LARPing in the Last Days of Franco

One accusation against Catholic traditionalism is that it’s a bunch of LARPing — Live Action Role-Playing. Live Action Role-Playing means that self-identifying traditional Catholics adopt a number of signifiers of another time and place that they identify as more authentically Catholic than their own culture. They use these signifiers to escape into a fantasy world where they imagine themselves as Crusader knights, or latter-day Chestertons and Bellocs, etc.

What sorts of signifiers? For traditionalist priests, this is easy — maniples, Roman-style (aka “fiddleback”) chasubles, birettas, saturnos, etc. The sorts of things Pope Francis calls seminarians “women” for wanting to wear.* For lay people, you’ll get guys growing out their beards, wearing fedoras, sometimes capes, smoking pipes, speaking Latin (immo, conantes Latine loqui), and generally sticking out like sore thumbs. Women wearing mantillas that would make a Castilian Infanta blush. With groups like the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, Property (TFP), we see bagpipers, capes, flags, and assorted mediaevalia. Across the spectrum, you get a lot of identification with selected historical eras in Catholicism, typically European Catholicism. You’ll get your French Legitimists, your Habsburg restorationists, your Jacobites, your Papal Zouaves, your Carlists, and even your Neo-Confederates.** Basically, anything Charles Coulombe promotes falls under the accusation of LARPing.

My concern is not to assess the merits of the accusation, or to ascertain to what extent self-identifying traditional Catholics actually display any of the signifiers above. Rather, if you’re interested in either the accusation or the alleged phenomenon of traditional Catholic LARPing, I invite you to consider a noteworthy early instance that Dr. Robert Hickson recently documented over at the website of Saint Benedict Center. I refer you to his article “The Slow Fruitfulness of His Mercy: L. Brent Bozell, Jr.” (http://catholicism.org/slow-fruitfulness-heart-mercy-l-brent-bozell-jr.html).

First, who is Dr. Robert Hickson? I’ll write an incomplete biography based on what I have gleaned from the Internet over the past 13+ years. A military scholar, Dr. Hickson attended West Point Military Academy in the 1960s and subsequently fought the Communists in Indochina. Based on a reference made by Thomas Fleming of Chronicles Magazine, I believe Dr. Hickson did graduate work at UNC-Chapel Hill at some point. Starting in the 1970s, he became associated with a number of leaders in the nascent Catholic reaction to the “Spirit of Vatican II.” From what I can tell, he did not circulate in explicitly traditionalist, TLM-supporting groups, at least at first. Dr. Hickson was involved with the Triumph circle around the late L. Brent Bozell (brother-in-law of William F. Buckley), as well as Christendom College. He knew the late Fr. John Hardon, S.J. After the 9-11 attacks and during the Second Gulf War, Dr. Hickson wrote a number of articles for a Swiss journal that criticized neoconservatism and, tangentially, most other features of the modern world (i.e. things that currently exist). Over the past ten years or maybe longer, Dr. Hickson has gravitated toward the New Hampshire branch of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which is the branch once led by Bro. Francis, M.I.C.M. (R.I.P.), and now by Bro. André Marie, M.I.C.M. Many (many) articles by Dr. Hickson are available on the Saint Benedict Center website (http://catholicism.org/?s=robert+hickson). Dr. Hickson is also the husband of Maike Hickson, who writes for the OnePeterFive blog (http://www.onepeterfive.com/author/mhickson/).***

So, despite keeping a relatively low profile himself, Dr. Hickson has known a lot of better-known names in traditional, or at least traditional-leaning, Catholic circles. The article I cited above focuses on his interactions with L. Brent Bozell, Jr., as well as Dr. Warren Carroll (before he founded Christendom College) and Dr. Frederick (Fritz) Wilhelmsen of the University of Dallas. Dr. Hickson relates an event that took place in Spain in the summer of 1975, a few months before Generalissimo Francisco Franco died. At the time, Bozell hosted a Triumph summer school in the Escorial, which Dr. Hickson attended. Fearing an outbreak of violence after Franco’s impending earthly demise (he’s still dead, by the way, to play on the Saturday Night Live joke), Wilhelmsen reached out to some obscure person claiming to be a Carlist military leader. He and Carroll then worked upon Dr. Hickson to agree to provide training in modern guerrilla warfare to a Carlist militia.

If you click the link above, I recommend you skip to p. 9 and start there. Suffice it to say, things did not go well that summer. The Carlist “militia leader” was a charlatan. He was not heard from for most of the summer, then suddenly appeared and said that Dr. Hickson had to head off to Navarra straightaway to train the militia (with two anti-Castro Cuban translators, for good measure). The so-called militia consisted of 5-10 youths and 50 or so men, many of them elderly, being veterans of the Spanish Civil War some 35+ plus years before. There were not enough potential fighters to even bother training them.**** Dr. Hickson was already scheduled to welcome Josef Pieper back at the Escorial (see! Dr. Hickson knows everybody), so he cut his losses and left. The would-be Carlist caudillo thereafter denounced Hickson as a deserter, and neither Wilhelmsen nor Carroll defended him. The whole venture was a sad joke.

