Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Why won’t you push the button?

Nuclear war is not only fabulous because one can only talk about it, but because the extraordinary sophistication of its technologies coexists, cooperates in an essential way with sophistry, psycho-rhetoric, and the most cursory, the most archaic, the most crudely opinionated psychagogy, the most vulgar psychology.
Jacques Derrida, No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives)

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Imagine if a politician openly promised, during a campaign, that they would be willing to burn people alive. They come to knock on your door, bright and smiling in a freshly crinkled rosette: unlike my opponent, who doesn’t care about your security and the security of your family, I will personally subject someone to sixty million-degree heat, so that their fat melts and their bones are charred and their eyeballs burst and their bodies crumble into toxic dust. I will torture other people by burning their skin, I will torch their flesh away and leave them with open wounds bubbling with disease. They will die slowly. I will poison others; their organs will fail and they will shit out their guts in agony. I will do this to people who have done nothing wrong, to families, to children, to their pets; one by one, I will burn them to death. For you. For your security.

This is what the bomb did to Hiroshima. This is utter barbarism. Even saying that you would do it is utter barbarism. Of course, the nuclear deterrent only works if you say that you’re prepared to use it – which just demonstrates that we shouldn’t have it, that the whole logical structure of nuclear deterrence is abominable. Any tool whose mere existence forces you to say the unspeakable is not worth having; a hammer that causes you to make death threats is not fit for purpose. Anyone who threatens the world with blinding destruction in unspecified circumstances is simply not responsible enough to hold power. There is no situation in which the use of these weapons is ever justified – never, not in the most tortured hypotheticals of an undergraduate ethics seminar, not in the most Boschian secondary worlds inhabited by right-wing fantasists. If a nuclear attack on Britain has already been launched, retaliation will save nobody; it would just be the final act of spite in a long spiteful history. Nobody would accept a politician who threatened from the podium on live TV to personally burn one person to death, so why should we accept the idea of burning millions?

But what’s strange about the moral case against nuclear weapons – they cause horrendous suffering, must never be used, and should not exist – is that it doesn’t work.

We saw this on Friday night’s Question Time debate, as a parade of questioners took Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to task over his refusal to say that he would ‘push the button’ and initiate an attack. Theresa May has said that she would press the button in a first strike; Owen Smith, during the last leadership contest, said the same thing. This seems to be a fairly popular decision; the thoughtless destruction of everything that exists plays well with the British public. More than that: it’s demanded; according to the eldritch nostrums that structure British political life, if you’re not willing to promise horrendous genocide with the breezy psychopathy of some ancient khagan drinking from the skulls of his enemies, you can’t be trusted to keep us safe. The appetite for murder is incalculable. After Corbyn ruled out a first strike, one member of the public – red-faced, ageing, some sad retired insurance salesman comforting himself in his flabby decline with thoughts of the fiery extermination of humanity – demanded to know if he’d use Trident as a second strike: the British people demand death from beyond the grave; he’d die gladly if he knew that a few million innocent Iranians or Koreans went too.

It’s striking how sharply the inhuman vastness of nuclear war contrasts with the pettiness and finitude and awfulness of the people who demand it. The first question on nuclear weapons came from one Adam Murgatroyd, who looks exactly how you’d expect, some simpering Tory ponce with his slicked-back hair and his practised raise of an eyebrow. ‘It’s disconcerting,’ he later told the press, ‘that we could potentially in six days’ time have a prime minister who wouldn’t be prepared to protect British lives over someone else’s life.’ Imagine the air poisoned, the soil dying, the biosphere eradicated, the grand flailing tragedy of humanity and its aspirations put to an abrupt stop, the families huddling their loved ones close as the shock wave hits, knowing they’re about to die – and all because some limp umbrella of a man wanted a leader who’d make the right kind of nationalistic hoots about defence. Now I am become Adam from the BBC studio audience, destroyer of worlds.

We should consider the questions of the atomic age in fear and trembling. Instead we get the blearing idiocy of common sense, always pointing us to the wrong and most monstrous answer. The process of thinking about the red button has become as automatic as the button itself.

Nuclear war is unthinkable, in the most literal sense. It has no end and no interpretation; it is invisible, ungraspable, unconscionable. There is a significant cultural industry dedicated to depicting nuclear war precisely because it’s impossible, because we’re trying to find ways to depict a looming absence of everything, a nothing that can never be depicted. (This is why Derrida considers the real literature of the nuclear age to not be works that directly imagine a post-apocalyptic future, but the texts of Kafka, Mallarmé, and Joyce – the writing that comes closest to touching its own finitude and destructibility.) The death drive, Kristeva writes, is not represented in the unconscious, because the unconscious can not admit negation – only, as Freud puts it, ‘contents, cathected with greater or lesser strength.’ Instead, Kristeva writes, there is a ‘hiatus, spacing, or blank that constitutes death for the unconscious.’ Death is in the cadence of the psyche, the pause that gives regularity and reason to its articulation, the silence against which it expresses itself. Nuclear war is the death of politics and administration, the emptiness in which politics speaks. This is why petty, stupid bureaucrats, small people with small concerns, who mostly fuss about which type of coffee plays best with the focus-group voters, have to occasionally declare that they would take on the titanic task of wiping out all of human history. They have to announce their fidelity to the interior non-substance of our political discourse, which is the death of every living thing. Then they’re allowed to go on and talk about parking spaces and healthy eating and cutting taxes and aspiration. Everything is in its unplace, all policy is properly situated at ground zero, where the bombs will fall.

This silence is not pure unsignifying madness: it’s the final home of rationality. The sense in which we talk about reason – pure objectivity, emotionlessness, abstract numerical calculation, a kind of ratio that would have seemed very strange to, for instance, the medieval Europeans who helped first define it – is a product of the nuclear age. It’s well known that game theory, in which human decisions are modelled according to the assumption that everyone is a calculating and atomised individual who only wants to maximise their utility – was first taken up as a praxis to model the Cold War nuclear standoff, and was only then applied to all areas of social and economic life. But the most basic relay mechanisms of nuclear weapons by themselves enforce a post-politics. Paul Virilio notes that, as the warning times for a nuclear attack and a possible counter-attack shrunk from fifteen minutes to ten minutes to one, the effect was that of ‘finally abolishing the Head of state’s power of reflection and decision in favour of a pure and simple automation of defence systems… After having been the equivalent of total war the war machine suddenly becomes the very decision for war.‘ Somewhere, various sets of computer systems analyse the likelihood of an unprovoked strike and try to pre-empt it; when the end comes, it won’t be for explicable political goals, but out of a pure uninflected machine-reason, and none of us will ever know why. Reason and madness lose their distinction here. See Nixon, the shit Hamlet with his ‘madman doctrine,’ threatening to unleash the powers of apocalyptic calculation; see the tortured but valid syllogisms by which every democratic British leader has to make gruesome threats against the world. This is the ground of politics as administration and necessity and the root of the technocratic age. Once the life and death of every living thing can become a matter of calculation without ideology or ethics, so is everything else. People can starve to death in empty flats because there’s no magic money tree; thousands can drown on the Mediterranean because we don’t have the resources to take in any more. It’s common sense. Common sense in the twenty-first century is always common sense from the point of view of an atomic bomb.

Just like austerity or the massacre-by-inaction on Europe’s waters, the logic of nuclear weapons is not some pre-Kantian pure reason without a social or epistemological substrate. Nuclear weapons are, first of all, weapons in the class struggle. The greatest vector for socialism has always been war – in war, the ruling classes arm and mobilise the proletariat, tell them that they have the power to build the fate of nations, and then send them off to die; it’s only a matter of time before these workers decide that this power could be put to better use, and the people taking the most principled stand against these senseless wars have always been Communists. War between the powers became too great a threat to power itself. Nuclear weapons abolish this: abstract mobilisation, the disappearance of territory, the omnipresence of the front. Working classes win by striating and reinterpreting space – building barricades, occupying squares, cutting off the flows of production and exchange at crucial points – and under the global sovereignty of the bomb there is no such thing as space. Instead, our role is simply to die, in endless billions. But it all makes sense; every step is perfectly rational. It’s a death you can trust, to keep you and your family safe.

Corbynism or barbarism, part II

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I’m going to be voting for Labour.

This is a new experience for me. It’s not that I haven’t voted Labour before: I did in 2010. Posturing and frightened in a low, scuzzy student block in Leeds, I pulled myself out my personal bathysphere of weed stink and late-teenage ripeness to plod over under crows and clouds and do my duty and keep out the Tories – and afterwards I felt deeply ashamed. It was like having one of Gordon Brown’s hairs stuck in my mouth; it was as if his grease had started oozing through my skin. I felt suddenly complicit in everything – the wars, the privatisations, the ASBOs and ID cards, the scudding lies and shabby gloss of New Labour Britain. Five years of Tory government acid couldn’t burn off the guilt. I promised myself that I wouldn’t ever do it again, and when I had the chance two years ago, I didn’t.

