Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore

Between Q’s Headspace and the Hard Place of US History

Everything has meaning.

This is not a game.

Learn to play the game.

[ Q Drop # 885, March 8, 2018 ]

In the early nineties, I was writing a novel about a young US military photographer in Honduras during the Contra War. I wanted one of the characters to be a science fiction reader. Since I don’t care for, or read much, science fiction, I felt I had to read at least one sci-fi book. So I read William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, a thriller about a young man having adventures in a totally artificial, computer world that Gibson dubbed “cyberspace.” The question whether or not cyberspace was a real place hovered over the story.

Fast forward 30 years to last week and I’m watching the documentary Q: Into the Storm on HBO. Fredrick Brennan is one of the three protagonists in the film, which is nominally a search for Q’s identity. Brennan was born with a severely disabling disease that involves very brittle bones. Still, he buzzes around,  sometimes a bit headlong, in a motorized wheelchair with his little pomeranian aboard. He was a player at the website that ends up channeling the secretive Q’s “droppings.” Q is named for his “Q level” security clearance. Rumor has it, Q is close to the president and is tight with the highest-ranking military men. Q speaks in riddles like the Oracle at Delphi. Q is cool. Q is the game.

Brennan is an amazing character. He got his first computer at age six and soon taught himself code. He’s clearly incredibly intelligent. The idea of engaging anonymously with other people in cyberspace and engaging in power struggles must be, for someone as disabled as he is, to literally accept your cyborgian reality.  He’s a rolling example of humanity melding with technology. Watching  Brennan like this made me flash back on Neuromancer. As a child, Brennan was literally weaned into cyberspace and immersed himself totally in that new and ever-expanding a place, a place where he could be as powerful as anyone else. Even he could pursue his very own Nietzschian Will To Power in a world assembled not out of atoms and cells but out of ones and zeros tricked out in codes and algorithms.

At one point, Brennan responds to a question from filmmaker Cullen Hoback by saying: “At first I thought the world and the internet were separate; now I don’t.” Later, he says: “The internet leveled the playing field.”

Not only is the six-part series Q: Into The Storm by Cullen Hoback a must-see for anyone interested in understanding this fraught moment in history, HBO followed it up with the four-part Exterminate All the Brutes by Raoul Peck. As someone who has spent decades traveling, reading, searching for and enjoying films on the abuses of European Colonialism and US Imperialism, Peck’s film is top-of-the-line magnificent. And due to its timing, it’s the ideal antidote for the simple-minded, white supremacist ideas embedded in the idea Make America Great Again.

Peck is Haitian and has made many fine films in his career, including Lumumba, Sometime In April and recently a documentary about James Baldwin called I Am Not Your Negro. In the ’90s, he was briefly Minister of Culture in Haiti. The title Exterminate All the Brutes is a reference to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its character named Kurtz. It’s also the title of a book by the deceased Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist, who Peck cites as a friend and an inspiration for the film. Peck utilizes a host of techniques to tell his story. There’s personal elements from his childhood, one incredibly interesting historic photograph after another, many interviews, scenes from Hollywood movies and fictional scenes he’s directed using actors like Josh Harnett, who gets to represent the archetypal European and American son-of-a-bitch as seen through the eyes of the colonized.

Peck can be quite subtle in the midst of all the horror, and the scenes with Harnett playing a US cavalry officer with a thousand-yard-stare really work.  Some of them really got to me and made me think of my service in Vietnam. In one scene, looking very disturbed, he walks toward the camera through the smoking, moaning human carnage of a massacre and begins to remove his coat, then his shirt. He steps into a brook, and the scene ends. As a member of Veterans For Peace for 36 years, I felt the filmmaker was suggesting the possibilities of revelation and atonement. But it was the subtlest of suggestions. These scenes add heft to the argument as mythic evidence. They reminded me of the Vietnam vet poet W.D. Ehrhart’s great poem, “Making the Children Behave.”

The timing could not be better for a frank film history from the point of view of the darker-skinned people of the world who were conquered and colonized by the West. After four years of Donald Trump that, incredibly, culminated in the provocation of a violent mob that trashed Congress, now crazy shooters  are suddenly popping up like daffodils and a polarized citizenry is watching the public trial of a white police officer for the flagrant murder of an African American male in Minneapolis — all thanks to a brave 17-year-old girl with an iphone. Then there’s the really big fear: whether the current virtual civil war will turn into a real, shooting civil war.

