Exiled Thucydides

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As an empirical matter, democracy,
hallowed by usage and consecrated by time,
has never turned up, hastily dusted with lime
in a hole, shot in the back as it tried to flee
its own cackling imago, autocracy:
yes, some serene republics have declined,
but there their franchise was mere pantomime;
no well-begged question but can burst to be
its own best answer; the universe ordains
that if a country goes to shit, it must
be bad, its laws a sham, its votes a lie,
enraptured by its petty Charlemagnes,
pre-captured by its lack of civic trust:
it doesn’t happen; thus in this essay, I

Chasing the Clouds Away

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Shapiro

Are the muppets biased to the left? Of course. That was
the point of Sesame Street, as I discuss:
provocateurs like Snuffleupagus
preach Maoist leveling while Ernie does
his LGBTQI-best to shove
both his and dear Bert’s sinful “love is love”
anti-Judeo-Christian cant at us,
telling mere children, “Mom and Dad are sus.”
Hashem forfend! Miss Piggy may be trans,
sharing Kermit’s bathroom and his bed;
Statler and Waldorf swooned for Hamilton;
Big Bird’s Khmer cabal now favors bans
on “racist” speech; The Count is dead
by firing squad for saying one is one.

All Good Things

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Last night I woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t fall asleep, so I did what any normal person would do: I lay in bed in the dark and fixed Star Trek: Picard.

Picard was a hash, the obvious product of too many cooks combined with network pressure to turn a show about a retired near-centenarian in a Utopian future, in which starship captains teach androids to play Cyrano de Bergerac more convincingly as a hobby while they whisk across the galaxy faster than the speed of light, into a hack action feature, Flash Gordon meets  The Expendables. But Michael Chabon, the American novelist who became, in Hollywood’s dour argot, the “showrunner,” had at least a glimmer of a good idea. Utopias only remain interesting for so long; eventually, the capacity for drama is exhausted by the absence of internal conflict.

The problem: Star Trek already examined—and already examined better—the “darker” side of its universe in Deep Space Nine, which set its characters on a frontier and considered what happens when this advanced society brushes against remnant capitalism, labor unrest, the fallout of previous wars and occupations, the rebellions of its own borderland citizens, and finally faces a war of near total mobilization and all the compromises and crimes it is willing to commit and suborn in order to win and to survive. Against the latter seasons of DS9, Chabon et al. didn’t stand a chance.

Well, they were either too clever or too arrogant to recognize that, and so they tried, depicting a Federation exhausted by its own principles, closing its borders to refugees and fighting an internal conflict against a class of artificial un-people and swearing and generally enacting an incredibly on-the-nose, Very-Special-Episode, Have-You-No-Decency-Mr. Trump version of Earth and the Federation at the turn of the 25th century. With a sword-wielding warrior monk. In Star Trek. It . . . did not engage.

But Chabon’s instinct wasn’t entirely wrong. There was an interesting story to be told about an exhausted Utopia, but it required a subtler touch. The setting should not be that different. The Romulan homeworld has still been destroyed, but unlike Picard, which imagined that the destruction of a single world in a vast “Star Empire” somehow sent every Romulan fleeing toward the neutral zone, this was a terrible but localized catastrophe: a Hurrican Katrina of the galaxy’s future. Ever since the Dominion War, a fraught but durable peace has prevailed. Many Romulans have ended up resettling on Earth and throughout the Federation. Picard can even have his former Tal Shiar friends and caretakers.

Picard is still old and grouchy, frustrated with what Starfleet and the Federation have become, but emphatically not because they have become Space MAGA. Rather, he is exhausted because, contra the Picard that was made, true artificial intelligence has become commonplace. Bruce Maddox unlocked the secrets of the positronic brain, and with Voyager’s return, The Doctor’s sentient holomatrix has been replicated thousands, millions of times. There are not automatons; they are full, independent people. Moreover, they are more than people, and far from the race of super strong, super intelligent slaves that Picard fretted about in the courtroom drama of Measure of Man, they have come to dominate those areas of the Federation—Starfleet in particular—where once the highest peaks of human achievement were attained. Picard is not prejudiced against them; he is not an anti-android racist. He just looks at a society that more than ever has sunk into mere luxury—travel, food, consumption, fine wine—without the countervailing force of achievement and exploration, of striving and struggle for knowledge, and feels . . . exhausted. Has humanity become little more than a tired race of cosseted pets?

Then, in flashback, we see a precipitating event: a Borg Cube (yes, the same Borg Cube that the actual show cursed us with) en route to attack the Alpha Quadrant. But this time it is dispatched with almost comical ease. A fleet of Federation ships—neat-sentient ships, crewed by superhuman androids and holograms—sets upon it near the former Romulan neutral zone and easily defeats it. (Before, by the way, the Romulan sun goes nova.) It founders in space. Humans and Romulans begin the Borg Reclamation Project. Only . . .

Years later, in the show’s present, a slow-dawning and then terrifying realization. AI is beginning to die. A (apologies for the gross topicality) sort of virus has entered their systems, incurable and seemingly contagious. And then . . . Bruce Maddox disappears.

