In Defense of Peter Petrawicki; or, Hank Green’s Appallingly Repugnant Trainwreck

By Jason Garshfield

Whatever my criticisms of John Green, at least he is soulful, earnest, and respectful of the craft of writing. The same cannot be said of John’s brother, Hank Green, whose debut novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, is an odious work of propaganda through and through.

Now, before I go on, it is only fair that I direct your attention to a video made by Hank Green several years ago, in which he called science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card a “dick” for having different political views, and said, “Maybe I think you should pirate his books.”

I would never call Hank Green a “dick,” as I know nothing about how the man acts in his private life nor how he treats his family and friends. Nor would I encourage anyone to steal from him by pirating his books, as he did with Card. If you want to read them but are loath to give him your money, then I would recommend borrowing them from your local library, or buying them used, although if you do disregard my advice and pirate his books, I am powerless to stop you.

However, the disparaging way in which Green speaks about his fellow writers and those who disagree with him – even if he does so in a high-pitched voice – is worth keeping in mind for the remainder of this review, lest anyone accuse me of unnecessary harshness.

Anyway, off we go.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is the story of a bisexual New York hipster named April May. (I’m not kidding. This is actually her name. Admittedly, authors have a tendency to become attached to temporary placeholder names, but this is taking it to an entirely new level.) One day, April discovers on the streets of Manhattan a giant space alien robot which she promptly and irritatingly names Carl.

It soon transpires that there are dozens of “Carls” in major cities all around the world, and they have infected humans with a Dream puzzle, which requires all of humanity to pool their collective knowledge and work together. However, April May and her plucky band of misfit privileged hipster friends are foiled in their Zuckerberg-ian quest to Unite The World by (drumroll, please) a conservative political commentator, Peter Petrawicki, whose name appears to be a rather mean-spirited jab at Jordan Peterson (Petra being a city in Jordan).

Whatever his eponym, Petrawicki has the temerity to suggest that humanity should be suspicious of a group of extraterrestrials who have shown up on Earth with unclear intentions. For this perfectly reasonable word of caution, and since all conservatives are stupid and evil, and since April May’s goal to unite humanity apparently does not extend to people with different political views, Petrawicki and his followers, known as the “Defenders,” are made into the villains of the story and are disparaged at length by April May in her first-person snarker narration.

It is hard not to see a philosophical Obama-ism in all this: humanity is headed towards the End of History, a new globalized age of secular multicultural democracy, and the only ones standing in the way of that glorious vision are those pesky conservatives who bitterly cling to their faith and guns, refusing to get with the damned program already.

As Obama said when drafting the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, Iranians who chant “Death to America” are “making a common cause with the Republican caucus.” In Obama-ism, the conflict is not (as conservatives might see it) between good Americans, defenders of the West, and bad Iranians, upholders of a backward theocracy, but between liberals worldwide and conservatives worldwide, between globalist April Mays and provincially-minded Peter Petrawickis.

Of course, there is some truth to the notion of this divide. April May, or her real-life counterpart, has more in common with a fellow university-educated cosmopolitan from a foreign country than she would with a blue-collar stiff from her own country, one of Donald Trump’s “forgotten men and women.” As Christopher Lasch once wrote, “The privileged classes in Los Angeles feel more kinship with their counterparts in Japan, Singapore, and Korea than with most of their countrymen.”

It is no coincidence, therefore, that the Carls in An Absolutely Remarkable Thing choose to exclusively appear in major cities around the world. The inconsequential little lives of the citizens of Bumfuck-Nowhere, Pennsyltucky (population 2,507) are of no more concern to Green’s extraterrestrials than they were to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Only urbanites are worthy of a Carl visit.

This – along with a certain ideological collectivism – is also apparent in the “Dream” concept. The puzzles given to humanity by Carl are deliberately designed to encourage collaborative work, to be beyond the ability of any one individual to solve alone. The fictional female president in the novel (unnamed, but implied to be Clinton) says in a speech that “all of humanity would have to work together to solve the mysteries of the Dream.”

At the climax of the book, Carl demands a collective action by all of humanity: for every Carl statue in the world (64 in total) to be touched with gold simultaneously. As April says, “The Carls want us to work together, they want us to be human together, to take a risk together, to make a choice together.” We’re All in This Together, as pandemic-era propaganda slogans constantly remind us.

Now, Hank Green is probably correct in his estimation of what would happen if aliens landed on Earth: liberals would be more excited and conservatives would be more frightened. As Jonathan Haidt is fond of saying, liberals tend to be higher in openness to experience than conservatives. And yet that does not mean openness is always a good thing. First contact with an alien race could just as easily be Independence Day or The War of the Worlds as it could be Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Science fiction progenitor H.P. Lovecraft, dismissed today for his racism, was not entirely off-base in his fears that the Thing from the Stars, if it ever actually descends, could be an Eldritch Abomination.

