Captain America versus Cuba

Over on Space Battles some people have been discussing what the 20th century would have been like if the movie version of Captain America had been around – Vietnam, the Iran Mossadegh thing, the Bay of Pigs. Then someone posted a comic book treatment of what Cap would do during the Cuban Revolution:

[Captain America]’s going to kick open the door to Fidel Castro’s guerrilla hideout and give the strongman a speech on ethics, individual responsibility and freedom and the ideal that the Cuban people should strive for. Then the two of them are going to go out and fight evil Batista’s fascist dictatorship and Rogers will train his ragtag guerrillas into diet Special Forces. During the War in the Mountains, entire battalions of Batista’s troops will switch sides after being given an eye watering speech on freedom and American history. Then in the climactic issue, Captain America leads his… I mean Castro’s… Rebel band into Havana and they storm Batista’s palace and suddenly realize the power behind Batista’s dictatorship was HYDRA all along working with the evil Mafia Maggia. Using American Judo Boxing, Captain America defeats the Supreme Hydra before Batista takes Fidel Castro’s brother hostage and is like… I’ll kill you all unless you put down your weapons! So Captain America puts down his shield and then Batista shoves Raul Castro aside and then takes aim at Captain America and FIRES!

But Che Guevara, the idealistic young man with a promising medical career who decided to become a freedom fighter and has become like a protege to Captain America suddenly leaps into the path of the bullet as Fidel Castro hoses Batista down with a burst of gunfire from his All-American ™ Tommy Gun. Che Guevara dies in Captain America’s arms, his last words being… “I would have liked to have seen the Washington Monument…”

Afterwards, Captain America makes another speech to Fidel Castro about some Latino dude he knew back in the Howling Commandos, because all brown people are kinda similar and then asks what Fidel Castro will do. And Fidel Castro is like I’m going to redistribute liberate the wealth stolen riches of the landowners fascist supervillains and foreign businesses Maggia criminal groups to help support the poor and working class Cuban people in order to build a better future by investing in infrastructure and education. And Captain America will be like, that sounds like the right thing to do! And Fidel Castro will respond… it’s the American way!

Fin

Genius at work

As I mentioned, I read The Count of Monte Cristo for that anime podcast I’m in. The novel was so long – 1200 pages – that I kind of had to take a break from reading for a while after. I don’t really have an analysis of the book so much as some scattered musings.

First of all, let me just mention that if anyone wants to read the unabridged English translation then I recommend the Penguin Classics Robin Buss version over the free Project Gutenberg ebook. It turns out that Project Gutenberg uses the first and original translation from back in the 19th century and so feels rather stiff and creaky. The Buss translation is from 1996 and it feels a lot more natural. The book was meant to be a sensationalist page turner when it was originally published and it’s the Buss version that made the story flow that way for me.

Overall I liked the novel but it’s clear that Dumas was being paid by the line. The story could have been a lot shorter and it’s striking how much of The Count of Monte Cristo isn’t actually about the count of Monte Cristo. That, and the story is full of garrulous characters and lengthy descriptions of people and places. Thankfully the book never goes full George R.R. Martin, though.

I find it interesting how short the chapters are, since most are only around ten or so pages. This is unlike a lot of modern novels, but it actually reminds me of the short instalments that are normal in really long fanfiction. This is an apt comparison since both this story and long fanfics are or were both released serially in sequential instalments.

The story itself is very cosmopolitan in outlook. Dumas shows off how au courant he is with contemporary theatre and literature, as besides the expected references to French texts, Dumas casually drops references to Shakespeare, James Fenimore Cooper, Walter Scott, Byron, and 1001 Nights. I wonder, was Dumas the Bourbon Restoration version of a movie nerd today making a film that drops allusions and references to a smorgasbord of modern pop culture?

Also, I did some very rough back of the envelope calculations to figure out how much the treasure at Monte Cristo was worth. I had to find out the exchange rate for livres to British pounds since the historical currency converter I use doesn’t have French currency. It turns out the exchange rate varied from place to place and the only one I could easily find was for Dover. I then had to convert the pounds to present money. With those caveats in mind and accounting for inflation, the count’s treasure amounts to $5 million US in 2015. It’s a decent number though not exactly fuck you money. Still, the economy was smaller back then and that fortune formed a greater percentage of the total amount of money floating around at the time.

As an amusing side note, the book mentions twice that Italian cuisine is the worst in the world, and it phrases it in a way that seems like a widely-held opinion. I wonder, would Dumas have been referring to Italian cooking as we think of it today? If so, what specifically did Dumas and his contemporaries have against it? Maybe it’s all the tomato sauces and the unfamiliar mouth-feel of pasta.