Yet there’s a striking image that Dr. Hickson paints of the delusional Fritz Wilhelmsen (a scholar whose writings I have profited from) speaking at the final banquet with the Carlist recruits in Navarra: “[Wilhelmsen] had given a stirring talk in Spanish on Christ the King (“Viva Cristo Rey” — “Long Live Christ the King”), and he was vociferously acclaimed and cheered.” Answer me this, O ye chest-thumping would-be Crusaders/Cristeros/Carlists: in this scenario, would you have preferred to honor your commitment to a guest, as did Dr. Hickson, or to be cheered for giving an empty speech to an army that would never march in a war that would never be fought? Which does Christ the King prefer?

*Incidentally, regarding that anecdote, I actually thought it was funny. I think a lot of traditional priests and seminarians felt the sting of that one.

**Catholic Neo-Confederatism — one day I plan to debunk this facile and yet widely propagated fantasy.

***Sorry if this sounds like a Southern Poverty Legal Center profile. No aspersions here!

****Compare St. Luke’s Gospel 14:31-23: “31 Or what king, about to go to make war against another king, doth not first sit down, and think whether he be able, with ten thousand, to meet him that, with twenty thousand, cometh against him? 32 Or else, whilst the other is yet afar off, sending an embassy, he desireth conditions of peace.”

7 thoughts on “LARPing in the Last Days of Franco

  1. Golly! But I have endorsed this blog! Does this mean you too are LARPing? Seriously, one must receive inspiration from elsewhere and/or elsewhen, or else accept that we live in the best of all possible worlds – something this place and time insists upon. Of course, those who know me will tell you that I know the Los Angeles of the here andnow as well as any man alive – but perhaps that is why I cannot accept its claim to perfection.

    Yours faithfully,

    Charles A. Coulombe

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mr. Coulombe, you do me a great honor in responding to my humble blog (and its prideful author)! Perhaps my wording above was too oblique —

      “Basically, anything Charles Coulombe promotes falls under the accusation of LARPing.

      My concern is not to assess the merits of the accusation, or to ascertain to what extent self-identifying traditional Catholics actually display any of the signifiers above.”

      I did not mean to accuse you of anything myself. However, I think it’s fair to say that you, in your literally voluminous course through the humanities, have indeed promoted virtually every identifier that those who snipe against LARPing snipe against. Would you agree that that very qualified assessment is a fair one? Perhaps I should have cited an example of someone else ranting about LARPing instead of attempting to reproduce the argument myself. I admit, I had some fun reproducing the argument, so it did seem like it was my own. Or better yet, I might have asked to use your name before tossing it out there. My apologies.

      Best wishes,
      Olaus

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dear Olaus:

        No need to apologise! But I repeat my sentiments as given above. What alternative is here presented, in this non-fantasy world where one devout Irish Catholic Supreme Court Justice can change the nature of marriage through mere exercise of his will (ala the Spacing Guild in Dune)? Where infanticide is not only a sacred right, but the the byproducts thereof can be sold for profit by an organisation founded for the purpose of racial eugenics? It is easy to ridicule the adherents of lost causes as hopless romantics – or even as ridiculous clowns. But lost causes generally have one thing in their favour – they bear no responsibilty for where we are and what we have now – though I except the Nazis from that generalisation; as John Lukacs demonstrates in his “The Hitler of History,” save for the place of Jews in modern life, the Nazi leadership would be very comfortable with what we have become – even down to anti-smoking. So indeed, I accept the qualification you offer as fair -but I reserve my laughter for my masters and the society they have wrought.

        Yours faithfully,

        Charles

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “But lost causes generally have one thing in their favour – they bear no responsibilty for where we are and what we have now . . .”

    True, but “where we are now” is not infinitely worse than some period that we choose to idealize. It can only by finitely worse. I assume you’re familiar with the “Affair of the Poisons” under the Ancien Regime (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affair_of_the_Poisons). When Legitimists sing the praises of the Ancien Regime, I assume they don’t mean that. However, do they ever really associate the sins of their idealized eras with those eras in the same way they associate the sins of the current era with this era? The sins of the past are reckoned as bugs, the sins of the present reckoned as features. There’s some truth to this, insofar as modern regimes often include false premises (I include the practical atheism of the U.S. Constitution here), but also some deceit. Sin is a feature of fallen man.

    For example, abortion is murder, and a feature of the current regime. However, what about the hundreds (thousands?) of wars and hundreds of thousands — millions? — of human beings who died in *dynastic* wars between the 500s and the 1800s. How many people died because the governance of states was made subject to laws of inheritance? How many people died, in the “Age of Faith,” over rival claims to the Crown of France (or Germany, or Spain, or Sicily)? Is this the Church’s fault? No, though the Church might have saved the Habsburgs from extinction by refusing all of their cousin-marriage dispensations. My point is that, before we look for models in the past, we must establish a standard for recognizing which models to pick. I see much good in monarchy, but I also see the *feature* of dynastic warfare, which seems to have been persistent and endemic. This reality check, among others, prevents me from fleeing American republicanism, which is well-adapted to our history, for some repeated failure like Carlism, which never actually yielded any stable regime that we can actually look at. As with the Confederacy, it’s very easy to condemn present realities by proposing imaginary counter-realities in which the champions of the Lost Cause establish a utopia instead of losing. Ironically, the Carlists share this situation with the Anarchists and Trotskyites they fought.

