The Devil and Daniel Webster

The Devil and Daniel WebsterI saw the DVD The Devil and Daniel Webster at the library today, so I grabbed it. It is one of those titles that stand out as something you must have seen but have no memory of. On reading the case, I realized that I hadn’t seen it. But it was irresistible. It was yet another story about a man who sells his soul to the devil. I think I have a special love for that plot because it is so problematic. In almost all cases, it depends upon some trick to get the hero out. And when it is a tragedy, as with Dr Faustus, it has the problem of being silly. What person who believes in God would sell his soul for 26 years? Or seven years, as is the case with this film.

As with Dr Faustus, it is far easier to side with the Devil than it is to side with the protagonist, Jabez Stone. In fact, the contract with the Devil seems to be the least of his concern. He turns into a truly vile human being — only seeing the error of his ways in the final hour or so before the Devil comes to collect his soul. Such redemption comes easy as the people who love him quickly forgive him. That leaves only for the family friend Daniel Webster to come to the rescue and defend him in front of a kangaroo court. Frankly, the only reason that I cared was because Webster had to put up his soul in exchange for Devil’s allowing the trial. Stone’s redemption didn’t much matter at that point.

The film was made in 1941 — released just two months before the United States entered World War II. And it is a curious mix of New Deal patriotism. It clearly vilifies money, and goes to great lengths to claim that the problem isn’t money itself. I think what the film is trying to say is that money is going to corrupt anyone who isn’t as great as Daniel Webster. Overall, it is a very liberal film. At one point Webster notes that political freedom means nothing if you don’t have personal freedom. That’s an idea that has lost all its currency in modern America. Now it seems that Americans think everyone is free, even if they can’t find a job and can’t pay their bills. That’s no kind of freedom.

The best line in the film goes to the Devil himself. Webster claims that the Devil has no right to take Stone because the Devil isn’t an American. The Devil claims he is very much American. As proof he says, “When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on the deck.” Can you imagine the outrage — even among many Democrats — if a major Hollywood film said such a thing today? That’s not the American way! Today, we make films glamorizing psychopaths and weep about how hard a time they have reentering regular society.

It’s an interesting — and in its way a great — film. But it stands out to me as a political document. I wish I could get all Democratic activists to watch it. It shows how liberals can grab onto populism and patriotism. I talked about this with regard to William Jennings Bryan. Patriotism doesn’t have to be stupid. It is just that we’ve allowed the Republicans to claim that theirs is the only kind of patriotism. And that is nothing but the festering corpse of patriotism. It is patriotism used for one purpose: to make the rich and powerful ever more rich and powerful. Shame on us liberals for allowing that to happen. We aren’t channeling Daniel Webster and we’ve allowed the Devil to take control of our country.


The real Daniel Webster was a great man. However, in his later years, his lust for the presidency did cause him to abandon the “common man” who he had spent most of his career working for. It seems the Devil eventually got to him. But this isn’t the Daniel Webster I am talking about above.

On Commitments to Political Constituencies

Daniel O'ConnellI am the more confirmed in this determination by everything I see and hear in this country. Their statesmen in and out of office have their minds too occupied with English and foreign affairs to have either leisure or inclination to be troubled with the wants of Ireland or the rights of her people. I solemnly declare my conviction that the senate of Petersburg or the divan of Constantinople would be as ready to attend to the grievances of Ireland as the British House of Commons. There is an utter ignorance of, and indifference to, our sufferings and privations. It is really idle to expect that it could be otherwise! What care they for us, provided we be submissive, pay the taxes, furnish recruits for the Army and Navy and bless the masters who either despise or oppress or combine both? The apathy that exists respecting Ireland is worse than the national antipathy they bear us.

