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Sucking joy and hope out of human history and taking humanity from stories
This is the thirtieth piece in Lorenzo Warby’s series of essays on the strange and disorienting times in which we live.
This article can be adumbrated thusly: Wokery sucks the life out of our cinematic arts—especially decades-old and beloved pop-culture franchises—because it does not accept that characters can grow or change.
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My essays have the following themes:
1. Exploring the politics of the transformational future, including its status and social-leverage strategies, and its pathological relationship with information.
2. Grappling with the reality that everything social is emergent from the biological,1 so applying the evolutionary lens to social patterns, including our considerable capacity for strategic self-deception.
5. That achieving and maintaining an accountable state apparat is hard and a problem that never goes away. We are stuck with the paradox of polities: we need the state to protect ourselves against social predators but the state itself is the most dangerous of social predators.3
6. That feminised propriety is supplanting masculinised prestige.
7. That our increasingly dysfunctional universities are making professions—notably journalism, teaching and anything to do with media or entertainment—worse.
Universities make professions worse because they encourage graduates to think of themselves as a moral elite, if they have the correct (Post-Enlightenment Progressivist, aka “woke”) opinions. These entail despising an unenlightened citizenry and the received cultural and institutional heritage of Western societies.
Universities are also destroying the notion of professions as services to others. They are replacing them with a performative moral magnificence based on the splendour in their heads. This helps create a crusading clerisy.
But it goes beyond that. In an August 2023 podcast, James Lindsay muses about various dispositions towards reality, towards being. He identifies four:
The prison of being (Gnostic).
The tragedy of being (Hermetic).
The comedy of being (archetypically Jewish).
The miracle, the wonder, of being (scientific, religious, Daoist, Stoic).
The gnostic disposition is one of anger towards the world that is viewed as an unjust prison. In its original conception, it imprisoned us as spiritual beings.
According to the Rousseau-Hegel-Marx-and-after streams of thought—which pour the spiritual into the social—society is our prison as social beings. The demiurgic imprisoning power is assigned to social villains du jour: the bourgeoisie, patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, etc.
The Hermetic disposition is tragic, seeing the world as less than it should be. Yet there is hope, for with possession of correct knowledge, of gnosis, one can escape—transcend in the spiritual version or transform in the social version—the tragedy of (current) existence. Marx took Hegel’s Hermeticism and made it far more gnostic.
To teach that our societies are social prisons—that only those who embrace the correct mixture of thought in action (“praxis”) can correctly perceive and act—is deeply demoralising and disenchanting about human achievements as they manifest.
Loss of storytelling
This has consequences, most obviously in mainstream Western entertainment’s decaying ability to tell engaging stories.
Yes, the collapse in DVD revenue streams created challenges for modern movie-making. It doesn’t explain why there’s been so much trashing of beloved franchises. We’ve all witnessed a retreat into comforting (and narcissistic) moral conformity, despite box office disappointment.
What I’ve set out above undermines our ability to tell inspiring stories grounded in Western society’s cultural—including pop-cultural—heritage. The idea of “toxic fans” is a natural byproduct of such mindsets, as is the pervasive subversion—betrayal, really—of beloved franchises and their canon.
To serve a franchise or a canon represents constraining humility for the look-at-me moralism of modern progressives. To see positions that are regularly trumpeted by major corporations as “subversive” indicates how performative all this is.
War on beauty
A sense of beauty takes structure seriously. This includes our perceptual and cognitive structures and their interactions with the world, which emerge from evolution. That cultures evince overlapping beauty standards shows persistent evolved structures.
Hyper-norms—norms that trump or discount structure—that view constraint as oppression are antithetical to taking beauty seriously. When allied with a “blank slate” view of the human, they suggest we’re created entirely by socialisation—with no underlying cognitive structures—so have no innate universals.
If one takes an entirely instrumental view of human action and perception—if, for example, a house is just “a machine for living”—then there’s nowhere within which a beauty-oriented aesthetic can anchor itself. Instead, one is at war with things being themselves: they must be subordinated to a grand, overarching purpose.