I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It’s not that they were just as bad as the Tories; the government had been a half-decade horror. a cast of seepy flesh-bubbles bloating out the mire, some murderous gang of ninnying imbeciles and swill-fed ponces that had, for all the usual reasons, decided theirs was the right to go about making life quantifiably, measurably worse. I hated them and I wanted them gone. But I couldn’t vote for Labour. I couldn’t stand hearing Ed Miliband’s voice on the radio, because it was the honk and bleat of someone who was basically just like me, another nice left-wing Jewish boy from North London, a bit clumsy, a bit gangly, a bit insecure – but one who didn’t indulge in my purism, or my nihilism, or whatever it was that made me refuse compromises and triangulation and any attempt to make common ground with established power. Any student of history knows what power does to the commons. I would not settle for the least worst option; I would not pick sides in the stupid intra-capitalist squabbles of electoralism. I knew that a Labour government would materially reduce the suffering and deprivation of millions of people – but I also knew that once you let that turn into an ethical duty to vote, anything beyond the minute reduction of suffering is lost, and worst of all, the suffering of others (migrants, asylum seekers, the global working class) becomes something utterly hideous: a worthwhile price. When I voted for some tiny Menshevik party I didn’t really like and whose name I can’t even remember, it didn’t help anybody. But who says our capacity to help, to do politics, to be engaged, has to be bounded by the form of the vote?

Since then things have become immeasurably worse, but that’s not why I’m voting for Labour. Britain is not just sliding into fascism; we’ve landed. This has become a deeply ugly place. Our Prime Minister – gurning, grimacing, parochial,  incompetent, rhadmanthine, segmented, arachnid, and inhuman; the Daily Mail letters page given chitinous flesh; a zealous ideologue for the doctrines of smallness and stupidity and dumbfuck blithering hatred; a vicar’s daughter distilling all the common-sense peevishness and resentment from the dingy grog of the English national spirit; a leader who doesn’t so much impose austerity as embody it, in every word or gesture that seeks to foreclose on all possibilities and draw the furthest boundaries of the sunlit world no further than your respectable lace curtains – instructs the public to give her more power, to paint over a divided country with a false unity in Parliament, so she can exercise her supreme will. The loyal Tory press responds with terrifying outbursts against all enemies: ‘Hang The Lot,’ ‘Boil The Traitors Alive,’ ‘Insert The Pear Of Anguish Into The Anuses Of Our Enemies So That They May Be Disembowelled From Within,’ ‘Readers Agree: It’s Time To Crush The Heads Of The Remoaners Under A Large Millstone,’ ‘Where Are Our Common-Sense Torture Kennels In Which The People We Don’t Like Are Torn Apart Shred By Shred By Starving Dogs?’ All the anti-establishment energies that fuelled the Brexit vote have been effortlessly consumed by the administration: the people had their say, and (given that this is all out of the Schmittian playbook) they will only get to have it once; now it’s the role of power to implement it, and the will of the people as refracted through this government is for total centralised power with anything that could be called political extinguished. This is fascism: a simple, easy, descriptive term for what it is we’re living under.

But I’m not voting against Theresa May. I’m voting for Jeremy Corbyn.

It’s easy, very easy, to be against something. I was against Labour in 2015, and I still don’t think I was wrong. But being purely against – anti-fascist, anti-liberal, anti-racist, anti-sexist – means never being let down, and never being vulnerable. The horrors of the world descend on you, and you oppose them. But it’s not enough. There needs to be some positively articulated shared object, something that can be affirmed. It means losing some cynicism, giving up some of the invulnerability of ironism, attaching the boundless subjective I to a thing of history, that could get swept up with every other fragile thing and destroyed. But without that attachment nothing can be done. This is why so many socialists still see a value and an importance in maintaining some kind of attachment to the old dead Soviet project – people who know full well that there were famines and purges, mass deportations and mass shootings, and who are repulsed by all suffering, but who know that, whatever its failings, the Soviet project was our project. Socialism is not an abstraction or a negation; it’s the real attempt to build a better world in this one, and it demands our fidelity. It won’t be possible unless we’re prepared to do more than oppose the evil. Demands are made on us for the sake of a liberated existence, and the first is that we be prepared to make ourselves vulnerable, and that we accept that our faith might be disappointed.

To be for Jeremy Corbyn is dangerous, and the possibility of disappointment is high. His ideology is not the same as mine; his policies, while good, are disarticulated; his leadership, while inspiring, has not been effective; most of all, the Labour Party might be the worst vehicle possible for a programme of genuinely egalitarian change. It doesn’t matter. If he loses, the suds and mediocrities of the party’s right wing will be relentless; if they manage to force back the leadership, they will go to work destroying absolutely anyone who still holds the belief that life can be made better, burying the idea in its fringes for another generation or more, rooting out the seeds of utopia wherever they’re planted. The Labour party will be refashioned into something that once again proposes Tory policies using Tory methods and with priorities, just as the Tories skid further into authoritarianism – but while the Tories will just flatly tell us that they do evil because that’s how things are, Labour will still be begging to have a go on the torture kit so they can make things better. And people might believe them. After all, it won’t be quite as bad as the alternative.

Corbyn stands for a refusal to accept something that’s just not quite as bad as the alternative. Corbynism means not just electing the least fascist, the least liberal, the least racist, and the least sexist. The Labour right, the Tories, the Lib Dems, and Ukip are all partisans of a restricted imagination and a penny-pinching common sense; Corbynism the possibility of something actually good, the possibility of a way out. It points beyond itself.  Jeremy Corbyn did something quietly incredible, and which has nothing to do with his actual performance as Labour leader: he acted as the signifier that brought together a collectivity, he formed a point of unity for everyone who wanted a radical and transformative social change, even if they didn’t agree on what it should look like or how to bring it about. He gave the left a space to assert itself openly in British politics, in surprising numbers. This – the collective, not the man – is what’s important, and what’s feared, and what our enemies are desperate to crush.

After all, it wasn’t meant to be like this. There is a programme now for Western politics: it’s what we saw last year in the United States, and what’s unfolding right now in France. Wets versus Nazis, the collapsing liberal order against the embodiment of its own internal collapse, reiterated over and over again in every country, politics as a looping gif, the juddering replay at the end of the world. No hope, no possibility, this or the abyss. The radical left still has a role to play: its role is to lose. You thought you could have something better, and it turns out that you can’t: now choose. Centrists are obsessed by the idea that radicals secretly prefer the fascists to themselves; as soon as the hope for anything better is extinguished they demand that everyone on the left loudly announce how much they prefer the status quo to the remaining alternative. We have to pick sides in what is essentially a family squabble among reactionaries. Isn’t Hillary Clinton better than Donald Trump? Isn’t Mark Rutte better than Geert Wilders? Isn’t Emmanuel Macron better than Marine Le Pen?

Yes, of course they are. However badly things are going, they could always get worse. But the final collapse of liberalism is a situation in which liberalism seems perversely comfortable. Anti-fascism is only one half of what the world needs; it also needs a positively articulated vision of how it can be improved, and the centrists have nothing: lower business rates, softer racism, friendlier faces. Of course it’s necessary – urgently, frantically necessary – to defeat the Nazis, not least because it buys us more time. But it’s not enough, it’s a stopgap for the symptoms. Almost all the advanced capitalist societies are tilting in the same direction, and these Nazis didn’t come from nowhere. They are entirely immanent to the liberal political order as it stands; their racism and violence and hatred comes from a society which is already racist and hateful and violent. The fascists gain their energy from the failure of liberalism, and liberalism gets to stave off its failure thanks to the threat posed by the fascists. Both are the living undeath of the other. The whole order is monstrous, decrepit, shambling, and lifeless; it has to go. To struggle for a better world isn’t a luxury in a time of rising fascism, it’s the only thing that can save us.

I’m voting for Labour. It’s not perfect, of course it’s not. And Labour are unlikely to win. Corbynism or barbarism doesn’t represent a fork in the road, but something much harder; barbarism surrounds us everywhere, and Corbynism is attempting to wrench us out of it; it’s hard to pull an entire planet out of the swamp it’s made for itself, it’s hard to lift something up when it’s already slipping down, it’s hard to tear yourself away from a brutal and stupid reality. But it can be done. Something like Corbynism was never meant to happen. The narrative failed here: where there should have been a brief entrancing spark of hope followed by another grim round of which-is-worse centrism-or-fascism, that spark refused to be snuffed out. It’s burning lower than I’d like, but it’s still there, and while it is, I’m voting for Labour.

Corbynism or barbarism, part I, written during the last Labour leadership election, is here.

First we take Damascus

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Donald Trump ordered his attack on Syria because of something he saw on TV. The world is full of people like him: old, shabby, pompous; people who know everything because they learned it all from somewhere, people who function as exit nodes for the vast extraorganic network of information that chatters across oceans and ping-pongs through outer space, people who form the anuses of the system of images, excreting their content back into the world of things, people who repeat everything they see on TV. Every suburban bus stop shelters a Donald Trump, some smugly witless man of the world who knows what he knows and knows it better than you, some tyrant-in-waiting ready at any moment to vomit up the whole of the received wisdom in one splattering stream, and then act like they’re in possession of some special knowledge because they’re able to do so. The only difference is that when Donald Trump blathers from the TV, the TV takes notice: he repeats what it says, it repeats what he says. Donald Trump is the network whorling in on itself; the system of careful mediation finally splayed out in the mud, legs out, back twisted, licking its own arsehole.