As Peter Petrawicki said in Green’s novel, “I can tell you that in the history of our planet, advanced civilizations meeting less-advanced cultures doesn’t usually end well for the less-advanced people.” Although April May takes this as a subtle confession of Petrawicki’s own desire to dominate and torment, there is more than a grain of truth to his observation, as the most cursory glance at history reveals. Sometimes it really is good to be suspicious of change and novelty, and so the conservative voice is just as worthy of being heard as the liberal voice when confronting the unknown. If the people of Troy had listened to Laocoon – their own Peter Petrawicki – and not accepted the wooden horse, they might have met a different fate.

This is why it is so important for the right and left to be in dialogue with each other, for both perspectives to work together to functionally navigate the waters of unfamiliarity without going too far towards either extreme of foolhardy openness or stubborn closedness. And yet Hank Green would only have us villainize the conservative perspective, referring to his fictional pundit Peter Petrawicki in the harshest terms, a “hairball of hate” whose arguments April May “shoves right back down his throat to rejoin the fetid lump that had spawned them,” who spreads “poisonous” “made-up shit,” who is “the worst thing that ever existed,” and so on and so forth. What was that again about us all being human together?

Suffused throughout An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is also the love-hate attitude towards technology, both a force for promoting liberal right-mindedness and conservative stupidity. In Green’s Obama-ism, it is the internet which is supposed to bring us together into multicultural globalism, and there is a certain surprised, sputtering outrage at the realization, about halfway through the novel, that the likes of Peter Petrawicki and his Defenders can also use the internet. This, too, mirrors the nasty real-life realization over the past half decade that the internet is not the bastion of left-wing rationality that it was once thought to be, that it can spread Happy Merchant memes as easily as feminist think pieces.

Popular YouTube atheist vlogger Thunderf00t (real name Philip Mason) once called the Internet the place “where religions come to die.” Turns out it is not that simple; turns out that Nazis, flat earthers, Q believers, monarchists, Groypers, incels, and anyone with a dial-up connection can also use the internet. That is why Twitter called itself “the free speech wing of the free speech party”… until Donald Trump came along. Who would have guessed that placing such a powerful tool in the hands of average Joes might lead to chaos?

Indeed, there is a streak of self-righteous indignation throughout: How DARE these plebs, who could barely work a McDonald’s drive-thru window, let alone build a computer, use our technologies against us? Yes, we invented the internet to facilitate the spread of ideas, but not those ideas! It evokes, to them, the same sort of primal sense of wrongness as do pictures of a Viking-horned Jacob Chansley strolling through the Senate chamber.

More recently, John Green has published a sequel, A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, in which we finally learn the secret of the Carls. Peter Petrawicki returns with a level-up in megalomania, like Professor Weston in Perelandra, although I doubt Green reads much C.S. Lewis. He is now running a Dogecoin of Death (I’m not kidding about that, either – the apocalypse is brought about by a cryptocurrency), and there is more lesbian sex, and Carl has an evil twin brother or something, and there is a very rich and privileged black woman from Manhattan (named Maya, but I’ll call her Meghan Markle) who spends a lot of time playing the victim, but I got bored and started skipping around at that point.

Although A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor was written before the pandemic started, multiple reviewers noted that there was a very 2020-esque feeling to the book. The moment was hammered in, for me, by a throwaway line early in the book about “think pieces…. happily guessing about the generation of kids who would be raised in a post-Carl world.” We have plenty of those in our world: just read what CNN had to say about the post-Covid generation, so-called Gen C, with one analyst saying that he “really env(ies) Gen C,” who will get to “live in a fascinating world” where “They will live their life (sic) online.” What a wonderful childhood.

This, perhaps, is why a certain strain of globally-minded folk seemed to not-so-secretly love the pandemic so much. It was their Carl moment. Green’s aliens required humanity to take global collective action, to work together in ways that transcended individual, familial, or regional concerns. Similarly, social distancing, or herd immunity via vaccination, only works (or so the line goes) if everyone does it. So long as one stubborn recalcitrant holdout refuses to “Do Your Part, Wear a Mask,” then all of humanity will pay.

