Pretend politics, story machines and Trojan horses
Welcome to this week’s free edition of The Terminal. Here’s what I’ve published this week for subscribers:
A conversation with Elle Hardy, author of Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity is Taking Over the World.
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Hall of mirrors
Sorry, I’m going to sound off about Australian politics for a bit, because I want to slaughter the vibe from the first line.
The last few weeks of discourse have been absolutely mired in smoke-and-mirror symbolic politics, which is both annoying and also a fitting coda to a decade of Coalition rule. We had a week of argument about whether it was radical or not to frown at the Prime Minister. People are leaping at shadows online about whether a 14-year-old student journalist is a front for a conservative cabal, or whether the Australian Electoral Commission is captured by dark forces. Both parties are gearing up for an election fought on ‘character’, and whether or not Scott Morrison might personally be a nice person.
This culminated this week with the utterly useless religious discrimination bill, born as a reflexive backhand after marriage equality became legal and serving no real purpose other than spite and wedge politics. Nobody outside those who work for peak bodies and representative institutions care or even think about the bill, and yet all extant political energy was invested in it regardless. It eventually came down as a bitter symbolic argument over trans students in religious schools, which could only be resolved through arcane parliamentary games utterly alienated from any actual wants and needs. On a material level, nothing much changes. Religious school still have an effective toolkit to make life for trans kids hell if they so wish, and a patchwork of state, territory and federal rules to allow them to do it.
I’m not saying that symbolic or optical politics aren’t at all important. They’re often how a system expresses who is and who isn’t included in their project. But it increasingly feels like it’s the only mode in which Australia actually operates these days. There’s an agreed, untouchable economic and social order underlying it all, and everything else is litigated through pointless parlour games.
I guess it was unavoidable, to some extent. The current government was elected in 2013 as a bulwark against climate change action, which on a long-term view Australia never really had much say in anyway. It was re-elected in 2019 almost by chance, with the scales being tipped in its favour thanks to the prospect of marginal changes to that economic order with a Labor government. There will always be a decent chunk of the Coalition base who vote to keep things precisely the way they are, but even that doesn’t go far towards explaining this lost decade of governance, which managed to come out the other end of a once-in-a-century pandemic without anything to show for it. (Even John Howard, with his long socks pulled up nearly to his waist, managed to quite radically change the country’s social fabric.) The Labor Party, spooked by successive failures to offer a modest tinkering at the edges of Australian management, is now afraid of putting forward much more ambitious than a counter-vibe.
Scott Morrison, who hilariously compared himself in an interview to Teddy Roosevelt, has no such claim. He came to power promising the ‘quiet Australians’ that they wouldn’t have to think about politics after years of leadership turmoil. Instead, they’re bombarded with politics constantly, and none of it has any substance whatsoever.
Palate cleanser / musical interlude
Bump and grind
You’ve no doubt seen it already, but yes: the woman accused of a billion-dollar crypto laundering operation is indeed a cringe rapper who plays like a bit character in a season of Search Party:
They are, to hear the feds tell it, a Bonnie and Clyde for the crypto age – made-for-TikTok personalities who broke bad, glamorously, right before their followers’ eyes.
She billed herself as “The Crocodile of Wall Street” and “Razzlekhan,” a surrealist artist and rapper with tattooed hands and, she boasted, more pizzazz than Genghis Khan.
He assumed a tamer persona: that of a “tech entrepreneur” and “occasional magician” who’d proposed, in a social media moment, via flashing billboards in Times Square.
I’m not sold that the crypto moment is going to offer much by way of economic empowerment beyond the introduction of a new class of moneyed elite, but I will say that it does provide opportunities for the elevation of a particularly amusing genre of crank. And that, to me, is a win.
The new canon
I love dicking around with experimental AI language models. This one, which went briefly viral, generates a story prompt from two themes. Of course, these things are always stupider than they seem, but the illusion is often pretty remarkable. Here was my favourite, from the inputs of ‘Pope Pius XII’ and ‘Super Smash Bros’:
Pope Pius XII was a devout Catholic and avid Super Smash Bros. player. He was a big believer in the importance of competition and how it could bring people together. Pius was a big supporter of the game, and even had his own private tournament in the Vatican Palace.
Or, from ‘Frodo Baggins’ and ‘jetpack’:
Frodo Baggins was feeling a little down. He had just completed his most difficult task yet – retrieving the One Ring from Mount Doom – and he was feeling a little lost. He had been on this quest for years, and it was finally over. He was about to head back home to his friends and family when he saw a beautiful woman flying through the air on a jetpack. She was radiating energy and happiness, and Frodo was instantly drawn to her. He knew he had to find her and ask her to be his wife.
(It didn’t get the nature of Frodo’s mission right, but otherwise flawless.)