Finally, let me end in remarking that the novel contains more scenes than I expected of men trying to blow their brains out.

God and my right

Many faux-medieval fantasy stories willfully ignore the overarching influence of the Church on European society. Knights were specifically said to be soldiers of Christendom and Christianity permeated every level of society, from the beggars who depended on handouts from the charitable orders to kings who had to be wary of excommunication. Medieval economics was also shaped by the Church, for it was considered impious for Chistians to charge interest on loans, which left moneylending as a Jewish profession. All these things and more made medieval Europe the way it was.

The Red Knight by Miles Cameron avoids this ahistorical presentation. It’s essentially set in a parallel universe Middle Ages where magic exists. Sorcerers require a license from the Church to practise magic, dragons rule over large parts of the land, and the forces of Satan threaten humanity everyday.

The world, you see, is divided in a war between God and Satan. However, the forces of Satan are actually just the forces of Nature fighting back against human encroachment. Having legitimate grievances, though, does not preclude moral excess, and the intelligent creatures of the wild massacre entire villages in their fight.

The author is a re-enactor and a history freak, which shows in the level of detail he displays in his fictionalized medieval England. Fencing masters teach moves for fighting monsters, rebellious peasants bide their time in the shadows, and despite the state of total war people come to accommodations with their supposed adversaries.

Anyway, I liked the book. Read it if you want more history in your fantasy.

Past is President

Odd fact No. 2,596,322 about the United States of America: Should George Washington return as a zombie, mummy, lich, revenant, poltergeist, or other type of undead, the armies of the United States are required to follow his orders. 

Whereas Lieutenant General George Washington of Virginia commanded our armies throughout and to the successful termination of our Revolutionary War; Whereas Lieutenant General George Washington presided over the convention that formulated our Constitution; Whereas Lieutenant General George Washington twice served as President of the United States of America; and Whereas it is considered fitting and proper that no officer of the United States Army should outrank Lieutenant General George Washington on the Army list; Now, therefore, be it

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

That (a) for purposes of subsection (b) of this section only, the grade of General of the Armies of the United States is established, such grade to have rank and precedence over all other grades of the Army, past or present.

(b) The President is authorized and requested to appoint George Washington posthumously to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States, such appointment to take effect on July 4, 1976.

Approved October 11, 1976.

Public Law 94-479

Hail to the King

You catch a clan member stealing food - what do you do?

I’ve recently gotten into the computer game King of Dragon Pass. You play as the chieftain of a clan of Iron Age barbarians. It’s set in a fantasy universe with dragons and whatnot but it’s still very well-researched with regard to the attitudes and material life of your people. The broad mishmash of Celts/Gauls/Saxons/Norse that the game is drawing inspiration from feels realistic. Wealth is measured in cattle and you must continually propitiate the gods for political legitimacy. Also you can do stuff like take out a lawsuit on a ghost haunting a house.

The game society’s gendered division of power is not so overwhelmingly patriarchal but it doesn’t feel like a sop to political correctness. The way it’s presented in the game feels perfectly plausible and shows that the developers studied their history and/or anthropology. Using female slaves as currency like the Irish did would have been kind of interesting, though – "You want misogyny? Have some goddamn misogyny you unwashed neckbeards!" I imagine the developers shouting.

It’s a very unique take and practically a game in its own genre. How does one classify this? A strategy roleplaying fantasy game, perhaps? There are no real time elements and when you’re not picking what crops to plant then you’re just clicking on choices in dialogue trees. But the roleplaying narrative the game creates for you is so involving that you feel the need to keep going just to see how your clan will fare.

Still, despite my enjoyment, lately I’ve plateaued on the game. I’ll be back and at it soon enough, though. There are trolls out there that need slaughtering, and who else is going to do it?

Alternate prehistory

I just finished reading Stone Spring by Stephen Baxter. It’s an alternate prehistory novel set in 7300 BC in the former land bridge that connected Britain to the continent, before the water from the melting glaciers raised sea levels and turned perfidious Albion into an island nation. Against this backdrop of climactic change occurs the story of the Etxelur people and how they come to build great dikes to keep out the sea and thereby changed the face of the earth itself. The book is first and foremost a novel, so the story focuses mainly on the relationships and petty struggles between the various individuals and factions and not on the admittedly dry and boring geological details.

After a small tsunami wipes out half of her tribe, Ana organizes her people and their neighbours into a labour force that works on the dikes during the abundance of the summer. Her obsession with preventing the sea from claiming more lives and land eventually leads her to buy stone and slaves from another tribe.