Coronavirus lockdowns were the greatest collective action in history. Even World War II did not extend to every corner of the globe in the same way. It was The Year the Earth Stood Still. The entire planet shut down, more or less, except for a few rebel provinces like Sweden and South Dakota, and even these were not fully spared. There was no escape; the system was near-airtight. A generation of children will be scarred by it. The first memories of toddlers today – many of whom will live into the twenty-second century – will be related to it. Somewhere, right now, there is a three-year-old girl who will be an old lady in the year 2120, telling her assembled great-great-grandchildren the story of how she spent a year trapped at home when she was small and could not understand why. None of us will ever forget it, as long as we live, this great worldwide leap made with or without our consent.

For the Hank Greens of the world, shielded from the worst effects of lockdown, the global cooperation and transcendence was almost enough to make up for the ruined lives, the loneliness, the missed milestones, the shattered dreams. Not only that, but, just as in Green’s novel, it was only those wayward conservatives, the real-life Petrawickis and armies of Defenders, who refused to Get with the Program, whose obstinacy threw a wrench in the great machine. It does not matter that over 90 percent of the country masked up. The few percent who did not were an affront to the human race itself.

The dictators of old were men of small dreams. Limited by premodern technology, they aimed only for regional hegemony. But what is a Caliphate, or a Khanate, or a French Empire, or a Greater German Reich, or a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, when one can have the whole planet at one’s fingertips? Even the British Empire, the largest in history, never conquered more than a quarter of the world. In Green’s glorious vision, there will be a global cooperative state on which the sun truly never sets, from which no escape shall be possible, except perhaps to Mars, and ruled over by a new breed of passive-aggressive androgynous tyrant. In an inextricably interconnected world, we are the eggs, and we are all in one basket.

For my part, I want none of it. For my part, I am grateful for all the pesky individualists and freethinkers and misfits out there, the ones who continue to forge their own self-determined paths in life, who refuse to follow directions blindly and Listen to the Experts and social distance and touch Carl statues with gold and the rest of it, who put private dreams and community ties ahead of the collective, who dare to pursue their own happiness. If the only way to survive as a species is to eschew such individualism, then perhaps we ought not to survive at all. Such a future would effectively mean our spiritual death anyway. If April May is the future, count me out. Call me a proud Defender.

Dragons All the Way Down: How John Green’s Novels Hurt Young People

By Jason Garshfield

There is a quote, from G.K. Chesterton, commonly rendered as, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

The actual quote is somewhat longer, but amounts to the same:

“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

And yet there are a set of modern authors who affirm the dragon but not St. George, chief among them young adult novelist John Green.

Green writes for adolescents – not children – and so the dragons of his novels are both less tangible and more frightening. The angst of adolescence, maligned as it may be by those older and supposedly wiser, comes from a very legitimate source.

As Green himself said, “I like to write for and about teenagers, because young people are thinking about so many important questions, about love and meaning and justice. And maybe in part because they are new to those questions, teenagers tend to approach them without much embarrassment or ironic distance.”

Now, there is a set of truths that every self-respecting teenager has figured out: that life is fleeting and terminal; that much of what one was told about the world as a child, from Santa Claus onward, is untrue; that one’s teachers and parents are, in most cases, not much smarter than oneself, and may even sometimes be stupider; that much of what one learns in school is only peripherally useful, at best; that the world is an unfair place where saints often suffer and villains often prosper; that many supposed paragons of morality are, in fact, rank hypocrites; that there is no group of wise elders at the helm making sure that everything is okay; that there is no easy solution to life’s greatest problems.

Teenagers do not need to be told by John Green that life is hard, fleeting, and unfair; teenagers already know that. Teenagers need to be told that the difficulty of life can be overcome; that in spite of all the great and undeniable tragedies in life, there is room, however small, for the triumph of good, for the defeat of darkness on both the micro and macro scale.

This is what books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games – albeit in settings removed from our daily reality – make some attempt to do, and this is what John Green’s books fail to do. They confirm the existence, for the adolescent, of the dragon, but give the adolescent no blueprint on how to defeat that dragon.

Green’s most recent novel, Turtles All the Way Down (2017), is perhaps most emblematic of this. The novel tells the story of Aza Holmes, a teenage girl with OCD (although as best as I can tell, “OCD” and related terms do not appear in the novel once). Holmes tasks herself with finding a missing billionaire, although she quickly becomes too consumed by OCD to focus on the mystery at hand.

The first sentence of the novel, perhaps without intending to be so, is blatantly Kafkaesque:

“At the time I first realized I might be fictional, my weekdays were spent at a publicly funded institution on the north side of Indianapolis called White River High School, where I was required to eat lunch at a particular time – between 12:37 p.m. and 1:14 p.m. – by forces so much larger than myself that I couldn’t even begin to identify them.”

