What dick pics can teach us about human morality and climate change denial

When I was 25, I moved to London to study human rights. It was a very millennial decision. There was a recession going on, I was living on and off with my parents, and I couldn’t find a job in journalism because nearly every paper in the country was cutting staff or shutting down, so the only alternative to continuing to live with my parents was to go to grad school.

Human rights seemed like the most decent thing I could dedicate my life to fighting for (if not the most profitable) so I went into debt and moved to a different country.

The only honest approach to any academic field of study is to first take what you think you know and tear it down. This is one thing when you’re studying economics or chemistry. Most topics of study are abstracted enough from our daily lives that if a professor were to kick open the door to the classroom on the first day and say, “SIT BACK, MOTHERFUCKERS, AND FORGET EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW ABOUT ROBOTICS!” most of us would be like, “Okay, sure, done.” It would not ruin our day.

It’s an entirely different thing when what you’re studying is your very moral bedrock, the thing that has influenced all of your decisions in life, including the very expensive one that brought you into this classroom in the first place. 

The problem with human rights is this: they are intended to be universal laws that protect human dignity. But in any real metaphysical sense, there are no such laws. They exist only as a social construct. You might not agree with me. If you, for example, believe that there’s a God who told us what is right and wrong centuries ago, or if you believe that morality can be determined through the use of logic, then you could reasonably reject what I just said.

But you can’t reject this: even if there are universal moral laws, we can’t agree on what they are. They may be “self-evident” to you, but to many other selves they are not evident. When confronted with what, to you, is the clearest, most common sense moral dictum, many people just say, “naaaaahhhh.”

The Golden Rule

Let’s take the least controversial moral law out there. The one that is subscribed to by Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Taoists, and atheists alike. 

Norman Rockwell’s famous 1961 painting, “The Golden Rule.”

Norman Rockwell’s famous 1961 painting, “The Golden Rule.”

Isn’t that beautiful? Doesn’t that sound perfect and simple? This is a rule that has arisen independently in many cultures and many religions, both theistic and atheistic, and it is an excellent rule to live by. But it is not universal. 

There is a 21st century phenomenon that derails the logic of the Golden Rule. This phenomenon is the sending of unsolicited penis photos to women in dating apps, or, as they are colloquially known, dick pics. 

Dick pics, nearly everyone agrees, are repellent, but they follow the logic of the golden rule.

The dick pic sender is basically saying, “Hello, kind stranger, I would like to see naked pictures of you. Here, as a sign of good faith, is such a picture of me.”

Should you protest at the sudden “OH GOD, THAT’S A COCK” of it all, the dick pic sender could reasonably respond that they were simply treating you the way they’d like to be treated.

The loophole in the golden rule is a pretty glaring one, and it’s obvious enough when you take a second to look at it: not everyone wants to be treated in the same way. So while the Golden Rule is an excellent method for encouraging empathy and the ethical treatment of others, it is not a rule that can be applied in every situation. In certain situations (especially those of the sudden penis variety), the ethical thing to do with the Golden Rule is to abandon it.

Nothing is universal

You can find exceptions to pretty much all of our moral laws, and the task of studying human rights is essentially a job of demarcating the boundaries between good moral laws (i.e. free speech that allows marginalized people to find a voice without government interference) and bad ones (i.e. free speech that allows troglodytes to make anonymous online rape threats against feminists).

Human experience is so varied, so wildly diverse, that to expect one rule to be applicable to everyone in every situation is absurd. Such a law would have to be so vague as to be meaningless. Even something seemingly harmless, like “Honor thy father and mother,” breaks down, for instance, when you’re Eric Trump.


Most people, likewise, can find instances where murder is excusable — because you’re protecting your family, because you’re preventing someone else from getting killed, because you’re hungry and he’s not pulling his weight on the life raft, etc.

This view is usually called “moral relativism” by its detractors, but the opposing philosophy, moral absolutism, has done more damage by far. The absolutists count among their numbers Hitler and Stalin and Dick Cheney. To them, the world is divided into right and wrong and they always happen to be on the right side. This provides a pretty clean excuse for dropping bombs on and torturing your opponents. How many Americans blink twice at the knowledge that the bombs we’ve dropped in the “War on Terror” have regularly, even routinely, killed innocent children? Bring up the Atomic Bomb and Hiroshima, and see how many Americans reflexively say, “Well, it saved millions of American lives." They never just say lives. They say American lives.

A moral relativist is going to have a harder time being quite so sure that the mushroom cloud is justified, and might think twice about doing it. God, can you imagine if we dropped a single bomb that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people and our justifications weren’t sound?

This approach also allows what you consider to be moral to change over time and according to context. Circa 1791, it made sense to enshrine the right to bear arms in your country’s founding document because you just won a revolution and are afraid of backsliding into tyranny. 228 years later, when guns can fire bullets ten times faster, when those bullets are frequently piercing the bodies of children, the morality of this stance makes less sense. To everything there is a season.

This idea, that there is no such thing as top-down morality, is terrifying to a lot of people. But there is a better way of thinking about it.

A different type of morality

The primatologist and humanist Frans de Waal argues, in his excellent book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, that if we look to our genetic cousins the chimps and bonobos, we will see that moral behavior exists in the natural world without reference to reason or rationality or towards any religious belief.

Which is not to say primates are not capable of reason and rationality, because they very much are. It’s just to say that their moral behavior comes from elsewhere. So any attempt to base human morality on “reason” is misguided.

de Waal writes:

“The confusion seems to stem from the illusion that all we need for a good society is more knowledge. Once we have figured out the central algorithm of morality, so the thinking goes, we can safely hand things over to science. Science will guarantee the best choices. This is a bit like thinking that a celebrated art critic must be a great painter or a food critic a great chef…

The view of morality as a set of immutable principles, or laws, that are ours to discover ultimately comes from religion. It doesn’t really matter whether it is God, human reason, or science that formulates these laws. All of these approaches share a top-down orientation, their chief premise being that humans don’t know how to behave and someone must tell them. But what if morality is created in day-to-day social interaction, not at some abstract mental level? What if it is grounded in the emotions, which most of the time escape the neat categorizations that science is fond of?…

My views are in line with the way we know the human mind works, with visceral reactions arriving before rationalizations, and also with the way evolution produces behavior. A good place to start is with an acknowledgment of our background as social animals, and how this background predisposes us to treat each other.”

