Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Month: March, 2014

In defence of Fred Phelps

God is a “no” to the world.
Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans

The primal scene takes place on red earth and under red skies. It’s close to sunset; it’s always close to sunset here. Tangled thorny shrubs gasp in the thirsty Levantine scrubland, leaves caked with dust, roots twisting up through the ground. Two men walk through this flat and deathly expanse, one as knotted and bended by age as the small desperate plants that surround him, the other still young, carrying wood and kindling. They walk in silence; both knowing what has to happen. The wind shrieks an unworldly, callous laugh; a chorus of distant vultures takes up its refrain. Far on the horizon cliffs tower like grim fortifications, and beyond them the mountain of Moriah stands wreathed in storm, the clouds looking as hard and jagged as the rocks they obscure. Abraham, father of nations, is afraid. He is despised by the idolaters of the world, he is forced to live alone in the desert of his God, but through all this he took comfort from the promise that through his son Isaac a mighty people would arise. Some promise. As father and son hobble ever closer to the forbidding foothills of Moriah, a voice booms out from beyond the infinite. ABRAHAM, ABRAHAM. A voice in which cities are reduced to rubble calls for its prophet. Here am I, says Abraham. What else can he say before the majesty of the true God? By what right can he argue his case? The voice of the Lord sounds out again. ABRAHAM. DID YOU SEE FAMILY GUY LAST NIGHT? THAT’S SOME FUNNY SHIT MAN. FREAKIN SWEET LOIS HAHA.

Kierkegaard had it easy; in the light of modernity his fear and trembling before God’s infinite qualitative difference is child’s play. He asks us to consider the anguish of an Abraham commanded to sacrifice his son, confronted by a God who suddenly appears as a monster, vicious and cruel, but one whose pronouncements still carry a terrible duty; a teleological suspension of the ethical. No problem. There’s still terror and glory in a cruel God, as Job would soon discover. The real anguish begins when we’re forced to confront a teleological suspension of good taste, the possibility of God as a dull, cretinous boor. Not a Father dressed in celestial robes, but a flabby and balding God in polyester tracksuits and a white t-shirt stained beige by the centuries, dropping His cigarette ends in empty beer cans and subsisting off a diet of 7-11 hotdogs and instant mac’n’cheese. A mediocre, sexually frustrated, perverted, boring God. This isn’t the God that exists, or one that’s held to by any of the world’s major denominations. Still, there are those that really do believe in Him and hold Him to be all-powerful; somewhere in the world He carries the same teleological gravity as the God of Abraham, Mohammed, and Kierkegaard.

This is why the late Fred Phelps was our age’s heir to the greatness of the biblical Abraham. His tiny Westboro Baptist Church (they of the ‘God hates fags’ signs) is doctrinally not too different from the other Primitive Baptist congregations that sprout up across much of the Southern and Western United States like a fungal infestation: thin, grey, mycetic churches, damp to the touch, with unavoidably phallic caps. Unlike the rest of them, however, his church seems to really believe what it preaches. Not just the stuff about homosexuality, which is still commonplace and usually just mere bigotry given a religious gloss, but the whole lunatic doctrine. There’s no point in hating the Westboro Baptist Church; hatred for them is the one point on which the world presents a united front. They want this. If the only thing that distinguished them was the virulence of their God’s hatred for homosexuality, they’d be unexceptional among the ‘Christian’ right – but they also picket the funerals of dead soldiers. If they only picketed military funerals they might have allies among Code Pink and other anti-imperialist movements – but they insist on insulting gays, Jews, and religious minorities. If they abhorred homosexuality and American troops they could conceivably find some common ground with unreconstructed Stalinists – but they won’t budge on their devotion to God. The universal revulsion in which they’re held makes them an easy target for civil rights activists, but at the same time it makes them a useless target. Nobody supports the Westboro Baptists; they have no influence – it’s institutional violence that creates misery for queer people across the world, not a travelling band of placard-waving loonies. At the same time repugnance for Fred Phelps isn’t just a cheap shot, it also blots out his Abrahamic dedication.

