The Lord Of The Rings, Forgotten Conversations

Sometime around Bilbo’s fiftieth birthday.
Gandalf: “Hey, can you save me and a dozen idiot dwarves and a hobbit from wolves and orcs?”
Gwaihir: “Sure.”

A few months later.
Gandalf: “Hey, can you save a dozen idiot dwarves and a hobbit from wolves and orcs despite the fact that the morons wouldn’t be in this situation if they’d just split off some treasure for some folks who frankly earned it by slaying the dragon they stirred up?”
Gwaihir: “Sure.”

About eighty years later
Gandalf: “Hey, can you save me from the tower of an evil wizard powerful enough to lock me up in it?”
Gwaihir: “No problem.”
Gandalf: “Hey, while we’re on the subject, can you save the entire continent from literally the most evil being on the planet? The only thing he has that can fly are on horses hundreds of leagues west of here. You just have to drop us off at the big mountain.”
Gwaihir: “Fuck, dude, we’re not your taxi service.”
Gandalf: “Okay. If I call you in about a year, can you pick up a couple of hobbits for me out of Mordor?”
Gwaihir: “Sure.”

The Awful Choices

This one’s going to be fast, because I’m running out of time, but it’s one I hope is useful to other writers.

Recently I was reworking a story because of length issues. Amazingly, it was because the story was too SHORT for a market by about 3,000 words, and if you don’t know how rare that is, then oh, my sweet summer child. As I worked on it, I realized that I had made a blithe assumption about how possible it was to do something involving helicopters.

So I consulted an expert and simultaneously realized that a) there were two really obvious workarounds if “something” turned out to be impossible. As it turned out, the expert got back to me and told me that “something” was quite workable so long as you did, in fact, have really GOOD helicopter pilots.

So now I had three possible ways of solving my problem, but the following issues:

Most Dramatic/Awesome Approach (i.e. “something”) is also Least Plausible Approach.

Least Dramatic/Awesome Approach is also Most Plausible.

Most Plausible Approach also is Most Likely To Surprise Protagonists (which needs to happen).

Middling/Plausible Approach makes it difficult for the protagonists to ever find out what happened.

I turned to my research to see if it could nudge me along the right track, here. No such luck. The research basically said you could do whatever and justify it from there. So what should I do?

I still don;t know. But I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going with the high action/drama, because that shit is FUN, and why the hell else do people read science-fiction?

 

The White Sands Of Arrakis (A Fisking)

Those of you who are even passingly familiar with this blog will realize that the novel Dune is something near and dear to my heart. So about a week ago, my attention was drawn to this article that pretty much makes Frank Herbert’s novel out to be the original “White Man’s Burden.” I rebut this argument. Rules for the fisking: The fisked article is in italics, and my responses are in bold.

Original can be found on The Escapist. If you want to go there yourself, have fun. I’m not interested in dignifying it with more hits.

With news that a new Dune film is in the works, it’s worth pausing to

hope that the filmmakers remember that the Imperium doesn’t use guns in regular combat?

remember that Paul “Muad’Dib” Atreides is the most egregiously, preposterously, overpowered uber-hero in the history of explored space.

Aw, shit, for a moment I thought we were going to talk about something important.

In Frank Herbert’s original 1965 novel, Paul is

1. an unbeatable ninja hand to hand fighter

Except for Gurney Halleck, who fights him to a draw, Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, who very nearly beats him, and Count Fenring, who (Paul knows) WOULD beat him, but refuses to fight him. So, unbeatable except for people who can beat him, right.

2. a human calculating supercomputer

In an Imperium where that quality is a known and trained profession, something like spies are today. So, he’s got a talent for a career path. Yes, incredible.

3. a genetically engineered male witch with a Voice that must be obeyed

Trained in that Voice by his mother, who was trained in it from her membership in an order of thousands and thousands of women who train in that same ability. Amazing. A kid who learns from his parents. Well, that IS unusual. 

4. a seer with the ability to predict the future

Very erratically and with little idea, especially at first, what he’s seeing.

5. a matchless military strategist

Trained by and partnered with older and wiser military strategists who are pretty much planetary general officers. I would hope he’d get pretty good at it.

