I’m trying something new, again again! This week, I posed a potpourri of eight questions to Felix Biederman, a friend and one of the co-hosts of Chapo Trap House. We talked about the constant cycle of embarrassment and illness that is Bolsonaro, what the video game Dark Souls tells us about being human, and how to make being online fun again.
I know you’re a fan of the video game Dark Souls. What do you think the hellish world of the game can tell us about our own?
I got very into Dark Souls and the entire Fromsoft catalog in the last year because they ask a very interesting core question: How would people behave if the world as they knew it was ending? I see so much stuff from people who are going to be safely insulated from the worst consequences of climate change and everything that comes with it ideate about “the apocalypse” and it’s always irritated me for a billion reasons I will not go into right now. But it’s an idea people think about a lot, either that we’re experiencing the end of the world as we know it right now, or it’s coming. But Dark Souls really explores this idea in a far more interesting way than I’ve seen any other media do. The answer is, they’d act a lot like they do now. People would still be governed by their preexisting greed and hatreds, but also their yearning for both connection and absolution. People maybe get a bit more feral than you’re used to, but maybe they also become a bit braver, a bit more selfless. We love to think of this mythical “end of the world” as a singular, catastrophic event that wipes us all out and suddenly we’ve atoned for all our sins, but we honestly don’t know what it will be like. Maybe it will be very drawn out, where people live entire lives, raise families, and leave behind memories. Maybe something comes after. We have no idea, but we’re still us.
The other thing that’s enraptured me is the questions they pose to us about what it means to be human. In the first game, you’re initially led to follow the light of the gods, and to keep this way of life we’ve known going. But about halfway through, you’re given a different perspective. You learn that the side of the flame and light has been artificially prolonged and has cursed humanity. You start thinking the gods are selfish and can be convinced to abdicate humanity’s duty of linking the flame. But if you really pay close attention, they’re also telling you pure darkness isn’t any good either. In Dark Souls 2, they elaborate on this idea more: The ideal person is a mix of light and darkness. That’s been very instructive for me. I consider the light in humanity our desire for virtue, altruism, and ability to create. But the darkness inside of us is self-involvement, all of the lusts that preoccupy us, and isolation. But neither is what we’re “supposed” to be. Pure light can be blinding. Someone can think so much about the virtue they’re supposed to have, or that they’re supposed to create new things without end that they permanently destroy themselves.
To make this fun and a little easier to understand for those who haven’t played the games, let’s put this in terms of the entertainment industry. What is pure light? That would be someone, a YouTuber, a comedian, whoever, who makes every part of their life part of their product. They let their audience know every single thing that’s going on in their minds. They apologize for everything. They respond to every criticism. Any friction results in a multi-day event that always ends with you seeing their tear-streaked face. Nothing is just their own. Before you know it, that person is hollowed. They thought it was honest or creative to break down the walls between them and everyone else, but they’re left as this rotting shell. To keep it in the same world, pure darkness would be a Jake Paul type figure, someone who is very open about how they only desire money and fame. You can laud them for their honesty, but that too wittles down the things that make them human. There’s ultimately no one they can truly enjoy their winnings with, and nothing that they truly like.
I think we’ve all strayed too far into the dark and too far into the light, and been blinded by both. That’s part of being human. The hardest thing is figuring out when you have the right amount of both.
I’ve been thinking about something you tweeted a while back about how, even before he won the Democratic primary, Eric Adams was already acting as the mayor of New York because he was constantly embarrassing himself and getting dunked on. Why are New Yorkers uniquely predisposed to despising our mayor?
I think it’s kind of the language of a lot of places in America. I was going to say it’s unique to the Northeast, but that’s not even right. People in Chicago are notorious for hating absolutely everything. There’s a joke among people I know who also grew up there, that no one’s really happy for anyone else in Chicago. But anyway, I think that’s the lowest common ground you can find with people. Think to when you were in school or maybe a bit older. It’s the first thing a lot of people try to do to break the ice. They talk shit about a teacher or the weirdest student in the class (hopefully not you, the reader). It satisfies the need of not coming off as too enthusiastic to people you don’t know, and if they disagree with you, that’s not quite as embarrassing as you gushing over something and being rebuffed. I don’t know why some places retain that, though. Could be erratic climates, or how dirty everything is.