The Westboro Baptists famously believe that when a convoy of Humvees in Afghanistan is hit by an IED or a bus full of schoolchildren plunges off a bridge, this is God’s punishment for America’s toleration of homosexuality. This seems to be a fairly singular fixation, given the number of other Old Testament laws that are carelessly and blasphemously disregarded by modern society (Clothes made from mixed fibres (Leviticus 19:19)! Seafood restaurants on every corner (Deuteronomy 14:10)! Men with flat noses in church! (Leviticus 21:18)! Abominations! Blasphemy! Horror!). Still, it’s arguable that their homophobia is ontologically derived from their religious belief, rather than being the fleck of dirt around which the pearl of their theology forms. Phelps was a lawyer, and a good one too (in his early career he took on a number of civil rights cases, and helped overturn the Jim Crow establishment in Kansas); his faith starts from first principles. The Westboro baptists hold that nothing happens on Earth that is not according to God’s will – how could it, when God is all-powerful? Unlike other Christian sects, they don’t believe that homosexuality is a personal decision to defy the laws of God and Nature; it’s a punishment. Their God doesn’t hate queer people because they’re queer; they’re queer because He hates them. Phelps held to the idiot hyper-Calvinist logic of double predestination: an omniscient God must have known from the beginning of time which souls would be saved and which would be damned – and if some souls are damned, it can only be because an omnipotent God decided that they should be damned, because  He hates them. And so to ensure their damnation He makes them disobey His law, and then He punishes them accordingly. The God of the Westboro Baptists is a lawyer-God, taking guilt as an axiom – in other words, an absurd clownish pervert. And they love Him.

In the strict Freudian sense, homosexuality is a fetishistic perversion – but then so is heterosexuality. Every pleasurable activity beyond procreation is some kind of confusion of sexual object or aim. A married couple, holding each other in bed, delighting in the electric sensation of skin against skin and the warmth and security of their love: foetid Sodomic perversion, vice and infamy, deviance, ungodliness, filth, filth. It’s not even as if there’s some original state of purity and propriety; infantile sexuality is dominated by oral and anal eroticism, with the genital stage following on as something of an afterthought. The base-state of humanity is described by Freud as polymorphously perverse; the movement towards a socially acceptable hetero- homo- bi- or pansexuality is just a matter of refining this multiplicity of foundational deviances. If fetishism is a necessary component of a normal healthy sexuality, you have to look elsewhere to find the real perversions. Things like trying to fight the legal system on its own terrain, or eating deep-fried butter on a stick, or playing a blandly brutal millennia-long game with the eternal fates of billions of souls, or reaching out from beyond the veil of the cosmos to proclaim with a divine finality: NO BUTT STUFF.

The fanatical hatred the Westboro Baptist Church has for queer people, their willingness to blame sexual minorities for everything from natural disasters to political unrest to disease epidemics, can only be because of this. Perversion is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. In such a context homosexuality can only be read as a Tower of Babel, an attempt to storm the gates of Heaven. It takes faith and courage to submit yourself to a mighty and glorious God whose ways and whose love are entirely beyond our comprehension; it takes far more to do the same for a God at once sick, sadistic, depraved, and at the same time incredibly insipid, a transcendental pedant. The Westboro Baptist Church wasn’t founded in the holy wastelands of the Middle East, surrounded by mountains and idols and warring cities. It was founded in Topeka, Kansas, among big-box supermarkets and low suburbs and endless flat fields of genetically modified corn. The gods that reveal themselves there generally turn out to be obnoxious pimply brats. Despite all this there’s a heroic dimension to the faith of the children of Fred Phelps, who embrace every evil and injustice in the world because they think God made it. It’s almost Nietzschean. In a religious landscape full of feeble cringing Hinterweltlern, only Fred Phelps really believed; only he could face a dull God and a dull world with fear and trembling and love.

There’s courage in bad doctrine, but it’s still bad doctrine. The Westboro Baptists write that the modern militant homosexual movement poses a clear and present danger to the survival of America, exposing our nation to the wrath of God as in 1898 B.C. at Sodom and Gomorrah. The crime for which the God of Abraham destroyed those cities is often held to be that of sodomy – but the Book of Genesis never really identifies the nature of their sin, only its gravity. Fred Phelps  give the impression of being a man much interested in Jewish theology, but there’s a passage in the Talmud that’s relevant here. In Sanhedrin 109a it is written: [The Sodomites] said: Since there cometh forth bread out of our earth, and it hath the dust of gold, why should we suffer wayfarers, who come to us only to deplete our wealth? Pirkei Avot goes further: One who says, ‘What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours’ is of average character, and some say this is the character of Sodom. When the wrath of God descended upon these cities and a rain of fire blasted their green fields to red wasteland, it wasn’t because of any perverse sexual enjoyment: it was because they refused their ethical duty to be open to the Other.