6. the chosen one of multiple interlocking prophecies

All of which were engineered by the Bene Gesserit just in case one of their own ever needed to use them to save her skin by playing prophetess. So it’s really just one prophecy. You weren’t paying attention, were you? 

7. all of the above. He probably shits gold too while flowers spring up where he walks. Why the hell not?

Well, at a guess because there was no justification for that given in the novel. What kind of argumentation is this? OMG, THIS CHARACTER CAN DO A WHOLE BUNCH OF THINGS THAT ARE ADEQUATELY EXPLAINED BY THE TECHNOLOGY, CULTURE, AND CLASS THE CHARACTER GREW UP IN, BUT THAT WOULD BE COMPLETELY OUT OF THE QUESTION FOR ANY OF US TODAY!! I GUESS THAT MEANS HE CAN DO BULLSHIT MAGIC, TOO!!! Are you aware that science-fiction is generally about people who can do stuff that we can’t do today, because of reasons explained in the text?

Superman has super breath and even super-hypnosis in some iterations, but even when he’s muscling planets around, he looks like a pallid also-ran next to Paul, who spends his days ruling the universe, not foiling bank robberies.

Um, Paul spends exactly 0% of the novel ruling the universe. He spends about 2.5 pages at the end of the book knowing he will rule the universe as its emperor. He spends approximately 67% of the book leading a guerrilla army and running away from Harkonnens. Again: read the book. 

No wonder everyone in Dune is always staring at Paul open-mouthed and thinking about how awesome he is.

“EVERYONE IS ALWAYS!” Except for the people who aren’t and don’t. Like Gurney Halleck, who treats him like the kid he trained, and later his lord. Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, who just wants to gut him. Jamis, who wants to gut him. Stilgar, who starts out treating him like prey, and later like a Fremen boy. “Everyone is always” means you’re going to make your point, facts be damned. Like those people who go around claiming that Jesus is basically Mithra by conveniently ignoring all the differences between those two stories. They’re the same except for where they’re different. The United States is exactly like Nazi Germany, except for the free elections, constitutional rights, and lack of gas chambers. Got it. 

Even Jessica, Paul’s mother, is overwhelmed, musing about how she’strained [his] intelligence … but now she found herself fearful of it.” Paul is amazing; Paul is terrifying. Be amazed and terrified, reader!

Because no parent has ever freaked out when realizing that they’ve managed to raise a child stronger or smarter or whatever else-er than they are. That’s a major theme of the book, in case you’d like to be better informed than the author, here.

Dune is basically a long, tripped out, ecstatically bloated reiteration of the Mighty Whitey trope. A Mighty Whitey is a European or white character who adopts the culture of indigenous people, becoming their king and gaining near mystical powers along the way. James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, a white man who adopted the ways of Native Americans and became the most strong and noble of them all, is an early example. Other iterations include Tarzan, the comic strip character the Phantom, C3P0 among the Ewoks, Dr. Strange (who goes to Tibet to learn Eastern magic and ends up being better at it than any Tibetans) and Iron Fist (who goes to the East to learn martial arts and ends up being better at it than … well, you know the drill.)

And aside from the rather ridiculous inclusion of C3P0 among the Ewoks, which is a parody played for laughs, all of those examples take place on pretty much contemporary Earth, with racial definitions much the same as our own.

Besides which: Paul is white? Where exactly does it say that Paul is white? He’s described early on with green eyes and black hair and a thin nose. Okay, that’s not conclusive, but let’s grant that those features seem “whiter” than not.

Then are the Fremen NON-white? Let’s look at how they’re described. Like Stilgar. When we meet Stilgar, he is anxious to reclaim a lost crysknife. He enters veiled, but reveals a face with “a thin nose and a full-lipped mouth in a glistening black beard.” Likewise inconclusive. “Full-lipped” might be taken as a racist dogwhistle, but the thin nose is exactly like Paul. But why is Stilgar concerned about the crysknife? Well, the evil Harkonnens (who are related closely to the Atreides, remember) are offering a huge reward for one. Why do they want a crysknife? Duncan Idaho explains: “With [one], a blue-eyed man could penetrate any sietch in the land.”
Wait. He could? Well then, if Paul is white… and therefore the Harkonnens are white… and a white man with blue eyes only needs a crysknife to spy on the Fremen… then what color are the Fremen?
Say it with me…

Dune is set in the far future, but Herbert wasn’t coy about drawing parallels with earthbound colonial narratives. Paul is a noble duke from a planet with a temperate climate. Though it’s the far future, he’s associated with a European-style noble tradition.