And then mad, bad Admiral Janeway calls Picard out of retirement to pursue the mystery. For who now can command a starship, at least among the mere humans. And here Picard puts together his ragtag team on an old, pre-AI ship. Seven of Nine, who instead of a new character we don’t care about is the one living in ragtag isolation, so far from her former place in a collective! Hey, a couple of the kids from Below Decks, now All Grown Up. His Romulan friends, who may have motives of their own. And thus they quest out into the galaxy, a crew on a ship trying to solve the mystery of what happened to the androids, what happened to Bruce Maddox, leading them eventually to the Borg Cube, the mystery of the android plague, the destruction of the Romulan sun, and the question of whether a Utopia can remain vital forever.

Bloom

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bloom

Bring in the boss and sit him down. The head
of the table is perfectly appropriate.
It is the last head that we’ll ever let
him have. Yes, I’m saying we’ll kill him dead.
Lop off his noggin. Weigh his body with lead.
Throw it from the gunwale of a midnight motorboat.
See if all that money helps it float.
Go home and kiss the kids and put them to bed.
“How was your day today?” inquires your wife.
“It wasn’t bad at all,” you say, and then,
quietly, so as not to wake the children,
make the quick, familiar love of a long-shared life,
watch some TV, say a quick prayer, amen:
better to live than to hoard a hundred billion.

 

Axes to Grind

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Capture

Being intersectional also means
existing where two plotted lines will cross,
where X plus A is Y you’re at a loss
to please the fascists and the communistic queens,
stoic farmers and mewling teenage scenes,
both wheat and chaff, both gold and foaming dross,
Israel’s psycho settlers and Hamas,
faculty and staff, adjuncts and deans.
Be everything to everyone, and at
all times tell every multitude that they
are self-contained within your sprawling mind:
each man and woman, goldfish, dog, and cat,
aspiration, measure, cloud, and day
exquisitely together, unaligned.

Ukraine

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I’d like to have a single, perfect call.
You on your side of the sea, and I on mine;
I with my morning coffee, you with wine;
the flights of fleeing geese, and chilly fall’s
first breath across the window pane. It galls
me: not to be very special, very nice;
not to be able to, friend to friend, entice
you not to be a criminal at all.
It isn’t fair. It isn’t true, nor good
when friends, such as we are, cannot aspire
through conversation’s friend, the telephone,
to be vague and yet completely understood:
what is it to talk, if not to conspire
against corruption’s favorite word: alone?

The Turd Rome

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We are drifting, in the absence of mind and will, toward a moment of civilizational self-negation.” -Bret Stephens

Western Civilization is a college
course invented by a claret-stained don
whose half-remembered Greek and passing knowledge
of the Gothic, Punic Wars, and Aragon
lulled the drowsy Bridesheads of the year of nine-
teen something into a vague embrace of beauty,
truth, and another glass of fortified wine:
then told themselves they had a solemn duty
to the plays they hadn’t read; basilicas
they found a little gaudy; philosophers
forgotten once they’d lost the syllabus;
spoken Latin; naval officers.
In town, Idomeneo, King of Crete
plays to an opera house of empty seats.

Retirement

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By 30, you should have a decent chunk of change saved for your future self, experts say — in fact, ideally your account would look like a year’s worth of salary, according to Boston-based investment firm Fidelity Investments, so if you make $50,000 a year, you’d have $50,000 saved already. By 35, you should have twice your salary, the firm said.

By the time you’re thirty-five you should have loved
one or two emotionally stunted men,
broken up, and immediately done it again.
You should have had a plantar wart removed.
You should have stood too soon and furiously shoved
your way off of a crowded plane. You should have ten
single unmatched socks. Most of your friends
should be better off, do yoga, self-improve
while you’re still at the bar five nights a week,
still smoke when you drink too much, get stoned, and tweet,
sill plan to plan to write a book, still drive
the car you bought at twenty-six, still seek
sensations strong enough to mask defeat.
You don’t tell anyone you’re thirty-five.

The Princess and the Peon

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We need a Disney Princess who one night
awakes in a sweat in her vast, cold bed to find
a prickling guilt in the back of her lovely mind:
what she has inherited is neither just nor right;
out in the fields of wheat, the peasants’ plight
is that his labor and his wealth are unaligned;
the commons closed, his status thus declined—
the owners took the surplus. Where Princess might
once have called the maid for milk and gone
back to bejeweled dreams and tiny snores,
this time she rushes to the palace’s marble stairs,
cries to the dawn that there will be a dawn,
princes brought down to raise up beggars and whores,
collective ownership, and headless heirs.

The Simp-osium

Books and Literature, Conspiracy and the Occult, Culture, Media, Poetry, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics

dank

Democracy dies in dankness. A ring of smoke,
it goes wafting to the ceiling of the studios
you share with several twenty-something bros
you sort of knew in college; another toke,
and then the conversation turns baroque:
what if all the mind believes it knows
is just a holograph? can we suppose
that Croatan were aliens at Roanoke?
What were we saying? Yes. Democracy.
Boy-fucking Plato thought it was a bad
idea, mostly, prone to demagogues;
reason crowded out; stupidity
inevitably ascendant; even a mad
king better than a congress of rabid dogs.