Budget 2014: what it means for you

My baby says we can live in the empty spaces of this life. My baby says far away the stars are coming all undone.
Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1 (Penguin 1990) p. 919 § 3

As everyone knows, the word ‘economy’ is derived from the ancient Greek oikonomia – the management of a slave-owning household. In those dark and uncivilised days, it was assumed that formal levels of prosperity depended, at root, on the ability of some people to effectively subdue and repress others. These days, with the benefit of modern scientific practices, we know better. The economy is not, as once assumed, the aggregate of general well-being or misery; it’s a tiny, frightened, but impossibly powerful fairy that lives inside the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s red briefcase. From within this box it whispers a long list of all the things it’s afraid of in an endearingly squeaky voice audible only to the Chancellor, who then has the annual task of conveying its wishes to the public at large. Beyond the fairy’s usual demands for blood sacrifice, toil, and hardship, every year a few new innovations are included in the national ransom note. Here is a comprehensive account of this year’s Budget Statement as it took place, and what it could mean for your already faint chances of survival.

– The right honourable George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, stands before the House of Commons, announced by the opening bars of the rex tremendae from Verdi’s Messa da Requiem. He is greeted with a chorus of cheers, boos, old school songs, football chants, hissing, banging of cutlery, smashing of bottles, shouts of ‘shame,’ ‘guilt,’ ‘terror,’ and ‘get your tits out,’ blasphemous invocations, unearthly shrieks, mucousy puckering of tentacles, jubilant firing of AK-47s into the air, the usual banterous commotion of the Mother of Parliaments. Two boys in the back benches are sent out to be caned by the deputy Speaker after trying to throw a large inflatable crocodile onto the parliament floor, and are told they’ll have their tuck money confiscated.

– Osborne doesn’t look well. His fist shakes in random, nervous, jitters. His eyes stare out bleakly. His prehensile tail wraps itself around David Cameron’s hand and squeezes it tight. He begins by announcing that the economy is recovering faster than expected. News of the fairy’s good health brings applause, with cries of ‘I do believe; I do, I do!’ from the assembled MPs. Britain is growing ‘faster than Germany, faster than Japan, faster than the US.’ New forecasts predict the rapidly expanding British Isles to have entirely subducted much of Europe and northern Africa by the end of 2015. Portsmouth will be on a latitude previously occupied by Lagos, men will be twice as tall as houses, and the Shard will reach halfway to the Moon. Due to the inverse square law, many people will collapse under their own weight and explode into meaty shreds, but those Brobdingnagian survivors of Britain’s expansion will be able to once again stand astride a defeated globe.

– To combat counterfeits that cost the taxpayer millions each year, a new £1 coin is to be introduced. As part of the current government’s partisanship on the side of old money (in any semantic sense), the coin will take its shape from the pre-decimal threepenny bit. The obverse will feature a small LCD screen with an animated gif of the Queen locked in a passionate kiss with Katherine, Duchess of Cambridge. The reverse will show three stock traders kicking the shit out of a council tenant, along with the words Your death will be as useless as your life. The image is intended to be graphically horrifying to the extent that anyone trying to produce a forgery without being implanted with the Royal Mint’s emot-i-gone neural implants will be overcome by a wave of unbearable, suicidal dread.

– While zero-hour contracts and internships have spurred economic growth by adding hundreds of thousands to the ranks of the employed without having to actually employ or compensate them, there is still more to be done. New regulations will introduce negative-hours contracts, in which you will be periodically knocked out with a sudden blow to the back of the head and required to pay your employer for each hour spent unconscious.

– As properties in London are accruing more value than the average London resident actually earns, Osborne suggests that the homeless stand on their hands and knees, arch their backs, and advertise themselves as a studio apartment.

– Reduction in duties will mean that each pint of beer is now one penny cheaper. That surplus penny will then be dropped into your drink so you can be press-ganged into working in a stifling warehouse outside Peterborough.

– The chancellor bangs one fist on his desk. ‘Bring on the cuts!’ he shouts. Pop music plays. Twelve bikini models enter the House carrying an enormous pair of scissors, blow kisses to the opposition benches, place the scissors between Osborne’s legs to briefly create the impression of an enormous tumescent phallus, and leave. You will now have to eat dog food.

– Osborne takes a reflective turn. ‘Conspiracy theories have always existed,’ he says. ‘The great innovation of Lutheranism, with its accusations of Papal blasphemy, was to change their locus. Previously rulers were forever afraid of conspiracies on the part of those they oppressed, of heresies and witchcraft and peasant uprisings. Now, the grand conspiracy is held to be the mode of operation of those who already effectively run  the world, and who announce their malign intentions openly before the masses as I do before you today. The scale of this victory cannot be overstated. The hidden conspiracy has become a thing of aristocratic evil, where it was once the only effective means of popular resistance. It is only by allowing others to think that we are engaged in secret and nefarious plots that those of us in power have been able to survive.’