—Daniel O’Connell
Letter to TM Ray, 1839

No Girls Allowed: Gamergate and Privilege

No Girls AllowedI don’t stay up much on the whole gamergate thing, for reasons that will become clear enough in a moment. But I found Todd VanDerWerff’s article over at Vox interesting, Gamergaters Don’t Think It’s About Ethics in Journalism. They Think It’s About Colonialism. For those of you who are blessed with having never heard about it, gamergate is basically a great big whine on the part of the traditional gaming community who think that the girls and the darkies are going to pollute the insular fun of their Call of Duty games. I think the best way to think of gamergate is to imagine three ten-year-old boys inside a tree fort with a sign on the outside that reads, “No girls allowed.”

This article is in reference to an article by Gita Jackson at Boing Boing, We Are Not Colonists. According to her, the traditional gamers feel as though they are settlers of a world with their distinct culture. And now, they feel all these “foreign” elements are coming in and taking over. This is, of course, a ridiculous notion. No one is trying to stop people from getting their vile kicks from Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto.

I think the “colonization” paradigm is a useful one. But it describes the situation from the inside. Jackson asked the question, “Are there ‘natives’ to non-physical spaces?” Of course there aren’t. What makes one a native is to be born and raised in a place. These gamers are just as much immigrants as anyone else. But most of all, no one is taking anything from these guys:

Colonialism historically removed power from minority groups, stripping them of their homes and cultures. But no matter how many thinkpieces on gender and race and sexuality in games get written, there will be a new Call of Duty every year. For every Twine game, there are thousands of bros who will buy the next hot AAA release without reading a single review.

But I also think it is simpler than this. The complaints of the gamers are exactly the complains of any group with power that sees that power threatened. It is really just about privilege. I don’t think the irony is missed on anyone that these aggrieved games are generally straight white mans of the middle class and up. The whole of gamergate can be seen as a microcosm of the American power elite’s clinging to power — or a replay of the aggrieved white male of the 1970s, trying to deal with the increasing public power of women.

From what I can tell, the ultimate fear of these basement dwellers is that people are starting to look down on them. And I think they are right. I think the portrayal of women in almost every game I’ve ever seen will gradually be seen sort of like Playboy magazine. But having the world think that you aren’t creepy, immature, or both is not something anyone has a right to expect. But expecting things you have no right to is the very definition of privilege.

Latin Mottoes and Conservative Outrage

Vermont SealVia The Vermont Political Observer, we learn that No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. Go read the article and the ones before it — it’s fascinating. But the basic story is that an eighth grader who was studying Latin noticed that Vermont did not have a Latin motto. So she requested that Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning pass a law to add one. And it was a really great on: Stella quarta decima fulgeat, which means “May the fourteenth star shine bright,” a reference to Vermont’s status as the fourteenth state. But since I’m writing about this, you probably already know what happened.

People heard that the Senate was trying to create a Latin motto and they freaked out. Let’s list some of the more amusing comments:

  • Kevin P Hahn: “How about ‘go back south of the boarder'” [The Swiss border? The Austrian border? Or just that short Italian boarder who stays with us on weeknights?]
  • Phil Salzano: “My question is, are we Latin, or are we Vermonters? Alright then, English it is…” [Even better: make it Vermontish.]
  • Zeb Swierczynski: “ABSOLUTLY NOT!!!! sick and tired of that crap, they have their own countries.” [Well, had.]

This last one goes along with a number about how people need to know how to speak English. This is curious, because the original use of the word “illiterate” was to describe someone who could not read and write Latin. It is also funny how many people claimed that poor Senator Benning was “dumb” and “idiotic.” If ignorance is bliss, these must be some of the happiest people in the world!

What bothers me most about these reactions is that it shows that many Americans don’t even value the European traditions that they so often use to attack other cultures. So it is no longer a question of the United States being the most recent and greatest expression of western culture, it is that the United States is just this singularity that has no beginning and no end but rather just is. This represents a very big problem for me. I still think that there is much to be said about the “great books” approach to education. I want to be more inclusive, but I understand the wish to celebrate the western journey from Homer to Virgil to Dante — Greek to Latin to Italian. But to not know that intellectual history is submental and does not speak well of the United States as the greatest empire in human history.

