Recently NBC’s Saturday Night Live aired a sketch-within-a-sketch during their Weekend Update segment, showcasing what can only be described as cast member Melissa Villaseñor’s attempt at a woke comedic synopsis of this year’s Oscar nominees. “White male rage,” sang Villaseñor, as (very white) host Colin Jost, beside her, seemed to struggle against laughter. “White male…
Recently NBC’s Saturday Night Live aired a sketch-within-a-sketch during their Weekend Update segment, showcasing what can only be described as cast member Melissa Villaseñor’s attempt at a woke comedic synopsis of this year’s Oscar nominees. “White male rage,” sang Villaseñor, as (very white) host Colin Jost, beside her, seemed to struggle against laughter.
“White male rage”: That’s what Joker, The Irishman, and even Toy Story 4 were about, according to SNL. It was woke comedy at its cringeworthy worst. It was also the least self-aware comedy sketch I’d seen in a while.
I dashed off a quick tweet about it, commenting on the profound irony of a late-night talk show mocking the plot of Joker as “white male rage” when, in fact, the callousness and utter solipsism of late-night talk show hosts is a focal point of Joker’s plot.
The Joker’s entire plot hinges on late night TV hosts being so out of touch that they think the problems of poor people are funny, so this is doubly ironic https://t.co/XGPst57aBN
It was a quickly written tweet, noting yet another instance of snobbish cultural liberalism disguised as comedy. But the tweet struck a chord, apparently: it went viral. My Twitter mentions were soon flooded with thousands of people who agreed: for a rich, white (and Villaseñor is at least as white as Joaquin Phoenix) talk show host to mock Joker as portraying nothing more than “white male rage” while ignoring the message of the movie is painfully ironic.
Joker is, after all, a movie about a man victimized by an uncaring system, whose grievances are dismissed and mocked by the cultural elite, represented and epitomized in the film by Robert de Niro’s Murray Franklin—and, apparently, in real life by Colin Jost and Melissa Villaseñor.
For all Joker’s retro aesthetics and Scorcesian cinematics, its story is primarily one of the world in which we live: a world in which elite socialites watch the lower classes mocked, belittled, and scorned by their cultural betters for entertainment. As a recent CNN segment reveals, mocking half the nation’s voters who voted for Trump makes our supposed experts laugh hysterically in real life on live television.
For the thousandth reason, count me on team Trump re-elect against these smug and self-satisfied jerks. Contempt for fellow citizens is not a good look. https://t.co/KsNwmGlzwc
But for Murray Franklin in Joker, for Melissa Villaseñor, and for what we have to suppose is the entire SNL apparatus, the problems of the poor and downtrodden are in themselves a punchline.
What Melissa Villaseñor missed in Joker was that it’s emphatically not just a movie about white male rage. It’s a movie about mental illness, poverty, a fraying social fabric, and an elite that couldn’t care less.
In my original review, I made the case that Joker was actually a deeply realistic film. Its success, I argued, has been in no small part due to the fact that while yes, Joker is the story of a madman, it’s also the story of a man driven mad by circumstances which affect millions of Americans, white and nonwhite, male and female: broken homes, poverty, mental illness, poor healthcare, and an elite that looks disdainfully down on them from their comfortable spots at the top.
To reduce Joker and its appeal to “white male rage” is therefore not only reductive: it’s profoundly stupid, and it’s also the very height of self-parody. And there’s a dark irony here, in case you missed it: the same cultural elites who tried their best to gin up a moral panic when Joker was released can’t understand why it’s been so successful—why it’s struck such a chord in the public consciousness. They say that life imitates art, but rarely are the parallels so stark.
At least Murray Franklin didn’t try to sing.
One thing I noticed while trying to ignore the myriad notifications from my now-viral tweet is that its point was universally recognized: the tens of thousands of engagements it generated came from every segment of the population and every sector of the political compass. Dislike of the brahmins who sit at the commanding heights of American culture is universal. It unifies left and right, black and white, male and female.
People are fed up with elite condescension, plain and simple.