And we know that because he’s called a duke and his enemy is a baron, and they’re all ruled by a Padishah Emperor, which is a European title. Oh, wait, no: that’s stupid. Padishah is Persian, and was also used by Ottoman and Mughal rulers in West Asia. Hey, here’s an idea: maybe when so much is mashed up like this, we should consider that the parallels aren’t as absolute as all that.

He’s also the product of a centuries long breeding experiment, so he’s effectively a perfect eugenic specimen.

Um, did you just say that we know Paul must be European/white because he’s A PERFECT EUGENIC SPECIMEN? Or that a perfect eugenic specimen must be white? That’s… not a good assumption, either way, to say the least.

He goes to Arrakis, a desert planet whose inhabitants, the Fremen, are persistently linked to Arabs.

And were based, according to Frank Herbert, not only on Arabs, but the San of the Kalahari, and the Navajo. And they speak Chakobsa, which really is a secret language of the Caucasus, probably based on West Circassian. You know what word we get from “Caucasus,” don’t you?
Say it with me…

Their culture includes both the hajj and jihad.

PAUL’S culture also includes the jihad. From the Butlerian Jihad, specifically, which would be far more relevant to everyone in the universe than what Arabs believed over 10,000 years prior. So who borrowed “jihad” from whom, here? And how do the Fremen make hajj to Mecca when Earth is lost? Now if you were familiar enough with the book to really delve into it, you’d find that Herbert was way ahead of you. As hinted at above, there’s evidence that that the whole feudal system in DUNE is based on the Ottoman Empire, which would make Paul and the rest of the ruling class Muslim. Herbert even claims that the religion of the Atreides’ Caladanin peasants was a purer form of Islam than the Fremen’s religion was (Appendix II). So there’s a pretty strong case here that either EVERYBODY in this book is white or NOBODY is.*

The Freemen (sic), are portrayed with the familiar tropes of noble savages. They are fierce, proud, dangerous, loyal, and organized into tribes where (male) leadership is determined through trial by combat.

How is that different from Paul’s culture, except that Great Houses substitute for “tribe?” And birth substitutes for combat? And the Fremen are still white.

As in many an earlier colonial fantasy, the Fremen first plan to kill Paul, but when they find out just how cool he is, they quickly make him their leader and worship him.

Again, reading comprehension escapes us: They plan to kill Paul and his mother until they find out how awesome SHE is. Jessica is the one who disarms Stilgar with her bare hands. Paul has to go through another trial by combat, and even then is barely declared a man.

This isn’t a one time thing for the Fremen, either; before Paul, their previous leader/god figure was an off-world ecologist named Liet, who, in Herbert’s words “had gone native.”

And was half-Fremen, which you’d know if you read the book. Liet’s father, Pardot Kynes, would be a much better case for Mighty Whitey shenanigans, but that would require you to both a) read the book and b) base your essay on a character that only shows up in the appendices, and that’s just not as sexy, is it?
What you have here is a real failure of the imagination: you cannot comprehend that Frank Herbert might have been combining LOTS of features of LOTS of civilizations in a way to portray a culture so far in the future (over 10,000 years) that it is completely alien to us. And that’s a common means for science-fiction to portray such hypothetical distant cultures. The idea that DUNE concerns itself with our present racial angst at all is really ridiculous on the surface. Think about it. How many civilizations that are 10,000 years old can you even name? The pyramids are more recent than that! What social constructs of “race” did such people even HAVE?
Now, I’m sure if the author were to comment on this piece, he would say something like: “You idiot, I’m not talking about how the culture of the Imperium would really work: I’m talking about how Frank Herbert can’t help framing his triumphant narrative in racist and colonialist terms in a novel written in late 20th-Century America.”
To which I respond, “That frame is only there because you put it there.” I mean, you could make the exact same argument with Octavia Butler’s Dawn series: Because the Oankali arrive to save humanity from the consequences of its fratricidal war, and alter humanity without consulting them, which actually changes humanity for the better, this is a justification of real-world colonialism and “uplift” schemes. Now, how ridiculous would it be to read Octavia Butler (who is emphatically NOT WHITE) this way? Ridiculous, right?
Now obviously this is not to say that neither Herbert nor Butler were ENGAGING with issues of race and colonialism. Of bloody course they were! But they aren’t singing a hymn in praise of The White Man’s Burden, either!

