Friday, 25 March 2016

An Appropriately Eurus Post

I wonder how obvious a brainwave has to be before we stop calling it that.

Recently, for some reason I can't remember, it occurred to me to connect Jacob's dream at Bethel (ie. Jacob's Ladder) with ziggurats. Checking the footnotes of my NIV Study Bible, I was kind of tickled to realise I was onto something. A spot of Googling revealed this story's the centre of a minor shitfight over interpretation, because of course it is, it's the Bible, but it's interesting nevertheless.

For those who came in late, the story goes like this:
Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.

He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: "I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."

When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it." He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven." Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz. (NIV)
A few points. First of all, although "Jacob's Ladder" is a cultural shorthand in the West, it probably wasn't a ladder. For comedy's sake, here's an article insisting it was, followed by the declaration, "The meaning of the ladder and angels is not clear." Yeah, thanks for coming. If you find someone insisting it was a literal ladder, they're probably ultimately working from the Septuagint, where the Greek word is klimax. Best to ignore: the LXX is a notoriously sloppy translation, and klimax doesn't have to mean a literal ladder even in Greek. Also, Googling "Jacob's Climax" will absolutely not result in finding a Bible study.

I know, I was as surprised as you.

The original Hebrew seems to be sullam (סולם, "sool-lawm"), a tricky word because it only appears this once in the Tanach. The Balashon blog, which I just found, handily quotes someone called Nahum Sama as saying:
The Hebrew term sullam, here rendered "stairway", is unique in the Bible; its etymology is uncertain. It may derive from the stem s-l-l, "to cast up a mound," or may be connected with Akkadian simmiltu, "steps." Sullam could therefore be a ladder or a stairway ramp.
He goes on to cite someone called Klein who connects sullam with the Akkadian sullu, a highway, and the Psalmist's favourite word selah, which is "probably a musical direction to raise the voice and derived from סלל (= to raise, to lift)."

Groping for a word like this makes plenty of sense if they're describing the ramp/stairway thingy at the front of a ziggurat, a monument foreign to Hebrew culture. When describing the Tower off Babel they similarly had to improvise by calling it a migdol, a military watchtower – but their descriptions of sunbaked bricks and pitch are spot-on descriptions of building practices from Mesopotamia a thousand years earlier. These are just some of the hints that we're looking at reworked versions of Sumerian and Akkadian stories, making them some of the oldest stories humanity has.

Anyway, as I suspected, the "ladder" is more likely a stairway to the temple at the crown of a ziggurat. Which makes perfect sense, because if you translate the Hebrew from the Babel story a little more directly, they talk about building "a tower whose top [is] into heaven." The top compartment of a ziggurat represented heaven, where the local deity was parked on a throne; to the people who lived at the base it, the top of a ziggurat was heaven.

Those aren't angels.
That's the restored Ziggurat of Ur, traditionally Abraham's birthplace, which lies just outside modern Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. The inclusion of angels (Hebrew malak, or messengers) is a curious addition showing the text was probably rewritten again during the Persian conquest, because as we already know, angels are a Zoroastrian thing. Which makes perfect sense, because that's when the whole thing was first collated together, and the story of Jacob, who was on the lam at the time, probably would've resonated with an audience who remembered the Exile.

A possible reason the angels first ascend and then descend is explained by Rabbi B in the.pdf Climbing Jacob's Ladder:
The ladder keys into the fact that the angels first "ascended" and then "descended." The Midrash explains that Jacob, as a holy man, was always accompanied by angels. When he reached the border of the land of Canaan (the future land of Israel), the angels who were assigned to the Holy Land went back up to Heaven and the angels assigned to other lands came down to meet Jacob. When Jacob returned to Canaan (Genesis 32:2-3), he was greeted by the angels who were assigned to the Holy Land.
By far the trickiest part is Verse 13 and the innocuous little phrase "here above it." Hebrew had no gender-neutral pronouns, so they used the same word for "it" as they did "him." So the "it" God was "here above" could've been the stairway, or it could've been Jacob himself (the verb for "standing" is a bit weird too, the LXX translated it "leaning," suggesting God was... taking it easy? Reclining like a king? Chilling with his homie Jacob? That one takes a better scholar than me). Which way you go is theologically loaded and up to the translator: is God hovering ominously at the top of the stairway, or is he standing over Jacob?

If that isn't bad enough, the words for "God" used in the text could support either. In Documentary Hypothesis terms, this part of Genesis is a mash-up of the J source and the E source (this page has handy guide to which source appears where). God is referred to as both YHWH (the personal name revealed to Moses) and Elohim (a generic deity). That means it could go either way: the J source's God is close, relatable, almost humanised, the God who breathed life into Adam and fashioned Eve from a rib. E's God is distant, universal, remote and abstract. Minor sidenote: the J source is mostly concerned with the southern Kingdom of Judah, and the E source is mostly concerned with the northern Kingdom of Israel. The town of Bethel, where this is said to've taken place, is right on the border between them. That's got to mean something.

Anyway, since Verse 13 is a J verse, I'm coming down on the side of the Yahwists: God is standing next to Jacob. Which is why in a reputable translation like the Jerusalem Bible, it reads like this:
And there was Yahweh, standing beside him and saying, "I, Yahweh, am the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. The ground on which you are lying I shall give to you and your descendants."
Which means the main lesson of the story survives the translation process:

This god came down to us!

That must've been mind-blowing in 950 B.C. I said I can imagine this tale being reworked from an older Sumerian or Akkadian story... but can you imagine Marduk deigning to leave his high place and touch the same earth as the puny humans? Not likely. In the original you can bet the hero had to ascend to the gods to receive his revelation there. An ancient near-eastern audience probably would've had that version in the back of their minds. So imagine the bricks they must've shat when the priest told them, no, Jacob looked up and YHWH was standing at the foot of his bed! That's damn near a thousand years before Christ, and the Hebrews were already imagining a God who could step out of heaven and come down to them. Amazing.

And, in a roundabout way, appropriate to the whole Easter thing – a season when we celebrate a God who shed the infinite to take up the mortal coil and die the bloody, miserable death of a slave. If you ever feel like a challenge, get a job at a servo and try explaining to your Hindu colleagues what that has to do with chocolate eggs and bunnies.

Have a great Easter everybody. Whether you celebrate it or not, just have a grand and joyous weekend.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Our Thoughts are with Brussels, but not our Prayers

Not that I know anything, but the Brussels airport attack sounded like your standard terrorist one-two: a first blast to get people running, herding them where you want them to go – which is usually right into the killing zone for the second blast, which packs all the shrapnel. Same technique used by the Bali Bombers, who set off a small bomb inside the nightclub to make everyone run for the exit, where the second bomb was waiting.

This is the photo we have to lead with, right?

This one touched me more than the Paris attacks, because unlike Paris I've actually been to Brussels – been through that airport, in fact, because that's where I got off the plane to begin my Euro Roadtrip of 2014. I don't remember the airport itself much, except that it seemed fairly small after Kingsford Smith and Heathrow. I do have vivid memories of one of the girls at the car hire desk, though, where I was in line with my bags for about a week and a half. She made it worth it; she was amazing. Quite apart from the fact that she was gorgeous, the absolute image of the pretty, chic French girl (yes I know she was Belgian, but she was clearly Walloon and I had to fight the urge to check if her ears were pointed), she seemed to deal with every customer in their own language; I heard her use French, English, Italian and Spanish while I was in line, and being Belgian she's probably perfectly at home in Dutch as well. And she was clearly exasperated beyond words at dealing with an ignorant rosbif like me. I had to bite my tongue while she sorted out my paperwork and handed over the keys to my Peugeot.

I really hope she's okay.

There could be any number of reasons for these attacks. Most connected it immediately with the recent arrest of one of the guys behind the Paris attacks. Others pointed out that Brussels is the capital of the EU and their jets are still bombing I.S.I.S. positions in Syria. Me? My first thought was that, since Belgium is the world champion of I.S.I.S. recruiting, someone just couldn't get a ticket to Turkey.
Everything about Belgium says it shouldn’t be making any significant contribution to the jihad in Iraq/Syria. First, the total population is tiny, less than 11 million people, and unlike the Indonesian population it skews very old. The total number of males of military age in Belgium is less than one million, or about two percent of the equivalent in Indonesia. And unlike Indonesia, Belgium is not a Muslim-majority nation. In fact, only six percent of Belgium is Muslim – call it 600,000 people. Let’s say that the Muslim minority in Belgium skews younger than the general population, as recent immigrant minorities usually do. That still means a total pool of something like 70,000. But from that tiny pool, Belgium has sent at least 350 volunteers to Islamic State.