That’s not a politically charged message, much less a racial one. The cultural elite represented by SNL is condescending, clueless, and utterly detached from reality. And when the rare piece of art, such as Joker, critiques that decadent, snobbish, elitism, they dismiss it as “white male rage”.
The American people have had enough of their jokes.
I finally watched Joker, the much-hyped, and now award-winning, ersatz superhero movie which had the Twitterati up in arms back when it first came out. It recently won two Golden Globes—one for the best performance by an actor in a motion picture, which went to Joaquin Phoenix in his role as the titular character, and…
I finally watched Joker, the much-hyped, and now award-winning, ersatz superhero movie which had the Twitterati up in arms back when it first came out. It recently won two Golden Globes—one for the best performance by an actor in a motion picture, which went to Joaquin Phoenix in his role as the titular character, and one for the best original score. It was nominated for two more: best motion picture and best director, the second of which it arguably ought to have won.
And for good reason: Joker is great cinema (though “enjoyable” is the wrong word for the experience of watching it, which felt something like what I imagine wandering through New York City for months on end must feel like, compressed into a tidy 122 minutes of impeccably acted and beautifully staged slow-burn madness).
What interested me most, however, is the villain of the film: not Arthur Fleck, the protagonist slowly descending into madness; certainly not Thomas Wayne or Robert de Niro’s character, the talk-show host Murray Franklin—both of whom, while immensely significant to the plot itself, have limited screen time and are presented, at worst, in shades of moral grey. The villain I mean is the general malaise which the movie depicts, of which all the sordid events and deranged characters of Joker are but symptoms.
Because the problem in Joker’s 1981 is not, contra the statement popularly attributed to the film’s title character (though he never actually said it) that we live in a society. In fact, the problem is exactly the opposite: that we live in something which, whatever it may be, is not a society at all.
Take, for example, one of the film’s most memorable visual motifs: the staircase down which Arthur Fleck, in full Joker makeup, dances toward the climax of the film. The staircase, which has since inspired entire terabytes of memetic discourse and become a place of pilgrimage irl, is actually featured multiple times in the movie before the iconic scene. Twice (by my count) Arthur Fleck is seen walking up, its near-infinite stairs looking, from the perspective of both the viewer and the failed comedian, like some sort of Sisyphean nightmare mountain. I’ve walked up those stairs (they’re in the Bronx) and I can assure readers that the experience feels much the same. Having to walk them on a daily basis would probably drive me mad, too.
The infamous staircase isn’t the only time Joker utilizes bad urbanism to create a mood of bleakness, hopelessness, and even mental illness. The building in which Fleck lives with his aged, delusional mother is another example. Their apartment is where much of the psychological breakdown at the center of the film actually occurs: it’s there that Arthur, with only his mother and his television for company, begins to nurse delusions of appearing on Franklin’s TV show; it’s there that his already-mad mother spends her life mailing letters to billionaire Thomas Wayne, under the tragic delusion that they were once lovers; and it is there, in the run-down building’s broken-down elevator, that Arthur, starved for meaningful personal contact, starts to imagine himself in a relationship with Sophie, a woman who lives down the hall (incidentally the only parental figure in the film whose death Arthur doesn’t cause).
The movie heavily implies that all these delusions not only take place in the apartment building but are directly engendered by it. “If he [Thomas Wayne] knew how I was living, if he saw this place, it would make him sick,” Penny Fleck tells her son early in the movie. “Same depressing office,” reads one of the setting descriptions in the script.
Several of the scenes in Joker take place in an actual mental hospital, and the only thing that stands out is how similar it is to every other setting in the film. The bleakness of modern city dwelling, the movie seems to be telling us, with the physical and social isolation it engenders, is enough to drive anyone mad.
Arthur’s isolation, of course, isn’t only physical. His lack of a father figure is the driving force of the entire movie. Desperate, he seeks out replacement fathers in Thomas Wayne, a billionaire running for mayor on a Bloombergian faux compassion-for-the-plebs platform, and in Murray Franklin, the genial talk show host brilliantly played by Robert de Niro, in whom Arthur sees a compassion that he was never shown as a child.