The Mighty Whitey trope suggests that a white person dumped among less white people will automatically become a king and a god. But in Dune, as in other Mighty Whitey stories, there’s a bit more going on.

Firstly, that the Fremen are not less white.

Paul’s whiteness makes him an object of worship for the Fremen.

Other, less race-obsessed people, might consider that Paul’s military and physical training, his knowledge of military history and genetically-engineered prescience make him an object of worship for the Fremen, who desperately need all those qualities, considering they’re being hunted by the Emperor’s elite troops. But they say to write what you know.

But his time with them also gives him access to his full prophetic abilities, ultimately allowing him to defeat the Emperor and become the effective ruler of the universe.

Because Arrakis is the only place where the spice will become inescapable for Paul and bring him to his full powers. Again, that’s in the book.

Similarly, Tarzan is tougher and stronger than other European whites and Iron Fist has powers denied to most white people. Whitey is mighty not just in contrast to people of color, but because of his affinity for people of color.

Or just as possibly, other white people who have been forced into serfdom and outlawry. Amazingly, people do sometimes learn and grow strong when they are exposed to the ways of others who have had to survive tough conditions. I guess Paul should have kept living like he did on Caladan? Because that wouldn’t have been insulting, condescending, or racist at all.

This makes sense if you see Mighty Whitey’s might as a metaphor for imperialism. White people grow wealthy and powerful by subjugating other peoples and extracting their resources.

Now, what’s really funny here is that in order to make your narrative of “Paul The White Oppressor” work, you have to erase huge swaths of the book. YES, there’s a metaphor for imperialism, here. Arrakis is a victim of imperialism by their Harkonnen overlords supported in their imperialism by — pay attention, the name is a clue, here — the Padishah** EMPEROR. Who “grow wealthy and powerful by subjugating other peoples and extracting their resources.” Paul is a LIBERATOR of the Fremen. He is helping them to fight AGAINST that oppression. Which according to you, makes him their oppressor! I await with breathtaking interest your next essay in which you explain that sand is a metaphor for water!

In Dune, the Arrakis desert contains a loose oil analogue called spice. Spice powers spaceships rather than cars or factories. The spice is a drug which sparks telepathic and precognitive abilities and pilots must take it to steer from planet to planet. The Fremen have been made into super fighters by the harsh conditions of Arrakis. Paul takes the spice to become a prophet, and capitalizes on the misery of the Fremen when they become his warriors and sweep away all before them.

Incidentally freeing them from the Harkonnens, who made a ritual out of mocking people dying of thirst, and the Emperor, whose forces happily killed women and babies. The Fremen were already competent-but-miserable warriors who were losing. Paul’s prescience, training, knowledge of weapons, and more importantly his ability to train the Fremen, turned them into warriors that could win. But that doesn’t matter: the important part is that Paul capitalized and that’s bad. Because it sounds like capitalism. Which is bad.

Paul’s divinity and power comes from his ability to capitalize on the resources and pain of others.

No. No it does not. Paul’s powers were already there, and they are activated by the spice that is in the food he eats and in the air he breathes. He begins experiencing his expanded psychic powers before he ever meets the Fremen in the desert. The author is literally accusing Paul of breathing the Fremen’s air and equating that to theft. And by the way, the Fremen claim to “indigenous” status is pretty sketchy in the first place, considering that their ancestors are not native to Arrakis. If anything in Dune can claim “indigenous” status, it’s the sandworms, who are harnessed as riding beasts by the wonderful, “indigenous” Fremen, who plunge hooks into them and ride them to exhaustion. And Paul’s “divinity” comes from the Fremen only on a very surface level: the Fremen were primed to accept Paul not on their own, but by the schemes of the Bene Gesserit, who planted religious legends (Panoplia Propheticus) literally everywhere centuries ago so that their members could use them.