Comedy cannot be itself. Story cannot be itself. History cannot be itself.
There is also no reason to seek the realisation of the best form of anything one makes. All is subordinated to the purpose driving action: which can be efficiency, but is often social transformation.
Art Deco was the last unified, beauty-directed aesthetic produced in the West. Architecture, meanwhile, led the war on beauty. Its sheer expense encourages selection for a pseudo-efficient and bland instrumentalism.
The result of subordination to a grand, utopian purpose is to suck the life out of comedy, story, history. What is created instead is a flat, message-driven, zombie manifestation of these things. Creations that are banal on society, character, plot, story, in part because the writing is about status-driven worship of the splendour in the writers’ heads.
So we get bleak “entertainment” emerging from a wilderness of “look at my virtue!” mirror-selves. This is made worse by many writers having little life experience, narrow schooling, and increasingly feminised universities. Emotional validation and conformist propriety systematically gets in the way of maturing into full adults: especially into manhood.
Canon requires humility
The less people work with the physical—and its reality tests—the less beliefs are subject to unforgiving tests of physical reality. In film and television industries, the production staffs’ (special effects, stunt crew, camera and sound operators) politics tend to diverge from views held by imaginative workers (actors, directors, writers) for precisely this reason. This is a pattern we see across contemporary societies.
The refusal to submit to structural constraints—or perhaps lack of experience of them—has consequences. Think, for example, of the inability to engage in effective world-building, one of The Witcher’s many flaws.
That ethnic ancestry produces physical markers is a structural reality of societies that emerged before mass transport. Contemporary casting deliberately eschews this history. This undermines the created-world coherence conducive to generating secondary belief. Instead, the personal political “virtue” of statement-by-casting trumps respecting source material. This is a feature not only of The Witcher, but also The Wheel of Time and The Rings of Power.
An under-discussed reality is that the senior executive teams and top creative talent at quite a few companies seem to totally hate their customer base.
It’s like a living illustration of OG Tom Sowell’s chapter on the “Anointed” trying to lead the “Benighted.”
Rather than respect for both canon and fans—or even the noblesse oblige that leavens genuine elite status—one gets malice oblige: the moral duty to deconstruct, to disparage, which is part of a long tradition of ruthless criticism of all that exists.
As one commenter on a YouTube critique of Rings of Power put it:
They have managed to write a series where if you don’t know the books you find it baffling, whereas if you DO know the books you find it insulting.
It’s not as if fantasy series are the only beloved franchises to get this treatment. On the contrary, the problem is finding a franchise that hasn’t, outside a narrow range of action genres. As another YouTube commenter notes:
If you had told me 10 years ago that a Halo show, a LOTR show and an Obi-Wan Kenobi show would happen in the same year, I would have been beyond excited. Now I am only underwhelmed and angry. What a time to be alive [Links added.]
A culture renowned for its ability to tell stories to the world is now racing to despoil its heritage—and the sense of service to story and audience—that gave it unparalleled global reach. And this shift has happened with dizzying speed.
The transformative politics of “future-as-secular-heaven, past-as-moral-hell, present-as-moral-hell-continued” poisons human achievement. We can’t admire the achievements and struggles of folk in the past—nor appreciate their flawed humanity—if the past is a litany of sin, of failure to instantiate a glorious future.
How can we admire, still less extol, those reduced to one-dimensional sinner status? We get cartoon-cut-out figures living through caricature history and subverted imagined worlds. And all must play out the demands of identity politics.
Male heroes, in particular, cannot be exemplars of achievement: because patriarchy.
Instead, we get petty and deliberate sexism in popular culture offerings—entertainment isn’t quite the right word—where male heroes are deconstructed (disparaged) into sad parodies. Meanwhile, female “heroes” turn into boring, inherently-wonderful Mary Sues. That is, characters where the universe bends to their convenience.
Of course, stripping away a sense of cultural heritage can be disorienting. If you deny others any legitimate place to stand, you can legitimise where you stand. The deconstruction enterprise is meant to create maximum confusion, so folk have to rely on experts in obfuscation to guide them. It’s both a status and a social-leverage strategy.