Essentially, this part of Stone Spring depicts the hydraulic theory of state formation in action, which proposes that states formed because people needed to organize themselves in order to build and maintain complex irrigation systems, otherwise they’d have starved to death.

I didn’t like this part of the book because it felt unrealistic from an anthropological point of view.

Continue reading “Alternate prehistory”

Amerika

Over in the Alternate History Discussion Board, a message board where people go to discuss historical what-if scenarios, someone asked the question of whether a communist or fascist America was more likely to happen in the past. Obviously it would have to happen before the Second World War and quite possibly earlier – home-grown communism in particular would have needed to arrive before 1918, otherwise the panic over Bolshevism would have tainted communism with the whiff of essential foreignness. The general consensus was that fascism was more likely, given that the pre-existing capitalist state was and is already closer in form to fascism anyway (I paraphrase, of course). However, other posters have pointed out that a communist America was not quite a wild-eyed hallucination, and that there were already certain strains of American socialism that could have eased the transition into communism. Like many discussions of American politics about communism, many participants confused socialism and communism, but it was still enlightening to read about an America that could have been.

Guardian of the Sacred Spirit

Discovering an exceptional but lesser-known work of fiction for oneself is one of life’s smaller pleasures, one made no less enjoyable for being such an ordinary experience. The story of Seirei no Moribito (Guardian of the Sacred Spirit) itself feels rather small and ordinary; instead of covering an epic struggle between good and evil, at its heart it’s about the depths of maternal love and how far a person can go to protect a loved one. The melancholy nature of the song in the video captures well the feeling of the show, much better than the opening song, in fact, which I found rather insipid in an inoffensive pop song way.

Seirei no Moribito is based on the first book of a Japanese fantasy series and it covers the story of Balsa, a female bodyguard, who is tasked with protecting a prince from his father’s own assassins. There are many things to like about the series, not least of which are the lush backgrounds as can be seen in the video. Generally speaking, it’s a lot more realistic than other anime that deals with swords and the supernatural. You won’t find arcs of blood stylishly spraying into the air or fighters shouting out the names of their attacks; rather, all of the fighting is firmly rooted in real-world martial arts.

Unusually for the genre, the anime does not deal with the samurai-and-ninjas feudal era which first springs to mind when one mentions “Japan” and “swords”. Instead, the series is set in a fantasy world based on Heian-era Japan, which is to say, Japan before the samurai. Japan was governed more like Imperial China, with the Japanese emperors wielding direct political power as the sons of Heaven. This is the opposite situation of the later feudal era, where the emperor was largely a figurehead.

It’s interesting to note that the hydraulic theory of state formation posits that states formed in early China because a centralized power was needed to organize the necessary resources that allowed complex irrigation systems to nourish rice paddies. Ancient Japan, of course, consciously modeled itself on China, and the fact that both countries relied on rice as the central staple food in their diets certainly helped keep their systems of government in sync for a while. Certainly a bunch of squabbling feudal lords couldn’t have organized things half so well.

Of course, one must then ask why feudalism arose in Japan if central organization was so necessary to keep a country of rice eaters alive. There are of course the political and historically-contingent reasons for why the strong Japanese state broke down (short story: a combination of screw-ups and bad luck for several Japanese emperors). Improvements in military technology and the resulting change in recruitment practices also gave greater power to regional leaders, and I suspect developments in agriculture also helped. A separate military class rose to challenge the power of the imperial government, a civil war happened, and slowly but surely the samurai were the new rulers of Japan.

Admittedly, all this is going rather far afield from the original topic of the anime series. What can I say, I have a certain fascination for states and state formation. Anyway, to return to Seirei no Moribito: I liked it. If you like serious anime, please try it out. Not that I hate the funny (Ranma 1/2 remains one of my favourite shows, period), but Moribito definitely deserves a larger audience, which I hope this blog post might in some small way help to provide.

On The Righteous and Harmonious Fists

The Economist recently published a fairly decent overview of modern Chinese attitudes towards the Boxer Rebellion (judgement on the historical accuracy of the article supplied by Frog in a Well). Overall, there’s nothing surprising about how the Chinese nationalists have lionized the Boxers and how the underground Chinese Catholics have their own counter-narratives about the Rebellion. However, the comments to the article are full of Sinophile apologists making idiotic excuses for the actions of the Chinese, especially that of the Communist government. One commenter looks to be a genuine Chinese nationalist. Eh, whatever, a pox on all their houses.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

For history-minded people who are also China watchers, it’s fascinating to see how China’s current drive towards accelerated industrialization resembles the historical trajectory of European industrialization.  There is, of course, the massive pile of Chinese migrant labourer bodies stacking up from various coal mine accidents, sweatshop fires, and worker riots.  All of this recalls “Western” experiences, and if you squint at the headlines in the right way you can even imagine you’re reading a news article from the 19th century.  The wealthier Chinese are even aware of this:

But an odd change has come about in some [Chinese] shoppers’ minds. As members of China’s business and political elite, they have come to believe that the world is a huge jungle of Darwinian competition, where connections and smarts mean everything, and quaint notions of fairness count for little.