– Win big with bingo. Our jackpot’s stretch into the £1,000’s, not to mention weekly big cash wins and huge progressive jackpots!

– The chancellor’s head begins to throb. Glowing fissures open across the surface of his forehead, then draw themselves shut again. When he speaks there’s the strange rasping echo of a merciless laugh from beyond space and time. As the country remains mired in debt, radical solutions will have to be found. The government proposes to pay off the nation’s debt in one fell swoop by selling the souls of every British citizen to Satan, Prince of Darkness. Such a move will require some formalistic fiscal restructuring. Rather than representing a portion of the original 1694 loan that established the Bank of England, all currency will now act as a promissory note for some of each individual’s eternal damnation. Responsible and upstanding citizens will be encouraged to commit increasingly abhorrent sins to help keep the pound strong. In practice, very little will change.

– The Budget Statement nears its end. ‘More must toil,’ says the heir apparent to the Osborne baronetcy of Ballentaylor and Ballylemon. ‘More must strive. More must be defeated. The lazy masses must learn the value of fruitless drudgery. This is a Budget for the makers, the doers, and the savers, and I commend it to the House.’

– Leader of the opposition Ed Miliband stands to make his response. Before he can begin talking, two unending streams of viscous yellowish snot pour from his nostrils. The House of Commons slowly fills to the ceiling. There are no survivors.

First as funny, then as die

There’s a lot wrong with Zach Galifianakis’s interview with Barack Obama, leader of the current American regime and undetained war criminal, on the spoof internet chatshow Between Two Ferns. Given the bleak absurdity of the situation and of all existence, here’s a listicle.

1. The title. Funny or die? Nonsense like this is why dialectics needs to be added to the primary school curriculum. Samuel Beckett wrote that nothing is funnier than unhappiness, but death gives it a run for its money – especially death as generally practised in late capitalism: death as a bureaucratic procedure, death without heroism. The family gathered at the hospital bedside, the desperate attempt to squeeze out a few last words of scrabbled-together wisdom, so full of abject seriousness that it always risks turning into a farce. The dying don’t have any more access to truth and meaning than anyone else, generally all they have is an intensity of regret. Sometimes the anal sphincter relaxes; the dead have a tendency to perform one last act of slapstick. And then a doctor arrives to cheerily tell everyone what time it is. The comedy of the grotesque is based on the continuity of bodies against prim and orderly individuation; that’s why shitting is funny, why sex is funny, and why corpses are hilarious.

2. The abrogation of comic duty. When confronting the great and the good, good comedians tend to feign deference to power while actually subverting it. Galifianakis does the opposite. He yawns in Obama’s face, identifies him as a ‘community organiser,’ accuses him of being a nerd, questions his allegiance to the nation, drops references to the conspiracy theory that he was born in Kenya, and (quite callously) to his enlargement of government surveillance and his programme of drone warfare. It’s all meaningless; in the end the interview is just a publicity stunt for the Affordable Care Act, a massive payout to insurance companies disguised as an egalitarian reform. Galifianakis’s faux-insincerity and neutered mockery isn’t even trying to mask the real content: isn’t it cool that the President is doing this? At the end of the sketch the black curtain comes down and it’s revealed that the whole thing has been taking place in the White House – in other words, within a structure of power. The comfortable remain unafflicted. It’s not just unethical, it tends to not be very funny. That’s why Stephen Colbert will always be funnier than Jon Stewart, a man who’d respond to a war crimes tribunal with a series of minutely composed funny faces. There’s a strange and awkward tension surrounding the whole Between Two Ferns interview, one that has nothing to do with the overt cringebait and everything to do with the sense of a stillborn satire.

3. The whole nerd thing. The interview is supposed to be a joke, but when Galifianakis accuses Obama of being a nerd the President’s eyes flash with a genuine fury. His denial is real. I’m not a nerd, bro! I smoked weed in high school, bro! I ordered the extrajudicial assassination of an United States citizen and his sixteen-year old son, bro! I’m fucking Michelle, bro! He has a point.