Of course, that’s still a tiny number. It’s worth repeating that all these numbers are ridiculously small, considering the pool of Muslim young men who could be taking up jihad. But Belgium is still an anomaly, producing way too many IS volunteers. Never mind what’s wrong with Kansas, what’s up with Belgium? – Gary Brecher, Islamic State and American Narcissism
What should our response be? Bah, I don't really care, as long as we a) don't start a ground war in Syria, and b) take in some Syrian refugees and treat them well. Because the former is exactly what I.S.I.S. wants, and the latter is just about the only thing that drives them nuts. Read 7 Things I Learned Reading Every Issue of ISIS's Magazine again. No excuses, it's a Cracked article FFS, not Proust. For starters, said magazine is named Dabiq, and when you know why you'll be equipped to be a proper voter again. Forget the rage, go and learn something.

Which is a nice segue to Richard Dawkins, who's once again shown there are no cheap shots when it comes to Richard Dawkins.

That was posted on the FB page for "The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science." I know treehouse clubs with less pompous names than that, but let's ignore that and get straight to the point: that Dawkins is the Ken Ham of atheism. Quite a few are starting to wake up to the fact that, as per the Horseshoe Principle, religious fundamentalists and militant atheists actually believe in the same god; it's just that one rejects this god, and the other accepts it. For all his achievements in academia – which I do respect, though I don't get to show it much – Richard Dawkins is about as sophisticated as Ken Ham on the matter of theology and Biblical hermeneutics – which is to say, about the level of a 5-year-old at Sunday School. Is it written somewhere in the Bible? Then you can be sure Ken believes it, Richard rages at it, and neither has actually looked into it on an adult level.

If you're worried I'm about to pull out the old "Islam is a religion of peace!" line, relax, I'm not.

Neither is I.S.I.S.

These days I don't believe there's any such thing as a religion of peace. Or, technically, a religion of war. People can always find a tribal marker to turn it into Us and Them, and religion just happens to've been pretty handy at that. People just aren't especially peaceful creatures it seems (though neither are they usually very effective killers – the Brussels airport bombers made sure they wouldn't live to see their handiwork, after all). But blaming religion for sectarian violence only reveals a stunning ignorance of religion, sects and violence alike.
Some kind of ultimate justice is the stuff of religion. All religion. We want to see such unfairness corrected. The world seems wrong and we want to see it made or remade right.

Every religion worth anything addresses this dilemma in two ways. First by requiring that its adherents practice both charity and justice here in this life. And second by extending the hope that such unfairness will ultimately be rectified, if not in this world, then in the next.

When religion goes awry or becomes corrupt, it often results from or results in an emphasis on one of those two aspects to the neglect of the other. Corruption A: Emphasize the hope for eschatological justice to the neglect of justice in this world and you end up with the “pie in the sky when you die” opiate used to justify every oppressive caste system from Bombay to Alabama. Corruption B: Emphasize justice in this world to the neglect of the hope for eschatological justice and you begin thinking that you can impose perfect, infallible justice here in the temporal realm – an idea that quickly gallops off into oppressive theocracy of one form or another.

Our history books and newspapers are so full of examples of both of those errors that it can be tempting to think that maybe religion itself is the problem. If we could just stamp out religion, we could end oppression and establish perfect justice. See again Corruption B above. – Fred Clark, Still In Hell
I'm sure he'd be driven to spitting rage if you pointed this out, but Dawkins is himself a religious fundamentalist. He's arguing for another version of the same extremism I.S.I.S. themselves are fighting for, with the minor variation of having no god at all instead of Allah. That's the exact opposite of the only solution that has ever worked – freedom of worship, allied to enough wealth that people can afford birth control and get laid without consequences, and take up rich people hobbies like golf and pilates (yes, I'm a cynic. What of it?).

Semi-related: last night Titanic was on TV, and I watched it for the first time since, oh, about 1999. I was surprised at how good it was. I was expecting sentimental drivel, but it was very well done sentimental drivel. And as I do whenever I watch TV these days, I kept one eye on my phone, checking out IMDB trivia and such. One story that made me laugh was that of Neil deGrasse Tyson, who apparently pestered James Cameron for ten solid years about the night sky Rose gazed upon while floating on that infamous piece of wood. I'm impressed that anyone could pester James Cameron into anything: he sounds like the egomaniac of all time. But Tyson wouldn't let this go, so for the 3D re-release, Cameron changed it to the sky Rose would've seen that night, as you can see in the article I linked.

But if you can't remember, the sky in the 1997 version looked like this:

See the shape just left-of-centre? It's a heart. Le Coeur de la Mer. The Heart of the Ocean. Neil deGrasse Tyson, mate, listen: I know you're a famous scientist and all that, and I'm a big fan of your work, so you know you can trust me when I come to you, hand on shoulder, and say...'re an idiot.

That sky was unrealistic on purpose. Because it was a movie, not a documentary, so the sky was thematically relevant and emotionally resonant. It didn't have to be realistic. It was beyond that, in a separate category from realistic.

Like the Bible. Like the Koran.

Dawkins? Ken? The slime at I.S.I.S.? You all need to learn the same lesson. More and more it seems to me that the real issue is simple-mindedness. I.S.I.S. believe a truth has to line up with their religion to be worth anything; Tyson believes it has to line up with scientific observation. But science is not an excuse any more than religion is: get a bit of literacy, a bit of culture, a bit of a sense of humour about your thinking. In my opinion, if you're being simple-minded, then you're just another hick.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

You Say War Crime, I Say Counter-Insurgency

Eric over at Swords and Socialism has a great little post, Debunking the Myth of the "Clean Wehrmacht."

As you might've guessed, it's about the idea that Germany's atrocities in World War II were solely the work of the Nazis, not of the Wehrmacht themselves. If you're not clear on the distinction, the Wehrmacht was the armed force serving the German state, whereas the Nazis just happened to be the political party in charge of that state. It's like the Australian Army can't be held responsible for the crimes perpetrated by the Liberal Party, who continue to imprison refugees in concentration camps and insist on denying our LGBT citizens their nuptials (yeah, I went there, but I don't think it's any secret I'm bitter about the Abbott/Turnbull regime).

In WWII it gets a bit more complicated because the Nazis also had the Waffen-SS ("Armed Protection Squadron"), which fielded full Panzer divisions like our old friends the 3rd SS Totenkopf, who fought alongside the regular army, but they were technically part of the Nazi party and separate from the normal Wehrmacht.

The SS provide a convenient loophole that allows one to pin the entire war-crime bodycount on the Nazis and exonerate the rest of Germany's armed forces as good, honourable people who just happened to be fighting on behalf of a vile regime. To his credit, Eric wants to dispel that idea and does a decent job of it, going through the reasons the myth was convenient for everybody and then digging up plenty of examples that prove the Wehrmacht were neck deep in it. Germany was not ignorant of what the Nazis were up to: at the very least they were guilty of silent complicity, at worst of aiding and abetting. And when I say "they," I mean We, because it's happening again, right now. We no longer need scratch our heads and wonder how the German people fell for it, because with the rise of Trump we're living through the exact same thing. Not for nothing does the Chief over at Graphic Firing Table call him Il Douche; only time will tell whether the American people will reject him at the polls and demonstrate that we've actually evolved a little over the last 70 years.