Of course, both men turn out to be disappointments: Wayne punches Fleck in the face after vehemently denying paternity, while Franklin mocks Arthur’s compulsive laughter and lousy attempts at comedy on air, inviting him on the show only to mock him further. Both men, of course, get what’s coming to them: Fleck shoots Franklin during the movie’s climax, while Wayne and his wife fall victim, as the Batman mythos dictates they must, to an anonymous thug inspired by Fleck during the orgy of violence that engulfs the city in the film’s final act.
Later in the movie it’s also implied that Fleck’s childhood abuse at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend may have set him on the path toward the horrors of the film’s events. One thing is clear: Joker takes place in a post-familial society, and its events spin directly out of that reality. In all this, Joker is no fantasy.
Joke’s on Us
Aside from the movie’s excellent depiction of the maddening effects of contemporary urban life and its near-Houellebecqian depiction of a society ravaged by the Sexual Revolution (one can almost imagine the Golden-Age-style tagline: “Not a dream! Not a hoax! Not an imaginary tale! A story ripped straight from the most recent sociological studies!”), there is the matter of the movie’s economics, which, it must be said, are portrayed in a manner markedly more heavy-handed than either the film’s urbanism or its critique of social atomism.
The director, Todd Philips, can hardly be blamed for this, of course: economics are basically the only aspect of urban society up for criticism these days. “They’ve cut our funding,” Arthur’s social worker tells him at the beginning of the film. “We’re closing down our offices next week. The city’s cut funding across the board. Social services is part of that. This is the last time we’ll be meeting….They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur. And, they really don’t really give a shit about people like me either.”
A bit overwrought, yes, but it gets the point across nicely. It’s no accident that the movie is set in ‘81, when Reagan and Thatcher were in power, making exactly the sort of budget cuts depicted in the film. One suspects that’s the main reason the film is set then, of course—that and the excellent shirt collars and the now-quaint taxicabs. If nothing else, Philips has a gift for making a period seem so nostalgic which was actually, by his own stagelights, unremittingly bleak and grim.
Then, of course, there’s the matter of Arthur’s sex life, or lack thereof. Throughout the movie he engages in a romantic dalliance with his neighbor from down the hall (the only female he even speaks to, other than his mother and a social worker), which is, toward the end of the film, revealed to be a delusion. It was this Joker-as-incel subplot that media outlets panicked over, worrying that, as in the film itself, Arthur’s breakdown would inspire admiring copycats.
All of this brings us to the question: if the world Todd Philips presents us in Joker, for all its 80’s aesthetics, is actually not that far off from the one many of us live in today, how come Arthur Fleck didn’t inspire a real-life revolt of the incel masses?
The answer, I think, is painfully simple: what Arthur Fleck had that his real-world analogues don’t is what the Greeks called thymos: spiritedness, passion. Joker is a story of a man who rises up against a system that doesn’t care about him, that relegates him to the margins of society, that, through sheer bureaucratic ineptitude, elite selfishness, and late-liberal inertia, simply pretends he doesn’t exist. That all is totally realistic. What’s unrealistic is Arthur Fleck’s rebellion against the system and the revolt of the masses he inspires, because the fact is that Americans these days no longer have the thymos necessary to revolt, and even if they did, what have they to fight for?
Even after the searing critique of modern society Joker presents and the media panic about its real-world effects, one bleak, inevitable fact remains: the gamers will not, in fact, rise up.
A specter is haunting the right-wing world—the specter of Bronze Age Pervert. His book, Bronze Age Mindset, has been a breakout hit among certain segments of the Very Online Right—prompting a response, first from Michael Anton in the Claremont Review of Books, and then from various authors in these pages. What is it in Bronze…
A specter is haunting the right-wing world—the specter of Bronze Age Pervert. His book, Bronze Age Mindset, has been a breakout hit among certain segments of the Very Online Right—prompting a response, first from Michael Anton in the Claremont Review of Books, and then from various authors in these pages. What is it in Bronze Age Mindset that has captured the interest, not only of anonymous “frogs” on Twitter, but of the right-wing intelligentsia? And what—if anything—can conservatives learn from the book, and from the phenomenon it typifies?