Digby noted something else: “the conflation of Muslim with Mexican.” But it isn’t limited to that. To these people, all that seems to matter is that these other places are foreign. These are the same people, after all, who hated France because its government didn’t go along with our government in the invasion of Iraq. The only foreign country these people like is Israel, and that’s quite recent. And the only reason they like Israel is because it kills a lot of people who these conservatives hate even more.

An eighth grader requesting that the state create a Latin motto is a great example of American ideals. The negative reaction to it is a great example of American reality: ignorance, fear, and hatred under the guise of patriotism. It’s also the predictable outcome of our terrible educational system. But conservatives want to “fix” this system by making it even worse. Don’t let students know about the actual history of the world. Just start with Thanksgiving (1%), run through the Revolutionary War (50%), teach the Civil War as unnecessary because slavery was dying anyway (20%), explain how the income tax is unconstitutional (10%), and jump right to how Ronald Reagan saved the nation (19%). Give a multiple choice test and call it, “Education!” We don’t need no stinkin’ Latin!

Morning Music: Mozart

Kalle RandaluI think we desperately need a little Mozart this morning. And I’ll tell you, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik seems like the perfect thing. All those counterpoint lessons really paid off late in his career. Yet in his hands, it doesn’t seem at all technical. It’s pure brilliance, which is why well over two centuries after its composition, literally every person I’ve ever met knows it. And thus, I don’t think we need to listen to it. (But if you prefer, YouTube has Les Dissonances doing a very capable job of it.)

Instead, let’s listen to the last movement of Mozart’s Piano concerto No 15. Here is a delightful performance by the Estonian pianist Kalle Randalu. He isn’t nearly as old as he looks. But then, he’s a lot older than he plays. It is beautiful:

Birthday Post: Fascism

Benito MussoliniOn this day in 1919, fascism was born. It seems like only yesterday! Maybe that is because the United States has so many fascist elements to it — and I’m not just talking about the Republican Party. When the head of Whole Foods said that Obamacare was basically a fascist law, he wasn’t wrong. Neoconservatism is entirely in keeping with fascism in terms of nationalism and foreign policy. But neoliberalism has many similarities to fascist economic policies. I don’t know where we ever got the idea that the best way to improve the lives of Americans was for the government to “partner” with the private sector. I think neoliberalism has had a much greater negative impact on Americans than neoconservatism. Of course, the fact that most neoconservatives are also neoliberals (or worse) when it comes to the economy does tilt the argument quite distinctly away from them.

The reason that today is the birthday of fascism is because today is the day that Benito Mussolini started his political movement. Of course, fascism dates back much further than that. In fact, it is hard not to see fascism as fundamentally a movement trying to bring back the Roman Empire. I don’t think we should hold it against the Romans, given that they ruled roughly 2,000 years ago, but they had many of the same kinds beliefs and policies that we know and despise in modern fascism. I think there will always be fascists, the only question is how much power we will allow them to get.

The American right wing has a lot of fascist elements. The biggest way is in their nationalism. That is probably the single most important aspect of fascism. But there are other aspects: authoritarianism, imperialism, traditionalism, racism, and anti-intellectualism — all of which are alive and well in American conservatism. There is one way that the American right is not like fascism. In its early days, fascism believed in workers being combined as an important part of the power structure of the nation. So basically, you had labor, business, and government all working together. American conservatives are not on board with that kind of thing. In that regard, they are more believers in feudalism. So you can say that American conservatism is very much like fascism, but worse.

Liberals, of course, are not like that. But the New Democrats (who continue to control the Democratic Party) have a number of similarities. But it’s like everything about the politics of America: the New Democrats generally suck, but they are so much better than the Republicans (who have been completely taken over by the conservative movement). A better argument could be made that Democrats are communists, but that doesn’t make much sense either. I think that most people on the American left wing see themselves ultimately as being in favor of a kind of Swedish socialism. And the worst you can say about them is that their markets are not as efficient as they ought to be. I don’t agree with that criticism, but I’ll take it if the conservatives will accept that there really isn’t much they have to disagree with Mussolini.

Happy birthday fascism!