The media was kind to Trump’s attack on Syria. Every pompous outlet that has spent the last five months screaming incessantly about the threat to democracy, the inevitable deaths and the terror of wars, had nothing but applause as soon as the wars and the deaths actually got going. A fleshy and dangerous idiot, a vulgarian, an imbecile – until those first perfect screaming shots of Tomahawk missiles being fired were broadcast – that’s our guy, you show them Donny! This is when, as Fareed Zakaria put it on CNN, Trump ‘became the president.’ And he really is presidential now, because the president is a totemic war-chief, the bloated repository of every male fantasy that had to be repressed, someone whose only job is to look like they could kill a hundred people in the morning and pose for a photoshoot with their dogs in the afternoon. Never mind the deaths or the uncertain repercussions; Trump’s strike was utterly squalid and utterly ignoble, some fattened toddler idly shitting out molten steel into the parched graveyard that used to be Syria, saving nobody, helping nobody, thoughtless and obscene. Kill a few of their guys, teach them a lesson, it’s common sense. And all the sophisticates and strategists applaud – stricken by half-hearted guilt, of course; after all, you still wouldn’t want to have the man round for dinner. They write their long justificatory exegeses on the timeliness of the act, bringing out every little rhetorical trick of the educated ruling classes, because all their moral angst is also from comic books, and cinema, and TV.

On NBC, Brian Williamss, ranting himself into ecstasy, quoted Leonard Cohen: I am guided by the beauty of our weapons. What weapons guide? Cohen wasn’t singing about clubs or spears or missiles, but ideology, culture, and fame. Mediation. Whether he knew it or not, what Brian Williams was saying had nothing to do with the spotlit plumes of white smoke rising from the US Navy vessels in the Mediterranean. The beautiful weapon was himself. the beautiful weapon was TV.

Beyond the fiddly cloisters of the media intellectuals, why do Americans love their wars so much? Because war is the only workable substitute for being able to turn off the TV. Wars happen for the same grim and venal reasons that have always made the rich massacre the poor, but every other weapon is now subordinated to the screens, the nightly news and the outrage on Twitter. The media transmits the relentless horror of the world, sliced up into edible segments: here’s a problem, here’s a tragedy, here’s an atrocity, here’s something else. Chemical weapons, starvation, murder, war. All of it is shrink-wrapped and isolated; you can never really find out why this is happening, no more than you could really learn the long sad stories behind every neatly packaged item on the supermarket shelves. They don’t even need to lie, although they do that too; the propaganda is in the medium itself. And the ethical response to all this diffuse suffering, charging at your face out of nowhere, is no longer why is this happening? but we have to make it stop. Anything is permissible if it’ll just make this go away. There’s no better example than the 2000 film Rules of Engagement: our heroic Marines are called in to defend the US Embassy in Yemen from an angry crowd outside, and all the time they’re there we can constantly hear their endless and repetitive chants, and the camera flashes between shots to glimpses of furious mouths with terrible third-world teeth, furious, inhuman, a slow torture, until the good patriotic viewer is begging our heroes to just shut them up. After the Marines fire into the crowd, there’s a moment of perfect silence. Bliss.

The attack on Syria will not make its war go away. Every primly disgusted apologia for the attack is a travesty. So Assad should be able to use chemical weapons with impunity? So we should do nothing? See how that we slips in there, almost unnoticed. Is this the same we that killed 56 Syrian civilians in Manbij last year, and then 46 in rural Aleppo, and then nearly 300 innocent Iraqis in Mosul? The we that turned the Korean peninsula into rubble and carnage because the people there wanted a better life, and then Indochina, and then the Middle East; the one that’s currently engaged in starving millions in Yemen? What happened to Libya, after we were told we had a responsibility to save the civilians there too? This isn’t ‘whataboutery,’ but a simple question: when judgement and punishment are carried out by the same people, who gets to judge? If the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun then it is monstrous, cynical, and murderous – but the ability to punish monstrous states seems to belong only to the most powerful; in other words, the most monstrous, the most cynical, and the most violent. But all it needs is a we – a word reaching through the screen to swaddle you up in it – for the great roving predator of the world, dripping with blood from every pore, to become something else: the international community, the ones who must intervene, to protect the children.

The next attack won’t stop the war in Syria either, or the next one. That’s not what these things are for. The response from the Mail on Sunday’s Dan Hodges was instructive. Bomb Assad, he said, and then bomb Isis. And when that leaves what was once a functioning society in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham? ‘Then we go and get them too.’ After all, if every Syrian is dead, then the war is finally over. Their suffering is immense, but it’s not their suffering that matters: it’s the suffering of the viewer, at home, heartbroken as they watch the carnage playing out onscreen. It doesn’t matter who does it, and it doesn’t matter how it’s done, but we need to turn it off forever.

Against the Evening Standard

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The collective noun for issues of the Evening Standard is a plague. These things should be dead, pulped and bleached to nothing, but watch how they move. Like any parasite, it never crawls around under its own power. The Evening Standard, folded in half to form a coward’s carapace, skitters about in the wind on its pointed pages, tapping in darts and pounces along the Tube-station kerbside between fag-ends and plastic bags. After it rains the water glugs upwards through an overflowing sewer, and the Evening Standard sprawled lazy over the grate rises and falls, seepages of grime-stained rainwater passing over the warping lines of text and sinking back down again; it’s found its power, it’s breathing. On the escalators the Evening Standard waits, great snowdrifts of the Evening Standard piling against the rails, to moulder and soften until it’s ripe. The Standard swarms on the carriages, waiting just behind your neck; the distracted millions pick it up and leave it somewhere else, spread its spores across the city, bring it into their homes. Assume that half of the Standard‘s daily circulation of 850,000 is zooming around on the Tube at any given time: all together, the newspaper is moving at nearly nine million miles per hour; over the course of a working day, plus an hour’s commute each way, the Evening Standard plunges the distance from London to its faint anaemic sun. Imagine if the city were stripped, like Calvino’s Armilla, of everything – roads, trees, bollards, buildings, people – but undergrowth, earwigs, and the Evening Standard. You don’t need to imagine; you’re already there. You’re wandering through the second city, its towers built from fraying newsprint. London is not a place to live; it’s a vast, decaying, mobile archive; a hole ceaselessly filling itself with the Evening Standard.

Reading the Standard always gives me a feeling of slow, creeping fury, boiling just below my skin, the sense that I might suddenly break out in gleaming pustules of bile right there on the Tube, that some parasite worming through the paper could claw its way into my eyeballs on its tiny hooks, fester, and breed: then vomiting, suppuration, horror, the screaming commuters banging their fists bloody on the windows as they try to escape, the train howling to a stop in the middle of the tunnel, the armed police in hazmat suits quarantining the area, lights sweeping through the shivering and the dying, the paper in my hands suddenly gone. Not on the first reading, of course: the Standard is awful in the same way London itself is awful, its vastness slowly bending in on itself until it becomes a cage, the steady tick of days and weeks and years, thudding past like the slats on a train journey: here you are, still in London, older, sadder, lonelier, and here’s another edition of the Evening Standard to carry you home to ready meals, Netflix, and sleep.

It’s monstrous in a way entirely different from the Daily Mail, for instance, which announces its monstrousness right there in screaming letters on the front page, or the neo-Nazi Spectator, making the reasonable case for racism in hectoring and patient tones. As long as there are Tories there will be Tory papers; complaining that the right-wing exists is entirely valid but not particularly useful. I’m not even talking about its most publicised outrages, although there are many. During the London mayoral election, for instance, there was its despicably Islamophobic campaign against Sadiq Khan, screaming in panic about his phantasmal terrorist connections, until he won the largest electoral mandate of any politician in British history, and the paper suddenly rolled over with drooping ears, fawning over wonderful lovely Sadiq and his brilliant plans for brilliant London. (Khan, of course, is the liberal ideal of the assimilated Muslim, a chummy tieless true-blue Labour Brit; if it can happen to him, then is anyone safe?) There’s its recent appointment of George Osborne, a Vaselined marionette whose only previous journalistic experience was as a freelancer for the Peterborough diary column at the Daily Telegraph, as editor. There was that gurning fluff piece on the alt-right, full of grateful remarks on how dapper they all look with their sweater-vests and their pale and perfectly cubical heads, complete with instructions on how to get the ‘fashie’ haircut for yourself. There’s its tireless advocacy for that fucking Garden Bridge. All this is awful and unexceptional. This is the media we’re talking about; why would you expect anything other than racism, idiocy, and a nice tongue-bath for established power?

What makes the Standard so uniquely infuriating is this. Several years ago, a group of skaters were campaigning to halt the vandalism-by-redevelopment of the magnificent South Bank Centre, and along the way prevent the bulldozing of its undercroft, a much-loved graffiti and skateboarding space. It should have been hard to oppose them on this: the skate park gave joy to thousands, destroying it would have given money to a few. Not for the Evening Standard. In a short note appended to an editorial column, the paper congratulated the skaters of the successes of their campaign. ‘In this stand-off between culture and counter-culture, the skaters have pulled off some deft moves,’ it wrote. And then, without warning: ‘But it is now time for them to see reason.’ What reason? What are they talking about? What could this possibly mean? The world is full of people making the case for what is stupid and wrong, but the Evening Standard never even makes its case. Here is something stupid and wrong, please agree with it at once. After all, this is what’s reasonable. That sentence contains in its ten short words everything that’s broken in life. The thoughtless appeal to a common sense that never existed. The endless construction of the reasonable conservative subject, spat out in their millions, naked and glistening onto the tarmac as the traffic arrives, reading the Evening Standard. If the world were a rational place, if people really were ever capable of seeing reason, that would have been it: eight hundred and fifty thousand trudging commuters would have thrown up their hands – god, fuck this – and immediately assembled to burn down the offices of the Evening Standard and start building a society in which nothing so blindly meaningless could ever happen again.

