Jacob Lawrence, "Harriet and the Promised Land No. 17" (1967)
Jacob Lawrence, Harriet and the Promised Land No. 17. The Last Journey (1967)
Can a Game Be Literature?

Mark's Pages


This piece is about the theatricality of American politics; class; the state; and socialism.

Theatricality is different and more specific than hypocrisy. Most Americans understand that their political leaders lie, projecting false "images" to canvass higher poll numbers. An obvious example is the "family values" bunch, who, as we now know, carry-on with their secretaries, and divorce their wives while the latter are in hospital with cancer. Stuff like that. By "theatricality," though, I mean the carefully-scripted role-playing which politicians rely on, projecting fine-tuned personae with the skill and acumen of gifted actors. The purpose of handlers and writers and image experts is to craft these roles, without which our political actors are naked: unable to command respect, garner votes, or wield authority. This story pokes fun at the disparity between these public roles and the private reality they conceal.

Class is the fundamental reality of American society. In this story, the classless and egalitarian society of the castaways is obliterated by contact with the American class system arriving from outside.

The state attempts to ensure perpetuation of class rule by a society's dominant class. It does this in two ways: coercion and persuasion. Under capitalism, both methods are always employed, each to greater or lesser degree, so that while military dictatorships and fascist states are extremely coercive, parliamentary republics rely more heavily on persuasion. Still the republics employ coercion as well; this is what police and judges and armies are employed to do.

Socialism is simply the common ownership of the most important economic resources and their administration for the benefit of all. In America today we have socialized airports, a socialized interstate highway system, a socialized post office, socialized water supplies and sewage treatment, socialized law enforcement, socialized national defense. No big deal. The castaways' society was positively communist (small "c") in its radicalism, holding all the important resources collectively: food production primarily, but also storage huts, the theater, the cave shelters, and so on. No big deal. The arrival of American society from outside destroys this collectivity, to the detriment of all.


The castaways have an informal decision-making process reflecting their collective ownership of the island's resources. Nominally, the Skipper can be said to be in charge, since he owned the boat and led the excursion. But, merit carries great weight, particularly the Professor's knowledge and skill. Mary Ann meanwhile is a natural leader who steps forward unselfconsciously; the others tend to accept her in this role. Decisions are made by consensus where possible, majority vote otherwise. This is very similar to "primitive communism", the mode of ownership and governance common in societies which have not developed widespread organized agriculture, or slavery, as their basis of subsistence. Examples are the North American indigenous cultures; Polynesia; and so on. These societies of course are much larger and develop clan and caste distinctions. This one's too small for that.


The castaways are immediately expropriated of their meager possessions, under cover of the usual ideological screens. Here we have the traditional "discovery" by the invaders, but also that peculiarly American incantation, "national security", which seems to be the most potent magical spell the world's yet discovered.


Theatricality raises its ugly head. The President is concerned about the photo opportunity, not Gilligan's well-being.


Theatricality and ritual are closely related. The flag-raising presents contrasting responses to ritual theatricality. The sophisticated newcomers are aware of their roles as extras for the photo op.; only Mary Ann and Gilligan, working-class types, take it seriously.


Our story's major set-piece, in which we get to see many of the newcomers' private behaviors, independent of camera and public. At the same time, we confront the breakdown along class lines of the castaways' formerly communitarian society under the external impact of American reality.


Implications of the breakdown by class are now made clear. Gilligan and Mary Ann are the only workers available in this society. The "First Class Cabin" are their symmetrical pole, the capitalist owners and employers. In between we have professional groups such as the scientists and entertainers, and the state apparatus, here, the military. Capitalism being anarchical, that is, unplanned and undirected, Gilligan and Mary Ann are simply pulled in every conflicting direction at once, to the detriment of all projects.


"Tre" is Bill Gates' family nickname. I don't personally care about the real-life Bill Gates. I'm just using him here as a symbol of that peculiar combination of greed with strategic cunning which seems to characterize the most-successful types under capitalism. Our Tre has craftily chosen his property cut to monopolize the island's protein supply: nobody lives without paying Tre his percentage, just as nobody in real life does business without paying Microsoft various recurring fees. Who do you want to own today?


