiful madness and death to the corrupt, putrefying madness that something as asinine as “trusting the science” entails. Both Cassian Stylus’s feature article and Untameable Native King’s Q&A with Arnade touch on this “religion of science.”
John Adams famously said that a self-governing people must be religious if it is to preserve its freedom, but the conviction that a healthy polity requires piety was not original to our Founding Fathers. In Plato’s Laws, the Athenian stranger stipulates that atheism must not be permitted in the city.
While I (Bedivere) am not a veteran of the New Atheism Wars, I doubt that New Atheism is—or ever was—the foremost spiritual threat to the American people. Science, in the expansive sense of the settled conclusions and values of the woke managerial elite, is much bigger than Sam Harris’ arguments, and much more dangerous. It has totally stunted our religious and political vision, producing the agony well catalogued by Matty’s meme:
Defeating woke managerialism will require great courage and creativity. The Right will need to do much better than settling for either a multicultural surrender or a laïque one.
On that note, I’m pleased to share with you Stylus’s feature article: Trust the Science and Democracy Dies.