This is well-articulated modern alienation: the sense of being at the mercy of great, impersonal societal forces, of having little control over the circumstances of one’s life. The difference between John Green and Franz Kafka, though, is that the latter wrote for adults (and did not even intend for much of his writing to ever be read). Kafka’s stories – of characters who struggle with, and are ultimately crushed by, momentous bureaucracies – are a cry for help from a troubled man, one who deep down wants nothing more than to be disproven in his worldview. John Green’s stories are an attempt at proselytization of the youth into that same worldview.

The first chapter of the novel goes on to reveal that Aza (like many OCD sufferers) is paranoid about bacterial infection, to the point where she can barely concentrate on the art project being proposed by her friend Mychal – “The Artsy One” – who wants to merge together 100 photographs of people with his name. Aza’s other friend, Daisy, tells him instead to merge together 100 imprisoned and exonerated men, because “then it’s not just about names but about race and class and mass incarceration.” (But not sex, apparently, despite their all being men.) This, perhaps, is the modern teenager’s attitude towards liberal politics: little genuine conviction, simply a cynical playing of the system to hit on the talking points of which they know their woke teachers will approve.

At the beginning of the second chapter, Aza’s mother – who is also a teacher at her school – tells her to put her phone away; thus is the soft authority of the parent combined with the hard authority of the school system, to form a benevolent, all-consuming umbrella under which Aza lives out nearly every moment of her waking existence. Perhaps it is no wonder she has OCD. Aza’s mother is a deeply irritating presence throughout the novel, constantly hovering around her daughter and prying into her business, never giving her a moment’s freedom. At one point, Aza even calls her mother out for “helicopter parenting,” but the issue is never confronted directly.

It is later revealed that Aza is haunted by the sudden death of her father, several years before the story begins. Were I a depth psychologist – a Freudian perhaps, or something of the sort – I might posit that Aza’s OCD is a defense mechanism against a frightening world, perhaps even a self-crippling technique by which she forestalls her own independence so that she can be there for her mother, a lonely woman who has nothing left but her daughter, and for whom her daughter abandoning her for the full actualization of adulthood would be a major blow. Perhaps her OCD is a psychological hurdle, rather than a biological one. But I have been reliably informed by the likes of John Green that OCD is merely a chemical imbalance in the brain, nothing more, nothing less, to be cured by medication rather than self-examination, so such musings are apparently beneath me.

Of course, this is a common modern affliction: the belief that mental health is a mere brain state, and so the solution to a mental health problem is not to figure out what is wrong, to “have much ado to know myself” as Shakespeare’s Antonio says, but to fiddle with one’s neurochemistry, thus placing one’s mental strife utterly outside the realm of reason. As the Doctor said of Lady Macbeth, tormented with guilt, “More needs she the divine than the physician.” John Green would give us only the physician. To reduce mental health problems to the interplay of serotonin and norepinephrine and those other brainly dancers is to reduce a murder to the physics of the bullet leaving the chamber of the gun; it focuses on a snapshot while ignoring the bigger picture. Yes, the brain chemistry for OCD is there, but why is it there? The car is moving because the engine is on, yes, we know, but why is it on?

At the climax of the story, Aza becomes distracted by an argument with her friend and gets in a car crash, after which she is taken to the hospital and suffers her most severe OCD attack yet. After that, she does not change, she does not improve, she gains nothing of value from the experience, no post-traumatic growth or anything like it, and the very idea of her doing so is disparaged within the narrative:

“The arc of the story goes like this: Having descended into proper madness, I begin to make the connections that crack open the long-dormant case of Russell Pickett’s disappearance… I focus only on the mystery, and embrace the belief that solving it is the ultimate Good, that declarative sentences are inherently better than interrogative ones, and in finding the answer despite my madness, I simultaneously find a way to live with the madness. I become a great detective, not in spite of my brain circuitry, but because of it.

“I realize that life is a story that I’m telling, and I’m free and empowered and the captain of my consciousness and yeah, no. That’s not how it went down.”

And after that? Nothing. Aza breaks up with her boyfriend, with whom her OCD prevented her from having any physical contact. The story ends, the mystery of the missing billionaire (remember him?) is “solved” in the lamest way possible, but not before the above-mentioned “art”-cum-political-propaganda project of the 100 mugshots is displayed at an exhibit consisting of: “big abstract paintings of hard-edged geometric shapes, an assemblage of old wooden chairs precariously stacked to the ceiling, a huge photograph of a kid jumping on a trampoline alone in a vast harvested cornfield” and the like.