If we accept this — and I think that we obviously should — we have to accept that we can’t just piece together morality sitting alone in our rooms and thinking about it, or analyzing a book that The Lord sent us, but that we have to get out into the streets and talk to other people about what we want to be as a community, as a people. 

This requires of us both the openness to be able to hear each other’s stories in good faith, and the vulnerability to be able to tell our own. It requires that we be honest with each other about who we are, and be brave enough to stand up against what we think is wrong. None of that is easy, but no one ever said it was. And when you start talking to people, when you get to their experiences and away from their political talking points or inherited ideology, you’ll usually find that they are less stupid, less stubborn, and less ignorant than you think.

When we talk to each other, we learn: Our morality is not up there in the ether. It is down here, in the spaces between us.

Moral curiosity in the face of a cold, unfeeling universe

When I finished my course in human rights, I felt winded. There seemed to be no moral footing for me anymore, nothing to keep me from sliding towards a terrified state of nihilism and despair. Over the next few years, I sunk into a pretty deep depression that I didn’t begin to escape until I was in my 30’s. The world was just so fucking complicated. How, I wondered, can one live when nothing is certain?

The answer ended up being that you do not need certainty to live, and that the alternative to certainty is not nihilism, it's curiosity. Curiosity is the only worthwhile way of confronting the universe, because seriously, in the words of comedian Pete Holmes, life doesn’t make any fucking sense. So we might as well have some fun with it. We might as well explore.

This is the solution, by the way, to all of your totally unproductive political arguments. You think you can beat ignorance with knowledge? Hell no. Ignorance doesn’t give a fuck about knowledge. Because ignorance isn’t an absence of knowledge, it’s a protective shell constructed against scary knowledge.

Think, for a moment, what your conservative elderly parents or grandparents would have to do to accept a) that climate change was coming, b) it could very well lead to the collapse of civilization in their children’s lifetimes, possibly resulting in their starvation or murder by Mad Max-style War Boys, and c) that everything they ever did or believed in contributed to this oncoming catastrophe.

What do you think their response to, “Well, if you look at the climate science and the weather patterns in recent years…” is going to be? Might it be “FAKE NEWS!”? Might it be “LIBERAL CONSPIRACY!”? Do you think it might be, “I’m just going to deny this until I die, because to accept it would actually kill me."

I am telling you right now, I have a 1-year-old, and when I stop and think about what climate change could do to her sweet little face, I want to put rocks in my pockets and walk into the sea. Your parents denial of your liberal or left-wing political views is not just ignorance, it is a deathly fear that if you are right, they have destroyed your life. You! The thing they love most in this world!

You’re not going to beat that with facts. You couldn’t beat that with A Clockwork Orange, Ludovico-technique-style brainwashing. 


You might beat it with curiosity. People can get to base-level curiosity pretty quickly, and from there, it’s possible to change minds. Curiosity is a backdoor to open-mindedness.

You’re going to die, you might as well accept that. Life, if you choose to look at it that way, is a goddamn meat-grinder. So while we’re here, we may as well be kind to one another, we may as well be curious. And that means asking questions, listening to other people, and believing each other. On that basis alone, life isn’t so bad, even if it doesn’t make any fucking sense.

John Steinbeck, Kate Tempest, Abraham Lincoln, and making sense of Donald Trump a year later

A few weeks before the election last year, I predicted that Donald Trump was going to lose, but that we'd still have to face the people we knew and loved who had voted for him. I wrote:

He’s so fundamentally terrible that, when friends or family members support him, I’ve started to think things I’ve never thought before: “Are they okay? Is voting for Trump a good litmus test for basic human decency?”

Because it’s hard to see a Trump supporter and not see a person who appears to be callously, casually lobbing grenades into the homes of the women, immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and democracy enthusiasts in their lives.

The morning after he won, someone who had read that article emailed me at 6 in the morning telling me to kill myself. Facebook had erupted. Friends who were trying to process what had just happened, who were shaken to their core with grief, were using social media as a support group, all while being sniped at by their Trump-supporting friends and relatives, whose rage had not seemed to dissipate with their victory. 

The overwhelming feeling was one of despair, and it was most electrically, most heartbreakingly expressed in a poem by British artist Kate Tempest, that started making the social media rounds post-inauguration, set to a deeply disturbing, deeply moving video. 

I am quiet, feeling the onset of riot
Riots are tiny though, systems are huge
The traffic keeps moving, proving there's nothing to do

'Cause it's big business baby and its smile is hideous
Top down violence, a structural viciousness
Your kids are doped up on medical sedatives
But don't worry 'bout that, man. Worry 'bout terrorists!

The water levels rising! The water levels rising!
The animals, the elephants, the polar bears are dying!
Stop crying, start buying
But what about the oil spill?
Shh, no one likes a party pooping spoil sport.

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John Steinbeck on America's fundamental disconnect

I could not -- and cannot still -- fully grasp the decision to vote for Trump. I know the platitudes that the American left has come to parrot, that Trump voters were driven by anger and ignorance and fear, that Russia rigged the election, that it was a fluke brought on by James Comey, but none of these excuses have ever felt sufficient to me. See, I know Trump voters -- they sit with me at holiday dinners and treat me with kindness and decency. They buy me drinks, they take interest in my life, they give me hugs instead of handshakes. They are people I love.