Bronze Age Pervert, as he styles himself, is an enigma wrapped in a mystery. His identity, not to mention everything else about him, is unclear. One thing, however, is apparent: the ideas he promotes have struck a serious chord, especially among the predominantly young male denizens of the right-wing internet. This alone makes BAM worth engaging with.
Engaging with BAP and his work is, of course, a difficult task: BAM is riddled with neologisms, peculiar locutions, and references to layers upon sedimentary layers of memetic discourse which only an insider could possibly hope to comprehend. It could be argued, of course, that this alone justifies ignoring the book and its author, chalking their uncanny success up to a bizarre fluke, and returning comfortably to our copies of Burke and the latest issue of the New Criterion. But this would be a mistake, as Bronze Age Pervert has something profound to teach us about the current state of civilization.
Before examining the positive content of Bronze Age Mindset, however, it is important to make clear what it is not. The book is subtitled “An Exhortation,” and an exhortation it is: it is not a book of philosophy. Readers expecting to encounter an organized system of thought will be disappointed. (This, as noted by BAP himself in his rejoinder to Anton, was the main weakness of Anton’s otherwise fine review. He examined BAM as a work of political philosophy, and this set the tone, more or less, for the discourse which followed.)
To examine BAM on its own terms, then, it is necessary to follow the advice of the King of Hearts and “begin at the beginning.” “I was roused from my slumber by my frog friends and I declare to you, with great boldness, that I am here to save you from a great ugliness,” BAP writes in his Prologue. This theme of “a great ugliness” will occupy BAP, in one form or another, for the rest of the book.
Bronze Age Eloquence
And what a book it is! Written in what can only be described as message-board patois, BAM is unsystematic in the best way. Its contents run the gamut from anecdotes about the author’s exploits in red-light districts to Schopenhaurian excurses on will to meditations on ancient Greek etymology. Its organization and style seem to be a conscious imitation of Nietzsche (a fact which is useful for judging whether or not the book succeeds on its own terms). And in true Nietzschean fashion, BAP seems to feel himself unconstrained by orthodoxy, intelligibility, or even basic grammar. Nonetheless, the book is surprisingly readable, and BAP’s style frequently slips from his idiosyncratic pidgin to surprising eloquence, not to say grandiloquence.
Much like his hero Nietzsche (whom he cites by name over twenty times, always approvingly), BAP writes in a style that is terse, epigrammatic, and designed to provoke thought. Consider these bons mots, just a small sampling of BAP’s many enigmatic interjections, which I include here not only because they are relevant to a discussion of the style and content of the book but also simply because I think they’re worth reading:
When they say they are atheists, I never believe them: atheists act like Stalin or Brezhnev, not like a Presbyterian schoolmarm.
[T]he moral meaning imposed on reincarnation by Buddhism and Hinduism is, like Plato’s, for reasons of social utility and is political.
No great discovery has ever been made by the power of reason. Reason is a means of communicating, imperfectly, some discoveries to others, and in the case of the sciences, a method of trying to render this communication certain and precise. But no one ever made a discovery through syllogisms, through reason, through this makeshift form of transmission.
Of course, such insights are not the sole contents of the book. At times BAP seems to be trolling the reader, testing him, seeing how much he can take before he will close the book in exasperation. Take Chapter 35, for instance, which I quote in full here:
Should the tyranny that has descended on our age ever gain the power it seeks and then be challenged enough to feel itself in danger, the mass annihilations that will be carried out by homosexual, transsexual, and especially lesbian commissars will exceed in scale and cruelty anything that has yet happened in known history. Imagine lesbian mulatta commissars with young Martin Sheen face and haircut manning the future Bergen-Belsens, installations that will span tens of miles.