On the surface, Mighty Whitey characters are superior because of their whiteness.

Except they’re not, because the Fremen are just as “provably” as white as Paul. Paul is superior because he has powers other people do not and cannot have. He’s superior because he has wealth and training very few people have. Now if you wanted to argue that Paul is superior because of his privilege, that would be undeniable. He’s a ducal heir. He literally DOES have noble privileges. 

But dig a little deeper, and their powers are borrowed or, more accurately, stolen. They are godlike because they’ve appropriated the labor and wealth of others.

OMG! Nobles steal shit from commoners? NO! Say it ain’t so! In this essay about a novel in which feudalism is portrayed as oppressive, you have detected that feudalism is oppressive. So perhaps I was wrong, and I should instead eagerly await your essay revealing that sand is dry.
This is what happens when people get so wrapped up in current political dogma that they don’t study actual history. Revolutions and revolts are nearly ALWAYS led by discontented elites. It was true of the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, etc. DUNE is one more story about that.
I suspect, however, that the point of this essay is that you want stories of a Revolution explicitly and exclusively led by non-whites and/or the proletariat victorious without help. The hero should not be Paul, but rather Stilgar.*** If Stilgar weren’t, you know, a white guy leading white people. Paul should not exist.
What is it that outrages you here? That Paul might use his privilege to help the oppressed attain liberation. But I thought that’s what privilege was SUPPOSED to be used for!
There is literally no way to tell this story that would please you. You want characters in Paul’s position to be simply irredeemable, not based on what they do, but based upon who they are. In actual feudal times, it used to be unconscionable for a slave to aspire to noble blood. Now, it is unconscionable for a noble to aspire to proletarian blood. If Paul acts like an Atreides, he is an oppressor. If he acts like a Fremen, he’s a worse oppressor. Doubtless if he’d done nothing and left the Fremen to the Harkonnens and the Empire, he would be complicit. When EVERYTHING is oppression, NOTHING is.

Paul claims to be wracked with guilt because he sees a future in which he leads the Fremen in a path of bloody destruction across the universe. But really the guilt is for his present glory, built on blood and a deceit that the story won’t, and can’t, quite acknowledge.

Well of course it can’t. You won’t let it. None of Paul’s skill is allowed to count. All his training, all his work, all his determination counts for nothing because it comes from privilege. None of his suffering is allowed to count. He loses his father, his son, almost all of his friends and mentors, is forced to keep the woman he loves as a concubine in a last desperate gambit to mitigate the terrors of the jihad he’s failed to prevent. Paul’s choice is to either completely repudiate his status as the Messiah — in which case he and the Fremen would both lose and become victims of WORSE oppressors — or to accept the lie. That’s one of the main tragedies of the book: that Paul cannot ultimately find a path between tacit deceit and leaving the Fremen oppressed by rulers that intend to commit literal genocide.

A novel that does acknowledge it is Tasha Suri’s 2018 epic fantasy Empire of Sand. Like Dune, Suri’s book is set in a desert and features an incredibly powerful leader, the Maha. Paul’s eyes are blue, because of the spice he takes; the Maha’s pupils have “points of light within them, light as sharp and jagged as shattered glass.” And like Paul, the Maha has a terrifying attraction. Mehr, the novel’s heroine, fears that, “If [the Maha] had wanted to make me love him, I think he could have.”

The Maha is an ageless emperor whose subjects adore and fear him. But his power doesn’t come from himself. Instead, it comes from people like Mehr.

Mehr is a member of the Amrithi, a people who have an intimate connection with daiva, or desert spirits. Amritihi dancing rituals can control the gods. The Maha enslaves Amritihi and forces them to pray for his power and his empire. He’s larger than life because he’s taken other people’s lives and added them to his own.

“Without the dreamfire, you’re nothing but a man who likes to hurt people,” Mehr tells the Maha towards the book’s conclusion. The dreamfire in Empire of Sand is the connection to the gods — but it’s also just other people’s stuff and other people’s labor. Paul is a ninja/computer/prophet/king/mighty whitey only as long as the Fremen aren’t free. When they get their liberty, Tasha Suri suggests, we’ll have fewer god emperors, and maybe a more just world.

