Our House of Special Purpose

The sarcophagus of Czarist Russia
Christmas shopping, 2020

So I went to the Sherman Oaks Fashion Square mall last night thinking I would buy a little something-something for Mrs. UpintheValley only to be the last to learn Williams-Sonoma had shut its doors at that location. Moving on,  I tried to buy a different something-something at the home furnishings department at Macy’s and found myself in an empty register line for ten minutes waiting for the cashier to return from an errand. He never did and I left the mall -the mall!- empty-handed the week before Christmas.   Some day, twenty years from now, an archivist of late-stage capitalism will find me there in the security tapes, a box under each arm, muttering in confusion. Perhaps I will become a meme: 2020 Man.

There were no piped-in carols, no piano player, no sugary bread dough smells wafting up from Cinnabon on the ground floor to tickle my pleasure impulse feedback loop.  Fashion Square wasn’t closed entirely, that would be a bridge too far, a decision had been made, the line had been drawn…it just wasn’t very…open. The skeleton crews keeping the lights on were indifferent to my secular holiday desires. I could have walked the items out the front door without encountering an employee or fellow shopper.  Jennifer Connelly could have shown up on roller skates at any moment.  This was retail in a medically induced coma and I was molesting the patient.

As one not inclined to seasonal affective disorder, I’m discovering the absence of happy people in close proximity can be surreptitiously, accumulatively, depressing. It’s not a matter of seeking meaning in gift-giving or trying to re-create particular shared anticipations of years past.  Tis the creepy normalization of surrender all around us.

Ten minutes away, Hollywood Boulevard without people is like a scene from Vanilla Sky, deserted in a cinematic sort of way. Disorienting.  Foreboding.  Yet somehow there were enough weed shop derelicts loitering under the eaves, puffing away their EDD money, to make the entire street smell of cannabis from Vine to LaBrea.  I used to be pro-weed. Now it’s becoming synonymous with the failings of national character.

A depressing glimpse into the near future in which fewer of us work, more of us shall be high, most of us will be obedient to diktats from a nomenklatura which does not practice what it preaches.

How fearful, obedient, and self-jailing is America now.

Tangentially, I’ve binged The Last Czars, and find myself identifying more than I should with the Romanovs during their time in Yekaterinburg, at the House of Special Purpose, where they were taken in the final months before execution.

Nicholas the II was an incompetent head of state, presuming the throne by a divine right achieved via court inbreeding, a royal autocrat with one foot in the pre-modern world, and very likely Rasputin’s cuckold.

Like he, I am cooped up in a house for weeks on end on someone else’s orders. Beyond our gates, we sense the rules of the world, the operating presumptions, have changed. Nicholas and Alexandra were led to believe there would be a public tribunal.  They were strung along by a series of notes from guards pretending to be sympathizers, promising an imminent rescue.  Notes authored by Bolsheviks for the purpose of pacifying them. It will not be long, only a few more weeks…

The parents may have had an inkling of what was in store for them when they were asked to gather in the basement for a portrait photograph but didn’t think the children would be murdered in the same lot.  Shooting unarmed girls, even in the direct aftermath of WW I trench warfare and revolution, was the moral beyond.  Half the execution team couldn’t go through with their orders, which came directly from Moscow but had no author.  Lenin himself made certain his name was on no paperwork.

Yet it got done. The deep state blooms in the shadow of accountability. It took Russia seventy years to come back from this.

In a few months, er, sometime next year…the administrative state will declare permit the public to resume its normal freedoms of assembly and commerce. Only they won’t be freedoms anymore, but privileges revocable at any time.  Because we let them. It won’t be 2019, plus one year. We will be in a different “America” altogether, one in which freedom of speech is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Facebook and Alphabet, subject to deletion if determined to be misinformation by a Trust and Safety Council staffed in part by contract workers from India and China.  A Los Angeles ruled by selective prosecution, with permission slips for woke mobs to loot businesses and intimidate the public, with salutary beatdowns of dissenters pulled from their cars to serve as an example.  An “America” with unenforced borders, few reciprocal obligations of citizenship, and a whole lot of people as well as corporations seeking some version of free money.

I don’t know how long it’s going to take us to come back from this.  We’re still on the downslope. Something we can reflect on this Christmas, each of us quartered in his own house of special purpose.

14 thoughts on “Our House of Special Purpose”

  1. When I was young I worked for a family back in Jersey that I was very fond of. There was an old photograph of the matriarch as a child in a carefully staged family portrait from the early years of the twentieth century. It looked very much like the photo of Czar Nicholas II and his family. I suppose the merchant class of Eastern Europe at that time had aspirations. She was still alive in the 1980s and I asked her about the photo and how she ended up in Jersey. Communists on one side. Nazis on the other. They lost everything they couldn’t carry with them when they left. They were smuggled out by way of Turkey, then on to New York in the bowels of a cargo ship with gold sewn into their coat linings. They got out just in time. In her Olde Country accent she said, “God shined on us.” Her husband had a similar story, but darker. His words are still with me. “The good ones didn’t make it out. The people who escaped did terrible things.” He was speaking of himself, but we never talked about the specifics.