4. Obama as the straight man. Comedy duos tend to consist of one character behaving oddly and another to vent his ‘normal’ frustrations: Abbott of Abbott and Costello; John Cleese in the dead parrot sketch. Here it’s Obama. On his other shows Galifianakis sends himself up and allows his guests to do the same; on this one there’s no question of that happening. The President of the United States is transformed into some hideous Chandler-from-Friends figure, wisecracking about the Hangover films and the fantasy spider bites on his host’s arm. It’s not the show’s intention, but the ease with which Obama can enter this role demonstrates precisely that the straight man is always in fact a deluded and murderous psychopath.

5. The end of greatness. The cosmological principle states that the universe is homogeneous and isomorphic. Look at the universe on a large enough scale and it’s made of enormous walls of galaxy clusters, each billions of light years across, containing millions of galaxies that themselves contain billions of stars, forming a fragile web between vast and empty voids. Great things happen. Galaxies collide, stars are born and burn out, intelligent life stares out into the darkness and dreams stories for itself. Look at the universe on a slightly larger scale and the filaments and voids vanish. The universe is a flat grey expanse, all matter and all energy distributed evenly across its infinity, with no structure and no hidden meaning. On a large enough scale, the heat death of the universe has already happened. The world we think we inhabit, with its iridescent nebulae and heroic struggles for life and Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis – it’s a translation error, a glitch between the blankness of the large-scale universe and the blankness of subatomic chaos. You exist, miraculously, in the middle of this precarious mistake of heterogeneity, and President Barack Obama has decided that he has the right to snuff out your life by missile-armed robot in the event that you might pose a threat to the future security of a national abstraction. And that’s pretty funny.

Vladimir Putin: master satirist

Oo-err, missus.

Sensible types rejoice. Over at the Independent, Owen Jones has written against the old line that the first casualty of war is the truth: in the Ukrainian crisis, the first casualty has been irony. Russian intervention is illegitimate, but at the same time Western condemnation is hypocritical given our track record in Palestine, Bahrain, and Egypt. Owen Jones is a useful chap, because he marks very precisely the limit of generally acceptable left-wing thought. He keeps a solitary vigil at the frontier of reason, hands in his pockets, maybe whistling a comforting little tune to himself as he scans the horizon for incoming threats, eyes tracking back and forth in his big soft party balloon of a head. Stand with Owen Jones and you can have it all: Labour party membership, a weekly column in a national newspaper, regular appearances on the BBC and Channel 4; your book will adorn middle-class shelves all along the belt of radicalism that stretches across north London from Ealing to Islington. Take one step out beyond his lonely border-post and you’re in the wilderness. Famines, purges, gulags. Monsters winding their heavy bodies between the weather-beaten columns of ruined cities. Rust seeping into the nuclear cores of a shoal of beached submarines. Mute staggering mobs doomed to track vast circles in the desert for eternity. Madness.

It’s the duty of every sensible radical to see exactly where the boundaries of acceptable thought lie and then power straight through them, even if only to sketch out a critique of the hinterlands beyond. (It’s a sad fact that since the Romantic period the practice of architectural criticism has almost completely eclipsed geological or topological criticism – we shouldn’t just live in landscapes; we should interpret and change them.) More to the point, though, Owen Jones is wrong. The current standoff in Crimea doesn’t mark the death of irony, but its resurgence. War always involves the exercise of a certain sarcastic brutality. In 1945, the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto was only saved from atomic destruction because US Secretary of War had spent an enjoyable honeymoon there – seventy thousand people had to die horribly in Nagasaki as punishment for their Sōfuku-ji lacking the refined charms of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The armistice that ended the First World War famously came into force on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, but this meant that thousands of soldiers on both sides died in the hours between midnight and 10:59 am, bravely sacrificing their lives so that schoolchildren in future generations would have an easy fact for their history essays. War itself is fundamentally ironic; its central truth is that you should want to kill someone before even deciding if you personally dislike them or not, and everything else is a mode of appearance that tries to cloud this fact in contradictions.

What makes the events in Crimea interesting is that they’re being satirised as they occur, and not by outside observers but by the primary participants. In the war of ironies being waged between Russia and the Western bloc, there’s only one clear winner. Vladimir Putin is a consummate ironist, a master of satire in the deep cold Russian tradition of Gogol and Bulgakov. Obama and Cameron and Merkel don’t stand a chance.