They may as well put it up on the masthead, in little manicured letters by the picture of Eros: Sed nunc tempus est ratio videre. To see reason; to do what is already being done, and not complain about it. In most newspapers the reactionary spite is calculated, mendacious, and vicious; in the Standard what dominates is a total witlessness. It’s all seemingly by accident, none of these people understand what they’re saying, they don’t know why they think the way they do, they don’t even really think. Take a journey with me, walk through the pages of the Evening Standard, see its gardens of fury. Half of the paper appears to have been written in crayon. In an article on infrastructure maintenance, the opening paragraph – this is entirely real – informs us that ‘Tower Bridge has to close for three months because the road surface is falling apart, the man in charge of it said today.’ Innumeracy is everywhere in its massive property section, which cheerfully exhorts you to move into a £3.6m new-build penthouse with a balcony swimming pool and 24-hour concierge. The lifestyle pages read like promotional copy – ooh, we all love a nice cupcake, don’t we. The opinion pages regularly host the observations of an extremely long-winded four-year-old child. One column sagely informs the reader that while it feels bad to get stuck in the rain, it also helps the crops grow, and that’s good. Another, from September of last year, took a full page to let us know that it’s autumn now. Various drabs of opinion impress on you the fact that London is good and great and the most wonderful city in the world; in others the writers simply summarise a book they just read, or say that there’s been a lot of good stuff of the telly lately.

When they turn to politics it’s similarly stupid. In November, the Standard told its London-based readership that the only person they could in good conscience vote for was Hillary Clinton. After the Copeland by-election, we were told that ‘the distinguished Cambridge historian Robert Tombs has called the European Union a system of “managed discontents.” Something similar could be said about Corbyn’s Labour, except that its discontents are scarcely managed at all’ – a fantastically terrible piece of writing, introducing a comparison only to immediately proclaim its uselessness in the very next sentence. With dispiriting frequency, Evening Standard writers like to dream up dialogues within Cabinet meetings – politics, as imagined by an idiot! – always giving the strange sense that you’re watching the world’s least popular child playing with her action figures. Finally, the star columnists. Here comes Matthew D’Ancona, plodding about like a lost child in orthopaedic shoes, with his glum little question mark of a face significantly too small for his head, and his mildly interesting name in lieu of anything interesting to say. Here comes Simon Jenkins, whingeing that he went for a walk in the park and some children who were probably immigrants splashed mud on his new linen trousers. Here’s the Tory line, repeated not out of any ideological impetus but as pure common sense: here it is, it’s time to see reason. Here they all are, shuffling, brainless, petulant, and wrong, the Kharons of London’s new modern hell, come to ferry you home.

You’re worried that having George Osborne as editor might compromise the paper’s editorial independence. What editorial independence? The Standard is a jellyfish, a parasitic worm, a creature with a hole at each end and nothing inbetween: it thinks nothing, it feels nothing, it floats through the infinite dark and waits for a tide to carry it along. Hence the fury. If someone believes something and you don’t concur, you can disagree with them. If someone has bad opinions, you can correct them. But there are no real opinions in the Standard, just the trace of drifting plankton, just idiocy and repetition. Sadiq Khan was a terrorist, now he’s the cuddliest mayor in the whole wide world; the tides changed, and this twitching thing drifted in another direction. It was autumn once, but now it’s spring. The Evening Standard is London’s paper; it’s the paper that London deserves: a proud and ancient city that’s now nothing more than a brief staging-post for international capital, whose lifeblood and materiality is nothing more than the wordless, unconscious, insatiable self-expansion of capital. Always parasitic, powerless without its structures of domination, achieving nothing by itself except the immiseration of others; always solipsistic, always feared, always terrified. If capitalism could speak, it would speak with a child’s voice. If capitalism could speak, it would speak like the Evening Standard.

Writing and identity

There are also others, an infinite number of them, the innumerable generality of others to whom I should be bound by the same responsibility, a general and universal responsibility. I cannot respond to the call, the request, the obligation, or even the love of another without sacrificing the other other, the other others… As a result, the concepts of responsibility, of decision, or of duty are condemned a priori to paradox, scandal, and aporia.
Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death

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0. To write feels like violence. All of us are mortal, but the text can survive long after its author: who are you, fleshy and contingent thing, who wants to live forever? To write is to stain clean paper, press sticks in smooth clay; in some sense always, to deform the world. To write something down is to turn the limitless possibility of what could be into the dead presence of what turned out to have been. A line in Beckett’s Molloy which I always find myself returning to, because it speaks what it isn’t: ‘You would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till everything is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery.’ Writing obscures the ghastliness of what is, which is speechlessness; it weaves a flimsy veil of presence around the eternal nothing. Writing is a lack, but the lack is not in words but the world that surrounds them.

1. One form of the discourse in question, an instance: Don’t write thinkpieces about Beyoncé (or whatever) if you’re not a black woman. You will not understand the subject-matter, not properly, it will be a waste. It isn’t for you. (As if the commodified culture-object is ever really for anyone.) The really notable thing here is where the demand is placed. What’s needed – and what’s generally articulated – is a critique of the journalistic economy and its deeply unequal hiring and commissioning practices, the thorny nexus of social practices that create a class of profession writers that generally looks like the class of the bourgeoisie from which it is mostly drawn. But what can often occur with it is a metaphysics of the text: illegitimate writing is not even itself, but an absence, the absence of everything else that could have been there instead. Any one person writing means another who can’t; the sin is in its having been written, the fault belongs to the writer as such. But while most writing really is inexcusably bad, the one mark in its favour is that the possibility of writing is limitless. It’s the industrial complex of writing that is restricted, along with the number of people who can sustain themselves in this fairly shabby trade: here, as everywhere, the task is to reproduce in the economy at large the infinity that already exists in the economy of language, to abolish the distinction between the professional writer and the public they serve or negate, to make sure that nobody will ever go hungry again.

2. Instead, a general trend within those discourses that claim to have justice as their aim is the selective and demographic apportioning out of the field of human understanding: black writers may and must write about black celebrities, music, and their own experiences; women writers may and must must write about lifestyle trends, feminism, and their own experiences; trans writers about their own experiences; Muslim writers about their own experiences; disabled writers about their own experiences. In one avowedly intersectional-feminist online publication, female writers are given an ‘Identity Survey,’ a monstrous questionnaire in which they’re asked to list every horrifying experience they had ever survived, and are then told to turn it all into short, shareable, fungible articles for $90-a-day wages. I was raped, I was in an abusive relationship, I had an abortion, I suffered; a strip-mining of saleable identities, a kind of primitive accumulation across the terrain of trauma. Meanwhile the universal subject, the one that need not suffer to be heard, remains white and male. The right of black women to write about Beyoncé is important. But they must also be able to write about deep-sea ecology, Kantian philosophy, writing itself, and what they do not know – and while there are many who do precisely this, the under-representation of writers of colour, queer and trans writers, and other marginalised people on the topics of oceanography, German idealism, deconstruction, and ignorance is significantly more marked. Overwhelmingly it is white men who are afforded the privilege of being other than themselves, of not having to continuously say ‘I’ – not least because the validity of their self-identity is already assured, because the world is already in their image. And while the ability to declare oneself in the face of a world that would prefer you not to to is essential, the dogma that writing must and can only be a self-declaration resigns marginalised people to this condition. My critique here is very limited: within this discourse it has become the case that it is the presence and particularity of the ‘I’ that legitimises writing, that makes it appropriate or inappropriate, that makes it either it either presence itself or the lack of something else. And this is not helpful.

3. If there must be a rule, then it should be that we must not only write what we know. If we don’t write an ignorance other than ourselves, in the end all that remains is a mute, gnashing, helpless, final I. There is no writing that is only legible to and can only be created by people occupying a particular subject-position; there are experiences that are unique and incommensurable, even incommunicable, but if this were the case here there would be no possibility of writing: everyone who could understand would already know.

4. Derrida notes in Plato’s Pharmacy that ‘the speaking subject is the father of his speech […] Logos is a son, then, a son that would be destroyed in his very presence without the present attendance of his father. His father who speaks for him and answers for him. Without his father he would be nothing but, in fact, writing.’ There is no speech without its anchor in the person that speaks and her physical presence, but in writing – the ‘breathless sign’ – the author is always simply not there, even if she has an active Twitter account. It persists without its creator; what faces you is the text, something entirely different. I speak and say ‘I’ and you know who says the word, but the written ‘I’ is always indeterminate, a tangle of lies and fantasies and ironies and pretences, a person just like you half a world away, the person that you are yourself, an immortal and changing thing. If you speak and someone interprets what you say in a way you didn’t intend, what’s taken place is a misunderstanding. If you write and someone interprets what you’ve written in a way you didn’t intend, what’s taken place is literature. The demand that any text be legitimised by the self-identity of its author is the demand for a text that behaves more like speech. And not just any speech. The writing that responds to this demand is ‘testimonial’ or ‘confessional’ writing, and the place in which one testifies or confesses is in a court. In a courtroom logocentrism holds sway; the preference is for a speaking person, whose truth is guaranteed by a spoken oath, who is present to speak for and answer for their own speech. The discourse here is not one of justice, strictly speaking, but the law. It is the law that, first of all, demands to know who a person is before deciding what to do with them. These are not opposing concepts, necessarily, but they are not the same. The law can be deconstructed. Justice cannot.