But I want to focus on one bit that jumped out at me.
There is an account of a German soldier who's unit was attacked by a Polish sniper. They burned the village to the ground and his account of the event is chilling, and shows the inhumanity that the Wehrmacht cultivated:
"Burning houses, weeping women, screaming children, A picture of misery. But the Polish people didn't want it any better. In one of the primitive peasant houses we even surprised a woman servicing a machine gun. The house was turned over and set alight. After a short while the woman was surrounded by flames and tried to get out. But we stopped her, as hard as it was. Soldiers can;t be treated differently just because they're in skirts. Her screaming rang in my ears long after. By the time the military administration of Poland ended in late October, the Germans had killed over 16,000 Poles and burned over 500 villages."
There's another name for this stuff: counter-insurgency. Whatever else he was, that brave Polish sniper was an insurgent. That woman servicing a machine-gun was an insurgent. And the Wehrmacht soldiers, who were clear-headed enough to recognise that "soldiers can't be treated differently just because they're in skirts," were running a counterinsurgency campaign. A pretty effective one, if I may say so: it wasn't until the Red Army arrived several years later that the Germans retreated from Polish turf.

Now mentally shift the setting from Poland to Fallujah, and suddenly it becomes clear why we had such a tough time there. We just weren't ready to be Nazis.

Most of us, anyway.

Make no mistake, that's what it would've taken. It'd still take that now. Occasionally our leaders reveal they're still umming and ahh-ing over whether to go back to Iraq, or intervene in Syria; Il Douche is promising to invade someone and invade hard, which of course his supporters love.

But in my view, the question they all need to ask is, are we ready to do what the Nazis did in Poland? Are you – you, personally – ready to pack a Black & Decker as well as your Heckler & Koch? After you've killed the young guys in a firefight, are you ready to go after their women? How about the children? The old people? Because they're in on it too. The laws of war that are supposed to protect civilians no longer apply, because guerrillas deliberately erase the line between civilians and combatants. There's no distinction, no point trying to separate the sheep from the goats, because they're all wolves. Here's a snippet from Afghanistan:
With us, they’re not even playing their A team. Seriously, they’re funning with us. You can see that if you read these stories carefully, with a cold eye. Here’s a classic example from that Stryker story, a little story about this local Pashtun kid whose heart‘n’mind they won over, supposedly:
“A young boy came up to Outpost Outlaw with news of a buried bomb. Stick in hand, he took the soldiers to a trail a short distance away, but then seemed uncertain about just where to point. Finally, he gestured to a spot directly underneath the feet of Cpl. Wes Pfeil.

“Everybody kind of freaked out,” Pfeil recalled.

“The boy smiled and pulled a battery out of his pocket. He had already defused the bomb.”
The comedy here is so obvious I can’t believe the dipshit who wrote this thing even tried to pass it off as proof that the locals are coming around, warming up to us at last. This is open mike nite Pashtun style, the kid’s big debut. I bet the whole district was pissing itself laughing that night, the kid doing impressions: “Look, look, this is the Aliens’ faces when I show them the battery!” And the whole mud hut cracks up. Even the goats were laughing. – Gary Brecher, Market Lessons From The Pashtun, 30 December 2010
If the commander had known his business that kid would've been grabbed in the middle of the night and tied to a chair in Outpost Outlaw's basement. By dawn the adults he'd named would've been grabbed and put through the same treatment, and so ad infinitum. The kid – whatever was left of him – would've been buried in a shallow grave somewhere, without even the minimal grave adornments his particular sect permitted (which if he was Wahhabist would be damn few). Eventually his whole village would've been put through the same meatgrinder and buried beside him.

What peace looks like.

If the commander really really knew his business, that's where he would've started. Because sooner or later, it would've been clear they were all in on it.
Okay, now this is where the real nastiness of irregular warfare comes in. People who romanticize guerrilla war just haven’t thought it through. Why did the Taliban (or just the locals) plant that mine? They’re not hoping to wipe out the U.S. forces with little mines like that. What those mines do is push up the level of hate between the foreign army and the locals...

You know they know. Imagine Allen’s squad walking back through an Afghan village. The natural impulse is to kill every living thing in that village. Especially if they smile at you.

Most armies throughout history would retaliate fast and brutal. A lot of what we call Nazi atrocities, like wiping out the village of Lidice, were reprisals like that. Heydrich, a Nazi honcho, gets killed right by this Czech village; the villagers act innocent; the Germans wipe them out. We did the same, off the record, to a whole lot of Vietnamese villages after a bouncing betty took some guy’s legs off walking down the same path the villagers walked, without every getting hurt, every day of their lives.

And the Taliban’s fine with that. Any guerrilla army with a clue what it’s doing WANTS the occupying army to slaughter locals. There’ll always be enough left to help you, unless you’re dealing with the Romans or some other ancient empire. Very few empires have the ruthlessness to wipe out all the civilians in retaliation. And very few empires care enough about their low-level soldiers to want to. – Gary Brecher, Af-Pak: Losing the Long War, One Man At A Time, 10 February 2011
But a modern Western country, with a low birthrate and armies staffed by actual citizens? We don't have cannon fodder like that to waste.
Back when it was us having the Maxim gun and they had not it was pretty simple to run an empire on the cheap. But now every dimestore Westbumfuckian Liberation Front can lay their hands on a couple of shiploads of AKs and a bunch of PMD shoebox mines (or just some Semtex and a Palestinian- or Iraqi-for-hire to show them how to wire the things for sound) and all of a sudden the White Man's Burden becomes hard for low-population-growth, expensive Western volunteer armies to bear. – Graphic Firing Table, Now they have.
So if we're sending in the troops, we have to be efficient about it and do what the Nazis did in Operation Barbarossa – kill them all in the initial invasion and be done with it. Are you ready to do that job? Are you honestly, truly ready to murder the guy who took a potshot at you – then his wife, his eleven children, a few of his cousins and a couple of his brothers and father too? In cold blood? Are you ready to give up, once and for all, the idea that we do this stuff for their own good? That we "liberate" people rather than conquer them? Are you ready to admit that we're a colonial power – auxiliaries, even – playing colonial power games? If you've put on the jellybean suit then you're willing to die for this great nation (and for that this fat civilian can only thank you), but are you therefore ready, when the day comes, to stick your head through the noose? Because count on it, when it's all over there will be a Nuremburg, and the same cowardly politicians and voters who sent you into harm's way will pretend to be shocked at what you got up to over there, and will absolutely throw you to the war crimes tribunal so they can avoid the hard questions and keep feeling good about themselves.

And they do. You know they do.

What's that? You're not ready to sacrifice our national soul like that? Gosh, then I guess we better not go to war after all. I guess the only thing to do is repair our image by taking in some refugees and wait for the Muslim world to decide killing each other over sectarian divides is a fool's game. From what I hear, 90% of them are there already.
The truth about the clash of civilizations you hear people discussing is that it’s all the other way: The Mall is invading Islam, the Mall is taking over. There isn’t any Sharia Law in North Carolina, but there damn well are U.S.-style malls in even the most conservative Islamic countries.

In Najran, in the most remote corner of Saudi Arabia, a state so afraid of Western contamination that it doesn’t even issue tourist visas, there is a mall. And, when I lived there, you could watch – literally watch – the conflict between Sharia Law and Mall culture, five times a day. – Gary Brecher, Jihad vs Shopping Mall, 20 September 2013
It's time to grow up. Armies aren't for winning hearts and minds. They're for fucking shit up. Which means you have to think very carefully about whose shit you want fucked, and why, and how. Otherwise you're just a toddler playing with a handgun. Maybe – just maybe – you'll come up with a compelling strategic reason to obliterate this or that village, but until then there's no reason to parade our Diggers where the locals can develop itchy trigger fingers. More often than not there are ways to achieve our strategic goals without resorting to Nazism. And adults know that.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

So, Trump

Donald. Fucking. Trump.

Fred Clark over at Slacktivist really captured the zeitgeist when he pointed out:
Dave Gushee has just written the 10,000th think-piece lamenting and struggling to comprehend white evangelical enthusiasm for the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. (Balloons and confetti drop, music plays, Dave is presented with an oversized check and a gift certificate for dinner for two at a local steakhouse.)
Well, here's my attempt at writing the 100,000th.

But before I begin, a question for you to mull over: what do you do when you're playing a rigged game – Monopoly, say, since that reaps the requisite crop of bitterness – and you know you can't win, but you can still make sure everyone loses? Whaddaya do, hotshot, what to you do? Keep that question in mind while you read this piece, and then right up until the end of November. It's important.