It’s culture war all the way down
Subscribers to this newsletter will know I am very interested in the crypto culture war — that is, the crypto/NFTs/web3 fans versus everyone else. It manifests everywhere, and you don’t need to look much further than the ass-beating in in the quote tweets when a celebrity changes their display picture to an NFT. (Oh look, here’s Heidi Klum.)
But that framing doesn’t capture the internecine conflicts on the crypto side of things. There’s long been a cold war between bitcoin originalists and the web3 culture that sprung up from the Ethereum blockchain, for example. This is all pretty par for the course — when you develop a culture which encourages you to walk away and start your own project if things aren’t going the way you like, you’re naturally going to see plenty of schisms. (It doesn’t help that the natural head of the sacred order, Satoshi Nakamoto, isn’t saying much these days.)
Anyway, one manifestation of this quasi-religious conflict among the faithful is best captured by the above tweet. There’s a contingent of conservative crypto types who argue that NFTs and its associated web3 culture were a Trojan horse to smuggle woke culture into the crypto world.
This argument was juiced up this week when Brantly Millegan, director of operations for the Ethereum Name Service (ENS), was booted from the nonprofit which runs it and had his power in the associated DAO stomped out because of an unearthed tweet from 2016. The ENS is a service which turns the incomprehensible string of characters that make up a crypto wallet address into a nice, human-readable domain name. If you see someone out in the wild with .eth in their social media display name, that’s the ENS. It’s very widely used.
Millegan, who is a Catholic, tweeted: “Homosexual acts are evil. Transgenderism doesn’t exist. Abortion is murder. Contraception is a perversion. So is masturbation and porn.” He doubled down when challenged on it years later, kicking off the chain of events which led to his ouster. For many web3 fans, this was an experiment in online participatory democracy working as intended. The collective decided he didn’t align with their values, and he was voted out of power. If he wants to fork the protocol and go form the Ethereum Name Service (Catholic Tendency), he’s free to do so. That’s the spirit of web3.
But for the right wing of the crypto movement, this was catastrophic. A popular protocol had been forced to accede to progressive values, and someone who shares fairly widely-held Catholic beliefs — even if they were put forward more bluntly than most would — was muscled out of the movement. A movement originally built to be anti-censorship at the infrastructural level had surrendered to the mob! The problem, they say, lies in ‘normie’ NFT culture, which aligns with crypto values only aesthetically and doesn’t share a coherent political understanding of the tech.
It’s ironic, given that you could easily argue that the ‘woke’ stance at a macro level is that crypto is bad full stop. If you surveyed a bunch of progressives right now, the vast majority would probably dislike NFTs as a standard position, which is why it’s so interesting that it’s become such a flashpoint for conflict within the subculture. I actually think the hatred for crypto among most progressives is why those who are within the scene really lean into their identity markers as a defence mechanism, and you get lots of posts like this:
You also see a lot of conservative-leaning web3 guys who once embraced the label wholeheartedly start to come to the realisation that it’s a term that naturally describes a community and a culture — and its attendant political priorities — and not just an agnostic bundle of technologies and protocols.
Not much else to say on this other than it’ll be interesting to watch how it develops. (For subscribers this week, I wrote about new understandings of pseudonymity and identity, including the Millegan episode.)
After the crypto laundering scammer / LinkedIn hustle rapper went viral, people started asking how she managed to become a Forbes writer. Here’s a good writeup on the history of the Forbes.com contributor page as a swamp of “scams, grift, and bad journalism”.
Liked this on the Know Your Enemy podcast. For those unaware, it’s a great podcast on the intellectual history of the Right by two socialists which has become quite popular among some conservatives because of its rigour. “Know Your Enemy’s bipartisan popularity is hard to square with its avowedly partisan premises — until you get a glimpse of the richness of its intellectual universe.”
On the GameStop short squeeze guys who are still holding out hope and posting obsessively about it long after everyone else has moved on, on the assumption that phenomenal riches and cosmic justice are just around the corner.
Have been meaning to shout out this newsletter for a while – I always look forward to reading Modern Relics by Rohan Salmond, which is a consistently interesting look at the intersection of religion, the internet and pop culture. Also a great window into what very online Christians are talking and arguing about.
Liked this on the crypto backlash/culture war. And a related bit, on money as a hobby, and how that informs the backlash.
People have long thought that the proliferation of celebrity NFTs endorsements is undeniably weird. Did Justin Bieber really pay that much for a Bored Ape? This piece in The Verge goes some what to untangling what might be going on here.
Did you know sumo wrestling is getting big in Texas? Clearly I haven’t been paying attention.
Interesting feature on Telegram in WIRED, its status as an “anti-Facebook”, and what that implies.
Really good on the economics of data businesses.
“Economics and evolution are basically in the same business: Both are all about productivity selection, though one has been at it for billions of years longer than the other.”
“On the internet, we are all encouraged to become the sort of person who writes letters to the editor.”