I noticed this attitude on my most recent trip to China from the United States, where I moved nine years ago. So I asked a relative who lives rather comfortably to explain. “Is it fair that the household maids make 65 cents an hour while the well-connected real estate developers become millionaires or billionaires in just a few years?” I asked. He was caught off guard. After a few seconds of silence, he settled on an answer he had read in a popular magazine.

“Look at England, look at America,” he said. “The Industrial Revolution was very cruel. When the English capitalists needed land, sheep ate people.” (Chinese history books use the phrase “sheep ate people” to describe what happened in the 19th century, when tenant farmers in Britain were thrown off their land to starve so that sheep could graze and produce wool for new mills.)

“Since England and America went through that pain, shouldn’t we try to avoid the same pain, now that we have history as our guide?” I asked.

“If we want to proceed to a full market economy, some people have to make sacrifices,” my relative said solemnly. “To get to where we want to get, we must go through the ‘sheep eating people’ stage too.”

In other words, while most Chinese have privately dumped the economic prescriptions of Marx, two pillars of the way he saw the world have remained. First is the inexorable procession of history to a goal. The goal used to be the Communist utopia; now the destination is a market economy of material abundance.

Second, just as before, the welfare of some people must be sacrificed so the community can march toward its destiny. Many well-to-do Chinese readily endorse those views, so long as neither they nor their relatives are placed on the altar of history. In the end, Marx is used to justify ignoring the pain of the poor.

Certainly it’s a mealy-mouthed excuse for an excuse: It’s okay for Chinese to exploit their fellow human beings because the British did the same 150 years ago.  The British also forced the Chinese to buy British opium at gunpoint and cede Hong Kong in the Opium Wars, so my inner cynic wonders if the Chinese are also planning on doing the same thing to other countries.  Then again, the march of progress means that often the new capitalists are welcomed with open arms.

Of course, this pattern of worker abuse is not just a simple reiteration of Western history being played out by people with darker skin.  For example, no witches were ever burned in England because manufacturing jobs were scarce.  The present isn’t the past and the (cough, ahem) Third World isn’t the farcical Napoleon III to the First World’s l’Empereur, Marx’s witticism notwithstanding.

For one thing, while it may be tempting to think of all of this “stuff” as happening in foreign countries or in the past, the resurgence of Taylorism and “scientific management” (a discredited management philosophy organized around getting the most productivity out of workers and damn their health and comfort), the introduction of flexible labour and contingent work (in rural as well as in urban areas), the migration of capital and jobs, and the shrinking of the working class labour market in the “West” means that things are getting crappier where white people live too.  Some economists are even admitting this, despite the fact that most of them seem to be propagandists of global capitalism.

In fact, the globalist project has been so dismal in its rewards that it’s been traded in for straight-up nationalism in some quarters (e.g., the US, Russia, Pakistan, Japan, and so many other countries).  “Here we go again,” say the historians, though in this sequel the Indians sometimes fight off the cowboys successfully — note, though, that it’s not the absolutely downtrodden countries that are resisting successfully, but the ones that already have some power.  Lest anyone forget, remember also that the elites of those countries are hard at work exploiting their paisanos, so what we’re seeing is more like one group of elites fighting off another group of elites than the underdogs beating the five-time league champion.

All of these thoughts were triggered in me when I read about the recent fashionability of skin tanning among wealthier Chinese (via Boas Blog’s shoutout to Racialicious).  Note that light skin was previously the in-thing to have to signify one’s wealth since it’s a sign that one isn’t a common labourer working outdoors, just like in Britain before the Industrial Revolution and just like it is today in many developing countries (and let’s not forget that skin whitening creams are used by many black people in the US, UK, and the Caribbean, though they’re used for slightly different reasons than mere signifiers of wealth).  With the expansion of the airline industry, the drop in ticket prices thanks to cut-throat competition, and the greater number of vacationing middle class people created by industrialization, tanned skin has become a sign that the possessor has been to an expensive holiday overseas — again, like the way tanned skin became fashionable in Britain as a sign that the person has been to the Mediterranean, most likely during their Grand Tour of Europe, such holidaying becoming only possible by the building of railways to criss-cross the continent.

So there you have it: The more things change, the more they stay the same (barring the odd witch-burning and war on Islam here and there).