But negating any sense of human achievement also poisons the sense of what we can achieve. Not only does it reduce the past to a legacy of sin, but also poisons the sense of what it is to achieve and any well-grounded guide to how it is done.
There is a reason that past societies loved stories of heroes (and heroines) and repeated them generation after generation. Jordan Peterson’s success is based on his use and elucidation of storytelling power. The casual sexism among so much of the feminised gnosticism that pervades contemporary elite culture means his appeal to young men is taken as a major black mark.
Respecting a franchise means respecting the past. The more institutionally dominant worshipping a transformational future becomes, the more common trashing franchises will become.
As we see in media, the demands for correct narrative triumph over the factual or enduring-truths requirements of story. Again and again, we see narratives parading as stories.
These narratives are not about working together, taking on risks, suppressing one’s own emotions if necessary, and any achievement that flows from same. These narratives are not stories of solidarity and connection across generations, about striving and failing yet striving again.
Instead, we are told (not shown) narratives about the world damaging the emotions of the righteous. The righteous then triumph by expressing their inherent capacity through their weaponised morality. Rey in the third Stars Wars trilogy and Captain Marvel are prominent instances of this, as is the live-action Mulan.
The suppression of prestige by ostentatious and weaponised propriety is part of the same process. Prestige is intimately connected to achievement. Propriety—being directed towards cohesion and conformity—is more likely to suppress or block achievement: hence the gossip trap.
Propriety over prestige: no gain, only loss
Male stories—including the classic hero’s journey—are typically prestige stories about risk, effort, skill, discovery. Female stories, including the classic girl-gets-boy story, are typically propriety stories, about living up to (or not) proper standards. Clever female stories will also play with the problems of propriety: Jane Austen being the archetypal exemplar.
What we get with “wokification” is the suppression of prestige stories and male heroes in favour of by-the-numbers identity propriety. That you can gain prestige (but only lose propriety)4 explains the “flattening” of character and achievement in wokified narratives.
The propriety of the imagined future means that the past cannot have the prestige of achievement. Relatedly, Christianity incorporates redemption and forgiveness, which itself allows great stories.
Post-Enlightenment Progressivism (“wokery”) lacks redemption or forgiveness. Imprisoning characters in an oppressed-oppressor binary—so once a victim, always a victim—undermines any fulfilling sense of “we shall overcome”. Mary Sues do not really overcome: the universe bends to their awesomeness.
All of this comes from the pathological relationship to information that is endemic to progressivism. The past cannot teach, the present does not represent or embody achievement: the imagined future, the splendour in their heads, is the benchmark of worth.
We get race- and gender-swapping of characters, the triumph of idiot-Theory, creating cartoon (simplified to falsity) and caricature (distorted to falsity) history. Alas, the replacement of a heroic, achievement ethic does not bring social harmony. It brings whining victimhood, along with an arrogant and entitled ingratitude for the enormous social achievements to which we are fortunate heirs.
The replacement of images of American Jewish wartime patriotism, heroism and strength with images of European victimhood struck Jews in the Fifties as a dubious, undesirable and even potentially dangerous trade-off.
A “blank slate” view of human nature—with everyone segmented into identity groups ranked in a moral hierarchy—means that people are created by their choices and their structural placement.
Trying to navigate all this and create engaging, fleshed out characters is contra-indicated. This explains the tendency to present cardboard cut-out identity avatars in place of individualised characters with depth.
This explains the disdain for male characters (see the treatment of Han Solo in The Force Awakens and Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi) and elevation of female-characters into girl-bosses: either fully instanced (Galadriel in The Rings of Power, Rey in the third Star Wars trilogy) or becoming such (Yennefer and Ciri in The Witcher).
Male stories concentrate on struggles against the physical world and a hostile antagonist with clear arcs of contestation. Female stories concentrate on emotional dynamics with sequences of experience.
As a friend noted:
when a woman in the male stories has a significant role, she is expected to live up to male notions of propriety. This, I suspect, is some of what feminists were rebelling against. Being held to standards with which one doesn’t agree is very annoying.
