Reviews — August 23, 2018, 11:05 am

…of what use was the rule?

On The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason

Discussed in this essay:

The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason, by Felix Biederman, Matt Christman, Brendan James, Will Menaker, and Virgil Texas. Touchstone. 320 pages. $25.

In 1954, the Viet Minh surrounded the French at their outpost at Dien Bien Phu. Teams of men and women dragged large artillery through the mud and up the mountains, aided only by pieces of rope. The Vietnamese troops dug tunnels through the earth with small tools, or even their hands. If a rope snapped or a tunnel collapsed, it cost people their lives. This is revolution. As Malcolm X said, “You don’t have a revolution in which you are begging the system of exploitation to integrate you into it. Revolutions overturn systems. Revolutions destroy systems.”

Chapo Trap House is a podcast, or Internet radio show, which was founded in 2016 and has grown in popularity as the world continues to collapse into horrors. The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason won’t be of much use to anyone running a revolution. This is my central grievance. There isn’t a lot about going to the people, learning from them, concentrating their experiences into a revolutionary outlook, and then formulating a communist leadership. I’ve read a fair number of revolutionary guides, from Liu Shaoqi’s How to Be a Good Communist to Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare. They tend to be heavy on comportment of liberation units living among the people, or the optimal size of a foco struggle organization. This seems to be the first one to include mention of the Clinton family.

The Chapo Guide follows the same “80/20 rule” as my diet: 80 percent candy and 20 percent meat. That’s more meat than I expected. The book is a mapping exercise of contemporary American politics: like the pictographic Hobo Code, the book is like a series of chalk symbols warning the reader against the lanyard-wearing technocrats, the MAGA C.H.U.D.s, the birdbrained pundits, and the other characters who recur within the Chapo universe. Hopefully, this menagerie will be exposed to a wider audience than the “extremely online” podcast fiends who currently subscribe to their outlook. The decision to pitch this book beyond the core audience of the Chapo Trap House podcast is the strongest decision the five boys writing it made. (Amber A’Lee Frost, another co-host of the podcast, is not credited as a writer on this project, making it an all-male affair.)

Much of the book is devoted to succinct judgments on recent political history. The era-defining tragedy of the invasion of Iraq is attributed to boosters “who just didn’t care because the thought of war excited them so much. This included pretty much all the media, government, and cultural elites of this country, and it remains the gold standard for how we should judge them.” Obama is perfectly summarized as “Febreze-ing our national conscience,” a reflection of his soaring progressive rhetoric masking a lackluster neoliberal policy record. The authors don’t shy away from the tangible aspects of our planetary hell, describing an apocalypse wrought by climate change: “Puerto Rico annihilated by a hurricane. It’s villages in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal tortured by lethal flooding. The apocalypse is already here; you just don’t live there yet.” Other parts of the book are more straightforward comedy. The “CTH World Fact Book” is a “quick reference guide” to “global hot spots,” and cites the population of Israel as “8.5 million if you count the Arabs, but let’s not.” Although political books tend to have a short shelf life, especially in the age of Twitter, The Chapo Guide mostly avoids this problem by focusing on history and archetypes.

My favorite parts of the book are the “Taxonomies” of different characters you find online. This is aided by some wonderful illustrations by Eli Valley. His style has a wild Seventies feel. The descriptions of people like “Epic-Rant Dads” and “Wine Moms” are just plain fun. They also populate a world that helps people who could become more politically aware name what they are up against. Politics can be bewildering, with a lot of strange people blasting confusing and misleading claims. Categorizing and cataloging some of these freaks into archetypes is a great help to someone trying to navigate the scene. There are chapters on liberals, conservatives, the media, literature, video games, etc. Though much of this will be familiar to people who have read writers like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, the Chapo fellows put their own unique spin on it. Here the candy/meat ratio comes in handy for people who would never think to crack open Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (or who bought it and only got to page thirty) but are up for a few jokes. Funny vignettes describe the prevailing, conventional neoliberal wisdom and then reply with a sensible take. This sort of counter-history is helpful for staking out an American left perspective.

In Chapter Five, on Culture, the authors refer to their perspective as “half-assed Marx.” That’s not a bad thing; it’s probably how a new democratic culture will get built. Left-wing populism depends on approximations and simplifications to help people organize and direct their anger toward useful goals. In recent years, there has been a small flourishing of left-wing political magazines and organizations and the conflicts and debate they have generated have been greater than the sum of its parts. The podcast has been a lightning rod for controversy, something partly encouraged by the hosts—many of them enjoy ridiculing politicians and the blue-checkmarked commentariat on Twitter, and the punches often land. The “critique” of Chapo is structural: the show grosses over a million clams a year without the punitive oversight of a corporate production team. This makes the hosts difficult to fire if they anger someone important. But to keep all of this in perspective—the actor who plays Sheldon gets paid a similar amount of money for exclaiming “Bazinga!” per single episode of The Big Bang Theory. Even when they loom as a target, Chapo and Jacobin have helped people orient themselves within a political milieu.

The catch is that a new democratic culture is not going to be built just by out-performing the garbage that the mainstream and far-right produces. It is difficult to go head-to-head with billions in advertising and media monopolies—or the perceived First Amendment issue of being banned from a website. You can’t compete when most public and private institutions are committed to salvaging our ever-worsening capitalist system. There is no simple accretion toward a socialist majority. You’ve got to place your hopes in the wild insubordination of average people to overthrow the whole thing. The epilogue of the Chapo Guide nods in this direction.

If the Chapo book is “for” anyone, it’s for a guy named Greg. He’s twenty-five years old. He’s a fan of a bunch of podcasts, and Chapo is one of his favorites. He voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary. He’s a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He probably pre-ordered the book in the hopes of “trolling” the New York Times bestseller list. Greg will enjoy the book. He will sit there with bovine eyes and a slight smile as he notices all the best Chapo tropes.