I think the mayor of New York is unique to other American mayors, though. Everyone seems at least a little aware that they’re not empowered to solve any of the larger problems, or at least haven’t been since the 1970s. Your consolation prize for this is that you have this publicly-funded buffoon you can hurl tomatoes at whenever something goes wrong. But everyone plays along. It’s the only way something this big can work in this country, if everyone plays along. The only guy who escaped that pattern in my lifetime was Giuliani. and that was during the most insane period of recent American history, ever. Look at him now! He’s probably the single least respected man in America. Maybe that’s just the type of person that wants to be the mayor here.
You’re also a noted animal lover with a particular affection for sables. What draws you to them?
Well, they’re absolutely stunning. Really beautiful black and brown fur, cute faces, huge ears, and their bodies are like if you made a bear into a little tube. But they’re also incredibly smart! Buddy, one of the sables I follow, can open doors by jumping on the handle and using his body weight to push it down. They all have their own distinct personalities, too. Buddy gets into some mischief like stealing food and stuff, but ultimately adores his surrogate mom and loves perching on her shoulders. Umora, another really cute sable I follow, always tries to befriend the cats she lives with but is always rebuffed. She’s a little rowdier and loves causing a commotion for attention (female sables are more aggressive than males). I follow probably 7 or 8, and you can always tell which one you’re watching based on their behavior. I hope these sable accounts cause people to not buy as many furs, and study these incredible animals some more. They’re clearly very smart and have some capacity for affection. There’s no telling what we could learn. I bet they’re at least as smart as some smaller primates.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is back in the hospital yet again, this time for hiccups. Politics aside, if that’s possible, what do you think is compelling about him as a character on the world stage?
A really reductive reading you could do of Brazil is “America, but more so.” I don’t think this is true across the board and don’t want to diminish all the things that are uniquely Brazilian, but they remind me so much of us. And Bolsonaro and his family is like if someone set out to make a dumber and weirder Trump family. His politics shift around a lot depending on who he’s mad at or how bad he painted himself into a corner. He always looks like he’s in severe pain, even before he was stabbed in 2018. The individual policies he’s stood by are things a Captain Planet villain would do. He’s definitely an evil guy, but I’ve also never seen a major world leader who’s so frequently embarrassed and sick. I didn’t think it was possible for the leader of a large, powerful nation to be so frequently humiliated now that everyone’s image is so managed, but he always finds a way.
If you had to choose just one—impossible, I know—who’s your favorite elected official and why?
Favorite in terms of “what a bizarre fucking person” may be Emmanuel Macron. He’s even weirder than Bolsonaro to me. Bolsonaro is a sick, gross guy. He’s those things to such a degree that it’s incredible but we’ve all seen guys who are generally like that. Macron, however, is like a fucking hostile alien. It goes beyond egotism, he’s not of this world. I am totally fascinated by him and his weird shit. My favorite as far as me liking them? For America, that would probably be Dennis Kucinich.
Who’s your favorite celebrity and why?
Tough one. My favorite current actor is probably Antony Starr. I think he’s got the most interesting work ahead of him, and we’re just scratching the surface of what he can do. I have a lot of musicians I kind of “root” for, just because I think they make great music and are genuinely working to get out of awful, insane situations like NBA Youngboy. Love Freddie Gibbs. Never spoken with him ever, but seems like a really funny, insightful guy. My favorite musicians ever are probably Three 6 Mafia, though.
What’s the hardest thing about being a podcaster?
Podcasting is weird because it’s the easiest shit in the world but also very few people can actually do it. Speaking extemporaneously is really fucking easy if you’re able to do it, but I think it’s either something you can do or you can’t. If anything is hard about it, it’s that not everything has a funny angle you can find. Our audience knows not everything needs to be funny, though.
Is online still fun for you?
Yes, absolutely. I still laugh out loud at stuff multiple times a day, I still have people whose pages I manually check when I’m on the toilet or waiting for a train. I feel like I’m always finding new things that are funny or interesting. I don’t really get it when people say their online experience sucks. Yes, it sucks that we’ve culled a lot of what’s interesting and corralled everyone into three or four places. But that usually just means that someone doesn’t actually like their friends. If you keep seeing stuff you think sucks every single day, every single time you refresh your feed, maybe you need to reevaluate some things. I’m very fortunate in that everyone I am still friends with online are pretty funny and interesting people, but you can always find people that will fulfill that role for you. Just takes some searching sometimes.