Ginger as Vicki Morgan and Marilyn Monroe, simultaneously. Morgan and Monroe were each victims of use and manipulation by the extremely rich. Historically, right-wing politics is closely associated with sadomasochistic sexuality. This makes sense: like right-wing politics, sadomasochistic sexuality is all about power. The Nazis were reputedly the most extreme practitioners, e.g. Pasolini's Salò, etc. But as the Morgan scandal made clear it runs through the whole history of right-wing politics. This is not to criticize sadomasochistic sexuality. Whatever gets you through the night. Rather it's to point out that reality is rather different than the public roles assumed.


The trickle-down theory.


The fundamentally anti-social character of private property in means of production.


Mary Ann turns into Norma Rae. Her "Union!" sign acts as a magical weapon, forming a protective barrier which makes fun of the right-wing's morbid fear of the word and the thing.

"Held without counsel", which is moot anyway, since there aren't any defense lawyers on the island anyway.


The state assumes its coercive role.


Coercion in this form is counterproductive, since it guarantees success of the strike. It would be possible for the ruling class to respond with different flavors of coercion, for instance, the strikers could be drafted, which has been threatened many times in America. Or they could be simply enslaved, as might have happened under Nazism. Here, one thinks Mary Ann is unlikely to be intimidated by drafting, which would retain the same mock-formal emptiness as their imprisonment. Enslavement would be appropriate to the colonial setting, and would draw strong parallels with Columbus' governance of Hispaniola, which triggered the mass suicide of the enslaved locals. We could end with Mary Ann and Gilligan jumping off a cliff together. This would be a compelling and historically true story, but it's not the one I wanted to have fun with.


Once Mary Ann and Gilligan think about it, they sensibly demand that the collective welfare take priority over individual property. Indeed upon reflection, their final "demands" imply deep inroads into the sovereignty of private ownership.

That is to say, their perspective is socialist, where "socialist" means owned by the public and administered for the public good. Which does not imply curtailment of capitalism. Under American capitalism today we have quite a number of socialized services which seem so sensible to us that we take them for granted: socialized airports, socialized interstate freeways, socialized water supplies, socialized sewage disposal, socialized military, socialized police, socialized parks, socialized lifeguards at socialized beaches. In retrospect, doesn't it seem odd that our food supply is organized differently than our water supply?


This is Bush's actual speech to Congress after the 9/11 attacks, slightly tweaked in one or two places. To my ear it's remarkable how appropriate it is in this context. I want to stress that I'm not using this speech to imply disrespect for the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Far from it, I'm using it to imply disrespect for the empty rhetorical hyperbole with which our leaders miseducate the public. Our actor-politicians use rituals like this to mobilize support for false causes, as the "War on Terrorism" surely is: an incompetent strategy which must fail, indeed has already obviously failed, and will doom the peoples of the world and of our own country to generations of suffering. The key link to our purposes is the ever-malleable word "terrorism", which means nothing specific, and is used to demonize all who resist, in any form. I'm a "terrorist" now, of course, for writing this story. Fuck 'em.


The state assumes its persuasive role.

Twenty One - Twenty Four

Smallfry attempts at persuasion, where we see the consequences of the castaways' division by class.

Twenty Five

They actually did this in Panama. Your tax dollars at work. In Panama they also used giant banks of spotlights flooding the Vatican Embassy with permanent unreal light, in the attempt to deprive Noriega of sleep. It was tempting to include a sputtering battery-powered flashlight along with the boombox, but, you get the idea.

Thirty Two - Thirty Six

Press conferences. Right-wing politicians are used to a docile press, who allow them to control the questions and "shape the message". Press conferences are like PR rituals. Mary Ann and Gilligan blow up the proceedings by asking probing questions about politicians' records in office. A bit like what a free press is supposedly supposed to do, supposedly.

Thirty Two

This is most of Reagan's speech to the 1992 Republican Convention. I find it remarkable for it's hollowness. If I were more disciplined I'd cut this by two thirds, but every time I read it I find myself fascinated by its peculiar empty sound.