Let’s imagine Mike. Mike is a thirty-five year-old who has probably never heard a full episode of Chapo Trap House. If Mike listens to podcasts, it’s probably something like Joe Rogan. He watches Michael Moore documentaries, and sometimes crazier things like Alex Jones to laugh. Mike is not up to date on Internet memes. He doesn’t have a job in journalism or comedy or politics. There are millions of Mikes in the USA. There aren’t many Gregs. Let’s forget Greg.

Now let’s imagine Peter. Peter is a fifteen-year-old kid who likes memes. He could tell you the names of different online communities. He’s not overly committed to one. Peter posts on Reddit here and there but isn’t obsessed with it. Peter is a prime target for alt-right junk. A great deal effort gets directed toward scooping up Peters and reinforcing the worst of their impulses. But Peter sees the obvious bankruptcy of modern liberalism, and doesn’t see much there that interests him. Much of the far-left just seems weird to him; it’s outside his experience. There are way more Peters than Gregs, too.

If the Chapo book wins a wider audience, it’ll be because Mike and Peter read the book. In truth, I think the Mikes and Peters would find more in the book than the Gregs. A guide is more useful to someone who is new to a culture than to those who’ve been there for a while. But The Chapo Guide is more than that—it has a bit of the magic of a Seventies MAD or National Lampoon, or one of The Onion books, the sort of thing I would have enjoyed flipping through for hours as a kid. It’s also reminiscent of those wonderful indexes you could find in the public library, like Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft. All of this skews the gender distribution of likely readers a bit—more Mikes than Janes.

The Chapo Guide rightly decided to pitch beyond the home turf and aim for a broader audience, though this carries some risks. Bigger media companies love the authenticity that a show like Chapo brings, but aim to pulverize the content into harmless fun for profit. Liberal comedy mainstays like The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live have little traction with younger people seeking credible alternatives. There are growing pressures to integrate new protest movements into this liberal core by absorbing some of the confrontation without the radical program. The weird are turning pro, and that’s exciting, but it’s also a bit scary. It’s one thing to identify the enemy; it’s quite another to take them on.

Share
Single Page

More from Donald Hughes:

Satire July 31, 2019, 11:40 am

Revolution to the End?

A guide to the Democratic presidential hopefuls

Satire May 15, 2019, 12:44 pm

Economics for a Fried Planet

How to turn the climate collapse into retirement bliss

Satire February 22, 2019, 11:35 am

An Unprecedented Twist

A plan for supplementary gruel must be rejected

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2019

Gimme Shelter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Body Language

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trash, Rock, Destroy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Make Way for Tomorrow

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Red Dot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Gimme Shelter·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I.

That year, the year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

Article
Body Language·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I am eight years old, sitting in my childhood kitchen, ready to watch one of the home videos my father has made. The videotape still exists somewhere, so somewhere she still is, that girl on the screen: hair that tangles, freckles across her nose that in time will spread across one side of her forehead. A body that can throw a baseball the way her father has shown her. A body in which bones and hormones lie in wait, ready to bloom into the wide hips her mother has given her. A body that has scars: the scars over her lungs and heart from the scalpel that saved her when she was a baby, the invisible scars left by a man who touched her when she was young. A body is a record or a body is freedom or a body is a battleground. Already, at eight, she knows it to be all three.

But somebody has slipped. The school is putting on the musical South Pacific, and there are not enough roles for the girls, and she is as tall as or taller than the boys, and so they have done what is unthinkable in this striving 1980s town, in this place where the men do the driving and the women make their mouths into perfect Os to apply lipstick in the rearview. For the musical, they have made her a boy.

No, she thinks. They have allowed her to be a boy.

Article
Trash, Rock, Destroy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes lives in a nondescript modern building in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. I know it well: it has a Bricorama—like a French Home Depot—on the ground floor, where we sometimes had cause to shop back when we lived in the neighborhood. The people who work there seemed to hate their jobs more than most; they were often absent from the sales floor. In the elevator to Despentes’s apartment, I marvel that while I was trying to get someone to help me find bathroom grout she was right upstairs, with her partner, Tania, a Spanish tattoo artist who goes by the name La Rata, like someone out of one of Despentes’s novels.

In an email before our meeting, Despentes asked that we not do a photo shoot. “There are so many images available already,” she explained. Much had been written about her, too. A Google search yielded page after page: profiles, interviews, reviews, bits and bobs—she read from Pasolini at a concert with Béatrice Dalle; someone accused her of plagiarizing a translation; a teacher in Switzerland was fired for teaching her work. The week I met her, she appeared in the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles in conversation with the rapper-turned-actor JoeyStarr. The woman is simply always in the news.

Article
Burning Down the House·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay:

Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright, by Paul Hendrickson. Knopf. 624 pages. $35.

Frank Lloyd Wright isn’t just the greatest of all American architects. He has so eclipsed the competition that he can sometimes seem the only one. Who are his potential rivals? Henry Hobson Richardson, that Gilded Age starchitect in monumental stone? Louis Sullivan, lyric poet of the office building and Wright’s own Chicago mentor, best known for his dictum that form follows function? “Yes,” Wright corrected him with typical one-upmanship, “but more important now, form and function are one.” For architects with the misfortune to follow him, Wright is seen as having created the standards by which they are judged. If we know the name Frank Gehry, it’s probably because he designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997. And Gehry’s deconstructed ship of titanium and glass would be unimaginable if Wright hadn’t built his own astonishing Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue some forty years earlier.

Article
The Red Dot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

Shortly after the Regional Council of Veneto, in Italy, voted against climate-change legislation, its chambers were flooded.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today