Let’s not kid around; Raoul Peck’s film is radical. I shouldn’t have to say this, but this radical is a good, constructive radical. We misuse the term radical all the time. Since 9/11, we’ve been groomed on the verb to radicalize, as in “he or she was radicalized by this or that.” The issue with terrorist violence is the encouragement of extreme action, not whether someone’s history sees past events differently than the consensus. Radicals like to look for the roots of things. It would be better to say: “He or she was extremicized by this or that.” But there doesn’t seem to be such a word, and “he was radicalized” just seems to roll off the tongue. People who strongly defending the status-quo certainly have a motive for demeaning and even criminalizing the idea of thinking radically.

Peck likes to use terms like “indisputable” and “irrefutable” when discussing certain horrific statistics. To me, he’s saying the reason the nation is in such troubled waters has to do with all this mechanized death and horror you rich white Europeans employed to get where you are, and now you want to shove it under your ornate four-poster beds because it’s not how you wish to see yourself. But one person’s nostalgia can be another person’s nightmare.

For Americans who may wonder, post Trump, how did we get in such a pickle, Peck peels back the onion layers. The tone is tragic, though there is grace, even some subtle elements of humor, as when the actor Harnett’s has the very same dirty bandage on his hand whether he’s a US cavalry officer or a South African. I saw it as a wink from the filmmaker: What is real? In the end, Peck doesn’t give much ground. Western myth has it wrong, period, and European domination could not have been pulled off without the acceptance — by those doing it and by those complicit at a distance — of mass, mechanized murder.

Hoback’s Q film is another animal, entirely. It focuses over time on a collection of contemporary characters, and it does have some elements of the soap opera. Because it’s trying to get around the hugely problematic idea of anonymity in cyberspace, the film is very much future oriented. To me, he’s saying: look at this story and see how anonymity in a post-truth cyberspace can be leveraged and manipulated to create angry mobs like the one on January 6th. Think in the future of cyber-fomented lynch mobs or death squads. Could the Salvadoran nightmare of the 1980s conceivably rise out of gringolandian cyberspace driven by anonymous, dark figures working the internet? From what we know, it isn’t implausible.

I saw these films virtually back-to-back, and in my mind they explain and enrich each other. They both put truth-telling to the task of meaning-making and reform. Hard truth as Medicine. Peck has the credentials and the gravitas to pull off his calm radical history, and Hoback comes off as a humble and honest journalist with a camera. One reviewer of Hoback’s earlier film on Facebook described it as a “non-fiction horror flick.” When I taught documentary photography at Drexel University, I liked to drill home the idea that character is part of the art, especially in the necessary function of suspending judgement to gain the trust of people you wish to photograph. Hoback seems to have this character integrity in spades. In that sense, he’s the opposite of his subject, Ron Q Watkins, a man who for some reason seems incapable of telling the truth.

Some say in 1918 Republican Senator Hiram Walker Johnson coined the phrase “The first casualty of war is truth.” Others say Samuel Johnson came up with the idea in 1758 in the magazine The Idler, where he wrote, “Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.” The idea is an important one in the polarized, post-truth cyber-war we’re engaged in — whether we acknowledge it as “war” or not. Donald Trump and his operatives like Roger Stone, Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn are not practicing politics in the Jeffersonian context of democracy; for them, it’s about power and it’s war.  It’s not like war; it is war. It’s war as an extension of the long, bloody martial epic of western conquest and domination recounted so profoundly by Peck from the losing side. It’s a war where powerful white people and their allies (who may be non-white) attempt to hold onto the power they and their class have achieved — notwithstanding their talent and industry — by employing the worst kinds of violence.

Of course, there are civilizing strains in the story, but it always comes with a hook.  Once the colonial forces have utilized mass violence and other horrors to gain the necessary foothold to reach their goal, once in power, they can afford to ease up and allow their subjects some of the finer things of the West. Things like luxury and justice. But it all has to be earned from their masters. Go along and possibly become one of them, or in the end, face extermination.