The biggest challenge for me has been reconciling the people I love with the rage I feel towards their actions. Recently, we held a baby shower for our daughter, who is due to be born a few days before the one year mark of the Trump Inauguration. A room full of family and friends -- many of whom I know voted for Trump -- showered us with gifts and generosity that, frankly, we really needed. 

But seated in a pile of gifts, I found myself ungraciously wondering why, if so many of these people were so invested in my child's future, they'd voted for (and still supported!) a dangerously unstable man who was threatening the world with a nonsensical nuclear war that literally no one wants. Why they refused to accept the science of climate change, or at least were willing to ignore it for a modest tax cut that would only marginally improve their lives in the short-term while drastically worsening our daughter's in the long term. Why kindness, generosity, and compassion could be extended to us, but not to anyone outside our small little group. 

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Over the course of the past year, this disconnect, this chasm between belief and action started appearing in everything I looked at, on the right and the left, in my friends, in my family, and in myself. Our values, I came to suspect, were not something by which we lived, but something to which we merely gave lip-service; psychic lullabies which, through repetition, would help us get to sleep at night.

 This disconnect, it seems, is nothing new: In his 1945 book Cannery RowJohn Steinbeck wrote a passage that could now be applied explicitly to Trump:

“It has always seemed strange to me...The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.” 

The problem, it seems, is not that we have the wrong values, it's simply that we refuse to live by them, or failing that, to even examine what living by them would mean. We fail our values constantly. And when we fail our values, we open ourselves to claims of hypocrisy, claims which those of us on the left simply cannot shelter ourselves from.

To have integrity means to not be divided against oneself. How many of us can say we have integrity? How many of us can say that we live what we believe? If we are to truly believe in things like kindness, generosity, and honesty, we may have to radically reimagine what the world should -- and could -- look like. We may have to radically reimagine what we ourselves should -- and could -- look like.

Solzhenitsyn on the line separating good from evil, and Lincoln on the end of America

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Soviet dissident and writer of The Gulag Archipelago, wrote:

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains ... an unuprooted small corner of evil. 

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person."

The work, it seems, must start at home -- in ourselves and in our communities. It is in this, a year on, that I have found a glimmer of hope -- where I live, here in New Jersey, a year after the election of maybe the worst person in America to its highest office, we elected we locally gave both of our town council seats to Democrats, we flipped our conservative district's State Senate seat away from a long-standing GOP incumbent, and we elected a governor who is in favor of public banking, treating immigrants like actual human beings, smart gun control, and marijuana legalization.

I have still not figured out how to handle the rage I feel at Donald Trump's election, but I have done a better job, over the course of the year, at figuring out how to spread the targets of my rage around more justly. His election does not fall exclusively on the people who voted for him. It falls on the people who, like myself, were complacent with an unjust system because it benefitted them. It falls on the people who, like myself, failed to fight racism and bigotry in their own homes and communities. It falls on the people who, like myself, chose to dismiss the suffering of others as inevitable, rather than choosing to do something about it.

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In Abraham Lincoln's 1838 Lyceum address, he discussed what could possibly bring down the United States.

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?-- Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!--All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

We shall see which we end up choosing.

Featured photo by astoller.

Hemingway, Orwell, and Casablanca on Spain and fighting fascism

Ask the average American when fascism was defeated, and they will tell you 1945. Fascism, they say, died with Hitler and Mussolini. When did America start fighting fascism? December, 1941. Four years and we had the thing licked. Bing bang boom.

But a small group of Americans started fighting fascism earlier that, and the fight continued long after. 3,000 Americans, known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigades, went to Spain starting in 1936 to fight Francisco Franco, the general who was attempting to overthrow Spain's democratically elected republic. These Americans were largely working class men. Many of them were immigrants. Many of them were left-wing radicals. They fought Franco -- who had the fury of the German and Italian military behind him -- with zero support from the government of the United States, which had decided to stay neutral. 

About a third of them died. Those who returned were considered heroes for a few brief years until the Red Scares of the 50's started up, and they were labeled as "premature antifascists." And the man they were fighting, Francisco Franco, went on to rule Spain until his death in 1975 -- 30 years after we so often imagine fascism's end.

This past week, Catalonia, an autonomous region in northeastern Spain containing Barcelona, attempted to hold a referendum to secede from the country as a whole. The referendum was declared illegal by the Spanish government, which sent in police to drag people out of the polling places.

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The Catalonian independence movement, unlike other prominent separatist movements like, say, Brexit, is one that largely comes from the left wing. Catalonia has been a bastion of leftist politics for decades, and was the heart of the struggle against fascism in the 1930's. While the Republicans (the broad name for the anti-fascist side in the war) eventually lost to Franco, the fight itself has left a massive impression on American culture since. Some of the greatest works of art in the past century have been centered around or have referenced the war. Hemingway's For Whom the Bell TollsGeorge Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (not to mention Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four)Picasso's Guernica, the 1942 classic Casablanca, the 2006 classic Pan's Labyrinth, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon's beautiful gothic novel The Shadow of the Windall revolve around "the good fight."

In a time when Spanish politics are back in the news, in a time when "antifascist" is again considered a slur, and in a time when it seems as if something dark and terrible may be just over the horizon, it makes sense to ask: what can we learn from Spain?

For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was a reporter in Spain during the Civil War. He was one of the last journalists to leave the country after the fall of the Republicans, and he used his experiences to write his masterpiece For Whom The Bell Tolls. The title comes from a meditation written by the English poet John Donne

"No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the SeaEurope is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."

While in Spain, one of the people Hemingway met was Robert Hale Merriman, the young Californian leftist who commanded the Abraham Lincoln Battalion during the war. Hemingway was impressed with the young man, and likely based his principled, loner hero Robert Jordan off of him.

It's a very typical Hemingway book, which is to say there's a lot of machismo, a lot of short, declarative sentences about courage and bravery, and a lot of (let's call it what it is) dick-swinging.