The Way It Should've Gone
Now, unaccustomed as I am to speaking I'm no political expert – my memory for presidential bullshit only goes back as far as Monica, and my awareness of politics only extends to just before the financial crisis – but I read a lot, and if you do this article right you'll be reading a lot too, because I'm sharing my links. The first of these is Doug Muder's excellent little summary 2016: Understanding the Republican Process, which itself leans on and links to an earlier work, The Four Flavors of Republican. Both were written before Trump hit the fan and the whole political punditry industry was sent reeling, but it's a worthwhile read for showing us what didn't happen this election cycle, and therefore why. Basically, he argues that the four flavours of Republican are:
  • NeoCons – The chickenhawks of the American imperial machine. They want the U.S. to kick arse and take names, and are permanently all out of gum. Dubya was a NeoCon president, all tough talk and carpet bombing, egged on by old NeoCons like Cheney, Rummy and Wolfowitz, who had to pried off the piping with a crowbar the first time an Iraqi Scud landed near his hotel in the Green Zone. Their aim is to unite the people of the U.S. against a common enemy – Iran, say, or I.S.I.S. – so everyone'll turn a blind eye to the 1984-type shit they're doing at home.
  • Corporatists – Self-explanatory. If there's money in it, they'll back it. Often marching in locked step with the NeoCons, as there's no money hose quite like the Military-Industrial Complex, so they backed the Iraq War so they could make a killing with brands like Halliburton and Blackwater. Mitt Romney would've been a Corporatist president.
  • Libertarians – The Ayn Rand fanclub. The smallest and weakest sector of the party, but they still have some pull, and even Doug Muder admits they have the coolest rhetoric. Which is actually their real value to the party anyway – they give the Corporatists a way to cut wages by making it sound like a principled stand for independence and personal responsibility rather than pure greed.
  • Theocrats – Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority viewed through the lens of policy. Their participation is the result of the weird team-up Reagan's handlers made with the then-underground Evangelical wing of Christianity in 1979, which had been in the background since the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy of the 1920s. They were tempted into Reagan's new coalition because both they and the NeoCons seemingly wanted the same thing, a strong nation with a firm moral compass. They became the foot soldiers of the Republican Party in return for promises to stand firm against the godless atheist Soviet Union, and (much later) to make abortion illegal, block gay marriage, and protect Christians from "persecution" like being forced to hear Happy Holidays at Starbucks. Without these religious fanatics acting as their pawns the Corporatists and NeoCons never would've had the numbers to win office.
They're also the most firmly racist section of the party, since their ideology is descended from Confederate slavers; their fundamentalist "literal" way of reading the Bible (i.e. that it's a magic book written by God, so if it's in there then it's absolute capital-t Truth) was invented to justify the ownership of human beings (they tend to refer to the Bible as the Word of God, which is technically heresy because the book itself says Jesus is the Word of God and the Bible is just a bunch of writers telling us about him. But if you call them out on it they tend to just ignore you). Falwell's story was that the Moral Majority was created after Roe vs Wade made abortion legal, but it was actually created in opposition to desegregated schools. That same way of reading the Bible also gave us Creationism and the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, the climax of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, and the huge and vitriolic anti-gay movement we deal with today (you didn't realise we'd already had this argument, did you? Well we won it then too). 

Of all the four flavours the Theocrats are the section of the party that really doesn't belong with the others, which is where we get pushback like this:

So, with four flavours of Republican, the aim for each candidate is to convince one of the four wings you're their guy; do that, and your next aim is to convince the other three to shrug and say, "meh, good enough" and back you rather than divide the party; do that, and you win nomination, and are ready to go for the Presidency. Ergo, we should've got four big names out of the Republican nomination process: Jeb Bush was the Corporatist candidate; Ted Cruz is the Theocrat, Marco Rubio the NeoCon and Rand Paul the Libertarian. Of these, you could dismiss Paul and Rubio pretty early on, as I said the Libertarian wing is pretty small and can't realistically win on its own, and since Iraq the NeoCons are still too discredited for their candidate to win (although they might make a comeback soon – by 2019 we'll be getting our first voters who don't remember September 11, and I.S.I.S. doesn't seem to be going away...). That should've left Jeb and Cruz to slug it out for the Republican nomination.

But This Ain't 2012
And something's gone very, very wrong. To realise how wrong, you need to consider another of Muder's points – that because they have access to the Scrooge McDuck money bin and Rupert Murdoch's media empire (so, so sorry about him), the Corporate candidate always looks stronger than he is. Except that's not what happened this time. The Jeb campaign was a gift to the internet's comedians from day one, from the moment he unveiled the Jeb! logo right up until that final, desperate cry for help. Jeb never once looked stronger than he really was; on the contrary, it was easy to forget he was raising and spending far greater sums than anyone had ever seen before. Jeb should've been a Corporatist super-candidate; instead he was an expensive flop.

And yet, at the same time both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were rising into serious contention without a shred of support from the Establishment, Bernie breaking Obama's 2008 records for small donations, Trump not having to spend a cent of his own money. It was almost like people on both sides were fed up with Washington's bullshit and were now immune to the usual propaganda. And indeed, that's just what an insider tells us.
In March of 2015, Ben Carson formed an exploratory committee to consider running for president. Barry, who headed up this committee, was tasked with the job of determining if Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon with zero political experience, could win an election. His research included:

"Focus groups where we'd ask people, 'Describe what you're looking for in a candidate.' And then you tell them about Ben Carson to see if it matches up. ... What you're looking for is messaging, not any kind of numerical data ... and what we found was exactly what Donald Trump is doing right now. ... People are not angry at Washington; they are totally over Washington. They don't feel Washington can do anything to make their lives better."

The conclusion Bennett and his fellow electioneers came to is that American voters no longer care about electing a candidate with any kind of established political record. In fact, they see that record as a liability. Before the primary started, Bennett wanted to do a focus group of Jeb Bush supporters in Des Moines, Iowa. But the people he hired to do it couldn't find 12 supporters, he said.

According to Barry, that said to them: "There's lots of room for an outsider. And the question became: Will the lack of experience be a hindrance? And then Donald Trump and Ben were No. 1 or 2 for six months." – Cracked, 5 Ways We Got The Trump Campaign Wrong: An Insider Explains
I recommend taking that with a grain of salt: if the source above was formerly behind Ben Carson, then they're probably a grifter extraordinaire. But their findings are still fascinating: people are over Washington, so previous political experience is a hindrance. Doesn't that go a long way to explaining both sides of this whole circus? Hillary should've wrapped up both the nomination and the presidency back at the Benghazi hearings, where she got to sit there looking all presidential while shooting down every conservative attack dog sent her way. She ran rings around them and made them look ridiculous. But now, rather than a shoo-in, she's busy holding off Bernie because the things that would make her such a good president – she's a Washington insider who understands the game, she has the connections, and she seems to be made of teflon because twenty years of Republican smearing have yet to stick – now count against her. She's still ahead thanks to black voters, who quite reasonably prefer her promise of incremental progress and hanging on to what Obama's achieved over Bernie's high risk/high payoff deal. But what should be a done deal isn't.

It might seem weird to think of Bernie as the Democratic Party's Trump, but the parallels are all there: an outsider running without the support of the usual kingmakers, financed by their fans in the general populace masses, both with a reputation for speaking their minds rather than giving the same polished soundbites. Except where those Feeling the Bern are mostly leftist idealists – spoilt white kids whose degrees priced them out of the job market, basically – Trump's base are something rather more dangerous.

A Brief History of Racist Dogwhistles
I indeed walked away from the (brilliant) movie Lincoln with a bit of cognitive dissonance: in 1865 it was the Republican Party that was progressive and the Democratic Party that represented reactionary slavers. It took for me to read Muder's A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System before I cleared that up; companion piece Not a Tea Party, A Confederate Party drove the point home, and Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor finished off the carpentry job with a nailgun. Seriously, go and read those three. They'll change everything.

The short version is that Reconstruction was the second phase of the American Civil War, and the South won, re-instituting slavery via various legal loopholes – after all, changing the law won't do a damn thing unless people abide by it. This state of affairs lasted right up through the whole miserable, sadistic history of American labour relations, until we arrived at the Civil Rights era with Martin Luther King. Up to this time the southern racist vote remained with the Democratic Party, with southern Republicans competing for the black vote and consequently staying out of office. The Civil Rights Act was eventually passed by congress in 1964 – with bipartisan support – but as President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law he said, "We have lost the South for a generation."