5. Whose voice is allowed to speak? Only yours. In Beckett’s novels the reader is lost and confused, stranded in a mire of words that seem designed to be inhospitable and to exclude, accompanying something that speaks its unquestioning I-say-I while forbidding any identification – until you realise that the strange tormenting voice that is mentioned sometimes, the one that tells people what to do, the one that is constantly trying to bring itself to an end but is never able to stop speaking itself, is the same voice that’s been in your head the entire time as you read. It’s shocking, but there’s a sense of joy at the same time. What distinguishes real writing from a legal deposition or a laundry list is its occasional capacity to provoke a kind of joy, even in evocations of sadness, loneliness, misery, loss, repression, and horror, the sheer pleasure of something entirely alien and entirely intimate, of a voice that is nobody’s and everyone’s and yours, there with you in your solitude, of language in the infinity of its play and substitutions, a moment of the freedom that’s still to come.

Voyage to the prison planet

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Paul Joseph Watson stares through the tiny weeping mole-eyes half-buried in his face, and is afraid. You would be too. He lives on the prison planet, encased in a thick concrete shield twenty miles above sea level: you think it’s night and it’s always been night, but those stars are just a fluorescent buzz through the gaps in the barbed wire, each constellation has its tangled wiring and a strange cloudy liquid that slowly drips from one corner, and you’ve confused the moon with a searchlight your entire life. You think the clouds are gathering, but tear gas is leaking through the mildewed firmament to disperse the population. You think it’s God you’re praying to, but the guards have their snitches everywhere.

Holed up in Battersea, Paul Joseph Watson sees the prison planet slowly crumbling under its concrete shell. The rioters outside, for instance; they’re everywhere now, crowds of pinch-faced foreigners sweeping over Europe like starlings in its dusk. They burn everything in sight. The prisoners crisp in their cells, body fat dripping liquid through the fissures in their scoriated skin, because the media told them that none of it was real. Those are the living dead, trundling inauthentically from the prison canteen to the commissary to the rec room, they are the rubble that is torn up and rearranged into new cells for the rubble that follows them, more prisons of stretched-out flesh and fingernails linked in rippling fish-scale walls, still hair, still bleeding. They do strange experiments here; human beings are turned into something else, their hair brutishly thick, their balls mournfully gone. And above it all, suspended between the fires and the concrete shell that some unknown species placed around the Earth some time in the last century: the cultural Marxists, the feminazis, the SJWs, the thugs, the false flags, the weather-control stations, the mind rays, all arranged in some great chain of power that leads up from the fanatical mob outside and its flaming bottles that smash against the shutters of the Battersea swank pad all the way through the concrete shell and out the other side. Paul Joseph Watson is afraid, but he knows that this prison was only really built to contain one person. He stands between the camera and his map of the world and stares out terrified through his half-closed eyes and says: Gary Linker is the absolute epitome of the virtue-signalling social justice warrior cunt, and he needs to put up, or shut dah fuck up.

I hate Paul Joseph Watson.

I used to enjoy the Alex Jones show, back before Donald Trump’s victory – before it turned into just another piece of glib boosterism for political power, as neutered as any other eunuch in the bureaucracy. Jones would puff out his head into a greasy sphere and yell, or detail the Satanic imagery in cereal boxes and the patterns in the clouds, or bare his nipples at the New World Order, and it was fun. A sadistic sort of fun, watching an adult human maddening himself with conspiracies that don’t really exist, but fun. The only problem is that you could never tell when they would cut to Paul Joseph Watson – oh god, not this tiresome prick again, the gimpy Yorkshireman with his suit slightly too large, standing in front of his big important map, with his tiny eyes, and his awful moist red lips, and his unbearable rants of a thirteen-year-old sagely informing the YouTube community that while most people his age listen to crap he prefers good music, and his oppressive pedantic pompous droning hectoring honking plodding nasal clammy mucous flattened choked-up gurgle dipshit arsehole nightmare of a voice.

English speech tends to resolve into iambs, but when Paul Joseph Watson speaks the banal rhythm of it all becomes unbearable; he talks like a teacher demonstrating the concept to a class of bored GCSE students, the deathly tick-tock of her tapping pencil, ta-TUM ta-TUM ta-TUM ta-TUM. He talks with the rushing dismal clarity of those mid-morning TV adverts: if you’ve SUFfered an INjury that WASn’t your FAULT, come to LAWyers 4 YOU. He talks like an automated call informing you that you’ve been missold PPI and could stand to receive a substantial cash settlement. He talks in stops and starts, water dripping from a rusted old tap, a fractured desert in quartz and sand, a late capitalism so exhausted by its own failure to imagine that it’s reduced to openly announcing each new shabby con as it arrives by the tortured mendacity of its speech. He doesn’t talk at all. He yaps.

All the usual tedium of the right-wing fringe is present in Watson’s work. There’s the racism and sexism and transmisogyny and anticommunism and other assorted foundational isms, of course, the conspiracy theories about white genocide and the globalist master-plan, the scattershot insults, ‘virtue-signalling’ and ‘politically correct’ blanketed about until they lose all meaning beyond that of a sourceless, careless sneer. But there’s also what really distinguishes the whole project: the idiot’s joy in being smugly wrong about stuff, complete with triumphantly feeble Twitter putdowns and the absolute assurance that everyone who makes fun of him is actually a snowflake who’s just been triggered.

In between it all, though, there are flashes of an almost mournful, almost sympathetic idiocy. Take his New Year’s video, about how you’ve achieved nothing in the past year and don’t deserve to celebrate at its end, about how it’s only ‘the most twattish insufferable losers’ who get wasted in preparation to snog some other nobody come midnight; you can hear, buried in his hectoring, the echoes of the precocious but shy teenager who didn’t get invited to any parties and decided that it made him a better person. Take his interview with the dyslogical student rag The Tab, marketed to all those same twattish insufferable losers, in which he says that the thing he misses most about living in Sheffield – a thriving and multicultural university city home to over sixty-five thousand fun loving students – is ‘the ability to isolate yourself and truly be alone.’ You can see how it started, how a lonely boy ended up flying far off across the galaxies to isolate himself on a prison planet built especially for him, where a strange cloudy liquid drips from the stars, where the Islamic mob spreads from his door to the furthest reaches of the world, where the human being in its cage slowly shrinks into something sleeker and stupider and more absurd.

Paul Joseph Watson believes that conservatism is the new counterculture and the new punk rock. Years of puritan liberal censoriousness have exhausted a population that just wants to be able to say ‘gay’ pejoratively, and all the gleeful busting of self-serious taboos is coming from the right – but it’s hard to square this pose with the fact that Watson thinks having fun is insufferable and sex is best avoided. It’s impossible to see the fearless discursive titan Paul Joseph Watson wants to be, because Paul Joseph Watson sentenced himself to life on the prison planet, where he stares through the tiny weeping mole-eyes half-buried in his face, and is afraid.

The punk rock countercultural hero lives in fear of absolutely everything under the heavy concrete shell where the sky used to be. In particular, he’s afraid of the Swedish city of Malmö, a quiet and faintly boring town whose struggling economy has been revitalised by an influx in migrants from Africa and the Middle East. After Donald Trump – pointlessly filtering the previous night’s TV through the loose sieve of his brain before barfing it all back onto TV again – declared in shock that something terrible had happened in Sweden the previous night, Paul Joseph Watson undertook a personal mission to prove that Sweden really was that bad. The place is a warzone: constant riots, killings on the streets, brutality in the homes, a bubbling hive of miniature Islamic emirates, cultural genocide erupting in thousands of maggots from the heart of old Scandinavia. His challenge to the journalists – who had gone through the usual smug liberal chuckling, tragedy in Ikea, the great fika massacre, as if terrible things aren’t happening in Sweden and everywhere else every second of the day – was this: if you think Sweden is so safe, I’ll pay for you to go there and see. And some journalists, who sometimes happen to go to actual warzones, took him up on it. (Myself included.) His wording was clear: any journalist who disagrees with him gets a free ride on the PJW Öresund Express. Needless to say, he wimped out.

Whether Sweden is a good place to be or not (it’s not, but where is?) isn’t really the issue; what was strange was exactly why Watson thought we should all reconsider our nice Northern jolly. Frantically trying to stem the tide of bankruptcy-inducing holidays he’d had to pay for, Watson showed us why everyone should be scared of Malmö, posting pictures of an apartment building, some punks, and a group of well-dressed teenagers wearing Christian crosses around their necks, and then a video of some other teenagers letting off fireworks on New Year’s Eve. (That last one, incidentally, was not an immigrant riot but a celebration that takes place in cities across the region; that year saw no injuries and no arrests. In his terror of foreign violence, Watson ended up condemning exactly the kind of cherished local European traditions the right claims to want to protect.) Paul Joseph Watson isn’t just constantly afraid, hidden away from everything in a Battersea apartment whose walls grow thicker and denser and arc out from his little hollow of a home until they sweep over the sky and encase the entire planet in a concrete shell dotted with fake stars that thrum with a weak failing electric glow. His fears aren’t even human fears; he lives in terror of big scary buildings, people he doesn’t know, crowds of drunk people, and fireworks – in other words, the things that are frightening to a dog.