But it is a great book. Hemingway's politics were a weird brand of testosterone-fueled leftism, but he came down firmly against fascism. There's a telling passage from the book where Jordan explains fascism in America to two Spanish guerrillas.

"But there are not great estates that must be broken up?"

"Yes. But there are those who believe that taxes will break them up."


Robert Jordan, wiping out the stew bowl with bread, explained how the income tax and inheritance tax worked. "But the big estates remain. Also there are taxes on the land," he said.

"But surely the big proprietors and the rich will make a revolution against such taxes. Such taxes appear to me to be revolutionary. They will revolt against the government when they see that they are threatened, exactly as the fascists have done here," Primitivo said.

"It is possible."

"Then you will have to fight in your country as we fight here."

"Yes, we will have to fight."

"But are there not many fascists in your country?"

"There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes."

"But you cannot destroy them until they rebel?"

"No," Robert Jordan said. "We cannot destroy them. But we can educate the people so that they will fear fascism and recognize it as it appears and combat it."

Picasso's masterpiece  Guernica  is based on the Nazi and Italian fascist bombing of the Basque village of Guernica.

Picasso's masterpiece Guernica is based on the Nazi and Italian fascist bombing of the Basque village of Guernica.

Interestingly, For Whom the Bell Tolls was not particularly loved by the actual Americans who fought for the Republicans during the war -- they did not think that Jordan's independent, lonely, all-American male was super representative of the actual men who fought in Spain. Most of them were working class. Most of them had minority or immigrant backgrounds. Most of them were believers in left-wing ideologies. 

Casablanca and Pan's Labyrinth

On their face, Casablanca and Pan's Labyrinth are not very similar movies. In Casablanca, this dude is the villain:


And in Pan's Labyrinth, this dude is the villain:


They are united, though, by a common thread: their heroes cut their teeth in the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia, the heroine of Pan's Labyrinth is young girl struggling to survive in a fascist military camp at the tail end of the war. And Rick Blaine, Humphrey Bogarts hero in Casablanca is wanted by the Nazi's because he fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigades against Franco's fascists in Spain.

Both stories also look directly into the eyes of nihilism and despair. It is hard, in retrospect, to not see Spain as a cautionary tale. Spain gives us a glimpse of what the world would've looked like if World War II had been lost. Franco's Spain was isolated for a decade or so after the end of World War II, but in the 50's, the United States had new enemies, and could no longer resist allying itself with anti-communist forces in mainland Europe. In part, this is why the fascists were able to stay in power for decades. When democracy was finally restored to Spain in the 70's, Franco's men were granted amnesty, and many continued to work in the government. The Basque and Catalonian separatist movements, still very much in the news today, got their start as leftist separatist movements during the Franco era.

Spain, then, is a country that we failed. And this hurt was still fresh in the early 40's: Casablanca's Rick is depicted, when we meet him, as a wounded idealist who has lost wars and the love of his life, and has sunk into a sort of self-centered nihilism. 

"I stick my neck out for nobody," he says. But as the other characters point out to him, this was not always the case pointing out that he has bona fides as a selfless freedom fighter.

Captain Renault:
In 1935, you ran guns to Ethiopia. In 1936, you fought in Spain, on the Loyalist side.

I got well paid for it on both occasions.

Captain Renault:
The winning side would have paid you much better.

His nihilism, over the course of the movie, is revealed to be a façade that Rick adopted out of necessity after the heartbreak of losing so much. The movie itself, released in 1942, was something of a call to arms for Americans in the early days of the war, long before it was clear that the Allies would triumph. Many Americans had, until just recently, been broadly in support of the European fascists (their non-interventionist motto, "America First," has since been reused in the 45th American President's inauguration speech).

At the end (this is a spoiler, but honest to god, if you haven't seen Casablanca yet, what the fuck are you doing with your life?), Rick forgoes his own personal happiness in the cause of fighting back against the Nazis. Selfishness, in 1942, was a luxury the world could no longer afford.

Pan's Labyrinth is somehow even darker. Ofelia is the daughter of a fascist Captain's new wife. The Captain is tasked with rooting out and murdering the last surviving members of the Republican resistance. Ofelia's mother is pregnant and can't take care of her, so she's surrounded at all times by soldiers and truly horrific brutality. She also happens to be surrounded by some genuinely horrifying actual monsters, and finds that she has to overcome a set of fairy tale-like tasks to survive.

I don't want to spoil the movie (because it is literally the best movie I've ever seen and I still cry like a goddamn child every time I watch it), but it is through Ofelia, the weakest, most marginalized person on that military compound, that some form of hope is able to arise. It is perhaps best summed up by the modern writer Rebecca Solnit, in her book Hope in the Dark:

"The grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect, in the people you have not yet heard of who will be the next Cesar Chavez, the next Noam Chomsky, the next Cindy Sheehan, or become something you cannot yet imagine. In this epic struggle between light and dark, it’s the dark side — that of the anonymous, the unseen, the officially powerless, the visionaries and subversives in the shadows — that we must hope for."

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

George Orwell is best known for his books Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-FourWhen I was in school, the books were taught as if they were cautionary tales about the dangers of communism. But in reality, Orwell himself was a socialist. In the late 30's, while working as a reporter, he decided to go to Spain to try and write a few articles about the Good Fight. When he got there, he changed his mind, and enlisted in the POUM, a communist sect within the Republican army. 

During the fighting, Orwell was shot in the throat by a fascist sniper. "No one I met at this time," he wrote, "doctors, nurses, practicantes, or fellow-patients — failed to assure me that a man who is hit through the neck and survives it is the luckiest creature alive. I could not help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be hit at all." His throat injury meant he had to be moved back from the front to Barcelona. 

In any war, there are uncomfortable unions. Groups of people in allied forces who do not particularly agree with each other, but whom are committed to fighting a common enemy. In Spain, the Republican side was a wildly diverse hodgepodge of leftist and liberal ideologies. There were the people who wanted to create autonomous democratic governments for their home regions (Basques, Catalonians, Galicians), there were democrats, there were anarchists, and there were communists. The communists alone had a handful of splinter groups: Stalinists, Trotskyists, democratic socialists, trade unions.

