Why the Monuments Matter

“Eventually they will win, because it is their movie—Gotcha!

Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)

All histories are semi-fictions.  There are historical facts induced from various kinds of evidence, but these facts are mere fragments, and to write history you must select the fragments that you think are important, arrange these fragments into a pattern that you think is significant, and then fill the gaps between these fragments with the theoretical mortar best suited to hold them in place.

All of these choices are arbitrary.  I do not mean that you wear a blindfold.  Quite the opposite.  I mean that you choose the fragments, the pattern, and the theoretical mortar.  If you are not aware that this is what you are doing and believe that you are finding important facts, and discovering significant patterns, it is because you are mimicking the arbitrary choices of some other historians.  You will call the choices you mimic your method and theory.  To be a Marxist historian is, for instance, to mimic the arbitrary choices of Marx.

Arbitrary choices have consequences, indeed profound consequences.  To say that a choice is arbitrary is not to say that it does not matter what you choose.  Quite the opposite.  A man who puts a gun to his own head is about to make an arbitrary choice.  He is free to put the gun down or pull the trigger.  But no one would say that his choice does not matter.

When I say that all histories are semi-fictions made by arbitrary choices, I simply mean that the facts do not arrange themselves, and that appeals to historical method and theory merely rationalize (or better disguise) the arbitrary choices of historians.  The great reactionary historian Maurice Cowling explains:

“‘Science, morality and enlightenment,’ so far from providing ‘rational’ norms, are in fact the persuasive slogans [a dishonest historian] happens to use in order to conceal the uncritical belief that his body of assumptions is not arbitrary at all.”*

* * * * *

Tom Wolf is remembered as a pioneer of the New Journalism, and what made the New Journalism new was that it did not conceal the fact that journalism is semi-fiction.  All of Tom Wolf’s journalism was kind of like a novel; and all of his novels were kind of like journalism.  The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) is a semi-fictional account of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, a rollicking band of drug-addled hippy freaks that Tom Wolf said was about to change the world.  The events and characters are real, but Acid Test is Tom Wolf’s story.

And what Tom Wolf tells us in this story is that we all live in a semi-fictional reality that is made by the arbitrary choices of our storytellers.  Or, rather, of our movie makers.

In Acid Test, the Merry Pranksters are ostensibly making a movie, and journalist Wolf is ostensibly writing a book about the movie-making antics of these drug-addled hippy freaks.  But what Wolf really writes is a warning that the semi-fictional reality of America is about to change because these drug-addled hippy freaks are the new “movie makers” (i.e. the new reality makers).  Unsurprisingly, in this movie, all the good roles go to the hippy freaks and their friends.  Good bye Roy Rogers and Tom Mix.  Hello Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  As one of the Merry Pranksters says,

“We’ve sucked them into the movie and dissolved the bastids—”

The movie maker decides who are the good guys who are the “bastids” (and, yes, I think the phonetic spelling is an anti-Semitic dog whistle).  And when the semi-fictional reality of America became “the Prankster movie,” all the former good guys became “bastids.”  We cannot say that Tom Wolfe did not warn us.

“Eventually they will win, because it is their movie—Gotcha!

Roy Rogers was a good guy in a Roy Rogers’ movie.  In “the Prankster movie,” Roy Rogers is a “bastid” or a clown.

* * * * *

I have live most of my life in the first reel of the Prankster “movie,” and I must admit that I at first liked my part.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were way cooler than Roy Rogers and Tom Mix, and rollicking, drug-addled hippies seemed like a pretty fun crowd.  But I had not read the script to the end, and so did not know that I had been cast as the Heavy Who Gets Blown Away in the End.  I laughed at old fogeys who said that the Prankster “movie” was a trap, and it was many years before I heard hear Ken Kesey crowing,

“He had done it.  It had been his movie.  He had drawn them into his scenario.”

What does it mean to be “drawn into his scenario”?  It means to follow his script and say the lines he wrote for you, even when he cast you as a bastid or a clown.  To return to the terms of my first section, it means to act as if the semi-fictional history through which the official historians of your society say you are moving (and of which those official historians were the script writers) is an objective rather than a social truth.  And there is little to be gained by acting otherwise, since those who object to the scriptwriter’s premises and assumptions immediately become the movie’s  bastids and clowns.

