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Feral offerings

Eyeing American stagnation and aberrant creationism


Why Bother? Getting a Life in a Locked-Down Land by Sam Smith, Feral House

The word is epigone—a poor imitation of what has gone before—derived from the Greek term meaning “the afterborn” and first used to describe the sons of the seven legendary chieftain-heroes killed in their attempt to capture Thebes. The sons avenged the deaths of their fathers by eventually taking the city 10 years later, but they also destroyed it.

Journalist Sam Smith, editor of The Progressive Review and author of Shadows of Hope: A Freethinker’s Guide to Politics in the Time of Clinton, invokes the chieftains and their unworthy sons early on in Why Bother? to describe American society in full epigonic stagnation. It is not a pleasant analogy to consider, but Smith makes a startling case for it throughout this brutally frank and frankly beautiful epistle to a nation he sees as suffocating under the weight of its own unworthy imitations. Imitations of leaders. Imitations of a guiding moral conscience. The crass imitation of language inscribed at the plinth of our democratic institutions to sell soft drinks and hair conditioners, and the imitation of the vaunted American individual who has been bombarded into a crater of free will by manufactured consent and imitation choice.

“Let’s turn off the television, step into the sunlight, and count the bodies,” Smith writes in his introduction. “We know that this place, this country, this planet, is not the same as the last time we looked. There are more bodies. And fewer other things: choices, unlocked doors, democracy, satisfying jobs, reality, unplanned moments, space, clean water, a species of frog whose name we forget, community, and the trusting, trustworthy smile of a stranger. Someone has been careless, cruel, greedy, stupid. But it wasn’t us, was it? We were inside, just watching.”

The degree to which individual readers will relate to the mournful litanies of Why Bother? will vary, of course, in accordance to how completely they agree with Smith’s assessment of the role each of us plays in his own political alienation. It isn’t nice to be told that your individuality might be nothing more than a personalized assemblage of epigones. But this much, at least, is past arguing: Smith is a compelling, lucid writer, capable of translating issues—which most of us probably prefer to see with a certain amount of self-absolving fuzziness—into problems that each of us must do our part to solve.

As for how we can do so, you’ll find no easy answers here. There are, however, plenty of possibilities hinted at, both by Smith’s gracefully articulated humanism and a wealth of primary sources ranging from the Gospel to Camus and Kirkegaard, each summoned from Smith’s formidable reserve at the most appropriate moments. Why bother? Only to be alive, Smith asserts, to be made of not just what we acquire but of what we dare to think and do for ourselves.

“We sometimes approach these concerns much as though we were apostles out on a Saturday shopping for a creed,” Smith observes. “If this is you, I’m afraid I can’t help you. You’ve come to the wrong door. There’s nobody here but another member of the search party. Let’s step into the sunlight together and see what we find.”

Strange Creations by Donna Kossy, Feral House

If an esoteric creed is what you’re after, you’ll find a Turkish bazaar’s worth in Donna Kossy’s Strange Creations, an admirably objective but by no means humorless foray into the more arcane theories of human origins put forth over thousands of years of history. Kossy uses the term “aberrant philosophies” to describe those ideas that span the continuum of thought between evolution and creation. But even such comfortingly familiar bookends appear less familiar to us after a good steeping in breeds of creationism well beyond the pale of William Jennings Bryan’s pious oratory at the Scopes Monkey Trial. Or don’t you believe that the offspring of Adam and Eve were astronauts and that God spoke to the Israelites with laser beams? On the other end of the spectrum, after reading about the evolutionary descent of modern man from a race of asexual 16-foot giants, you might marvel at how the debate ever became as narrow as creation versus evolution in the first place.

In Strange Creations, You’ll meet William Dudley Pelley, who founded the Christian American Patriot (CAP) movement on the day Hitler came to power in Germany and ran for president in 1936 on a platform of disenfranchising Jews by constitutional amendment and replacing the Department of Justice with his own private army. At the height of his popularity, Kossy reveals, as many as two million of Pelley’s would-be troops could be seen in the CAP uniform of silver shirt, blue corduroy pants and gold socks. You’ll also get to know George Hunt Williamson, an employee at the office of Pelley’s Soulcraft magazine, who claimed that space travelers from Venus had told him and fellow contactee George Adamski that humans were the descendents of ancient astronauts mating with apes.

Alien intervention theories abound, among the most intriguing is the idea that a race of super-intelligent dinosaurs piloting UFOs are planning to wrest the Earth back from humans, whom they once bred selectively as domestic companions. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Barney the purple dinosaur, we learn, are merely here to condition us for their imminent arrival.

Stray kooks aside, some of the most fascinating sections of Kossy’s thoroughly mind-scraping survey deal with ideas that were turned into policies and enacted by governments around the world well into the 20th century. The race-based theories of human evolution that the author outlines here are among the most unsettling because of their association with the eugenics and racial purity movements of 1920s America and, tellingly, 1930s Germany.

There’s just too much far-out information in Strange Origins to adequately summarize. If it’s weird and off the mainstream radar, though, and if anyone ever printed up a pamphlet about it, it’s probably in here somewhere.

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