    My point thus far is that, the solution to idolizing the present isn’t to idolize the past. I don’t wish that I lived in any other age than the one God put me in. If God had wanted me to live in a different era, He had all eternity to arrange it. I say this as someone of very traditional leanings, but also someone who is often deceived by his own nostalgic impulses. I also say, that though it’s good to avoid responsibility for the evil we’re in, it’s our duty to be responsible to the extent possible for what good endures. In many instances, the same people who look back to the past are also the ones most responsible for present and future goods. However, it seems to me that they achieved this very often by striking a modus vivendi that the LARPing tendency pulls against and tries to rule out.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, I would have to take issue with your comments on dynastic and religious warfare – far more have died in the name of “freedom” on all sides since 1776 (and continuing to pile up the bodies to-day) than ever died for God and/or Monarch. And I certainly agree with your last paragraph. But the sad truth of the matter is that we live in a time (if we can believe “American Heritage” http://www.americanheritage.com/) when no one knows any history at all, save the few buffs.Do we condemn “Living History,” for example as LARPing? When smeone goes to the polls to vote for president – or gets extrememly upset about a Federal election over which he has little or no choice, and whose outcome is, to put it kindly, not dependent upon him or his, is he not LARPing (okay, so as a non-Democratic voter in California I am jaundiced)? For that matter, when Pro-Lifers attempt to work with elected officials, only to, after four and a half decades, get the same non-response, are they not LARPing? And what alterative would you offer such, save acceptance of their own futility?

    I spent a large part of my youth in a very gang-ridden neighbourhood in central Los Angeles; the lad I got my Eagle Scout with was mistakenly shot dead by gangbangers about a year later – and a finer Scout I never knew. Were the Uniforms, the oath, the Scout Law – was it all, in that brutal time and place, mere LARPing? So much of one’s views on these things is a matter of perspective created by one’s own experiences.

    Yours faithfully,

    Charles

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “far more have died in the name of “freedom” on all sides since 1776 (and continuing to pile up the bodies to-day) than ever died for God and/or Monarch.”

    I’m not comparing. Perhaps this is the problem. The way I see it, some people romanticize and idealize the Middle Ages. How many are these people? I don’t know. But they’re the people *I* encounter in my circles. They talk about the Middle Ages as though every single person from the year 500 to the year 1500 was a saint, and the evil men we read about in history or hagiography aren’t *also* typical of the age in which they lived. I’m not concerned to compare the relative numbers (there are far more people alive now than then) who have died in dynastic vs. modern wars as I am to point that a heck of a lot of people died in dynastic wars. These people are no less dead, and the waging of unjust wars no less unjust, because of some point of comparison like this. So I’m not going to look back at the pre-modern age and simply ignore very important aspects of that era because my point is to compare that era against my own. We’re supposed to pine for the Heavenly Jerusalem, not (necessarily) an earthly Jerusalem ruled by a Crusader Knight.

    “Were the Uniforms, the oath, the Scout Law – was it all, in that brutal time and place, mere LARPing?”

    That’s an excellent question. I’ve been using LARPing to refer to attempts to recreate past eras and foreign climes. The Scouting outfits, oaths, etc. — the whole concept — is thoroughly modern and isn’t regarded as “foreign” to America. There was no Scouting movement in the Middle Ages, and they don’t wear tricorn hats. I admit I have been defining the term very narrowly.

    I wouldn’t offer acceptance of our own futility because I haven’t said yet what the effort is:

    If you want to go to Heaven, you can do that the same now as ever. I do not buy into the idea that it’s “harder than ever” to get to Heaven. It’s not the sort of thing that anyone can actually evaluate this side of the grave. So trying to get to Heaven is not futile.

    You can do your part to make the earth a bit better. That is not futile. Even if your effort fails from a temporal aspect, you lay up merit in Heaven.

    You likely can’t, and shouldn’t bother trying, to emulate past eras and foreign climes *too much* or *as such.* It is futile to use the Carlists, Habsburgs, etc. as *immediate* as opposed to *remote* models as these movements, dynasties, etc. didn’t exist in our time and space, which is where we need to work out our salvation. At best, they could serve as models for how they brought the Christian message into their times and places (if we grant that they did), but in the case of a multi-generational failure like the Carlists, who (to my knowledge) never got to execute their agenda to a significant extent, it’s questionable whether we should really look there. Something can be said for armed resistance, but what exactly you want to say in the here and now I don’t know. The American Confederacy deserved to lose, and lost badly. I would suggest Orestes Brownson as a more immediate model because he was a faithful Catholic who understood the character of his people and recognized that the American regime was providentially endowed with its history and that Americans shouldn’t pine after some other history it lacks.

    Like

  5. Also, lest I come off sounding Calvinistic, sin is a “bug” from the point of view of human nature. It is not a feature, i.e. how God intended us. However, it is a bug that will never wholly be eradicated in “this environment” (to use another software term).

    Like

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