Besides Brennan, the main protagonists of Hoback’s film are Jim Watkins and his son Ron. Jim is a US military veteran who is at the time of the film owner of a pig farm just outside of Manila, where he lives. Jim purchased the website 8Chan from Brennan. After the site attracted a few mass shooters and some post-shooting glorifying in the senseless violence, Brennan parted ways with the Watkins. Jim Watkins changed the name to 8Kun. Spoiler alert: By the end of the film, though he continues to deny it, it’s clear Ron Watkins is Q. Ron’s denial via Skype to Hoback feels very Trumpian, in that, although Hoback has tripped him up in a way that makes it obvious Ron is Q, grin aside, Ron still seems to feel not admitting the obvious is necessary for him to retain some kind of power vis-à-vis Q’s minions and vis-a-vis Hoback. He seems on some level to want Hoback to know he’s the guy smart enough to pull off the Q flim-flam. So much for anonymity; in the end, for some Q-ANONs, it might not matter that Q has been outed as a fraud. Isn’t that what post-truth means?

It may be a leap into metaphor, but I see all this cyber drama as the post-truth, anonymous way cyberspace is being colonized. In this sense, the colonization horror story told by Peck stands in as a cautionary metaphor for where the future of the internet could be headed? The more we know of the past, the better we are shaping the future.

Ron lives in Sapporo, Japan. He and his father clearly have issues with power. Ron poses for Hoback’s interviews in a set he has designed that includes the mythic-looking hammer he brandishes in a selfie video and the plastic sex doll he has apparently had some say in the design of. This is a young man who likes to frequent Soapland a place where you go to get anonymously soaped up by a young woman who, then, slithers all over you. Ron seems to be a very self-centered young man, someone inclined to become lost inside his own head. Given all this, is what we are dealing with, here, the technological ability to geometrically expand headspaces like the one inside Ron Watkin’s head into the space dubbed in 1984 by Gibson cyberspace. Now, 37 years later, most everybody has a machine, some of them hand-held, that can meld one’s headspace — with all its quirks, ambitions and delusions — into this new space that is everywhere and nowhere. What Hoback’s film makes clear is, unlike Gibson’s 1984 sci-fi novel, it’s no longer science fiction.

As Trump, Flynn and others began to recognize Q and to quote his droppings, the Q movement took off. The last episode ends with the January 6th insurrection, where Hoback follows Jim Watkins on the march to the capitol building, where he stays outside. Over the chaotic scenes from January 6, the filmmaker has turned the Jefferson Airplane’s song “White Rabbit” into a haunting metaphor. As the scene gets crazier and crazier, the classic drug song grows in volume, until at the end when people are tearing things up and one person is shown being shot dead, the singers (not Gracie Slick!) are screaming:

Feed your head!

Feed your head!

Feed your head!

What Ron Watkins as Q (and his allies) have been doing is feeding heads with provocative lies and volatile ideas and inciting a movement of frustrated, angry rightwing people. In the self-rewarding process of triggering a mob, these power-hungry nerds go on to provide service to demagogues and power-hungry opportunists like Trump, Stone, Bannon and Flynn. It’s a symbiotic arrangement, a pincer movement, one pincer being driven authoritarians, and the other, the mobs assembled by cyberspace colonizers like Ron Watkins.

“We have an army of digital soldiers,” Michael Flynn tells us in one of his speeches. If the failed right-wing coup of 1933 provides any insight, Michael Flynn is the man to watch: He’d love to play “The Man On a White Horse.”

“Q” is digital warfare. (“Q” being all the scammers and the duped, all the ignoramuses, loners, lost souls, whackjobs and psychopaths who either did the con or fell for it.) It’s the kind of disinformation warfare our CIA has made against foreigners for decades; now, it’s being used against us. With Trump still out there, there’s an effort to diminish democracy and encourage outright political war.

It would be fatal for radicals, progressives and liberals to ignore any of this. But  how to respond? As Professor Harry Frankfurt puts it in his tiny classic On Bullshit, “The most salient feature of American culture is there’s so much bullshit.” Culturally, the only way to overwhelm the bullshit is with hard truth in mainstream films like these and in other modes of expression. Since white supremacy has now become a powerful identity group, it would be wise for the left to ease up on the righteous demands of identity politics and actually act like a diverse community with common interests.

Of course, this requires politicians, mainstream journalism and the entertainment industry to be brave. A tall order. And, more important, it would demand less bottom-line, profit-oriented thinking. An even taller order. But like disease, truth can be contagious. In such a hostile world, one must be eternally vigilant, lest one run into that famous Spanish fascist (he could be played by Josh Harnett) who reportedly said: “Whenever I hear the world culture, I reach for my revolver.”