    Our present circumstances aren’t about the Left or the Right. It’s the failure of a certain set of arrangements that are played out and no longer fit for purpose. So we’re entering a period of unpleasantness before we settle on new institutions. That process is never fun.

    1. If America is the historic destination of all diasporic peoples, to where do persecuted/fed up Americans flee? That’s what makes the looming unpleasantness a bit of a pressure cooker. I agree with you: our understanding of Left and Right is undergoing a reshuffling and are insufficient categories to describe what is happening.

      1. «If America is the historic destination of all diasporic peoples, to where do persecuted/fed up Americans flee?»

        The tradition was “west”, but americans have run out of “west” not much beyond Van Nuys. There are some important stories in that word “west”, that need explaining because “the past is a foreign country”:

        * That “west” actually meant, in ancient Europe or in the USA’s recent past, “the forest”.

        * Because in the past there were huge forests in between relatively small cities, towns, villages surrounded by a belt of agriculture. To the point that in post-roman times huge germanic tribes could move around from the baltic to Spain, than back to Italy, then to the Balkans, and then settle in Cappadocia over a hundred years of migration through those forests, with occasional battles when they approached cities and towns to take them over.

        * In the past the “authorities” could only rule over the latter, population density and lack of manpower prevented them from hunting people down in the forests, which therefore were the refuge of dissenters.

        * In the past therefore people had two options: live in towns and villages in relative stability, but be totally under the surveillance and control of the local gang boss (the “lord of the manor”) and the local priest, or escape to the forest and become an “outlaw”.

        * Eventually in Europe and in China the forests disappeared, and those who did not “fit in” (dissenters/cranks/opportunists etc.) had to emigrate, from Europe to eastern America or from China to south-east Asia.

        * For some period there was another option: some cities became so large and complex that total surveillance and control could not work in them, so dissenters/cranks/opportunists etc. could disappear into them.

        * In recent times “forests” have disappeared even in America, and surveillance and control have improved so much that they work even in large and complex cities.

        An example I often make of the latter: some decades ago people could walk into a random bookshop, one of hundreds in a city, and buy an “unapproved” book with cash and be untraceable, and if they were regardless blacklisted by the local “authorities” (“you will never work in this town again”) they could buy cash a ticket on a bus or a train and escape to another city and disappear.

        Nowadays every street, every bookshop have CCTV, most payments are recorded in central databases, and the “authorities” have nation-wide and world-wide databases with blacklists of “undesirables” and can track you anywhere. As to travel in the USA one has to provide ID and face recognition so far only for plane tickets, in places like China petrol stations and bus and train stations require ID and a face scan.

        1. The Forest is worthy of a lengthy post all its own. The American Forest may only exist now on a practical basis in the privacy of one’s mind. We out ourselves with every keystroke and every click we make on our devices. This digital ghost, this shadow self is now privately held by corporations which have revealed in 2020 to have vexatious political intent. As more and more people in our lives begin speaking differently and saying things they didn’t believe in 2019, we may be obliged, in the interest of prudence, to practice false verbal self-abnegation. There is a Persian expression for this: ketman.

  2. There are enforced borders. These are on places called gated communities and the ultimate gated community is a jail/prison.
    The current situation reminds me of the somewhat inaccurate story of the frog and the pot of water on a stove. Most of us have been in the pot for four decades, or life if you are younger than forty. Now many are noticing that the water is getting too hot.
    I’m with Johnny, this is just the start of some “unpleasantness” that will, in decades to come, wash out to something different.

    1. “There are enforced borders. These are on places called gated communities”

      Gated neighborhoods=a new nation unto itself. This is part of the problem.

  3. I live in a area of extensive gated communities. Entire subdivisions with the ocean on one side and a single guarded entrance. Overall, there is little crime, at least by the standards of central suburban California.
    Did the gates diminish the crime in the area? Or was it already peaceful, and the fences just enforce it?
    In any event, on my open to all street, bikes are parked anywhere and will be there in the morning. They wouldn’t last an hour back in Sacramento.

    1. «I live in a area of extensive gated communities. Entire subdivisions with the ocean on one side and a single guarded entrance.»