One can’t help but wonder, reading passages like these, if BAP is even serious. Indeed, this may be the most dangerous part of the book and the irony-poisoned milieu from which it emerged: the near-total erosion of the line between irony and sincerity. Perhaps BAP is serious here; perhaps he isn’t—but does it even matter? BAP would, of course, contest this, writing in a chapter entitled “Whoremoans” that “[t]here is no irony here: I don’t do irony! Learn that I don’t understand the gay idea of ‘irony’.” And yet the entire passage in which these sentences appear is written in a pervasive spirit of irony; it’s as if BAP is playing a game of semiological chicken with his readers: “just how seriously are you going to take me?”
Given what I take to be BAP’s all-consuming irony (perhaps a better term would be levity), the most dangerous parts of the book are not, as Anton argues, the bit at the end where BAP seems to endorse piracy, or where he recommends Alcibiades as a model of his ideal way of life. If there is danger in Bronze Age Mindset, it lies in the overall spirit of the work. Various aspects of this have been discussed—his nihilism and relativism, his attitude toward manliness, and so forth—but thus far no critic of the work has painted a comprehensive picture of the Bronze Age Ethos, something which is surely a prerequisite for a critique.
To paraphrase Augustine, “what, then, is BAP?” What is the positive content of his message? What is it that has drawn so many people to that message? And what, if anything, can conservatives draw from it?
Bronze Age Mindset is, fundamentally, a gospel of sun and steel (a phrase BAP borrows from Yukio Mishima’s autobiographical essay; Mishima is one of few people who BAP seems to take as a role model), but to what end? BAP answers this question in Chapter 15: he seeks “the life of the immortal gods who live in pure mountain air, and the sign of this life, where energy is marshaled to the production of higher order, is the aesthetic physique, the body in its glorious and divine beauty. The opposite of this godly life is “the surfeit of flesh we see on the obese and in general the lassitude, the spiritual obesity…the life of the human animal collapsed to mere life, life for the sake of life, as it devolves to the yeast form aesthetically, morally, intellectually, physically.”
What BAP refers to as “yeastlife” is, he tells us, the default condition for most of human history in the vast majority of times and places. His candor here is refreshing: most people would simply blame this phenomenon on modernity, and BAP’s consistent refusal to do so is admirable. It is not with this “yeast” that BAP concerns himself, but with those who possess the potential for something more, something greater. In short, he wishes us to be like the gods, the gods that he believes surely exist even as he waffles on the question of a capital-G God. The words “Victory to the Gods” appear as the epigraph to the book, and the only definition of the “Bronze Age Mindset” which is ostensibly the theme of the entire book is this: “The secret desire of every Greek…the Bronze Age mindset…was to be worshiped as a god!”
BAP, like the ancient Greeks he takes as his model, identifies this striving for godliness with the pursuit of beauty. This is most readily apparent on his Twitter feed, which consists mostly of shirtless photos of bodybuilders—not, he assures us, for any homoerotic reasons, but simply because they are beautiful. (It is commendable, incidentally, that BAP has nearly singlehandedly transformed the image associated with the online right from that of a bunch of overweight racists to that of bodybuilders reading Greek.) He is obsessed with beauty; his main enemy, therefore, is ugliness. He sees this ugliness everywhere; in fact, for him, it is the baseline condition of existence.
It is in service of this project, not as a result of mere animus, that BAP condemns or dismisses large groups of people in terms distasteful to the genteel establishment. Despite emerging from the fever swamps of the right-wing interwebz, BAP is not some sort of Nazi-adjacent goon. Nor is he the type of rank antisemite one would expect to encounter on 4chan. He is, admittedly, something of a misogynist, but his misogyny is not the crude hatred of contemporary “men’s rights activists”; if anything, it more closely resembles the classical anti-feminism of Hesiod. But mostly it seems to be an outgrowth of BAP’s focus on the heroic male: women are not so much hated in Bronze Age Mindset as they are relegated to the side.