For the likes of Orwell, the splintering of ideologies seemed silly.

If you had asked me why I had joined the militia I should have answered: 'To fight against Fascism,' and if you had asked me what I was fighting for, I should have answered: "Common decency.' I had accepted the News Chronicle-New Statesman version of the war as the defence of civilization against a maniacal outbreak by an army of Colonel Blimps in the pay of Hitler. The revolutionary atmosphere of Barcelone had attracted me deeply, but I had made no attempt to understand it. 

As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names -- P.S.U.C., P.O.U.M., F.A.I., C.N.T., U.G.T., J.C.I., J.S.U., A.I.T. -- they merely exasperated me. It looked at first sight as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials. I knew that I was serving in something called the P.O.U.M. (I had only joined the P.O.U.M. militia rather than any other because I happened to arrive in Barcelona with [Independent Labour Party] papers), but I did not realize that there were serious differences between the political parties.

At Monte Pocero, when they pointed to the position on our left and said: 'Those are the Socialists' (meaning the P.S.U.C.), I was puzzled and said: 'Aren't we all Socialists?' I thought it idiotic that people fighting for their lives should have separate parties; my attitude always was, 'Why can't we drop all this political nonsense and get on with the war?'

The splintering would end up being the downfall of the resistance. Since the United States and other democratic countries didn't pitch in with the Republican efforts (with, incidentally, the exception of Mexico), most of the shots were called by the USSR under Joseph Stalin.

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Over the course of the previous decade Stalin had been brutally consolidating power in the Soviet Union. His biggest rival -- a man who had escaped the USSR and continued to be a global figurehead, a man who Stalin was insanely jealous of -- was the revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

Stalin, in consolidating his power, had encouraged the idea in the USSR that there were subversive capitalist enemies everywhere, and that Trotsky was their ring-leader, that all of his revolutionary achievements were actually part of a sinister plot (it helped Stalin, no doubt, that Trotsky was Jewish, and people were already prone to believe this strain of anti-Semitic thoughts about Jews). His paranoid approach to politics did not, unfortunately, remain in the USSR. It spilled into Spain, where the Stalinists began to target the main Trotskyist sect: the POUM, where Orwell, so coincidentally, had found himself fighting.

To recover from the throat wound, Orwell returned to Barcelona right around the time that the Stalinists started accusing his militia of sedition. This meant Orwell was now an enemy of the people. He and his compatriots were accused of actually working with the fascists, and Orwell found that it was impossible to find any honest reporting back home in England on what was actually happening in Barcelona. "The Daily Mail," he wrote of the infamous right-wing shitrag, "amid the cheers of the Catholic clergy, was able to represent Franco as a patriot delivering his country from a horde of fiendish 'Reds.'" But the left wing papers were just as willing to lie. The New Statesman, Orwell mentions, "was treating us to tales of Fascist barricades made of the bodies of living children (a most unhandy thing to make barricades with)." 

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"One of the dreariest effects of this war," he wrote, "has been to teach me that the Left-wing press is every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right." He'd noticed, while at the front lines, that he never seemed to be able to find the reporters who were writing about all of these atrocities. "Perhaps when the next great war comes" he said, "we may see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet-hole in him."

This lack of commitment to truth meant that when Stalin turned his sights on all of the other left-wing militias, the mere concept of "truth" had been so diluted that it was impossible to reliably refute a false claim. The only newspaper that reliably told the truth in his home country, Orwell found, was The Manchester Guardian, which is still in print today at The Guardian. But how could everyone else know that? They hadn't been at the front. It was easier (and more comfortable) to just believe the conspiracies.

In a final, horrific act of self-destruction, the Stalinists attacked all of "disloyal" members of the coalition, and effectively destroyed any final chance of resistance against Franco and the fascists. Orwell himself fled the country. A year after the Civil War ended in 1939, Stalin signed the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, effectively letting the Nazi's turn their eyes from Russia towards the rest of Europe.

Orwell maintained his leftism for the rest of his life (he actually says in Homage that he personally liked the anarchists more than the Trotskyists), but his later books were echoes of Catalonia, of what happens when lies are given the same value as truth, and what horrible hellscape awaits us when people, who all broadly have the same interests at heart, allow themselves to be divided.

All of the books and movies in this article are linked to Amazon Associates, which means if you think they sound neat, you can click through from my page and buy them. If you do that, I'll get a tiny kickback, which would be a nice way to support this blog. No one paid me to talk about them. They're genuinely really good. I promise.

Featured photo: Communist fighter Marina Ginèsta in anarchist Barcelona.

5 books you should read for Earth Day

TOMORROW IS EARTH DAY. So why not pick up a good book, head outside, and find a nice tree to read under? Here are a few suggestions.

The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock

James Lovelock is the inventor of the Gaia Theory, a scientific framework that sees the earth as a self-regulating system that's somewhat akin to an actual living being. For a long time, it was dismissed as a hokey, New Age-y theory, but it is slowly becoming more accepted.

His 2006 book about climate change is almost apocalyptically scary. It makes the argument that we may still be able to stop the worst of climate change, but that it will take immediate and decisive action. It's particularly frightening to read now, 11 years on, and to know that climate change denial is still a major problem. If you need a book to light a fire under your ass, this is it.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

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As a thought experiment in 2005, journalist Alan Weisman asked the question, "What would happen to our civilization if every human being disappeared all at once?" In 2007, he published this book, breaking it down in fascinating detail. Our pets would become feral, our homes would quickly become reclaimed by nature, and our cities would collapse in on our sewer systems. Some of it would happen blindingly fast -- some of it would last for eons.