"Softball setup." While I haven't been able to locate a transcript, I remember Barbara Walters asking this question and receiving this answer. I think the wording is about right. Walters seems to be a great admirer of the great man, who, after all, lowered her income tax by tens of thousands per year. Wonder how she'd see the world if someone forced her to take the bus to work every day.

"It was in his script." I'm not making this up. A New York Times Magazine cover story of 10/6/85 includes this statement: "Says a White House aide, 'You have to treat him as if you were the director and he was the actor, and you tell him what to say and what not to say, and only then does he say the right thing.'"

"Balanced budget." While Reagan claimed it was the Democratic Congress' refusal to slash social entitlement programs which led to deficit, it was in fact his 41% increase in the military budget, including useless programs such as the B-1 bomber, combined with his massive tax cuts for the wealthy.

"Government is the problem." That much is certainly true, when these right-wing types are the government.

"Not one single fact or figure." Actually Gilligan has just quoted several.

"Soup kitchens." This quotation is actually from Ed Meese. Reagan himself said, "You can't help those who simply will not be helped. One problem that we've had, even in the best of times, is people who are sleeping on the grates, the homeless who are homeless, you might say, by choice." If small numbers of people were homeless it might be plausible to argue that it was voluntary. When homelessness occurs on an epic social scale it's the result of social policy, or social breakdown, or both. In 1988, VP candidate Dan Quayle summed-up the right-wing point of view this way: "I would guess that there's adequate low-income housing in the country."

"The Contras are the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers." That's odd. I don't remember George Washington using rape as an instrument of policy. Naturally the proper historical analogy to our Founding Fathers is with the Sandinistas, who are the ones who fought to free their country of its colonial overseers. The Contras would properly be compared with Benedict Arnold, who allied with the former colonial power against the Patriots. Reagan though had that wonderful gift for 1984-style Newspeak. Orwell would have recognized him immediately.

"No longer seeking a token or something." Press conference, 7/26/83.

"Textbooks printed in the U.S. taught schoolchildren that holy war was their duty." From the Washington Post: "In the twilight of the Cold War, the United States spent millions of dollars to supply Afghan schoolchildren with textbooks filled with violent images and militant Islamic teachings, part of covert attempts to spur resistance to the Soviet occupation. The primers, which were filled with talk of jihad and featured drawings of guns, bullets, soldiers and mines, have served since then as the Afghan school system's core curriculum. Even the Taliban used the American-produced books, though the radical movement scratched out human faces in keeping with its strict fundamentalist code." "From U.S., the ABCs of Jihad"

"I can't bring to mind." Press conference, 12/17/81.

"Hypocrisy is a question of degree." This quote is in fact from Don Regan. But, it's too juicy not to use.

"I'm all confused now." First debate with Mondale, 10/7/84.

"Beltway bloodletting" Time Magazine, 12/1/86, in response to the growing Iran-Contra scandal. This is also where he labelled Oliver North "a national hero."

"Simple anecdotes." Gilligan quotes five instances in which Reagan deployed fictional anecdotes to manipulate public opinion. In many other instances Reagan simply lied:

Paul Slansky's The Clothes Have No Emperor documents many of Reagan's more egregious untruths.

"If you tell the same story five times, it's true." This explanation of Reagan's egregious lies was presented with a straight face by Press Secretary Larry Speakes on 12/16/83.

Thirty Seven

First part of the Black Mass. Having never experienced one personally, I've borrowed and adapted the scene from the Illuminatus! trilogy by Shea and Wilson, with its highly tactile descriptions of taste and smell and quality of air.

Thirty Nine

Second part of the Black Mass. One or two whole sentences are borrowed from Illuminatus! The Old Ex-President's Wife as Lloth, spider queen of the Drow elves from Dungeons and Dragons. Mary Ann fights a Rosicrucian-style spiritual battle with the Satanic Guardian of the Black Mass. Kids, don't try this at home: I have no idea if this would be the proper way to battle a Guardian, and, I don't know who to ask, LOL.