If this part sounds trivial, it is not. Green’s sense of aesthetics, or lack thereof, is integral to the story he is telling. Ugliness forms a consistent backdrop to the story. Artwork intended to depict beauty, as articulated by the late Roger Scruton, is conspicuously absent. This is John Green’s work: nothing to inspire, no transcendent ideal, no hope, not even for teenagers for whom hope is a rare and precious commodity. Teenagers are starving for bread and fish; John Green gives them stones and snakes.

In a way, Aza’s name itself is symbolic of her story. She goes from A to Z, and then back to A, and the story ends much where it started. “Holmes” is merely a cruel parody, intended to mock the idea that every quirky person is a potential Sherlock. There is no change, no progress, no growth, not a single uplifting moment in the entire novel, only grim resignation to the realities of a life with OCD.

As Aza says early in the story, “[L]ife is a story told about you, not one you tell.” But Aza’s story is indeed being told by John Green; what does that say about him?

This all matters because we live in dark times, spiritually and emotionally, and it is the duty of artists, most particularly novelists, to provide hope even while acknowledging the dark reality. Once all the evils have been let loose from Pandora’s Box, only hope makes them bearable to the mortal. This is a duty that Green has abdicated, and he has done so with one of the demographics who need hope more than anyone.

Writers are powerful; writers are magicians, superheroes, and, as a certain superhero’s uncle once reminded us, “with great power comes great responsibility.” John Green, who is a New York Times bestselling author and whose YouTube channel has over 3 million subscribers, has as much power – albeit in a more roundabout and less direct way – as a high-ranking politician, and it is incumbent upon him to use that power for good, to create St. Georges as well as dragons.

Green himself may be a troubled man; his own struggle with OCD may have informed the travails of his main character. He has no imperative, however, to tell young people that life is a story told about them. For my part, I am glad that I did not encounter any of Green’s works when I myself was a lonely teenager struggling with obsessive-compulsive thoughts; his books would have given me no solace and only affirmed my worst fears about the world. With a few years of adult experience now under my belt, if I could speak to a smart, cynical teenager, I would give them the exact opposite guidance: your life is indeed a story you tell, individual choices matter – perhaps they are indeed the only things that matter – and the ending of that story is up to you.

Don’t Cancel ‘Gone with the Wind.’ Watch It Carefully Instead.

Gone With the Wind History: Historians On HBO Max Removal | Time
The film’s lead, Scarlett O’Hara (left), with Mammy (right), a slave
Credit: Getty Images

By Jason Garshfield

In an era in which The Cat in the Hat can be deemed racist, it was inevitable that the cancel mobs would come for the most politically incorrect story of all: Gone with the Wind.

Sure enough, the film was removed from HBO Max last summer; it was eventually replaced, with a disclaimer added to remind viewers who may have forgotten that slavery is, in fact, bad. While the film may remain accessible for now, societal trends seem to all but assure that it will soon live up to its name.

And yet those who casually dismiss Gone with the Wind miss its true message.

The film – and the book – portray an idealized vision of the Antebellum South, as “Lost Causers” see it: a world of hierarchical harmony, of slaves as content in their subservience as Hogwarts house-elves, a land of “Cavaliers and Cotton Fields,” as the opening chyron of the film says, of “Knights and their Ladies Fair” where “Gallantry took its last bow.”

The film’s producers hired two white technical advisers to ensure accurate depiction of Southern accents and manners, like whether Scarlett O’Hara (here, dancing with Rhett Butler), would wear a hat at an evening party, but disregarded many concerns raised by African-American leaders.
Scarlett O’Hara dancing with Rhett Butler
New Line Cinemas

It is a ridiculous vision, historically speaking. And yet it is crucial to understand, because if you cannot fully comprehend the powerful emotional pull that the Lost Cause narrative holds over its adherents, then you cannot effectively combat it.

This is why good stories, particularly antihero stories, give the strongest possible argument for the opposition even as they undermine it. We can see this with films like The Godfather and shows like Breaking Bad, which portray criminal activity as attractive while simultaneously depicting in great detail its terrible consequences.

It is arguable as to whether Gone with the Wind does this effectively. But there is an even deeper level of analysis to the story. It is more than a cheap dime-a-dozen romanticization of the Antebellum South. The book and film, whatever Margaret Mitchell’s intentions may have been while writing it, serve as a striking allegory for the South’s tragic downfall.

The first clue that this is not a simple story is the moral ambiguity of the main character. Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara is no hero; she is amoral, conniving, manipulative, exploitative. She mistreats and callously takes advantage of almost everyone around her: all three of her husbands, her sister, her kindhearted friend Melanie. And yet, although her success is based on a long trail of exploitation, she remains a captivating figure.