Not having read Empire of Sand, I can’t comment much here, except to note that if we accept your claim that Paul is an oppressor for teaching the Fremen the skills they need to defeat their oppressors, another parallel follows. You are (so far as my research can determine) a white American who is trying to point out all the ways non-whites are oppressed, and alert them to their oppression. And you’re making a career of writing about that. Which you could not do unless there was oppression. What does that make you?

*And if you don’t like the book because everybody is white, fine. Just don’t try to make the Fremen non-white AS WELL.
**Still neither a white nor a European title.

** Whose power, let us remember, is based on his ability to be the nastiest son-of-a-bitch with a knife in the sietch. Remember? You said that.

 

NOT QUITE FREE FANTASY STORY!

So, I’m excited to report that with the contract novel delivered to Digital Fiction Publishing League, I’m back on track working on the continuing adventures of James and Harriet, the daring veterinarian (and his lovely assistant witch) of the Evil Dark Lord who rules the world.

Superversive Press, my publisher for this series, has agreed to allow me to post chapters as they are completed, and this will continue until the work is done. And as an incentive to back me on Patreon, I am offering to my patrons the next chapter in James and Harriet’s saga: “The Exanimation Room.”

Now, go patronize me!

The Adopt A Bottle Of Scotch Charity Birthday Drive.

Dear friends. I am writing to inform you that thousands of bottles of scotch languish daily on liquor store shelves waiting to be adopted. To address this issue, I am selflessly dedicating my birthday to their cause. Won’t you please follow the link and donate to this noble goal? Should I gather sufficient funds, a picture and review will be posted of the “rescued” bottle.

Perhaps you feel that buying writers scotch is not really “supporting” them, because they might end up “drunk.” Well, you are right! In that case, you could buy one of my fine books on my Amazon Page.

Or, perhaps you do not feel like contributing money. Excellent! You could spare a moment to write a quick review of one of the fine books on my Amazon Page!

We’re just grateful for whatever you can do.

Maine Reactor Back Online…

Hello, loyal readers. Just a little update on why the long radio silence, here.

Last week was our first really, really BIG family vacation, prompted by the 90th birthday of my wife’s only surviving grandmother, whose big birthday request was a family reunion. So, naturally, the first thing we had to do was send me and Son to Webelos Weekend, because when you’re planning for a week away from home, the best thing to do is start things off right with a camping trip for half the family. If that doesn’t make a lot of sense to you, as it did not to me, I suggest you review this faithful transcript of the conversation I had with my wife over the matter:

Me: “We’re going to be driving with all our children to MAINE. It wil be exhausting, and besides, there’s a Scout camp every summer. Do we really have to..?”
Wife: “YES.”

So, having been convinced by that argument, Son and I went to Webelos Weekend where we donated approximately a half-gallon of blood to Satan’s Aerial Red Cross, but other than that had quite a bit of fun. We then came back and took off for Maine.

Get ready for a profound observation: The United States is really, really big. The last time I drove to the East Coast, it was from Kansas, not Wisconsin, so technically that was a bit longer. Notwithstanding, that time I was splitting the drive five ways, not two, and I was also about 23 years younger, and the youngest person in the car.

All kidding aside, it was a great blessing to be able to show the kids something like a sixth of the country. We waded in the Atlantic Ocean. On our travels, we saw crabs, snakes, and more deer than I ever thought possible. We met cousins we hadn’t seen in years, or in the case of the kids, ever. And they got to meet their great-grandmother. That’s not a thing that most of us get to do, these days. I remember my own great-grandmother clearly from my childhood, and treasure it. I am glad that my own children will at least have some of those memories.

On the way back, Wife’s uncle was kind enough to invite us to a wonderful barbecue, and if you have never eaten smoked salmon, pork, and brisket in the same meal, I highly recommend it. The weather was wonderful, and the only real downside to the trip struck on Friday morning, when Elder Daughter succumbed to carsickness, and we had to deal with very unpleasant odors on the way back.

I must say that while visiting Niagara Falls was wonderful, I don’t really recommend visiting on Saturday. Also, go EARLY and avoid the lines that plagued our visit. That said, riding the Maid Of The Mists practically into the Horseshoe Falls is well worth it.