They do strange experiments here on the prison planet; human beings are turned into something else, their hair brutishly thick, their balls mournfully gone. The chimera Paul Joseph Watson yaps and whines in front of a camera and behind his map of the world, all of it perfectly positioned to hide his disgrace, the shuddering dog’s body with its fur and its claws and its endlessly shitting arsehole that trails off behind the suit just slightly too big for it. He howls at the searchlight that was his moon; he barks at the strangers outside his door; he has lost all interest in any part of a human woman except her leg; he is ashamed of what he’s become. He kennelled himself in Battersea, because where else do lost dogs go? The reactionary right scream for a rugged and manly authenticity because they are the most domesticated people in existence. They wilt in horror at a few kids in hoodies or a few students who don’t approve of what they have to say because a lifetime of bourgeois morality and the comforts of a life built on imperial superprofits have made them biddable, tail-wagging, snarling but tamed. The lonely boy from South Yorkshire has travelled a long way in search of something, and he’s not found it yet: a scratch behind his ears, and a few comforting words. Good boy. Good boy. Goodnight.

Melancholia after Fidel

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The world is a poorer place; a sterile promontory. The earth is dried up, its surface drifts away in tiny whirlwinds, and there’s nothing underneath. Every year it shrinks, weaker and worse, stripped away by a thousand chattering stupidities; everywhere the desert is growing and the ice caps melting into the sea, two vast blanknesses gorging themselves on what remains. How could a famished world like this continue to sustain someone like Fidel Castro? All the great national leaders are going. Kwame Nkrumah is dead. Salvador Allende is dead. Thomas Sankara is dead. Hugo Chávez is dead. Fidel Castro is dead. Socialismo o muerte: are the terms becoming indistinguishable? What remains is stunted, compromised, and ruthlessly eradicated: Dilma Rousseff is shunted from office by an authoritarian coup in everything but name; Venezuela is torn apart; and already the sarcophages are burrowing into Cuba, swarming to eat it alive. Something has passed away, most likely for good: perhaps not the future, but something. Where are our Fidels? We’ve fallen from the madness and frenzy of the twentieth century to an age more bureaucratised and banal than anything that preceded it, a vast system identical to its own crisis, a soil utterly incapable of supporting the kind of grand socialism – epic, mythic, heroic – that died with Fidel Castro. Which might be for the best: epic socialism had its excesses; maybe it no longer makes sense to have our movements led by grand cigar-chewers. Wherever there is injustice there will be resistance. But it doesn’t diminish what’s been lost: not one frail nonogenarian in a two-storey house, but the knowledge that we can not only fight but win, that we can not only defeat the reactionaries but build socialism, that we not only have to do something, but that we know how to do it.

We’re not supposed to think like this; revolutionary socialism has faith in the people and hope for the future or it has nothing. But sometimes we do, and there’s no point pretending otherwise.

I first came to Latin American socialism through the music. It was the mid-2000s, a far darker and more terrifying time than anyone will admit; I was a teenager, and it was easy to confuse a genuine political commitment with being a fan. There was a hopelessness to the whole movement, and had been ever since 2003: you line up to protest the latest war, scream until you’re hoarse, raise the anti-fascist salute, be baton-charged by the police, and then it would happen anyway. We were always anti, trying to put the brakes to capitalism and imperialism, trying to fight with thousands of weak bodies against a machinery too enormous to really contemplate, and it wasn’t working. I listened to the Clash, and then the people they namedropped, and then their comrades. That loud, stomping, strident chant of Venceremos was something completely different: the voice of a socialism that knew it could win and had no doubt on its claim to the future, the joyousness of a new and better world coming closer every day. After centuries of rot, the sunshine, cold and bright and devastating, pouring over the Andes. It wasn’t some economic doctrine, it wasn’t an initial in the acronym shouting at us through a loudspeaker in another rainy slog through Westminster, it was alive. Todos juntos haremos la historia, a cumplir, a cumplir, a cumplir! I played it loud in my room and stomped around restless. There was so much to be done. Mil cadenas habrá que romper, la miseria sabremos vencer! But then at the same time I always knew what had happened. I knew that Victor Jara sang Venceremos in the stadium on the day he was murdered. He was herded there with thousands of others for the crime of making music that the people loved; he never left. Pinochet’s soldiers tortured him for days, breaking his ribs, mangling his hands, shattering his teeth, and then threw him out in front of the other prisoners. ‘Sing now if you can, you bastard!’ And he sang: ‘We will triumph, we will triumph.’ Then the soldiers dragged him away again and shot him.

It was impossible to hear those songs without remembering this. All those glorious rousing songs formed the chorus to a tragedy, the singers just didn’t know it.That horror lurking at the end of the story seeped back in time to colour everything, to turn that ever-incoming future into a nostalgic past, to fossilise it in history. It happens everywhere now: socialism is haunted by its own ghost, the failure that is still to come. It’s so much harder now to say that we will triumph – even if Victor could sing it surrounded by the bodies of his comrades, that sense of historical certainty has been lost. You can inveigh against this tendency, but that won’t stop it happening; cheery and voluntaristic false optimism is not what inspires hope. We know that we’re doomed, and we fight anyway, against it all. But not in Cuba. In Cuba we survived. For decades Cuba was a light to Latin America and the world, a sign that it was not all futile, that however many times they tried to kill us we could still carry on living. In Fidel Castro we mourn something else; not our defeat, but our victory.

Communists don’t like melancholia; it’s indulgent, verging on the aristocratic, sedentary, acquiescent, and fatalistic. We’re meant to take the manic posture, to ‘be staunch and active.’ Don’t mourn, organise! Walter Benjamin quotes a unnamed critic of the melancholics; the ‘agents or hacks who make a great display out of their poverty, and a banquet out of yawning emptiness;’ as he notes elsewhere, the melancholic hero of the Trauerspiel is almost always a monarch or a prince. Marxists know that nothing simply vanishes, that negation is determinate, that everything is preserved in the dialectic. This is why we continue to shout Fidel vive, just as we insisted that Lenin lived long after he was embalmed in Red Square: these names don’t refer to a person but to a struggle, the desperate fight against immiseration and despair; they stand for victories that an be overturned but never annihilated. The mistake comes in thinking that this determination is always opposed to melancholia or to the tragic. Melancholia is a dialectical procedure. In Freud’s account, the melancholic subject introjects the lost object; it’s a refusal to abandon the object-cathexes, a refusal to simply mourn, to let all the scars of past struggles simply heal over; melancholia is, as he puts it, ‘like an open wound, drawing to itself cathectic energies from all directions.’ There is a work of mourning, a process by which subject and object gradually and painfully disentangle themselves, and the latter is consigned to the grave. It is, Derrida writes, ‘not one kind of work among others’ but ‘work itself, work in general, the trait by means of which one ought perhaps to reconsider the very concept of production.’ Marxists should recognise this kind of work: it’s alienated labour, the production of an object divorced from us entirely. But melancholia resists any principle of economy; as soon as Freud thinks he’s found one in its complex he is forced into an abzubrechen, a breaking-off of his inquiry, a further loss reproduced within his text. In melancholia object and subject endlessly produce each other; what’s been lost is never alienated from ourselves. We preserve it even as it falls away: socialism has the keen sense of its own defeat because it is a movement of the defeated. Socialismo o muerte: socialism or lethe, the dead object, the void. Benjamin: ‘The past would fully befall only a resurrected humanity.’ There is much that we’ve lost, but until then we will not let it go.

Don’t mourn, melancholise. Hasta la victoria, siempre.

How you lost the world

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I think I’m still in shock. When the sun rose this morning it was blistered with the face of Donald Trump, bronze and smirking hideous, and all I can think about is Hillary Clinton. It’s what I know. Throughout the entire election, one slow-motion clip of a clown car ramming into a crowd of pedestrians, I’d assumed that the danger of Trump and the danger of Clinton were of two different orders. Trump was dangerous because of what he said and what he represented, the waves of fascism and violence that rippled out from the dead plopping weight of his speeches. Clinton was dangerous because of what she would actually do, because Clinton was going to win the election. I was a sucker, the kind who gets duped precisely by believing himself to be too smart for any kind of con. I thought I saw through it all, the whole stupid charade, a coronation disguised as a battlefield. I was wrong. This was exactly what Hillary Clinton wanted people like me to think; she wanted to be an inevitability. And this is why Trump won: the presidency was Clinton’s to lose, from the moment she announced her candidacy, and she lost it. She was the only person who could. People don’t like taking part in someone else’s inevitability.