Scarlett is a stand-in for the Antebellum South itself, a place both alluring and morally bereft. The entire story is summarized, more or less, in the novel’s very first sentence: “Scarlet O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” That is the old South, in a nutshell. It was not beautiful – it was an ugly place of slavery – but many have been caught by its charm nonetheless. (The Tarleton twins, as you’ll recall, were minor characters who died early in the novel at Gettysburg. Being caught by the South’s charm, or Scarlett’s, can be deadly.)

The Confederate battle flag seen flying over wounded soldiers in Gone With the Wind

The fact is, the South was always a backwards region. As Thomas Sowell details in Black Rednecks and White Liberals, the Southern colonies of the United States were first settled by “crackers” from the (at the time) lawless regions of northern England, the Scottish highlands, and County Ulster; in contrast to the Northern colonists, the Southerners came from an unruly honor-based culture which placed little value on industriousness. As a result, the Antebellum South was strikingly poor by the standards of its time; even the wealthy plantation owners were living in squalor compared to their Northern contemporaries. Most of them could scarcely afford butter. ­­­

In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass related how when he first arrived in the North after escaping slavery, he expected to find it much poorer than the South, because he had always unconsciously assumed that there could be no wealth without slavery. Instead, Douglass was amazed at what he found: everything looked “clean, new, and beautiful.” The ships were larger, the buildings were in better condition, and the people were healthier and happier. Even Douglass’ fellow escaped slaves, relatively poor by Northern standards, were often wealthier than their former masters: “I found many, who had not been seven years out of their chains, living in finer houses, and evidently enjoying more of the comforts of life, than the average of slaveholders in Maryland.”

The difference between the quasi-feudalist South – the land of “Cavaliers and Cotton Fields” – and the industrialized North was capitalism. The claim that America was built “on the backs of slaves” could not be further from the truth. American wealth was built by capitalism, the exchange of goods and services between free men, and it was capitalism that made the industrialized United States seem so wonderfully wealthy to Douglass, as it did to Boris Yeltsin a century and a half later. Slavery was an aberration from the American way, not an expression of it. The Southern system of slavery brutalized the slaves while simultaneously holding back the region from reaching its full economic potential.

Scarlett’s romantic conflict, which forms the center of Gone with the Wind, represents the moral conflict of the South. The man she loves, Ashley Wilkes, is a gallant Southern gentleman who grows more and more anachronistic after the Civil War ends, until he is practically a walking statue, handsome but dead on the inside. He represents the old way, and Scarlett’s unhealthy obsession with him complements the South’s fixation with its undeservedly idealized past. Meanwhile, Rhett Butler represents capitalism, as seen from an Antebellum perspective: he is a war profiteer, rich, brash, resourceful, unsentimental, and fairly unscrupulous, willing to rub shoulders with carpetbaggers and Republicans if it will make him wealthy.

Rhett’s tumultuous, loveless marriage with Scarlett symbolizes the tortured relationship between the Union and the Confederacy. Rhett rapes Scarlett; this is another scene which is bound to outrage modern politically correct audiences, but which is an accurate metaphor for the Union conquest of the Confederacy, and particularly Sherman’s March. Meanwhile, the child born out of Rhett’s and Scarlett’s marriage – a beautiful girl named Bonnie Blue, after the secessionist flag – dies in the exact same manner as her slaveholding grandfather, when she jumps a horse badly. (Remember the part about Southerners being unruly?) The fruit of the union between North and South is doomed, because the legacy of prior generations’ folly is in the blood.

23 Strange Movie Facts You Probably Didn't Know Until Now | Gone with the  wind, The stranger movie, Movie facts
The film’s depiction of Sherman’s March in Atlanta, GA

At the end of the story, after Ashley’s wife Melanie (the sweeter side of the old South) dies in childbirth, Scarlett finally realizes that she has wasted her life pining after Ashley, and that Rhett was the right man for her. But by now it is too late. Rhett has grown justifiably tired of Scarlett and her immoral behavior: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

This is the history of the South, before, during, and after the Civil War. The region rejected the American way, that strange concoction known as capitalism that came out of the North and has defined our country, for good or ill, for the last two centuries. By the time the South had realized its folly, the North had moved on. Today, Americans from other regions tend to view the South with condescension, as a swampy land of racist rednecks. Like Rhett, we don’t give a damn for them anymore. Even hearing a Southern accent lowers the perception of the speaker’s intelligence.

There is something schizophrenic about the modern South, a region that often engages in over-the-top effusive displays of patriotism while clinging tightly to treasonous relics such as the Confederate flag. The excessive adulation of America is, to some degree, a common attitude of the conquered towards the conqueror: many postwar Japanese held a deep reverence­ towards General MacArthur, for instance. But in the modern South, it goes deeper.

