With the inauguration of one of the most deeply concerning president-elects only days away, with a large plurality of citizens now staring down the barrel of a presidency that will—at best—significantly delay the march of social progress and—at worst—actively set it back by decades, and with a growing number of brave lawmakers refusing to attend the inauguration and legitimize the new status quo, I thought it would be a good time to offer some reading/viewing/listening recommendations. A few cultural object lessons to enrich your perspective of the developing political landscape and to inspire you in the days ahead.
For those of you who prefer to jump directly to the recs, I present them here:
Reading: Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson; The Open State and Its Enemies, vol.1, by Karl R. Popper
Viewing: The Untouchables, directed by Brian De Palma
Listening: Year Zero by Nine Inch Nails
For those of you who prefer to read my thoughts on these recs, carry on…
Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America
Erik Larson’s gripping history of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair—and the serial killer who operated in its shadow—is a story about the binary of human nature in its most extreme form. On the one hand, a group of talented visionaries band together to create a spectacle showcasing the creativity, ingenuity, and optimism of the human spirit. On the other hand, an ego-driven sociopath stalks along the outskirts of that towering spectacle to engage in acts that demonstrate the incredible depths to which human depravity can sink. Broad in scope, yet intimate in message, Devil in the White City is an exploration of what it means to be human and therefore capable, in equal measure, of both greatness and abomination.
One of the things that makes this book such an interesting read in the present historical moment is its deconstruction of sociopathy and narcissism. H.H. Holmes, who undoubtedly got a radar boost from the recent Sherlock episode—”The Lying Detective”—which patterned its antagonist on the real-life serial murderer whose shadowy motivations are the focus of much of this book’s attention, was first and foremost a con man. He was a con man who habitually lied to, cheated, and sometimes killed the men and women who were his creditors, who worked for him, who were related to him, or who had the misfortune to stay in the accommodations he provided on the edge of the World’s Fair grounds. And he did it all, seemingly, because he could. Because it amused him to. Because it made him feel powerful. Because it flattered his ego. And because the people around him were not equipped to deal with the problem he presented. He was a liar and a cheat and a brazen double-dealer in a system that was not designed to catch men like him and hold them accountable. And he nearly got away with his many, many crimes as a result.
And—minus the homicidal tendencies, of course—that scenario (flagrant con man working a system that is not prepared to deal with him) sounds very, very familiar.
The Paradox of Tolerance
It’s an argument that has recently been bandied about quite often in political discourse: we have to be better than those we’re fighting against, we have to take the moral high ground or everything we’ve fought for will be for nothing, we have to be tolerant of those whose views are ethically abhorrent because everyone has the right to their views—no matter how repugnant. Among those citizens who are bent upon protest and resistance, these admonitions read like tools of silencing and oppression. Karl Popper, in volume one of The Open Society and Its Enemies, describes this conundrum as “the paradox of tolerance.”
“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”
Refusing to tolerate intolerance, naturally, raises questions about the sovereignty of free speech, and—indeed—the line between hate speech and free speech is one that is regularly contested. I, myself, tend to err on the side of speech, even when controversial, because the danger of suppression (even in a just cause) is that it will rebound on you with a vengeance. Any tool you claim for yourself can be used against you, so you have to choose your tools with care. Nevertheless, sometimes you have to fight fire with fire.
We celebrate the fighting of fire with fire when we find it in fictional or historical realms. “I have forsworn myself,” says Eliot Ness in The Untouchables (one of cinema’s great meditations on the necessity of moral compromise to successfully taking down a great evil). “I have broken every law I have sworn to uphold, I have become what I beheld, and I am content that I have done right!” So says Eliot Ness, and the audience cheers. We cheer because, in the cinematic realm, good and evil are easily distinguished—even when the good is morally compromised and the evil thinks that it is not. In the real world, however, it’s harder to distinguish good from evil and therefore more difficult to know when moral compromise is necessary or appropriate. As such, I understand the caution some people feel when it comes to condemnation and resistance. But for me, right now, it seems clear enough what has to be done, and I will not be tolerant of intolerance.
In 2007, Trent Reznor (recording as Nine Inch Nails) released what is—arguably—his best and most relevant work—a concept album set an alternate dystopian future in which America is ruled with an iron fist by a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. The album was a form of political protest via creative license: a critical response to the social and political climate of the period and, in particular, to the erosion of civil liberties that took place under the Bush administration in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Now, with the ascendancy of the Alt Right and the ongoing assault on civil liberties in the name of Christian morality, the album feels downright prescient. Reznor’s Year Zero—the year that, according to the fictionalized American government, marked the rebirth of the US—was 2022.
In 2007, 2022 was fifteen years away; now it’s only five.
Listen to the album in its entirety here.