The really remarkable thing about Putin is how eagerly everyone in the West appears to swallow his tough-guy persona. It fits our image of Russia, and it fits the image Russia wants to project. The closest we’ll come to a hermeneutic approach to the Putin-spectacle is to chortlingly point out that for all his draconian homophobic policies, Vladimir Putin is totally gay. Tigers: flaming. Riding a horse, shirtless, in the mountains: a Village People tribute act. Aside from being a dubious essentialisation of sexual difference, it misses the point entirely. Putin isn’t a muscular he-man; he’s an apparatchik, a KGB dork. He famously had a long career in intelligence, but working for the Soviet secret services wasn’t all murdering dissidents with poison-tipped umbrellas or applying the spirit of détente to James Bond’s dick. Putin’s sole foreign assignment was in Dresden, where by all accounts his job mostly consisted of writing endless reports for his superiors in Moscow while the local Stasi did all the legwork. Putin is a nerd, and his excesses are all classic loser fantasies: learning judo, shooting large animals, flying fighter jets, bedding gymnasts, invading sovereign states, being the tough guy – all have their place in the sociopathic pantheon of nerdy wish-fulfilment. When it comes to nerds I’ll defer to the wisdom of the American right-wing radio host and lunatic Alex Jones: Nerds are the one of the most dangerous groups in this country, because they end up running things, but they still hate everybody, because they weren’t the jocks in high school, so they play little dirty games on everybody. They use their brains to hurt people. And I’m aware of them. OK? I see you, you little rats! As ever, Alex Jones is completely correct; there’s definite malice in the intrusive new reign of the Silicon Valley dorkocrats. But at the same time, nerds are attuned to the cruel ironies of the world in a way that high-school jocks like Alex Jones and self-righteous stoner fratboys like Barack Obama will never understand. They might be vicious, but at least they have a sense of humour.

Putin brought this out in his press conference on the 4th of March. Over sixty-six minutes, he made a series of outstanding claims. The armed men who had surrounded Ukrainian bases in Crimea and were demanding the surrender of those inside were clearly spontaneous local militia. Their uniforms, which looked suspiciously like those of the Russian military but lacked any insignia, were probably bought from army surplus shops. At the same time he vigorously defended Russia’s right to intervene in defence of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, even though that was definitely not what was happening. He had authorisation to intervene from the regional government in Crimea and from Victor Yanukovych, who was still the legitimate president of Ukraine despite being a powerless, corrupt, murderous, pathetic little worm. (This was a particular flourish; it’s not hard to imagine the lickspittle Yanukovych weeping into his pillow in Rostov-on-Don between stern-faced press appearances. He’s stuck now; Putin can do what he wants with him.) He even laughingly fessed up to the endemic corruption in Russian politics – it’s hard to see American leaders doing the same, despite the billions flowing into election funds from corporate lobbyists. If there’s one weakness in Putin’s performance, it’s that he was slightly too eager to explain the joke, comparing his incursion into Crimea with NATO intervention in Kosovo and Libya. Putin knows that most of what he’s saying isn’t true, and he knows that you know that too. Unlike Colin Powell showing made-up images of imaginary Iraqi bioweapons labs to the UN, Putin isn’t trying to make you believe him. The point is that he can say it; his talk of Crimean self-determination and human rights and the threat of ethnic cleansing is a self-conscious satire of the language of humanitarian intervention. Western states have reacted with such opprobrium not because of any geopolitical threat but because the sanctity of the Just War is being mocked. Lead is the parody of gold, coitus is the parody of crime, Crimea is the parody of imperial war. Parody is always a disruption of existing categories. The Russians have no insignia, no accountability – and, worst of all, they haven’t even had the decency to kill anyone yet.

Western condemnation has admittedly taken a lacklustre form. This might be because its chief instigator is US Secretary of State John Kerry, a great honking dullard with a face as dull and as oblong as a pencil eraser, a flouncy New England boarding-school cretin who somehow lost an election to George W Bush but still managed to wedge himself into a position of power through an unholy combination of dim-witted persistence and the $750m in his family coffers. In response to Putin’s press conference, the State Department published a listicle of ’10 false claims about Ukraine.’ If there’s one thing that could make Putin’s call for a return to traditional values sound appealing it’s this: for all the many sins of past societies, the dominant literary paradigms tended to be poetry or prose fiction, rather than BuzzFeed. Numbered lists might convey information in an exciting viral-ready format, and it might even be factually correct in the most banal of senses, but only rarely can they expose the cold truth of the world. The discourse they impose is one of bland attachment to existing conditions: here are some experiences, in gif form, that you will relate to if you have curly hair, or a Jewish boyfriend, or were born in the 1990s. The point of great art is to induce a sense of vertiginous estrangement. Vladimir Putin takes his place in a long line of expert ironists – along with the God of the Old Testament, Hamilcar Barca, Maximilien Robespierre, General Butt Naked, and the Google ‘I’m feeling lucky’ function – that do precisely that.