More like two generations and counting, LBJ. The southern racist vote flopped around for the rest of the 60's, was wooed by Nixon's "Southern Strategy," then finally attached itself to the Republicans when Reagan started hinting that southern racists were welcome in the coalition he was building – the four-faceted Republican Party of today. It was the start of the dogwhistle era, as Reagan strategist Lee Atwater famously outlined:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”- that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, “forced busing”, “states’ rights”, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
So with their numbers behind him Reagan swept to a colossal victory in 1980. The dogwhistle era has arguably remained with us ever since – Republicans still use terms like "inner city" and "food stamps" and rely on the listener remembering what kind of people tend to live on food stamps in the inner cities (nobody will hire you when you look like a thug, and when nobody will hire you the only option is to be a thug). Arguably these aren't dogwhistles anymore because everyone knows what they mean, but they're still being used, with one shining exception – Donald J. Trump.
The chattering classes like to say “the GOP base is frustrated because conservative leaders let them down so they are turning to Trump as a protest.” This misses the point. They did let them down but not because they didn’t fulfill the evangelical/small government/strong military agenda. They let them down because they didn’t fulfill the dogwhistle agenda, which was always about white resentment and authoritarian dominance. Trump is the first person to come along and explicitly say what they really want and promise to give it to them. – Salon, The GOP machine can't touch Trump: Why his heretical 9/11 claims won't even slow him down
That's why the Theocrat candidate Ted Cruz could lose even South Carolina to a thrice-married New Yorker who can't even recite a Bible verse. Having been the Republican Party's Useful Idiots for over 30 years, white racist evangelicals are the section of the Republilcan Party that's now breaking away to follow Trump.

So that's it, is it? It's a racist thing? Well, not just that...

Deal With It, Loser
These mass movements are never about just one thing, are they? Like blind men debating the nature of an elephant, one journalist will hold their nose and stick their head outside their comfy office and shoot a quick glance at the unwashed masses and decide it's a race thing. Another will do the same and conclude Trump is a bully for us nerds. Another, more intelligently, will point to tribalism, a fundamental human trait – my tribe, right or wrong – while still others will point out that Evangelicals have been losing a lot lately and Trump is their chance to be winners again. Marriage equality was never supposed to get this far, after all – only a few years ago, in the Bush era, they managed to make it illegal in multiple states, then all of a sudden the Supreme Court looks at the matter and decides it's already constitutional? How did that happen? I mean, come on, have we forgotten the victory lap we did after Obama's reelection in 2012?
The religious right is frightened and angry after Tuesday’s election.

That’s not really news, since the religious right was frightened and angry before Tuesday’s election. Frightened and angry is pretty much what the religious right is like every day.

But this quasi-religious political movement is back on its heels now. After decades of lucrative success that transformed America’s politics and deformed American evangelicalism, the religious right was confronted Tuesday with evidence that its strategy is no longer working...

The problem for the religious right is not that they lost, but how they lost and why they lost... They lost because they are no longer perceived as having the moral high ground.

That claim is still being asserted, but it is no longer being accepted. The political opposition used to be a form of “yes, but…”  – yes, these political preachers are correct about morality and immorality, but other factors need to be considered, or other complications have to be accounted for, etc.

Opposition to the religious right’s agenda on Tuesday did not take the form of this “yes, but…” argument. It was simply, “No.” – Slacktivist, The white evangelical religious right can no longer presume to claim moral superiority
We saw this and celebrated...

...they saw it and heard war drums. And rightly so, if I'm honest. Funny, only a couple of years ago I swore I was no longer going to be a foot soldier in the culture wars; now, here I am, fixing my bayonet and ready to go over the top for the other side. They were damn right it was a declaration of war; I'm out to destroy a whole worldview here, and so is Paul Bibeau. But it's going to get worse before it gets better, because honestly, were we really naive enough to think our glorious revolution could be accomplished without pushback? Seriously? This has been brewing from the moment Obama was elected (a black president? What is this, Blazing Saddles?). Like an earthquake off the coast that sets off the tsunami, election night '08 seriously rustled some jimmies, and they aren't going to be un-rustled any more than that tsunami will turn around and head back out to sea. All that bile has to work itself out somehow.

Here's the thing though: they know marriage equality is a done deal that isn't going to be repealed. Despite 50+ attempts, neither is Obamacare. And making them jump through ridiculous legal hoops and even the freaking murder of doctors isn't slowing the spread of Planned Parenthood clinics. Sex ed is trending away from abstinence-only, and science classrooms are rightly teaching that a literal six-day creation is Biblically illiterate horseshit. The world is slipping from their grasp and they know it, because they aren't stupid.

Yeah that's right, I said it: conservatives aren't stupid. We progressives love to imagine ourselves the last enlightened, thinking people in a horde of brainwashed zombies, but it just ain't so. And it hurts me to admit this, because I've had a lifetime of usually being the smartest person in the room, and with my dead-end job and no girlfriend being smarter than you is all I've got. But there it is: if you think all right-wingers are suckers who just need to have the right facts shoved under their noses and they'll slap their foreheads and wonder why no-one told them this before, then you're the moron. They might not be academically inclined, and they might prefer to spend their weekends driving their trucks and shooting things, but they're hardly mindless dupes. They've just absorbed a whole different set of facts to you (facts that don't happen to be backed up by reality, but don't get too cocky – I bet your Facebook feed doesn't give you a lot of dissenting opinions either).

So if they haven't been conned, and they don't actually care about their party's policies, then why do they vote against their own interests? Because of something far more basic than policy or hope for the future, my dear.

We, The Spiteful
And so we turn to Mark Ames, a protege of the War Nerd and one of the best – and bravest – journalists out there today. Just quietly, I think he's a better writer than Brecher too, tighter and more coherent, though he lacks that cutting hilarity that makes Brecher's work so enjoyable... Anyway, in 2004 Ames wrote a fanastic piece called Spite the Vote, which was republished in expanded form in 2011 as We, The Spiteful. And there you'll find the last, nasty little piece of the puzzle that is Donald Trump.

Spite can be a very productive emotion. Tractor magnate Feruccio Lamborghini, for example, bought himself a new Ferrari once only to find the clutch was knackered. Taking it back to Ferrari, he asked for it to be fixed please, only to be told to go drive his tractors if he couldn't drive a car. Fuming, Lamborghini took it apart and realised the faulty clutch actually came from the same supplier as his tractor clutches, so it was an easy matter to order a replacement and whack it in himself. Realising he was good at this, Lamborghini set out to shoot Ferrari down in flames by building even better supercars. Today Lamborghini is a legend all its own.

Other times, spite is all about destruction, not construction, and that's how it is with the Donald's supporters. Our lives suck – I'm one of you guys as far as lifestyle, okay? See job/girlfriend comments above – and we know we can't win, not ever.
Spite-voters lack the sense that they have a stake in America’s future... non-millionaires who vote Republican know all-too-well that the country is not theirs. They are mere wage-slave fodder, so their only hope is to vote for someone who makes the very happiest people’s lives a little less happy. If I’m an obese 40-something white male living in Ohio or Nevada, locked into a permanent struggle with foreclosure, child support payments and diabetes, then I’m going to vote for the guy who delivers a big greasy portion of misery to the Sarandon-Robbins dining room table, then brags about it on FoxNews. Even if it means hurting myself in the process.
Why not hurt myself? It's not like our lives matter, especially to ourselves; to us another war at the arse end of the world isn't a catastrophe, it's a chance to get the hell out and do some serious damage before we turn 25 and the empathy glands kick in. You only need to look at a video game to know what's on a guy's mind. "Who says those millions of farm boys who joined up as soon as a war came along didn’t make a logical decision?" wrote Gary Brecher. "'Duh… fifty more years of scratching at my lice and shoveling cow shit… versus a quick glorious death if we lose, and lotsa enemy villages full of implied consent if we win?' I know how I’d choose."