* * * * *

Monuments matter because they tell us who the good guys are in this “movie.”  They tell us whose semi-fiction must be treated as true.  Their violent removal is not a leading indicator of cultural change.  Hateful graffiti on an old plinth is not a canary in the cultural coal mine, especially when the vandals are appeased and not arrested.  The violent removal of a monument is final notice that anyone who deplores the desecration is now a rat of the underworld in the vandals’ new movie.  When the statues of your heroes are torn down, your cultural world has been already been dissolved, and you are already playing a different role in a new movie.  And because this is now their movie, you are cast as the Heavy Who Gets Blown Away in the End.


Bastid?  Clown?


*) Maurice Cowling, The Nature and Limit of Political Science (1963)

13 thoughts on “Why the Monuments Matter

  1. What about the statues that are put up so that they may later be knocked down by one who wants to virtue signal, after so many have been conditioned to revere the false symbol. I am speaking of course, of the democrat Confederate statues.

    • I suppose this might happen, but if I understand your meaning, I would deny your example. The American political parties have no enduring qualities, so the Democrats who raised statues to Confederate soldiers have no hidden affinity with the Democrats who are pulling them down. Nineteenth-century Democrats favored a small, decentralized government and low taxes. Their support of slavery and segregation really followed from the principle of decentralization, since they never said that there must be slavery and segregation everywhere. Nineteenth-century Republicans favored centralized government (the Union), and they believed in public spending for schools, universities, etc. A rump of the old Democrat party lived on in the Dixicrats, but by 1980 they were all Republicans. A rump of the old Republican party lives on in what used to be known as Rockefeller Republicans, but most of those people now vote Democrat.

      • What binds both slavery and the present democrat regime is eugenics. Remember that “the switch” occurred when sex was tossed into the civil rights act of 1964. Democrats were able to walk away from their legacy of racism and immediately cash in on the new abortion culture that would grow from women flooding the workplace (and incidentally competing against the newly enfranchised black male for jobs).
        The solution, given this week’s scotus decision, is to give the civil rights act back to blacks only because all of this piggybacking of various sex/gender categories is blackface anyway.

      • Eugenics wasn’t really a thing until the 1890s, and then it had bipartisan support. Most educated people favored eugenics until it got a bad name because of its connection to Nazism. Republicans opposed slave labor, but very few of them had what would today be considered enlightened racial attitudes. Abraham Lincoln did not think that Blacks were equal to whites, for instance. American political parties are devices to bundle votes into winning majorities. They do this in various ways, some of which are honest; but they have no permanent identity.

      • Eugenics got it’s start in 1662 when colonies passed the slave codes that said a child born to a slave mother would be a slave. This changed slavery into a slavebreeding operation, which was even referred to during the constitutional convention. It was why noone really thought the 1808 slave import ban would have any effect, and slavery would continue to thrive for decades after, ad infinitum if the cornerstone speech of the Confederacy and declarations of secession would have held sway.

      • If slave breeding had been eugenic, slave breeders would have selected for docility, efficiency, strength, etc. The vast majority of males with undesirable traits would have been castrated, and females with desirable traits would have been repeatedly fertilized with sperm from the plantation “bull.” Slave owners understood breeding for desirable traits, and did it with their dogs, horses and cattle; but they do not seem to have done it with their slaves. Fertility maximization is not eugenic. In fact it is probably dysgenic because it selects for impulsiveness and low intelligence.

      • “The American political parties have no enduring qualities”

        As a foreign observer, I would merely point out that in any mature democracy, two political parties (or coalitions of parties) emerge: the friends of corruption and the sowers of sedition; those who seek to profit from existing abuses and those who seek to profit from the disaffection those abuses evoke.

    • Bastids strikes my ear as a New York pronunciation of bastards. I realize that most people who pronounce bastards bastids are not Jews, but also know that people who mimic Jews do so by speaking with a New York city accent. Otherwise, I find the spelling unaccountable in a book about west coast hippies. Perhaps the phrase anti-Semitic carries too much associated baggage. If I’m correct, Wolf was merely winking at Jews to acknowledge their skill imposing their “movie” on non-Jews and framing all their enemies as Bastids.

  2. Pingback: Why the Monuments Matter | Reaction Times

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