Why did Hillary Clinton run for President? The most gruesome spectacle of Election Day was her short speech outside the polling station in Chappaqua, New York. ‘It’s the most humbling feeling,’ she said, of voting for herself to control an enormous nuclear arsenal. All electoral politics are predicated on this kind of bullshit, the debates, the campaign ads, the phony acceptance speeches, the highminded types trying to focus on the ‘issues,’ as if there’s any issue at play beyond a pair of hungry-eyed megalomaniacs deciding that they want power. Someone like Trump might have been stupid enough to convince himself that he at least had some kind of grand vision for the country, or the will and dedication to really get things done, but Clinton had no such illusions. She’s been in government for a long time; she knew that the powers of the presidency can be competently exercised by any grey and dismal middle manager, she knew that she had nothing particularly unique to offer. She was running not because there was anything in particular she wanted to get done – look how slippery her positions have been on just about every issue – but because she wanted it, the big chair and the big desk and the first female President; she decided that it was her turn, that it was hers by right. She knew that she was electoral poison, that vast swathes of the country hated her and for good reason, that she was compromised by a miserable record spotted with sleaze and criminality, that she alienated the left, inflamed the right, and appealed mostly to a small coterie of sexually repressed and pathologically centrist think-tank nerds, that her entire constituency was made of limp cardboard and backlogged semen, that her candidacy raised the serious possibility of a Republican victory when anyone else would have beaten that divided and frothing party into insignificance with one hand tied behind their back – but she ran anyway.

And then she lost. Despite it all, the vast monumental horror of a Trump presidency, it’s hard not to feel a little twinge of satisfaction as Hillary Clinton is denied the only thing she ever wanted and which she never deserved. Trump has promised to send her to prison. Good. It’d be for all the wrong reasons, but her crimes are many, and losing a general election to an overgrown baby should absolutely carry a long minimum sentence. Let her rot.

Clinton’s media foot-rubbers are presenting this result as a victory for prejudice: Trump won on a platform of racism, sexism, ableism, misogynoir, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia; the American people are hateful beyond reason, and they elected a knight of the kyriarchy to turn their roiling incoherent psychopathologies into government policy. Of course these people are right; it would be incredibly stupid to discount the role of outright bigotry, especially in a country that has fuelled itself on bigotry for three hundred years. But it’s not enough; if the only problem was too many bigots the whole elections collapses into a question of tribes and demographics, and you don’t have to think about why Clinton lost. Trump won among voters who ticked the box for Obama in 2008 and 2012, he won decisively among white women, he picked up a far bigger share of ethnic minority voters than anyone would have reasonably expected, he won because the standard formula of American liberalism – eternal war abroad coupled with rationally administered dispossession at home and an ethics centred on where people should be allowed to piss and shit – is a toxic and unlovable ideology, and his candidacy turned it from an invisible consensus to one option among others.

Hillary Clinton had nothing to offer people; all she could give them was fear and herself. Her campaign was the most cack-handed and disastrous in recent decades, managed by a gang of simpering imbeciles pretending to be Machiavellian strategists; it was all on the flimsy depthless level of TV. Now watch her whip, now watch her nae nae. Yaas kween, slay kween, slay. Clinton was to be carried through her path to the White House on the shoulders of irritating media celebrities; Lena Dunham’s Instagram feed, Beyoncé’s stage shows, Robert De Niro’s menacing monologues. Clinton strategists actively and deliberately abetted Trump at every stage of his rise through the Republican primaries, dignifying his candidacy with every statement of disapproval, because they thought that he was the enemy she had the best chance of beating. Clinton spent the final weeks of her campaign against a parody toddler obsessing over weird conspiracy theories, painting her opponent as a secret Russian agent. Clinton decided, as a vast country fumed bitterly for something different, anything, that she would actively court the approval of a few hundred policy wonks. Clinton all but outrightly told vast swathes of the American working classes that they were irrelevant, that she didn’t need them and they would be left behind by history, and then expected them to vote for her anyway. Clinton was playing at politics; it was a big and important game, but it could be fun too; it was entertainment, it was a play of personalities. Her campaign tried to reproduce the broad 500-channel swathe of TV: an intrigue-riddled prestige drama and a music video and the 24-hour news; they forgot that trashy reality shows always get the highest ratings.

Donald Trump is a fascist. We shouldn’t be afraid of the word: it’s simple and accurate, and his fascism is hardly unique; it’s just a suppurating outgrowth of the fascism that was already there. Still, this time it’s different. The fascisms of Europe in the 1920s and 30s, or east Asia in the 50s and 60s, or Latin America in the 70s and 80s were all the response of a capitalist order to the terrifying potency of an organised working class. Fascism is what capitalism does when it’s under threat, something always latent but extending in claws when it’s time to fight; it imitates mass movements while never really having the support of the masses. (In Germany, for instance, support for the Nazis was highest among the industrial haute bourgeoisie, and declined through every social stratum; look at Trump’s share of the voter per income band and see the same pattern. The workers didn’t vote for Trump, they just didn’t vote for Clinton either.) But today the organised working class is nowhere to be found. There’s no coherent left-wing movement actively endangering capitalism; the crisis facing the liberal-capitalist order is entirely internal. It’s grinding against its own contradictions, circling the globe to turn back against itself, smashing through its biological and ecological limits and finding nothing on the other side. This is the death spasm, a truly nihilist fascism, the fascism of a global system prickling for enemies to destroy but charging only against itself. There’s no silence in the final and total victory, just an endless war with only one side. It’s not entirely the case, as the slogan puts it, that the only thing capable of defeating the radical right is a radical left. The radical right will defeat itself, sooner or later, even if it’s at the cost of a few tens of millions of lives. We need a radical left so there can be any kind of fight at all.

A creepy clown manifesto

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We only wanted to entertain. We only wanted to make you laugh. We only wanted to see happiness, smiling children in the dizzy whirl of the circus tent; we only wanted to pull on our masks, as thin as a the image on your TV screens, and make you glad. Watch us tumble, watch us fall down ladders, watch us blow kisses and balloons: we only ever wanted to entertain.

Autumn is here, and you will have seen us at the edge of the woods. We live at the edge of the woods; like all the rest of your litter the damp winds have blown us to the edge of the woods. We haunt the fringes. Small-town America, brand-new and broken-down. The forests have been strip-logged and grown back again worse, and the trees are just weeds now, white and narrow, branching out like pale spindly fingers: the rustling of trees outside your window at night is how you know that there’s someone in your house. These woods are all hollow inside, forests too young and splintered to hold anything like folklore, where nature looks like a cheap film set, where the nymphs and sprites would get trapped in Coke cans and starve, where every animal is mud-splattered, pre-butchered, and desperate. Since you stopped leaving pornography out here you have no use for these woods, and they have become a home for the clowns. They suit us fine. Our evil is not ancient; we are depthless and outside of history. Hallowe’en is coming: leaves are starting to clog the dirt now, piling up in the gas station forecourt, deformed and organic against the square rows of toilet cleaner and laxatives. Leaves drift against the church, where God lives between plywood walls. Sooner or later someone will need to come along with a big noisy machine to blow all the leaves back to the edge of the woods. And then he’ll go back home, and not have to worry about what the clowns in the woods could possibly eat. He’s the lucky one. There aren’t any jobs or much hope either; some people are on heroin and most are on Netflix, staring through hours of entertainment standardised especially for you, plugging into Americanywhere. You don’t go to see the travelling circus any more. The travelling circus has pitched its tent right there in your house, and it’s come to whisk you away.

The first person to spot us this year was a young boy in Greenville, South Carolina. Standing in the scrub-patches between Greenville and whatever surrounds it, he saw two figures at the edge of the woods, one in a bright red wig, the other with a black star painted over his face, silent, motionless. He ran to tell his mother. He wasn’t the last. In the same town another clown appeared in the woods behind an apartment block, and another was seen staring impassively outside a laundrette. This was late August, when the nights are too hot for too many clowns to squelch out from the soil; our face-paint runs in sweaty drips, we wilt. In September, we started to spread. Across the state, then to South Carolina, then to Georgia and Virginia, until we could stalk from coast to coast, leering over the border at Canada, tumbling slapstick to Europe. An epidemic of creepy clowns, panic across the nation, and nobody knows why. Clowns were seen holding knives in Kistler, Pennsylvania; machetes in Tchula, Mississippi; a pistol in Monroe, New Jersey. Clowns started to appear outside schools. Clowns started to leer at the side of the freeway, watching you buzz about from one place to another, rooted among the wet exhaust-stained trees. People have been fired from their jobs for wearing ordinary non-creepy clown costumes in social media pictures; it’s become the sign of an obscure and undefinable criminality. Every genuine sighting brings a dozen phantasmic ones; schools close, mobs form, ordinary citizens buy themselves a gun. These clowns hunt a very particular demographic: white, prim, conservative young families, away from the big cities, once comfortable but declining, the moribund lower bourgeoisie. People who despite themselves feel that subtle tug coming from the edge of the woods, the call of rot and decay, the bliss that comes when everything sprouts mushrooms and melts into the trash-strewn ground. People who are afraid of clowns, and people whose fears are listened to. We are by nature indifferent to the state, but it’s been amusing to watch its antics and pratfalls: the armed police establishing their perimeter around a school in Flomaton, Alabama, sweeping the classrooms for signs of clown-related mischief; the men charged with terrorism for wearing clown costumes; the helicopters on standby and the military bases on constant alert; the tension as a vast engine readies itself for war against its own clowns, and finds that when the missile silos are opened there’s only the wet smack of a custard pie against the ground.