After the Fire
Try as BAP may to deny it, there is a coherent strand of thought running through Bronze Age Mindset, and it is typified not only by his exhortations to greatness and manly strength, but by passages like this one:
Some talk about this “madness behind things.” The real world is very different from the one that appears to us in waking life, but it’s not so different as to be entirely alien or abstract or “philosophical” in the way you might think. It’s not abstract, or made of perfect and eternal forms, it’s not somewhere else: it’s immanent, here, and within things, and it’s twisted. It doesn’t have any moral significance that can be understood by us. When Heraclitus speaks of all things being one, and all things being fire, he means this: when this actually shows itself to you, there is a demoniac and violent madness underlying things. The real world is similar to the apparent, but uncanny, devilish, disordered for us.
Here we have the nucleus of BAP’s thought about the world in as concise a form as ever we will, and it is worth examining it closely. The hallmarks of the Bronze Age Pervert are all here: the stream-of-consciousness style, disorganized yet flowing, is a telltale sign that this is a passage to be noted well; the focus on what Nietzsche called the Dionysian, which BAP identifies with the Heraclitan fire; and most of all, in the last sentence, the deep, Schopenhauerian pessimism—all of these are no less important to the understanding of BAP’s thinking than the pictures of Pietro Boselli and the neologisms of BAP’s internet pidgin.
So what, exactly, is the teaching of Bronze Age Mindset, and why is it so attractive to so many young men? The answer, I think, is simple: it is a revitalized paganism, obsessed with strength and beauty. It appeals to today’s young men because these things—strength and beauty—are exactly what contemporary society has tried so hard to deny them. The gospel of sun and steel, of vitalism and strength and power, are exactly what have been denied to the boys of the Western world, and their spirits militate against this. Everything great ever achieved, BAP tells us, was done “through strong friendships between two men, or brotherhoods of men, and this includes all great political things, all acts of political freedom and power.”
Throughout the entire book, I do not think I can recall a sentence more fundamentally true. BAP’s willingness to shatter every cultural taboo—to tell men that it’s okay to be men, that there’s more to masculinity than sitting in an office all day, a call to resist the decadence of a culture that has forgotten even the basic facts of biological reality, resonates deeply with today’s Lost Boys. To inspire men to excellence, to invite them to strive for greatness, nay, godliness—this is the positive content of BAP’s philosophy, and this is why it has become so popular. All else is chaff.
But is it enough? Will the recrudescent paganism of Bronze Age Mindset be enough to satisfy the souls of men? This, I think, is the most fundamental divergence between the “frogs” and the conservatives. BAP’s message is fundamentally one of strength, of the recovery of classical manliness, of Greek friendship, and of “nature, beauty, physical fitness, the preservation of high traditions of literature and art”: in short, a renaissance of culture. So we must ask ourselves: will culture be enough?
Or is something more required? Matthew Arnold famously defined culture as “sweetness and light,” but are sweetness and light enough to guide the souls of men? Or will Homer and bodybuilding turn out to be, as Eliot said, rather thin soup?
BAP, as mentioned earlier, recommends Alcibiades as the archetype of manhood. But we must remember, as Socrates pointed out, that there is one indispensable thing Alcibiades lacks: an understanding of justice. In fact, the very same Homeric epics that BAP praises, for Socrates, depict arguments over the nature of justice. This ought to point not towards the cynical Thrasymachean rule of the stronger but to meditation on virtue—a word which BAP only brings himself to use disparagingly. In short, BAP’s vision has to recommend it all the strengths of classical paganism, but it also has arrayed against it all its weaknesses. His Schopenhauerian pessimism is entertaining, but in the end it is, as BAP’s hero Nietzsche noted, nothing but another form of decadence. BAP is doubtless right that neither Ben-Op idealism nor integralist LARPing will get us out of the mess we’re in, but those camps are just as certainly correct that neither will sun and steel alone. (After all, BAP isn’t the first right-wing Nietzschean to advocate piracy as a solution to collapse…)
In short, Bronze Age Mindset ought to be viewed as a stepping stone, a useful bridge from the weakness of modern man to virtue and greatness, but nothing more. What is that something more? His acolytes, and all young men, must search now for the answer.