How to overthrow your own body

Pictured: Gold medallist, men’s 750,000 metre coup

Human language had a good run, but it’s about time to admit that the whole experiment has ended in failure. For two hundred thousand years we’ve been flapping mouths and breathing spittle at each other in a supposedly meaningful manner. We’ve invented needlessly complex processes for immortalising these self-important eructations, first on rock, then paper, then computers. It’s hard to calculate exactly how much this habit of language has cost us over the centuries, but it could only run into the tens of trillions of dollars. All those cuneiform temple inscriptions, all those public speaking engagements, all those shitty radio panel shows – and for what? The whole system has proven itself so useless that we feel the need to periodically massacre each other for attaching the wrong meanings to the wrong set of belches. This still goes on today, despite the fact that it’s now well known that words can never really refer to things but only to other words. Language is the hideous bastard hatchling of a hydra and and an ouruborus, and it needs to be slain immediately. If any further evidence of this is needed, you only have to look at the official readout of Obama’s phone call with Putin concerning the Russian intervention in Crimea.

The degeneration of language is happening at a frightening pace. Nothing in Obama’s ninety-minute conversation makes any sense. The phrase ‘going forward’ (a ghastly coinage bordering on the eldritch, one that’s apparently supposed to convey an energetic dynamism but only summons the image of some unfortunate person drowning in an office cubicle as it slowly fills with printouts of pie charts) appears twice in the space of four sentences. Obama talks about the Budapest Memorandum and the Helsinki Final Act and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe; he sounds like a dorkily enthusiastic teenager getting a bit too wrapped up in his performance at a Model UN conference. He hints at sanctions, as if half of Europe weren’t dependent on Russian gas. It’s a twisted parody. Language is, before anything else, a vector of deception. The United States government has broken all the agreements he mentioned, reneging on its promise not to extend NATO up to Russia’s borders, helping prompt and direct the nationalist revolution that overthrew Yanukovych, engaging in wars of aggression across the globe. More fundamentally, he’s pretending that he and Putin are something other than what they are: a pair of bureaucrats instead of two bloodstained warlords, each of whom could, if the fancy took them, kill every single human being on the planet several times over. There’s no record of Putin’s response to Obama’s extended series of laryngal honks, but you get the impression that he’s gently humouring this earnest American who doesn’t seem to understand the way the world actually works, playing along in his game of talking about other words rather than things. It’s a shame, because for a while Putin looked like the only person who could save language from itself. In 2008, as Russian tanks were comprehensively fucking the Georgian army, he declared his intent to ‘hang [Georgian President] Saakashvili by his balls.’ This is what linguists call a speech act, doing by saying; precisely through abandoning the principle of representation it’s the closest words can come to being about things.

There aren’t many speech acts in the current crisis. We’re beyond the point where we can meaningfully distinguish between words and deeds. The Russian intervention in Crimea is intended to send a message to the new government in Kiev and its backers in Brussels and Washington; action has become infected with the sordid ephemerality of language.

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In the end, this whole mess can be blamed on the Sochi Winter Olympics. It’s a well-known and boring fact that in ancient Greece, wars were put on hold for the duration of the Games. The idea of doing the same thing now isn’t just infeasible but nonsensical; war and the Olympics are one and the same thing. Host governments treat the Games in much the same way that they treat foreign wars: they provide a chance to issue some contracts and boost important industries, they let you redraw the maps (turning a beach town into a mountain resort, or a moulding industrial park into a germ for gentrification), they’re a matter of national pride and a propaganda vehicle that helps calm internal contradictions – but at the same time they never seem to deliver the profits they promise; the costs inevitably spiral, and afterwards they tend to leave cities full of half-ruined buildings. It’s not just a matter of resemblance. With their vast crowds and attending dignitaries they’re a deliberate target for terrorists, allowing the hosts to show off their various defence technologies to the world. London 2012 wasn’t much more than an enormous arms fair, with an aircraft carrier on the Thames and missile batteries on the roofs of homes. Russia in particular seems to like conducting its imperial adventures during the Games. While jets battered Stalin’s birthplace in Georgia, representatives from the two countries were playing beach volleyball in Beijing. The Ukrainian paralympic team is still in Sochi. All this isn’t a distraction from the sport; it’s another facet of the same phenomenon.