Also, Saturday nights in summer, the hotels all along I-90 in Ohio are booked. Solid. Be warned.

However, that is why I have not blogged this week. Everything should be starting back up now. Watch this space for details.

On Virtue Spoofing

In society in general, as well as — perhaps especially? — F/SF fandom, there has been a lot of talk about “virtue signaling,” lately. For those readers who have been living somewhere in the planetary asthenosphere, “virtue signaling” usually means that a person wants to draw attention to the rightness of their cause, their general belief system, or just themselves.

Now, there’s no problem with signaling that one believes in what is virtuous. It’s a natural and healthy human desire to believe that one is on the the side of righteousness and to oppose evil. In that sense, it’s what every good person should do: stand up to be counted for what is right. Where would we be without patriots, or abolitionists, or even the spirit of political opposition that says, “what is popular and easy is not what is right?” This kind of virtue signaling is important, and can be laudable, and even courageous.

Of course, what follows from that is that the more your virtue signaling is lauded, the more likes and approval that is showered on you for doing it, the less courageous, the less laudable, it is. Oh, you may still be on the side of virtue, but it’s easy virtue. It was easy to be anti-Nazi in Germany in 1950. It was not so easy in 1933. It was easy to be against the Vietnam War in 1968. We forget that it was not so easy in 1964.

Humans are tribal. So we like to signal that we are a part of our tribes. At least most of us do. I seem to be very weird that way, because cheerleading for the tribe bores me to tears, and is probably the reason I don’t really have one. But I’m not entirely immune: I like easy praise as much as the next person.

So a lot of what we’re seeing here isn’t really virtue signaling, as such. It’s tribal signaling. “Look at me, I am one of you. Accept me. I belong to this tribe, and I want to love whom I love, and hate whom I hate. And I have power to do so because my tribe is strong, and will protect me, and we shall have the victory.” It’s not particularly evil, but it’s not particularly virtuous. It’s just very human.

But the real problem here isn’t when tribal signaling masquerades as virtue signaling, because that’s just a coded message to the like-minded. It sounds better than literally shouting “Rah-rah-rah, my group is the best, suck it, you outcasts.” No, the real problem is what I’m calling “virtue spoofing.”

Spoofing is an electronic warfare technique in which signals or drones are sent to simulate a radar contact that isn’t really there. It’s used to make the enemy fire at nothing or to make them run away if they believe you have a force you don’t. And virtue spoofing is used the same way: to make it appear that you have a virtue that you don’t. So unlike tribal signaling, virtue spoofing is a lie. It’s a lie that we tell others, and worse, it’s a lie we tell ourselves.

I am not speaking here of the lies that real predators tell, such as the pastor who preaches fidelity while having affairs with the women in his congregation, nor the media icon who stands up for “feminism” while sexually harassing women in his profession. Those are problems, as we have ample cause to know, but more capable writers than I have said more than I could add to about that sort of hypocrisy.

No, the virtue spoofing I wish to discuss is that kind where we try to pretend, to ourselves and others, that if we just talk enough in the right ways about all the right things, then that must make us virtuous people. But that’s not what virtue is, and it has never been what virtue is. Instead, the narratives that we see constructed are essentially magic spells designed to create the illusion that we are good people. But when we do this, we inevitably place ourselves in the role of judges: Anyone who does not signal the way I do is bad. Only those who signal the way I do are good.

This is a very different thing than what is truly virtuous, which is to treat people as fully human, flawed, fallible, and nonetheless as worthy of love and respect as we ourselves. It is popular to spoof virtue, because loving our neighbor in spite of his evil, in spite of his sin, and in spite of his apathy is hard and exhausting. It is much easier to look at the signals, and separate the people who matter from the people who do not matter, and it is a very short step from there — shorter, I think, than we realize — to believing that perhaps we ourselves do not matter, and to fall into despair.

 

If we are to be, and not merely seem, virtuous; if we are to practice, and not spoof, virtue, then we must begin by practicing what is hard: loving one another, and loving ourselves, while acknowledging our flaws. We must not give in to the easy venting of emotions and confuse that with real action. We must remember that in Tolkien’s words, All that is gold does not glitter. Then, perhaps, we will discover in others and in ourselves the treasure that is real virtue.