It's easy to imagine that the world revolves around us. But life on this planet may well outlive humanity. And Weisman's beautifully written book gives us a glimpse into what that would look like.

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

"Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person." The narrator of Daniel Quinn's 1992 book Ishmael answers the ad and finds that the teacher is, in fact, a telepathic gorilla. The gorilla takes him on as a student and forces him to answer the question: what if humans aren't the pinnacle of evolution? What if humans aren't "above" any other form of life?

What follows is one of the most intensely interesting philosophical books ever written. It will make you reexamine your entire relationship with the natural world, and question the very basis of modern civilization.

Saga of the Swamp Thing by Alan Moore

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Alan Moore's breakthrough run as the writer of the Swamp Thing horror comic is truly spellbinding. In it, he tackles the problem of good and evil, plant morality, the dangers of industrialization, the fight against the apocalypse, and even the sex lives of swamp creatures. It is exciting and thoughtful and it has this incredible lesson which straight up blew my mind when I read it:

"If you wish to understand evil, you must understand the bank, the roots, the worms of the Earth. Aphid eats leaf. Ladybug eats aphid. Soil absorbs dead ladybug. Plant feeds upon soil… is aphid evil? Is ladybug evil? Is soil evil? Where is evil, in all the wood? ... perhaps evil is the humus formed by virtue’s decay and perhaps, perhaps it is from that dark, sinister loam that virtue grows strongest."

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey is the environmentalist movement's angry uncle. The anarchist and pacifist worked for a couple of years as a National Parks ranger at Arches in Utah. During this time, he wrote his masterpiece, Desert Solitaire, which is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing about the natural world that you will ever read. If, on this Earth Day, all you really want is to get in touch with the world around you, this is the book to pick up.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network. Photo by Steven Guzzardi

Broaden your horizons: Read books by people who are nothing like you

A FEW YEARS AGO, I wrote an article for Matador about the best travel books to read while traveling. I was super proud of it, and then, of course, a friend commented: "Kind of a lot of white dudes on that list, huh?"

My initial reaction was to be supremely annoyed. "Oh, just… goddammit," I thought. "Can it not be about that just this once?" But I opened the piece back up and read through it -- every single one of my ten authors was a white male. I felt a little uncomfortable, so I went onto my Goodreads account, where I keep a categorized list of every book I've ever read, and I checked.

Nope. With zero exceptions, every single travel book I'd ever read was written by a white man. Which got me thinking -- why? I've read comparatively few books by women in my life, but there's no good reason for it. They certainly haven't been of lower quality. I don't think there's anything about white men that makes them inherently better at writing than women or people of color.

So why had I never picked up, for example, Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost? Or Cheryl Strayed's instant classic Wild? Hell, even Eat, Pray, Love would've broken my shameful no-ladies streak.

Your reading choices influence you in subconscious ways.

When it got down to it, my two favorite travel writers, Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson, were very much like me. Both were raised in the same general area as me (I'm from Cincinnati, Ohio, Thompson was born a short drive away in Louisville, and Hemingway's from Illinois), both trained as journalists like me, and both were wounded idealists.

In short, they didn't take me at all outside my comfort zone. Everything I read of theirs electrified me by how right it all felt. And that helped me gloss over some of their less likable features. Hemingway was a drunk and a misogynist and a bit of a brute. Thompson blew his talent by taking WAY too many drugs. Both were plagued by depression and eventually killed themselves. As I started to slide into a mild depression myself, I started to worry. I loved their writing and wanted to write like them, but I did not love their end.

What we choose to read affects the way we see the world. A recent study found that children who read Harry Potter were more likely to be empathetic and kind towards groups that they did not belong to. This shouldn't be too surprising: Potter writer J.K. Rowling used to work for Amnesty International, and is a tireless opponent of racism and classism. Indeed, anti-discrimination and kindess is the main theme of the entire seven-book series. The books we read shape us in often unseen ways.

Women, people of color, and foreigners

After the "no women" incident, I decided to make a concerted effort to get more women into the rotation. I still have a pretty dismal record -- of the books I've read, only 9.5% were written by women. That's up from around 6%, though.

Then, after the 2016 election, I realized that there was still a staggering lack of people of color on my list. Aside from a few obvious, big-name writers -- Salman Rushdie, Junot Diaz, and Martin Luther King, Jr. -- the list was basically a string of pasty white.

Finally, just this week, my colleague Morgane Croissant told me something that shocked me: In the English-speaking world, about 2 to 3 percent of what publishers put out are translations. In France, the number is 27%. In Spain, it's 28%. We English speakers, it seems, just aren't that interested in reading books from other cultures.

There were more foreigners on my reading list than women or people of color. But I realized, as I read through them, that the foreigners were responsible for a disproportionate amount of my favorite books. Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist's classic vampire story, Let the Right One In, Russian Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Chinese writer Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Danish writer Carsten Jensen's swashbuckling epic, We, the Drowned, Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges' unbelievable Labyrinths collection… the foreign-language books I'd read were almost uniformly amazing.

The reason why seemed obvious -- if you're reading a book in another language, it's probably one of the best books in the other language. It has to be, to be one of the miniscule number of books that are translated to English.

Studies suggest that, to your brain, reading a book can be more or less indistinguishable from transporting you into the body of another person. As George R.R. Martin put it, "A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one."

There are, no doubt, a lot of great white male writers. But why live a thousand lives entirely like your own? Why not live a thousand different lives?

This article was originally published by the Matador Network.

4 banned books from around the world you should absolutely read

I WAS ABOUT 10 YEARS OLD, and I had discovered my Dad's tattered old copy of Stephen King's truly terrifying vampire book, 'Salem's Lot. I was hooked -- I wanted more spooky stuff. So I went into the library and found Carrie, and walked up to the counter.

"You can't check this out," the librarian said.

"Why?" I asked.

"You're too young."

My mom took it. "I'll check it out for you."

"I can't really do that," the librarian said, "I know it's for him."