Oh yeah, much as we don't want to admit it, there's the sex thing too. Or rather there isn't. "Happy Alentine's Ay," said one e-card this year, "For those who aren't getting the V or the D this Feb 14." Yeah, thanks for fucking reminding me.
If you didn’t know anything about how America’s propaganda worked, you’d think that every citizen here experienced four-dimensional multiple orgasms with beautiful, creative, equally satisfied partners, morning, noon and night... The flat truth however is that despite all of our desperate attempts to convince ourselves otherwise, America is an erogenous no man’s land. Most white males here (at least the straight ones) have either dismal sex lives or no sex lives at all. No sex, no dates worth remembering, no romance worth reliving – even though a majority of Americans experience this barrenness on a daily basis, officially, consciously, it doesn’t exist.
So we don't really care whether Trump can deliver on his ridiculous promises. We're not interested in hopeychange, we just want someone who can fuck it up for everyone.

For the longest time I refused to believe that this is what's behind it. "People aren't that bad," I told myself. "They're just insane, because America. You haven't even seen any clear evidence yet." And then Paul Bibeau posted this.


And immediately I knew how Ian Malcolm felt: right all along and hating it.

I can promise you, I don't go a single day without being reminded how that guy feels. One of my friends has the kind of life I'll never, ever have, as much because it's contrary to my nature as because it's beyond my means – which doesn't stop me wanting it, of course. And I have to see it every day because, like an idiot, I'm on Facebook. She's a working psychologist – the same degree I dropped out of – and she lives and works in the Whitsundays, which is like Bali only without the sleaze. Did I mention she's a six-foot blonde bombshell with a family that dotes on her and a dreamy man-toy? Yeah, I can't help reading a smug obliviousness into every one of her smiles, even though – thinking about it – I don't really know what her life is or has been up to this point. All I know is every time she posts another snapshot from her annoyingly perfect life, I scowl and wish for something to happen, like a Category 5 cyclone or some disease that leaves the doctors stumped, just to burst her bubble for a while. Then I snap out of it and remember  the only thing worse than my pathetic life is not being magnanimous about my pathetic life.

But let's imagine I was the highly-motivated type and felt like getting proactive about bringing her some misery. What if the only means I had to do that was one of the few privileges I have over minorities – white skin and a vote? And what if I lived in those United States? How long do you think it would take someone like me to warm up to the idea of President Trump? Just imagine inauguration day, sitting in front of the TV with a bag of Doritos and a two-litre bottle of Diet Coke, watching the Beautiful People flee screaming as the Donald takes the oath, then takes the first wrecking ball to a country I have no stake in... damn, that's gonna feel pretty good. I'm getting hard just thinking about it, and I'm fighting for the other side.

Reversing the Polarity
Sounds awful doesn't it? What do we do about it from here? Well first I gotta remind you – again – I'm no expert. I'm a dude who couldn't even be bothered paying for a domain name for his blog. But I can tell you what I think, and let you decide what that's worth for yourself.

First, don't worry so much about Trump himself. The Donald isn't the centre of this (despite his own views on the matter), he's just a chronic attention whore. If he drops the baton someone else will pick it up, because he's shown how to energise a huge section of the voter base. In fact, he isn't even the worst option as Republican nominee this year (that would be Ted Cruz, dominionist, goldbug and religious fanatic where Trump's only a con artist. At least the con artist isn't high on his own supply).

That said, be ready for it to get ugly. Because it will. Read that Goblinbooks post about flushing the rat again. These people have deluded themselves they're locked in an inevitable, losing battle with the Antichrist, and there are no cheap shots with the Antichrist. That means it'll get nasty, and you should be ready to get nasty yourself if need be.They'll never respect your position on the issues, but they'll sure respect your fighting spirit. So get out there and fight. Get angry. Get mean. Fuck some shit up.
John Paul Jones said, "I intend to go in harm's way" and coined a boast that generations of Americans, and even Bugs Bunny himself, repeated with pride: "I have not yet begun to fight." John Brown killed and died to provoke a final conflict over slavery. When American liberals can appreciate, encourage and manipulate the violence of such people, maybe you can talk to your fellow Americans again.

...Try smacking your South Park countrymen in their deluded heads with some bumper stickers of our own, just as down and dirty as theirs. Wanna get them out of their gas-guzzling Dodge extended-cab semis? Stop whining at them and try putting these four little words on the back bumper of your hybrid: "Big truck, small dick." Yeah, you might get yelled at at a stoplight; you might even get hit. You might even consider hitting back.

Liberals have always been good fighters, once they get going. – Alternet, How to Humiliate – and Convert – a Right-Winger
Thankfully there are hints you're already doing it, because the Malheur thing resulted in some interesting pushback against the Oregon militia nuts. I'm so proud of you guys: the Right seemed genuinely shocked when the Left revealed they could be actually, honest-to-God, pissed off.
I've been reading your responses to the outpouring of anger and vitriol that has greeted the news that a bunch of self-identified pals of yours had "occupied" the vacant headquarters building at Malheur NWR out in the lesser paved portions of my home state.

You were angry yourselves, and scornful, that the "libtards' heads were exploding" over this. You seemed incredulous that these scruffy seditionists had aroused such ire on the Left, apparently as much because it is the Left as the subject of that furor. After all, we're supposed to be all "tolerant" and "squishy" about taking stands, except when we nag you about your hatred for things like homos marrying and Muslims... well, being alive... as "intolerant" and "rigid". You don't get it.

...Once again, the news media is fucked up like a football bat about this and giving your screwhead pals all sorts of free airtime to blarb their nonsensical screeds and, once again, you're giving, and going to give, us nothing but shit about it.

And we're really, really, really fucking sick and tired of it. – Graphic Firing Table, Dear wingnut... (an open letter to "conservatives" on the Malheur morons)
What the Bundys actually did was awaken something that hasn't been seen since the darkest days of 1865: the Left rousing itself to strike back with righteous vengeance and furious anger. They'd forgotten we could be like that; it took them 150 years to forget it, in fact, after Sherman did the business on them. Shame he didn't finish the job, turn the South over to the freedmen with the the full "forty acres and a mule," but the Lincoln administration always was soft on treason. You know, Jefferson Davis was on his way to Texas when he was captured, where another army was waiting that could've continued the war. Let me remind you Texas was a state liberated on the U.S. taxpayer's dime, and one of the officers in that army was a certain Ulysses S. Grant. He came away without much love for Texans (a particularly heinous breed of jerkwad, it seems), an impression that only would've been confirmed when they showed their gratitude by seceding just twelve years later. I wonder what might've happened had Grant followed Davis and ended up back in Texas with the Army of the Potomac at his back? Dixie loons wouldn't be whining about Sherman anymore, that's for sure.

L'Armée du Rhin, the Army of the Potomac, the 3rd Guards Tank Army and You, Tomorrow... surprising and destroying right-wing nutjobs since time immemorial. It's only the scale that varies.

We have a huge opportunity here, a chance to really slap the bastards down. As we speak it seems they've finally found an anti-Trump slur that sticks – that he's a conman, and worse, he cons white people. But make no mistake, Trump can win: he's roused the white spite vote like nobody's done in a long, long time. Come November, the Republican base will be swinging hard, voting in massive numbers. And what you can do, liberal America, is put a Democrat in the White House anyway. Because with your diversity, once you finally fucking agree on something, there's an awful lot more of you than them. Hillary or Bernie, it doesn't matter which, as long as it's not a Republican. Not because you'll avoid a Trump presidency (although that would be nice), but because it would show the fuckers that they've been marginalised once and for all, and the world they're dreaming, where the white man sips julep surrounded by admiring southern belles, while brown people pick the cotton and pack the shelves at WalMart (without pay), is never, ever coming back.

They won't take it lying down – they might even push to the point of armed resistance. Sooner or later it'll come to that or going quietly into that gentle night, and they're not the sort to go quietly into anything. But so what? You've defended yourselves before and you'll defend yourselves again if need be, and if it comes to it you can make the memory of yourselves so fearful it'll be another 150 years before they'll breathe this treasonous shit again.

Because a better world is in sight. Not over the horizon, in sight. All we have to do is achieve it.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

On this day... the A.N.L. Cup

30 years ago today, Round 2 of the 1986 Australian Touring Car Championship: the A.N.L. Cup race at Tasmania's Symmons Plains.