Of course, sport is fascist bullshit. Liberal critics of organised sport like to hone in on its aggression and competition and the absurd salaries paid out to its practitioners, but none of this is the real problem. It’s true that most Olympic sports are some kind of symbolic warfare (with the potential exception of figure skating, although there’s still a case to be made against it), but a tendency towards aggression and competition is only a secondary characteristic of the fascist cosmology. The fundamental fascist vision is one of a cohesive and organic society, a society structured around the metaphor of the healthy body. Any politics of the body will by necessity be a politics that acts on the body: the healthy body becomes a regulative ideal, and images of healthy smiling men marching off to the front are suddenly everywhere. This spectacularisation of the body is always present (millions of people watch the Olympics), but it’s always also accompanied by the idea that health is good in and of itself, beyond any relation to the aesthetic. Individual health means social health. In Russia, the connection between the healthy body and militarism is still very much alive; Putin himself is constantly taking his shirt off to ride horses, wrestle tigers, catch fish, and otherwise demonstrate his unparalleled dominion over the animal world. In Western countries we generally prefer to wage war through silent and terrifying robots of death, but as the population grows steadily more obese and work is increasingly an activity that takes place in front of a screen (a screen showing sales figures, a screen showing a Pakistani village about to be obliterated, it makes no difference), the issue of health becomes a matter of deep general concern. And, as everyone knows, the best way to become healthy is through sport. Sport isn’t dangerous because it encourages competition or tribalism; it’s dangerous precisely because it’s healthy.

If there’s a central fascist procedure, it’s the subsumption rather than the sublimation of contradictions. Class antagonisms are buried in the organic nation, internal difference is either consumed or ejected, all cracks are papered up. The healthy body is a prime example of this. The ideology of sport and fitness has its roots in Victorian England – muscular Christianity, artificial famines in Ireland and India, the desperate belief that sports will prevent masturbation – but while it reached a kind of apex in the historical Fascism of the twentieth century, it stubbornly refused to die with its host. Left-wing responses to all this nonsense have been sadly anaemic. The most popular is a kind of body-euphoric self-affirmationism: the idea is that we should embrace all bodies as healthy and all bodies as beautiful. This appears to be a response to the dominant cult of fitness, but really it’s a capitulation to it and a failure to challenge its terms. Fitness and beauty are still good, sickness and ugliness are still bad, but the latter two are shoved beyond some metaphysical horizon. Instead of embracing ugliness in ugliness and as ugliness, its very existence is denied.

The figure of the body is a central concern of poststructuralist theory, and the academic tendency to refer to people as ‘bodies’ (based on the idea that the person is a fictive construct – after all, the word itself derives from the Latin persona, or mask – and that the only thing we can safely say about someone is that they have a body) seems to have filtered into a lot of non-academic discourse. At the same time the body itself is often instrumentalised rather than examined; this is why there’s so little real resistance to fitness fascism. It’s there from Foucault. In Nietzsche, Genealogy, History, he writes: The body is the inscribed surface of events […] and a volume in perpetual disintegration. [Our] task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body. Foucault seems to have a blind spot when it comes to the body; his approach to it is surprisingly un-Foucauldian. Genealogy opposes itself to the search for ‘origins,’ but when Foucault discusses the body as a site of scarring and crumbling, he implies the existence of an originary unscarred and unimprinted body; a body that’s perfect and primordial and pristine. There’s no such thing: a newborn baby is bloodied and screaming. It’s necessary to admit that there is no primordial unitary body, that the thing we call the body is nothing more than the collection of scars that constitutes our experience of it. There’s only a series of metamorphoses without aim or origin, and the healthy body is only another kind of deformation.

The overthrow of the body is a matter of urgency, because things aren’t going well. The new Ukrainian government includes six ministers from the neofascist Svoboda party. Russian soldiers are surrounding military bases in Crimea. The year ends in fourteen, idiots are in charge across Europe, and two global alliance systems are squaring off as Slavic nationalists do their best to rile up a great power. In the end it’s about language, the filthy habit of humanity. If your throat coughs up a hard g sound like a Russian then you’re shunted to one side, if you wheeze an h like a Ukrainian you’re on the other. The shame that periodically surrounds the body tends to be centred on shitting and pissing and fucking, because these acts remind us that the body isn’t a unitary entity closed off from its environment; really it’s speech that’s disgusting, because it lets us pretend that it is. The idea of an organic and discrete Ukraine and an organic and discrete Russia is dependent on the metaphor of an organic and discrete body. Irredentism echoes Foucault: history has effected a crumbling-away of the national body, but rather than just uncovering this body they want to restore it. The mad advocates of health and fitness have nuclear weapons at their disposal. If humanity is to survive the coming century, we all need to start smoking heavily.

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