Look -- it may have been a good idea to not give a 10-year-old a book about periods and mass slayings, but I remember seething as we drove home that day. "I'm definitely reading it now," I thought.

Governments ban books for any number of reasons: sexual content, religious blasphemy, racism, and violence, to name a few. There are such things as books that some people should not read (the anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion comes to mind). But the act of banning a book is always a terrible idea. It not only crushes free speech, but it elevates the book and it's author to martyr status, which often is the exact opposite of what the banner wanted.

This week is Banned Books Week, so in honor of the written word, here are 4 books from around the world that you should totally read.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi -- Banned in the US

Marjane Satrapi was born in Iran, and grew up during the Iranian Revolution. In her classic autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis, she tells the story of growing up as a feminist punk in deeply conservative country.

So you're thinking -- this would have been banned in Iran, right? Well, it was never actually published there, so in a way, yes -- but it was banned in Chicago. Administrators pulled it from public school libraries citing "graphic language and content inappropriate for children."

The backlash was swift, and Satrapi publicly objected to the censorship. School officials eventually pulled back, allowing some copies in the schools.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque -- Banned in Nazi Germany

Erich Maria Remarque's famous anti-war book about the grinding, brutal fighting in the WWI trenches was a bit too realistic for Hitler. The Nazis banned the book for allegedly denigrating the German war effort and for being a "degenerate book." Fascists tossed All Quiet on the Western Front into some of their earliest book bonfires.

Remarque, himself a veteran of WWI, had to flee Germany, but his sister stayed behind. In 1943, the Nazis arrested her and said, "Your brother is unfortunately beyond our reach -- you, however, will not escape us." They beheaded her for "undermining morale."

Remarque lived to the age of 72. His book on the destructiveness and senselessness of war lives on still.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie -- Banned in Iran

Rushdie's 1988 book is perhaps the most famous banned book of the 20th century. Nominally, it was banned in many Muslim countries because it was blasphemous towards Islam. Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran even put a fatwa out calling for Rushdie's murder. But the Ayatollah was probably more upset about a chapter that mocked him specifically.

Rushdie had to spend years in hiding as a result of the fatwa. Today, the story around The Satanic Verses is now better known than the story within the pages of the book itself.

The book itself is a pretty incredible, bizarre, magical realist book in the vein as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It's worth reading for its strange, almost indescribable story alone. But even if you don't love it, at least you're pissing off the Ayatollah's ghost.

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak -- Banned in the USSR

The Soviets banned a lot of books. One of the most illustrative examples, though, was Boris Pasternak's classic Doctor Zhivago. Pasternak's book is a sprawling, epic novel taking place in early 20th century Russia. The central story is a love story, but the book is also critical of the Russian Revolution.

Pasternak had friends smuggle the book out of Russia in order to publish it. The next year, Pasternak was offered the Nobel Prize for Literature, but turned it down, worried about reprisals from the Communist Party. They threatened to both not allow him to return home if he went to collect the prize, and to send his mistress to the gulag. The book wasn't published until 1988 in the USSR.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network.

How "badass librarians" saved Timbuktu's priceless books from terrorists

THE WORLD'S CULTURE AND HERITAGE HAS always been protected by an unlikely group of people: librarians. Back before the internet, libraries were the place where knowledge was kept. And prior to the printing press, that knowledge had to be written directly onto paper. Because making copies would have been an infinitely more laborious process, fewer copies existed, meaning that it was much easier for knowledge to be totally lost if, say, the library was burnt down or if a document were misplaced. So the position of librarian was an incredibly important one.

Today, we think of librarians less as defenders of human culture, and more as a middle-aged woman shushing children. But their original function remains. Case in point: the badass librarians of Timbuktu who saved priceless manuscripts from marauding terrorists.

The story is covered in Joshua Hammer's new book, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts, and it covers the events following the fall of Muammar Qaddafi's regime in Libya in 2012.

After the Arab Spring, many jihadists were able to get their hands on Libyan weapons. They took the weapons and invaded Northern Mali, instituting a sharia regime in Timbuktu. Timbuktu is an ancient capital, and was once a great intellectual center in West Africa. It housed many ancient and priceless manuscripts that, for one reason or another, would have been targeted by Islamic fundamentalists, and likely would have been destroyed.

As the jihadists, acting under the group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, started to destroy Sufi shrines and cultural artifacts that were deemed to be heretical, a Timbuktu librarian named Abdel Kader Haidara began smuggling the artifacts out of the city. Haidara was the perfect man for the job -- he had been given the task decades earlier of going out and finding as many of these manuscripts as possible. It had been a difficult job, as many were held in remote villages or by private families, but Haidara had eventually amassed 377,000 manuscripts.

The librarians smuggled all of those manuscripts out of the city, little by little, in donkey carts and cars, in boats and in taxis, 600 miles over the desert to Mali's capital of Bamako in the South. The books are still being held in Bamako, where Haidara says he'll keep them until things calm down in Timbuktu. In the meantime, he's digitizing them and preserving them so that, if Bamako were ever to fall to the jihadists, the knowledge preserved in those manuscripts would be safe.

This article was originally published by the Matador Network.

6 documentaries you can stream online that will make you a better global citizen

I’M SURE THERE ARE A PLENTY of times that you, like me, don’t really have any interest in engaging with the world around you, and just want to hang out and binge-watch crappy shows on Netflix from time to time. It’s okay: no one else can judge. But if you want a half-baked justification for spending all your time in front of the TV, we’re here to help: as it happens, there are a huge number of documentaries and movies available on the major streaming services that are geared towards you, the worldly global citizen. Here are some for you to check out:


In 2012, Laura Dekker became the youngest person to sail solo around the world. The documentary that follows her is a deeply human portrait of a 15-year-old Dutch girl who goes through normal teenaged tribulations like homesickness, rebellion, wanderlust, and pirate avoidance. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s beautiful, it’s inspiring, and it will make you want to learn to sail, see the world, and challenge yourself.