      The model that the USA elites have chosen for the New American Century, and has been endorsed by the affluent middle and upper-middle classes, is familiar: a return to “dixie” (or Brazil/Mexico/…). It is a model where a tiny master class lives in beautiful mansions on top of shining hills, ruling over a small layer of “trusties” (lawyers, managers, police chiefs, politicians, …) living in nice cottages on the sides of the hills, and where the trusties (fighting among each other ferociously for the favour of the masters) crack the whip over the servants working hard in the barracks below and living in favelas in the swampy bottoms. The complete erasure of the “Normal Rockwell” dream of “yankee” grassroots democracy and opportunity for all.

      «Overall, there is little crime, at least by the standards of central suburban California. Did the gates diminish the crime in the area? Or was it already peaceful, and the fences just enforce it?»

      A computer security expert, wise beyond his field, wrote as to fences:
      https://www.schneier.com/essays/archives/2003/06/walls_dont_work_in_c.html
      “And in both the real and virtual world, nothing improves security more than gentrification”

      There are two ways to do it: pull up most people in an area into the “gentry” (the middle class), or push out the “rabble” (the lower class) from “gentry” areas.

      1. Your comment touches on an overlooked point. There is much rhetorical infrastructure developed over years portraying gentrification as the displacement of people of color while completely avoiding the issue of class. My corner of Van Nuys is a “pull” neighborhood: it has changed substantially for the better in the past decade as measured by economic uplift and home improvement. Yet the demography has not changed a wit. It is as brown as ever. You could say it has gentrified in the academic sense, but has proven as immune to gentrification in the political sense as the Irish are to psychoanalysis, to paraphrase Freud.

  4. On a friendlier note, during a recent take-out visit to MacLeod’s the thought of putting a crawler credit on the board to your nom de plume crossed my mind. How about some indirect acts of defiant commiseration? Post a nom de plume for beer if you like. Cheers.

  5. «Hollywood Boulevard without people»

    Ha! During the summer I was visiting Cambridge in England, which is a big local and tourist attraction especially during the summer, and it was also eerily empty like the Boulevard photos.

    «there were enough weed shop derelicts loitering under the eaves, puffing away their EDD money, to make the entire street smell of cannabis from Vine to LaBrea. I used to be pro-weed. Now it’s becoming synonymous with the failings of national character.»

    I hope readers here do focus on that “national” in “national character”, because those weeders usually are not failed personal characters: almost all people who do weed, alcohol, oxycontin don’t have failings of personal character, they are just numbing themselves to pain (sometimes physical, sometimes psychological) in order to be able to sometimes function. That “good character” people don’t get affected by adversities is simply a myth: I have seen over the decades how people crack in small and big ways after despair inducing shocks. Suicide (the ultimate “painkiller”) rates are very much affected by levels of despair. Human minds are actually quite fragile, even in a physical sense; as to that I was very struck by the evidence that lead levels in gasoline very much correlate to impulsive and violent crime rates, also because if small amounts of lead had that effect, who knows what the many other pollutants spread over the past century have been doing to our bodies including our nervous systems.

    «A depressing glimpse into the near future in which fewer of us work, more of us shall be high»

    I can no longer find it, but I read a story imagining a future where there is an “employee operating system” that through headsets with cameras instructs and checks what workers do continuously, and eventually through ML and other AI techniques it is evolved into AIs that can be loaded into robots to replace workers, that are then corralled into “welfare reservations” out of sight where the water is laced with tranquilizers and contraceptives, living in permanent depressed stupor on minimal “workhouse” lifestyles, while the corporate owners and their political trusties live in fantastic luxury served by the robots. Eventually there is a happy ending, when a rescue mission from Australia manages to free from a “welfare reservation” in California some inmates, telling them that in Australia robots do everything too, but since they are largely government owned, they work for every citizen instead of just a tiny caste of owners.

  6. «A Los Angeles ruled by selective prosecution, with permission slips for woke mobs to loot businesses and intimidate the public, with salutary beatdowns of dissenters pulled from their cars to serve as an example.»

    It has not escaped the attention of political strategists that reaganism, and its successor clintonism, resulting in the boasts by GW Bush, BH Obama, D Trump, that they regularly gave kill lists of hundreds of “enemies of the state” to many death DoD/CIA death squads, have become so popular because of two main factors:

    * The ascent of many middle aged and older voters into the affluent middle and upper-middle class, and these voters number one thought is “F*ck you! I got mine” and want absolutely no risks, no disturbance to their white-picket-fence tranquility and affluence.

    * The race riots of the 1960s/1970s effectively ended the New Deal, terrifying those affluent middle and upper-middle classes into demanding ever greater levels of surveillance and repression, among that giving “take the gloves off” mandates to enable police violence and militarization, to keep the “vicious mob” away from their white-picket-fence idylls and keep taxes low.

    Every riot, every terrorist attack, means more votes for reaganism as frightened voters reflexively demand more economic and police brutality.

Comments are closed.