Here are a people who doth protest too much, who wave American flags feverishly because they are not confident that they are fully American, who are conscious of their ancestors’ culpability in fighting against the United States, but too proud to disavow it entirely, or to move beyond the dysfunctional “cracker culture;” the heartbreaking consequences of which J.D. Vance writes about in Hillbilly Elegy. They are a people who want desperately to be part of the American story but do not entirely see their place in it. Northern commentators who sneer at the Confederate flag miss the point, failing to notice how sad all of this is.

Gone with the Wind ends on a paradoxically optimistic note: having lost Rhett, Scarlett vows to go back to her plantation Tara – to her roots – and to win him back somehow: “After all, tomorrow is another day.” This is where the story currently stands. Mitchell never wrote a sequel, and she was hit by a car and died in 1949.

The Civil War reverberates through our history. It is only two lifetimes ago, and still blearily within living memory: some elderly Americans today can remember a time when Civil War veterans (or emancipated slaves!) were alive, and a witness to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination lived long enough to appear on a 1950s game show. Furthermore, the social dynamics that led to the war, and the question of the South’s place in our nation, have never been fully resolved. Echoes of them haunt the American political scene to this day.

It is for this reason that Margaret Mitchell’s great novel, and the great film it inspired, have maintained such a lasting presence on the cultural scene, despite the story’s obvious (and at times cringeworthy) racism. Generations of Americans – Northern and Southern alike – have been captivated by Gone with the Wind, because the tragic story it tells is deeply American. Today’s unlettered sheepdogs of political correctness who dismiss the book and film are missing a great deal. If they read and watch carefully, they might see a key to understanding what is wrong with America today. Only by doing so can we hope to make tomorrow a day worth awakening to at all.

The Battleground of Beauty

By Thomas, Letters From The Ruins

BEAUTY IS A BATTLEGROUND in the 21st Century. It’s the central figure in a whole range of debates from modern art to our own bodies. Is beauty in the eye of the beholder, or does it even exist? Or, we might imagine an absolute principle which neatly categorises the nebulous term for us. 

Indeed, I find myself engaged in a search for beauty, even in the mundanities of daily life like tidying my desk and kitchen. Beauty is ever desired but fleeting. It’s a quality that we can’t seem to systematise for better or worse. 

And so I wish to engage in a short journey with you. We will explore beauty as a tree. We begin at the root of a mighty oak, travel up its great trunk and finish at the tips of its branches. In doing so, we will have explored the concept as a complex, inter-related organism.


What is a concept? The answer is a boundary. Whatever we include in a boundary necessarily excludes everything outside of it. Concepts become more real when they are more specific. This is fairly intuitive but its implications are radical. It means that everything we come to understand about the world must be true, or crucially, false. 

Therefore, I might draw your attention to a moment in your own life. Recall an instance of beauty. For me, there is no better example than a brisk spring morning – a roll of mist caressing the dewy ground with the sun announcing itself in a golden stupor. In this moment, I am communicating with something more primordial than could ever be imagined.

But what does that say? It says that beauty exists! I could proclaim it like a madman announcing doom unto a town square. And here is the difficulty. If we can all recall a moment of sincere beauty in our own lives, then there must be that which is not. There must be ugliness too. 

Ugliness is present most readily in very human moments. Revenge, jealousy, and spite manifest themselves as a rot, tearing away the order we all experience in our lives. Ugliness is a denial of the good, like darkness which enshrouds a glimmer of bright. 

Therefore, the mere existence of a thing is enough to vindicate its opposite. If anything exists at all, it cannot merely float in a vacuum, it requires a framework of context around it. This framework is what we understand as exclusivity and inclusivity. 


From the conceptual roots of our discussion, we may now arise to the trunk. The concept may take form into specifics. What are the implications of concepts being exclusive? Well, if not everything can be beautiful, then we can’t accept that beauty is infinitely available. 

This is difficult in our democratic culture, in which differences in aesthetic tastes are taught to be respected above all. But how can one person’s beauty be another’s ugliness? If anything can be beautiful, then beauty means nothing. 

On the other hand, if beauty must be wholly objective, there is no room for context. Is a rock beautiful? The answer is not ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but ‘it depends.’ A slab of stone certainly wouldn’t titillate our senses, but what if that very slab was enfolded into a grand architectural feat, like a gothic Cathedral? In that case, people might travel half the way across the world just to witness it. 

This tells us that beauty can’t be a feature of the physical world, but it also can’t be a feature of the individual ego. We are seemingly at an impasse between two extremes of objectivity and subjectivity. 