Available on: Netflix

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Banksy’s strange and hilarious 2010 quasi-documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop is very possibly a hoax: the main character in it, Thierry Guetta, is a man who follows around his street artist friends with a camera only to become a famous street artist himself while producing insanely derivative versions of Banksy’s work. It’s bizarre and fun, but most importantly, it’s a look into the vibrant, anarchic world of graffitos and street artists which has spread rapidly across the world in the last few decades. It will, if nothing else, make you want to get out into the streets to explore and, you know, maybe make some mischief.

Available on: Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu+

Food, Inc.

Unlike another recent food documentary which veers into half-baked conspiracy theories and vegan propaganda (looking at you, Cowspiracy), Food, Inc. is a profound, balanced, well-researched look at how humans interact with their food. In a rapidly globalizing world where climate change is becoming a more pressing issue on a daily basis, every small thing we consume can have major impacts. Food, Inc. will help you rethink how you eat and what you eat.

Available on: Hulu+ and Netflix

The Search for General Tso

If you’re an American and have eaten Chinese food, you’ve probably had General Tso’s chicken at some point. But who was General Tso? And why does no one in China seem to have heard of the most popular Chinese dish in America? The Search for General Tso is an awesome (and relatively short) documentary on how a simple plate of chicken perfectly illustrates America’s relationship with the rest of the world.

Available on: Netflix

This Changes Everything

Naomi Klein, the Canadian writer and activist, manages to buck the trend of depressing “Oh man, we’re totally screwed” global warming documentaries by offering a different way of thinking about the global crisis: it may be, she believes, that this is our best chance ever to turn our world into a better place.

Available on: Amazon Prime


When Edward Snowden leaked documents from the NSA to journalist Glenn Greenwald, he invited along documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras to film the entire process from beginning to end. The resulting movie is absolutely electrifying: you get to watch Edward Snowden in real time as, over the course of a few days, he becomes the number one target of the world’s largest superpower. At the same time, the documentary manages to focus on the larger issues of NSA wiretapping and how privacy may not be a thing in a post-internet world.

Available on: HBO GO

This article was originally published on the Matador Network. Photo: Mike Mozart

All your favorite holiday specials are anti-capitalist

A Christmas Carol

Scrooge is a capitalist. He is the type of person who would be called a "job creator" today. He makes a ton of money and he hoards it. He's basically a caricature of an Ayn Rand character (because Ayn Rand's characters totally aren't caricatures already), written 62 years before she was even born. He's so rapaciously capitalist that it was probably inevitable that Disney turned him into a hero.


After Scrooge has been haunted by the ghosts of Christmas Present, Past, and Future, what does he suddenly become concerned in? Higher workers wages. Healthcare for the families of his employees. Giving out free meals to the poor. In essence, Socialism*. God would bless us, every one, if God wasn't a creation of the bourgeoisie to keep the proletariat in check, Tiny Tim.

*You could, theoretically, make the argument that Scrooge is not so much a socialist as a sudden convert to trickle-down economics.

A Charlie Brown Christmas

This anarcho-Christian fable shows children acting like rapacious capitalists. Sally wants "tens and twenties" for Christmas. Lucy wants "real estate." As Charlie Brown and Linus leave the school play to shop for Christmas trees, everyone demands fake, gaudy aluminum trees. This line even gets busted out:


Linus, the story's left-wing hero, explains that "Christmas has not only gotten too commercial, it's gotten too dangerous." He then gives a speech about the true meaning of Christmas. This shouldn't be called A Charlie Brown Christmas. It should be called The Kingdom of God is Within You, Charlie Brown!

It's a Wonderful Life


I mean, the main villain is a capitalist banker who is trying to destroy the protagonist's dream of building a housing project. Next.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

We all know the Dr. Suess was a treehugging commie, right? The Lorax is an insidious attempt at subliminally turning all of our children into virulent anti-capitalists, and Yertle the Turtle was actually used as anti-fascist propaganda in the Second World War.


The Grinch has become the second most-cited Christmastime villain, along with that other great capitalist, Scrooge. The Grinch, a small-hearted furry who lives in a swanky mountain mansion above Whoville, despises their hand-holding, peacenik communitarianism, and looks to cure them of it by depriving them of material goods. But what the Grinch learns is that the heart of the revolution comes from its people, and that impoverishing them will only make them stronger. The revolution is coming. It cannot be stopped.

Home Alone & Home Alone 2


Far be it from me to suggest that these movies are one and the same in terms of structure or plot, but they both carry the same message: adults - i.e. "the man" or "the system" - are incompetent, dumb, or criminal, and children - i.e. anarchy and chaos - will inevitably win the day.

A Christmas Story

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One of the most chilling anti-capitalist fables is A Christmas Story, a cautionary tale in which a middle class family's constant grasping for material things - leg lamps, Zeppelins, Red Rider BB Guns - is disrupted by their lower class neighbors starving dogs. The allegories in this movie just keep coming: Santa - the capitalist symbol of Christmas - is portrayed as demonic and uncaring. The Father futilely grasps at a higher standing in life, not recognizing that his status symbol, the leg lamp, is gaudy and obnoxious, and was doomed from the beginning. Ralphie is conned into believing that his mindless radio entertainment was ever anything more than just a cynical attempt to sell him Ovaltine. A grim reminder if there ever was one that underneath the shiny facade of capitalist society lies a dangerous, violent world of bullying, greed, and shattered dreams.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer


A more lighthearted communist tale, Rudolph admits that sure, materialism is nice, but it deftly points out that those outside or beneath the capitalist system are callously cast aside to the so-called "Island of Misfit Toys." Those misfits (shall we call them a "vanguard"?) then save the day when a climate related disaster of excessive fog causes the fragile, materialistic holiday to collapse. Is it a coincidence that Rudolph's nose is red? You be the judge.