"A.N.L." stood for Australian National Line, a coastal shipping company backed by the government. Our government used to do things like that, you know, invest in infrastructure and provide services when Big Business couldn't be bothered. Our railways have always been state-run, Telstra was still Telecom in those days and government-operated before Little Johnnie sold it off, and it's often forgotten today that Holden's jump to local manufacturing was funded by a Commonwealth Bank loan brokered by then-Prime Minister Ben Chifley. That was back when the Labor Party really was the party of labour, before they decided they wanted to be the Liberal Party instead, and now both sides seem to resent the idea that the people of Australia should be their problem.

Politics aside, with the Australian National Line sponsoring the race it should've been easier for weekend warriors to make the trip to Tasmania, but the final entry list was astonishingly short. It was really only the the big professional teams that had made the trip: the Mobil Holden Dealer Team, who brought a pair of VK Commodores for Peter Brock and his faithful lieutenant John Harvey; the Mark Petch Volvo team with Robbie Francevic; Dick Johnson in his Greens-Tuf Mustang; Fred Gibson's Peter Jackson Nissan outfit, with a Skyline for George Fury; Toyota Team Australia had sent a single Corolla GT for John Smith; while Frank Gardner's John Player BMW operation had brought four whole cars, two 635s for Jim Richards and Charlie O'Brien, and two 325i's for Tony Longhurst and Garry Rogers. But that was pretty much it; the only private entrant was former motorcycle racer Graeme Crosby, who'd sworn come hell or high water he was racing in every round this year. Add them all together and you had just 11 starters on the grid at Symmons Plains.

But unlike Amaroo Park, which was right on Sydney's back doorstep, racing in Tasmania on Sunday meant a 12-hour boat ride back to the mainland on Monday. Ergo, if you weren't a professional racing driver like ten of the eleven listed above, you were probably going to be MIA on Monday morning. I guess nobody could get the time off work!

It didn't matter, though. As Ron Dennis said, the race is at the front and the A.N.L. Cup was a fantastic little race from start to finish. Francevic ultimately wore down George Fury to take the win, sitting behind him and applying pressure until his tyres gave out - the Nissan was only two races old and the team were still sorting it out. The only other man who might've caused a problem, Peter Brock, dropped out with ten laps to go with a split oil filter.

Spotlight car: the Nissan Skyline RS DR30
If you ever want to start a flame war, go on a car forum and ask whether Gibson Motorsport counted as a works team. Former Ford factory driver Fred Gibson had bought the team off the Australian branch of Nissan when they decided to outsource the racing team, but it remained the designated team of Nissan Australia. Their budget however (the largest on the grid) came from Imperial Tobacco's Peter Jackson brand, and their cars came as a kit from NISMO in Japan (NISMO fans refuse to consider these Aussie-assembled  cars in the same breath as a NISMO car out of Omori). Confusing it further, Gibson Motorsport went on to design and engineer their own parts, which Nissan Japan would add to the production line to meet homologation numbers on their behalf. So, was Gibson Motorsport a works team? A customer team? Somewhere in between? I suppose it depends on your definition of "works." With their intimate relationship with the factory, I'm inclined to believe they were the Australian works team – certainly they were a cut above the many private Skyline entrants that would pop up over the years. But NISMO? NISMO they weren't.

Anyway, Nissan is of course best known for Godzilla, the finely-crafted Group A weapon built to exploit every loophole in the rulebook, but it was a long way from here to there. Their first Group A car was almost naively simple; just a an enormously powerful turbocharged engine on wheels.

It was based on the sporty two-door version of the Skyline R30 sedan, the RS DR30, nicknamed the Tekkamen or Iron Mask after its distinctive 1983 facelift. The engine in the front was then the most powerful Japanese production unit in existence, the FJ20ET, 1,990cc of turbo-boosted savagery capable of 140 kW in road trim and over 240 in race trim (that's 190hp vs 320hp in silly arbitrary units).

Source: Wikipedia

Unfortunately, adding power was all Nissan had done. Under Group A rules the bodywork had to remain stock, and that had been designed for maximum air penetration – not a single wing or spoiler to be seen. Then the suspension was basically the old Datsun 1600 with longer control arms, which was far from sophisticated and completely inadequate to transferring that much power to the road. Throw in that by the Group A rules a turbo car only had to multiply its engine capacity by 1.4, putting the Skyline in the 2,501-3,000cc "class" where it was restricted to 10-inch tyres and a 1,035kg minimum weight... and you have a problem. All Group A cars were designed to have just barely enough tyres, but with that 1.4 turbo allowance so far out of whack, the turbo cars were left with way too little. With no weight to hold it down, the turbo would spool up and kick the back end sideways with absolutely zero warning. Wheels writer Peter McKay got to test-drive one in 1987 and reported it was twitchy under braking, slow to turn in and snapped into oversteer if you even breathed on the throttle. Bo Seton, whose son Glenn was about to jump to the big leagues aboard one, was a bit more blunt: "The DR30 was a monster."

But from the footage of the race, it was clear the DR30 was fast, provided you could keep it on the track. Tip it into a turn and time the boost just right, and the rear would squat and track straight, firing you at the next corner at warp speed. Get it wrong, and you'd get half-a-dozen tank slappers followed by a sharp exit going backwards. To tame it, then, took a very special sort of driver...

Spotlight Driver: George Fury
Source: Speedcafe
George Fury, "the Albury farmer" as Mike Raymond tagged him, was a wool grower from Talmalmo on the NSW side of the Hume Weir. To my mind, he's never gotten enough credit for his exploits in touring cars; the man was simply awesome. He's most famous for that pole lap at Bathurst '84, and then-boss Fred Gibson has never held back praising his driving that day:
No one else could have done that lap in that car in those conditions, because the Bluebird was not an easy car to drive. It was nervous and unforgiving on the limit, because with those big tyres and all the grip it had, when it let go it would let go in a big way.

I went in the passenger seat with George at Oran Park and I’ve never seen anyone work a car so hard and also work the car so well control-wise. The boost would be wound up down the straight, then he’d wind up the brake balance for this corner, then wind it back for the next corner. He was constantly adjusting the car to suit each section of the track and was absolutely on the case.

George was also a very game driver, he’d take punts like you wouldn’t believe. And he could just pick the whole car up and carry it on his back if he had to because he could adapt his style to drive around problems. Other guys who drove the Bluebirds just couldn’t believe what he did in those cars. (Shannons)
Compared to that, the '86 Skyline probably seemed easy as anything – the same issues, but with less grip, so it was all happening a bit slower. All I can say is that the body language of the car when Fury was on a charge reminds me of Ayrton Senna – the same sense of a huge crash indefinitely postponed, of a car just barely under control, the same sense of, well, fury. And that's about as high as racing driver compliments get.

Yes, this image is technically from 1987, but it's too awesome not to share (Source).

Fury was the main obstacle to Francevic's title in 1986, a fact that's not mentioned often enough today. The man should've been a touring car champion as well as a double ARC winner. As it was, he remained loyal to Nissan through the tough decade-long struggle to get to the top, then retired to look after his ewes just before Godzilla arrived. Nissan's young gun by that stage was Skaifey, who was always a toey bastard in those days; imagine what he would've been like with George on the other side of the garage!

Anyway, the DR30 eventually ate up its tyres, leaving the A.N.L. Cup in the hands of Robbie Francevic. It was a pretty clear case of a fully-developed Volvo against a Nissan that was still being sorted out. The points table now had Francevic leading with a perfect 56 points, last year's champion Jim Richards on 36, Dick Johnson on 32, Fury on 26 and Peter Brock with just 15 for his finish at Amaroo.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

On This Day... Better Brakes 100

On this day 30 years ago the 1986 Australian Touring Car Championship kicked off with Round 1: the Better Brakes 100 at Amaroo Park, just outside Sydney.

Amaroo Park isn't there anymore, which is a shame, because it was a great little circuit. Tight, short and hilly, Dick Johnson summed it up with his usual style: “You’re never straight round ‘ere! And when your tyres are off, you’re not even straight going up the straight!" It was hardly the place to bring a V8 muscle car or a laggy turbo monster – but of course the Group A era featured plenty of both. Amaroo had a glorious 80's and a pretty good first half of the 90's too before closing its doors, at last succumbing to the death pact inherent to a lot of motorsport venues: to get bums on seats you have to be close to a major city, but major cities tend to grow and sooner or later they swallow you whole. By the late 90's the land Amaroo Park was sitting on was too valuable to stay in the hands of a business as unprofitable as motor racing, and it would only be a matter of time before the noise complaints came rolling in, and the council would apply noise restrictions that would kill its credibility as a serious venue... so it was sold and subdivided and turned into housing nobody can now afford.