This explains current grumbles about male characters in wokified narratives being held to standards with which men don’t typically agree.
It’s striking how girl-boss characters don’t elicit a classic heroes’ journey, which is a prestige story with striving, not a propriety story of proper behaviour. Moreover, a demand to validate characters’ emotional states leads to denials of reality and its constraints.
The pitting of status demands against structural constraints—so elevating the splendour in their heads—also uses status against argumentative objections. Any criticism is thus an attack on that splendour.
Insistence on the primacy of emotions and feelings (“hate speech”, “that’s offensive”, “affirming”)—of what you want to be so—leads to the destruction of standards. Standards require shared facts while things have different values. This means things can be assessed against a standard—regardless of what folk wish to believe. Elevating feelings fractures assessment and eliminates accountability.
This undermines using comedy or stories to tell women—feminism regularly holds them to be a purer form of Homo sapiens—things that make them uncomfortable.
The performative narcissism here is the belief that—by pumping entertainment full of messages—one can (by a form of social alchemy) bend society in the correct direction. In reality, it generates a flight from such entertainment-that-isn’t towards other stories that still manage joy and wonder.
“C-dramas” (Chinese dramas), are now becoming more popular because they have much of what mainstream Western entertainment-that-isn’t lacks. C-dramas evince a sense of beauty, confidence in cultural heritage, engaging characters, strong plots, and clever writing. All are combined in ways respectful of storytelling.
It is a startling comment on our time that C-dramas—cultural products from the People’s Republic of China—regularly have less propagandistic content than those of Hollywood. Indeed, a C-drama can even slip in a Confucian “get over yourself” riposte to the woe-is-oppressed-me whining characteristic of the baizuo: what many mainland Chinese call “the white left”.
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Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Pantheon Books, 2012.
Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, trans. Franz Rosenthal, ed. N J Dawood, Princeton University Press, ,1967.
Erwin Schrödinger, What Is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell with Mind And Matter & Autobiographical Sketches, Cambridge University Press, [1944, 1958, 1992] 2013.
Will Storr, The Status Game: On Social Position And How We Use It, HarperCollins, 2022.
Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, Basic Books, , 2013.
John Vervaeke, Christopher Mastropietro and Filip Miscevic, Zombies in Western Culture: A Twenty-First Century Crisis, Open Book Publishers, 2017,
Articles, papers, book chapters, podcasts
Robert P. Abelson, ‘Beliefs Are Like Possessions,’ Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 16, 3 October 1986, 223-250.
Harry Frankfurt, ‘On Bullshit,’ Raritan Quarterly Review, Fall 1986, Vol.6, No.2.
Rob Henderson, ‘Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class—A Status Update,’ Quillette, 16 Nov 2019.
Stephen Hicks, ‘From Modern to Postmodern Art: Why Art Became Ugly,’ in Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, Ockham’s Razor Publishing, , 2014, 247-266.
David Samuels, ‘Maus and the repressive power of Jewish trauma,’ Unherd, January 28, 2023.
Daniel Williams, ‘The marketplace of rationalizations,’ Economics & Philosophy (2022), 1–25.
The social can only do what is biologically possible, just as the biological can only do what is chemically possible, and the chemical can only do what is physically possible. Emergent means emerging from—while being constrained by—more basic structures of reality and having causal power.
The state apparat has replaced (territorial) empire—outward colonising—with the welfare state (inward colonising) and internationalisation (upward colonising), most extensively in the EU. In other words, predation (coercive transfer of resources beyond that required for the benefits provided) is an inherent state apparat tendency. Social pacification is regularly imposed to enable more stable predation—including extracting resources before they are eaten up by more babies, so creating surplus. It is colonising rather than just predatory when there is a pattern of replacing other forms of social action—as well as an attached cultural program.
In ibn Khaldun’s words: Mutual aggression of people in cities and towns is thus averted by the authorities and by the government, which hold back the masses under their control from attacks and aggression against each other. They are thus prevented by the influence of force and governmental authority from mutual injustice, save such injustice as comes from the ruler himself. Muqaddimah I:2:7.