It’s so boring of you to make this about politics, when you could just as well blame rising global temperatures giving us a glut of worms to feed on, or astral alignments poking pores in the fabric of your universe. Why clowns? Why now? Isn’t a big sad-faced clown about to reach out for the Presidency? Aren’t you all afraid, safer than you’ve ever been in your homes surrounded by three lines of cops with military-grade weapons, but terrified of the refugees, of the terrorists, of the criminals, of whatever it is that’s lurking in the dark by the edge of the woods? It’s even worse when you psychologise. The horror of the clown is the sad man behind the painted smile, that desperate need, going back to old Grimaldi, for the unhappiest ones to make other people laugh. Learn the truth: we are not unhappy. There is nothing behind our masks. Note how in so many media reports, the clowns are not a he or a she but an it. Why are you afraid of clowns? Don’t you love to be entertained? Weren’t wars fought, cities basted to rubble, children burned alive, all to defend a free society in which you could live without fear and be entertained? But there’s something restless: a vague sense, as credits roll for episode eight and you know without thinking that however much you might want to do something else episode nine is as inevitable as the setting sun, that you’re wasting your life; that it may as well be over already. And at that very moment, a clown lurches out of the edge of the woods behind your house, a big plastic grin on his face, and a knife in his hand.

We don’t mean to frighten you. We don’t mean to cause you any harm. We carry weapons, but you love to look at weapons; you put them in our hands. This is what we will do. We will stand at the edge of the woods and not say a word. We will wait patiently until you put down your guns, call off the police, and end all this senseless panic. We will wait until, of your own free will, you follow us into the woods, those grey shallow woods where everything new falls to rot. We will take you into the woods, and then we will put on a little show for you. And you will laugh.

Why I put PZ Myers in a hot air balloon

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I don’t blame PZ Myers for not liking me; if I were him I wouldn’t like me either. Myers is a grown adult and an associate professor of biology at UM Morris, best known for not believing in God, for refusing to condemn bestiality, and for a 2008 stunt in which he desecrated a Communion host along with some pages from the Qu’ran. He runs a blog, Pharyngula, which he disconcertingly describes as ‘random ejaculations from a godless liberal.’ (It’s not inaccurate – his daily rants do elicit that same combination of pity and disgust as the sight of someone rubbing one out in public.) If I’m honest, Myers first came to my attention when he wrote a brief response to my unfair and uncharitable hitpiece on Neil deGrasse Tyson, describing me as ‘an anti-intellectual reverse-snob — he thinks he should be proud of being so blatantly pro-mystery and anti-science,’ an epithet so apt I had to put it on my masthead. More recently, he’s taken exception to my essay on the general intellectual tenor of the atheist movement in the Baffler, writing a counterblast titled ‘Sam Kriss, master of projection.’ I’m not surprised; I struck first. The essay itself isn’t really original; nothing ever is: the core argument is for the most part a recapitulation of Max Horkheimer’s critique in Theism and Atheism, inflected with Kierkegaard, my own non-invidious alethiology, and vitriol. It’s the vitriol that Myers seems to be most upset by – which is strange, as he’s certainly capable of dishing it out. In my introductory paragraph I run through a couple of atheism’s leading lights, and the sheer strangeness of their behaviour. Richard Dawkins, for instance, is ‘a wheeling lunatic, dizzy in his private world of old-fashioned whimsy and bitter neofascism.’ Chris Hitchens, ‘blinded by his fug of rhetoric, fell headlong into the Euphrates.’ And Myers I describe as ‘psychotic, screeching death from a gently listing hot air balloon.’

‘Well, actually…’ he writes. His whole ideology can be contained in that ‘well, actually.’ I’m not really all that interested here in defending the substance of my essay from Myers’s counterarguments, such as they are; it can stand for itself. His invocation of projection, pointing out that I ascribe various degrees of madness to all these prominent atheists while at the same time coming across a little unhinged myself, mostly just shows that he doesn’t really get it. I’ll only note that it’s interesting to see, after having routinely criticised atheism for being dismally pedantic – blind to metaphor and nuance, relentlessly fixated on the stupid binary of true and false, seized with the monstrous idea that the best statement is one which blithely repeats an existing state of affairs and does no more – that both Myers and his readership are utterly baffled by my comment on Hitchens. ‘It wasn’t a fug that killed him,’ Myers writes, ‘or even his own rhetoric, but cancer.’ Well, shit. One Owlmirror speculates: ‘Did Hitchens at some point literally fall in the Euphrates? I mean, he was a journalist in the right area… Or could it be a convoluted reference to Hitchens’ fondness for whiskey?’ Another wonders if I’m ‘somehow referring to Euphrates the Stoic.’ I’ll leave them to work it out; what I really want to zero in on is Myers’s response to my characterisation of himself. He writes: ‘Again, “screeching death” is also terribly inapt, and why has he put me in a hot air balloon?’

It’s usually bad form to explain your own metaphors; as well as resolving the meaning of a text back to boring old authorial intention, it strips away all the indeterminacy that makes a metaphor interesting in the first place. If you can cut through the metaphor and explain what you mean without any damage to that meaning, you should have just said what you meant in the first place. But this is a special case; the object of the metaphor is himself demanding to know why he’s in a hot air balloon, and it wouldn’t be fair to trap someone in a basket high above the earth without at least telling them why. So I’ll give PZ Myers the explanation I owe him. This is why I put him in a hot air balloon.

  1. It’s funny. No man is more ridiculous than the one trapped in a gently listing hot air balloon, and PZ Myers has been trapped in a gently listing hot air balloon all his life. The man has a fairly round head, its taper towards the chin smoothed out by that odobenine beard; his body seems to dangle from the rising roundness of his head. All I did was put him next to a mirror of himself. As I cut the ropes and the hot air balloon started to wobble towards the heavens his big round head wobbled too, poking out from over the lip of the basket, demanding that I let him down at once. But it was too late. Even if I’d wanted to, there was nothing I could do to save him: PZ Myers and his balloon were already high above me, diminishing into the sky’s glittering haze, bloating upwards to a higher truth, to punch the face of God.
  2. Atheism, of the type I describe in the Baffler piece, could be considered as a form of helplessness before the facts. The highest endeavour of humanity is to catalogue all the stupid details of our physical universe, to ingest them and then barf them out again; the human being is just a mechanism by which the universe repeats itself, for no good reason. We are not active, we do not form our own world; any attempt to do so is denounced as superstition and untruth. Atheists always love to present their interventions as being exceptionally brave, personal conscience against the follies of society, but in fact it’s hard to conceive of an ideology that’s more thoroughly passive. To give him his due, Myers distinguishes himself from some of his contemporaries with a stated commitment to social change; he’s broadly pro-feminist, he supports LGBT+ struggles, and so on, like so many social liberals he is at least opposed to the more morbid symptoms of the disease – but all this, as his response shows, remains in the context of that same godawful pedantry. His arguments for egalitarianism are epistemological arguments; like so many liberal Aufklärer he considers social justice to follow from the brute facts, rather than as something that seeks to abolish them. In other words, we are in the hot air balloon, knocked about by the winds, unable to steer our own course; all we can do is embrace the jetstreams as they knock our big blobby heads across the skies, because if nothing else they are at least factually true. Myers roars his power and indignation, and all the while his balloon tilts onwards to nowhere.
  3. Consider the loneliness of the man in the hot air balloon. Up on his lonely rootless perch all other figures slowly melt into their backdrop. Houses fade into cities, cities fade into a fuzzy urban smudge; above a certain height, even the birds will no longer visit him. The gaze of scientific rationality is abstract and disembodied; it sees the world of facts spread out beneath it, and knows that it can never come back down. PZ Myers is a monad. Like all dogmas atheism has its schisms and its cleavages, but Myers has managed to utterly alienate himself from his co-religionists: he’s disliked by the bigoted, bellicose contingent because of his attempts to disown the nerd misogyny and the general unpleasantness that surrounds organised atheism; he’s disliked by the social-justice contingent for his furious outbursts, his bloodthirstiness, his malice, his badly cloaked self-regard, his bellicose bigotry. PZ Myers fell into the sky. You can see him sometimes, on a clear day; a tiny dot hovering by the edge of a faded afternoon moon, his screams unheard, the ruler of his pelagic isolation.
  4. In 2008, the Brazilian priest Adelir Antônio de Carli died in a cluster ballooning accident. De Carli was a champion of the poor and destitute in his city of Paranaguá, defending beggars against police violence; he regularly carried out similar stunts to raise money for local charities. On his last balloon flight, de Carli found himself floating out over the ocean, where he lost contact with his ground team; months later, his body was found near an offshore oil rig. PZ Myer’s response was sheer gruesome delight; his only concern was that more priests weren’t dying thousands of miles from the ground. ‘I am imagining a day,’ he wrote, ‘when every priest in the world stands smiling beneath a great happy bobbing collection of many-colored balloons, and they all joyously loft themselves up, up into the sky, joyfully drifting away before the winds until they are just a tiny speck and then … gone.’ (This is a minor quibble, next to the sheer monstrosity of his fantasies, but nobody who uses ‘joyously’ and ‘joyfully’ in the same sentence should ever think of criticising someone else’s writing.) PZ Myers dreams of massacring Latin American Catholic priests, shooting them down with ‘an ultralight aircraft and a BB gun’; he dreams with the Escuadrón de la Muerte; it was only right that someone should put him in a balloon all for himself.
  5. He was rude to Tami, which is unforgivable.
  6. PZ Myers struggled at first, when I put him in the hot air balloon. All the usual complaints: no, I don’t want to go, don’t put me in there, I don’t like it. But he settled down once it started to rise; whatever the indignity, it’s fun to go on a hot air balloon ride – even if you are alone, even if you can never come back down. I put him there because I could, and he stayed there because that hot air balloon is where he’s always belonged.
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