But for about 20 years, Amaroo was a little Mecca all its own. It ran its very own single-track touring car championship call AMSCAR, for example, which was a prestigious title to win – even if it got no media attention, it signalled a driver was a major talent for the future. As it did Jim Richards in 1985, who went undefeated at this track all year, winning nine AMSCAR races, the ATCC round, and the endurance round before Bathurst. It was Robbie Francevic who broke the streak here in 1986, opening his bank account with a win on the way to his first and only Australian Touring Car Championship this same year. The season was due to unfold a lot like Jenson Button/BrawnGP in 2009 – Robbie won a bunch of races early on and gained a huge lead, but had to fight hard to keep it as everyone else got busy developing their cars and started leaving him behind. The reason for that was the nature of the car itself.

Spotlight Car: the Mark Petch Volvo 240T
It really was a case of the Volvo, as in the only one, and not the usual arrangement of a handful of chassis, engines and tyre sets put together on a mix-and-match basis. The Petch team had only one car and two engines, and raced the same car for almost 18 months before they got their hands on a second car – which even then usually wasn't as good, and they often fell back on Old Faithful here. But more on that later.

This is actually a replica built by a fan, but I share it here because it shows the livery the car ran in for the first few rounds of '86. Petch's seals business couldn't provide enough cash to run the car for a second year, so they found a sponsor in Castrol. Later they found an even richer, but much more troublesome sponsor. (Source).

It had originally been built in Belgium by GTM Engineering and raced in the '84 ETCC by Pierre Dieudonne of the Belgian Volvo Dealers outfit, meaning it was built in Eurocentric Left-Hand Drive. When its European season was finished, it was bought by businessman-enthusiast Mark Petch in New Zealand – the Group A rulebook was about to be adopted in Oceania, and a proven car like the Volvo seemed a good bet. His plan was to co-drive the car himself with Dieudonne in the inaugural Wellington 500, January '85, but that idea was shot down when Dieudonne demanded to be paid. Petch dumped him in favour of teammate Michel Delcourt, who'd work for free.

Unfortunately, Delcourt was a huge guy, way bigger than Dieudonne or Petch – it was the same Delcourt who'd later break the seat in Gricey's Commodore at Spa. The mismatch between Delcourt and Petch made sharing the driving impractical, so Petch called in 1967 New Zealand Saloon Car champion Robbie Francevic instead. Petch today often shows up to settle arguments on Kiwi motorsport forum The Roaring Season, and had this to say:
When I met Michel for the first time and saw what a huge man he was, I was jolly
glad I didn’t have to try to drive where he had the seat and steering wheel positioned.
Fortunately it was near-perfect for Robbie, so that was it really.
So that race brought together the three major elements in the equation – Robbie Francevic, Mark Petch, and the Volvo 240T. Having won Wellington, the three of them decided to see how far this relationship could take them and tried their luck across the Tasman in the '85 ATCC. They ended the season with a couple of race wins, but also a lot of retirements and a reputation for wild driving, which was odd when Robbie was as experienced as he was (he was 42 years old at the time). After retiring from the Eurovox Trophy race at Calder Park, Peter Brock was asked whether he'd had a tyre problem or a valve problem, and snarled: "I didn’t have a tyre problem or a valve problem, I had a Volvo driving into my left-hand door!" A moment later he calmed down and admitted, "I don’t know how Robbie drives – I guess we’re finding out. That's motorsport."

In its old life as a GTM Engineering car, Silverstone 1984. (Source)

Part of it might've been that he was still learning how to handle the Volvo itself, and that piece of machinery was changing practically every week. Finding out what parts are fitted to replicas and surviving historical cars is fairly easy; finding out what they were running back in the day is damn near impossible, so this list shouldn't be regarded as authoritative. Nevertheless, as best as I can discover, the engine was a Volvo B21ET, a two-valve, 2,127cc inline-four boosted by a Garrett ART T3/T4 turbocharger. The block was hardened, as were the forged 1986 Evo 2-spec flat-top Mahle pistons. The crank was forged, the exhaust was a special 3" system, and the car used special ported alloy heads made by Grottis in Sweden, famous for building the best heads in Group A.

The intercooler was an all-aluminium alloy job, hand-built by Längerer & Reich in Germany. Fuel injection was via Bosch K-Jetronic CIS with Bosch “gold” injectors, a race-spec injector made especially for Volvo. Ignition was via a Volvo/Bosch E-ZK Ignition system, controlled by a 14-sensor programmable ECU including a “knock sensor,” modified for more map points (Volvo were one of the first companies to use programmable engine management in Group A). A second ECU controlled boost pressure and water injection. The static compression ratio was a low 7:1, but typical race boost was around 1.55 bar, which came on at 3,000rpm and reached peak power – about 260 kW – at 6,500rpm.

The gearbox was a Getrag M51 sport 5-speed dogleg, connected to a single-plate competition clutch and a racing-spec LSD (the diff was free under the rules, but had to fit in the standard housing without any modifications). Huge Lockheed brakes were fitted with ventilated 330mm discs on the front and 280mm at rear. The suspension was adjustable (one of the first cars to use adjustable suspension in Group A), with control arms originally developed in Australia. Multiplying the engine capacity by 1.4, as required by the rules, placed the Volvo in the 2,500cc class, meaning it ran on the mandated 10" tyres, while weight estimates range from the 1,035kg laid down in the rules, to “slightly over” its 1,065kg class limit, to a rather beefy 1,140kg. In the cockpit, all trim had been removed, except for the dash which had to stay where it was. All 240Ts raced with the ‘82-spec flat bonnet, grille and surrounds, because it was a little more aerodynamic. The body shell was production-standard (although some were acid-dipped for lightness), and a thinner windscreen was fitted.

Of course, given all the hard work the Petch team put into getting it to handle properly, you could probably throw half that list away offhand: mechanic Wayne Eckersley later revealed that over the course of season '85 they'd changed just about everything on the car trying to find a workable setup, and by the final round at Oran Park they'd decided the only thing wrong was that the shocks weren't man enough to cope with the stiffness of the springs. As a solution Petch had flown in a new set of shocks just for the race, and in the morning warmup everyone went white when Francevic hit the track with race tyres and a decent fuel load and did a 1:16.1. Pole position for that race had fallen at 1:16.3. The Volvo was a goer... too late for 1985, but locked and loaded for 1986.

You can see the confidence that gave Robbie in the way he drove in the Better Brakes 100. The wild exuberance of last year was gone; this was Robbie putting in a drive both mature and polished. The race was decided by tyre wear, and Robbie was very careful to manage that in the early stages, knowing his turbo engine should've made for a car that wanted to go everywhere sideways. Early contender George Fury, for example, was out on lap 20 with tyre problems, though that wasn't strictly his fault – a wheel bearing had failed and the head buildup was blistering the tyre from the inside.

But Francevic kept it tidy, and It was only in the last few laps he started getting out of shape, the Volvo starting to glide through the turns in some lovely oversteering drifts. But by then it was already in the bag – the V8 runners had shredded their tyres long ago, and Jim Richards in his serpentine BMW 635 had left his charge just a bit too late. The last few laps while Jim hunted him down were exciting, but Robbie held it to the chequered flag with Gentleman Jim still three car lengths behind. “That’s what you call a well-judged race, isn’t it?” said Robbie breezily afterwards. Naturally, Jim congratulated him, but added with a smirk, “That’s exactly what I would’ve done...” So Robbie opened his 1986 bank account with a perfect 28 points (25 for the win plus a bonus 3 for an engine under 3.0 litres – no, the scoring system didn't take account of his turbo), ahead of Richards and Longhurst on 23 apiece, with the top five rounded out by Dick Johnson on 17 and Peter Brock on 15. It would be an awful long way from here to the ATCC trophy, but this was the best start he could've hoped for.