There is a solution to this. It comes in the form of identity. Identity is a kind of medium between our mind and the external world. We can never quite pinpoint identity because identity is a relationship between the two. Our own self understanding can’t take place without the context of a history and culture. Identity exists, but ephemerally. It’s a complex interplay rather than a strict category. There are principles and iterations of it in the world, but these iterations show up differently across time and space.

I wish to suggest that historical communities, epochs, and socio-culture are the driving forces behind these kinds of categories. The intricate balance between ourselves and the real world creates a climate. This is the framework we have been looking for which generates perspective. The way things reveal themselves to us changes over time. The Oak tree was a vastly different being in the age of maritime expansion to today.


Now I have suggested a formal framework for the understanding of identity, we can bring the conversation further. How does this help us understand beauty? There are eternal principles at work here. Beauty links the medieval cathedral, the spring morning, and the pure joy of a meaningful moment. The link is our formal relationship to the world in identity.

Like identity, beauty is a social phenomenon. It always plays a central role in society and always exists. It forms the glue that holds together an epoch. If we wish to understand the psychology of a people, we must look at the artwork they share. This could be in architecture, in galleries, or even in the way people dress. Their particular iteration of this timeless principle is the axis of their identity. It is where individuality meets the world. 

Therefore, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but in the eye of an epoch. The community is the stage for identity to form. It is the forum for the conversation between timeless principles and the willingness of a people. If we wish to take part in this conversation, we must look to our past, to the great people who sincerely contributed their part. A reappraisal of their works will tell us more about ourselves than one could possibly imagine. 

Thomas is an anonymous British postgraduate of Politics and Philosophy and writer of the blog ‘Letters From The Ruins.’ He can be found at or on his Instagram, @Letters_from_the_ruins.

ARTS EDITOR: The Necessity of Art During Quarantine

Stephen Krebs ’20 performing at his piano recital in Chapman’s Salmon Recital Hall

By Abbey Umali

When we first entered quarantine in March, no one expected it to last this long. Because of the lockdown, millions of people have lost their jobs, many businesses will never reopen, children have missed out on socialization that is crucial for their development, and the already-high rates of depression and suicide have increased dramatically. As humans, we are not meant to be separated from each other for such a long time. Interaction with each other is what allows us to grow, stay mentally and emotionally healthy, and move forward as a society in a positive way. 

One of the most effective and meaningful ways people can connect with each other is through art. Although students across all disciplines have had a difficult time with the transition to “remote learning,” I have noticed that art students, in particular, have suffered in this online format. As a music student myself, I understand the frustration of trying to practice an instrument or participate in a choir over Zoom without human connection or immediate feedback. It broke my heart to witness many of my friends being forced to cancel their Senior Recital, an event that would have allowed them to showcase everything they worked for during their four years of college. Production on film and senior thesis projects came to a grinding halt and made students wonder if they would be able to graduate. The hard work that dance and theatre students put into their performances was wasted with no audience to share it with. Classes that were designed for collaboration and human interaction suddenly confined students to learn from their bedrooms, in front of a screen, alone.

This issue is not just specific to art students. So many of the opportunities to create and experience art communally have been taken away from us, and society has suffered because of it. Until we have this freedom again, it is up to us to find new ways to embrace our creative outlets and counteract the feelings of hopelessness and apathy that come with isolation. 

Regardless of whether or not you consider yourself an artist, it is likely that you interact with some form of art on a daily basis. It might be listening to your favorite song, watching a movie you have never seen before, reading a fictional story, or even doodling in your notes during a Zoom lecture. Art is one of the few things that has the power to draw people together regardless of race, gender, religion, ability, socio-economic status, or any other classification meant to divide us.

There has never been a more important time to recognize and appreciate art than now, especially when many are attempting to erase our history and culture (e.g., the defacement and removal of statues of historical figures). In the words of John F. Kennedy, “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him… We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” 

I want The Hesperian’s Arts Section to be a space where people can display, analyze, discuss, and learn from various forms of art in a way that provides freedom for artists to reveal truths about our society and culture – including the parts that many of us might want to hide. We welcome writers who wish to use art as a tool to push back against the fear, isolation, and division that the lockdowns have caused. 

The creation of art is essential, especially during quarantine and its aftermath, to prevent the desertion of our culture and preserve the beauty that comes from authentic connection and expression. 

Abbey Umali is a senior at Chapman University and is double majoring in Psychology and Music with a minor in Disability Studies. She is serving as the Speaker of Senate and the Crean College Senator for the Student Government Association during the 2020-2021 academic year.