Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Category: Vague Attempts at Satire

Ram-packed: a horror story about rail privatisation

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Despite what you might have heard, we did not collapse into savagery on the 19:26 privatised Virgin Trains service from London Euston. There was not a breakdown of society. We did not revert to barbarism or become like beasts, we did not experience a collapse of social norms, we did not suffer from a brutal upsurge of some timeless human nature in all its frenzy, its envy, and its sanguinary gore. What we achieved on that train was the highest possible expression of modern liberal civilisation. What I saw there, among unseeing eyeballs trailing tails of slime, between its black holes and white walls, was the the truth. The realisation of a perfect idea; at long last, something that works. When the train finally slid into that dry and hungry mouth at Crewe, having experienced minor delays, and we got off to make our connections or to buy a sandwich and a bottle of Diet Coke from the WH Smiths or to wash the blood off our faces in the greasy train-station sinks, we arrived in a world made finally itself.

Start at the beginning. London dribbles in loose splats against the outside of the windows as we speed north. There are parts of the urban chimera that you can only really see out the window of a panting intercity train: the fast-coursing rivers of unused rail and mossy gravel, the heaped industrial shacks groping over each other behind barbed wire, the shockingly naked backsides of terraced houses in grimy brick and spiderweb-cracked plaster with their haphazardly placed windows and their squat forms that bloat like the buried secret of the nice stucco streetside. All these things fade, bursting against the window and trailing off along the sides of the train. London itself fades, staggering into its own twilight. Soon it will be night, and the only thing visible through the train windows will be your own guilty reflection. I am guilty. I am sitting in someone else’s seat. Of course the train is overcrowded; it’s a bank holiday weekend, and thousands are streaming out of London to get the boat from Holyhead – but more than that, this is just the way things are. See how practical questions become moral ones: if you wanted to sit down for your journey, you should have booked a seat instead of getting an open return like the feckless dilettante you are; if you really wanted that seat, you should have been on the platform early instead of wasting five minutes dithering over three types of layered salad at the M&S Simply Food in a drooling microcosm of the delayed-adulthood indecision that is already setting the coordinates for your wasted life and will make sure that your grave is unvisited and unmarked after you die. There are rules; if you can’t play by them then you have nobody else to blame. But trudging through the Gothic infinity of packed carriages, I find an empty seat. Reserved from Milton Keynes Central. And I sit down, knowing that it doesn’t belong to me and I’ll have to give it up, knowing that I am the most worthless creature on this train.

First division. The people left standing, their long line like manacled captives searing through the middle of the carriage, are giving me strange looks. A healthy-looking couple, her hair tied back in a sheer ponytail, his cut short, both of them dangling big hiking rucksacks knotted with strange straps and harnesses, glare. Aleady they want me dead. They know I have no real right to be sitting down and I only got where I am from sheer blind luck. Second division. Out in the vestibule, little eyes peer and scowl behind doors that intermittently hiss open and shut. Third division. In the seat besides me, a balding navy-suited creature reading the Financial Times will sometimes almost-accidentally jab me with his elbow as he lobs peanut M&Ms into his mouth. I hear the flickering neck-snap crackle of candy shells breaking, the damper meatier crunch of masticated peanuts, the slurp and slobber of liquefying chocolate as it gums up the unholy inside of his mouth. He wants me dead too; he knows I don’t belong in that chair, and he hates the fact that to an imaginary observer he might appear to be somehow on the same social plane as an indolent impostor like myself. And me? I hate every one of them, the athletic young couple, the accusing eyes from the vestibule, my peanut-eating neighbour; they’ve seen my shame, and I want it to sprout tendrils and strangle them all.

At Milton Keynes the first skirmishes break out. The platform is packed, and grunts of open hostility greet the people trying to move into the train as others move out. Toes are mangled underfoot, epithets hissed. I give up my seat when the shadow of a tall skinnyfat beardo hovers over me, brandishing his ticket. (It’s hard to tell in the flurry of fake-apologetic winces and grimaces that pass between us as mandated by law – so sorry, no I’m sorry – but for a moment he appears to be wearing my face.) As the train insinuates through rotting late-summer fields I slide into the aisle’s frozen conga. I don’t feel any more solidarity for the seatless as I join their ranks. They certainly don’t seem to feel any for me. At the end of the carriage I see an old man leaning on a stick, stoically mashing his gums. The passengers around him stare into their laps. Not my problem. He should have bought a proper ticket.

Behind me, things are not going so well. A newcomer, short and brutal in a floral print dress, seems to have been allocated a table seat that’s currently being occupied by a family of four – fat gregarious husband, patient hijabi wife, children sucked face-first into their iPads – who also have a valid reservation. The Miltonian still expects them to move, children be damned. She’ll call a conductor. She’ll tell the authorities. When threats don’t seem to work, she leans down, arse bumping against elbows on the opposite row, to grab one of the small children from his seat. The kid screams and flails for his iPad. The husband roars and stands, swings a big broad wobbling punch, catches the aggressor just under her collarbone, and she staggers. The whole line of patient standing-room travellers tilts; I’m knocked forwards into someone’s sweaty shoulderblade. What happens next seems to coruscate in time. In the chaos of that sudden motion a sleek black camping knife tears through the fabric of the big healthy hiker’s rucksack, waiting, mechanically erect. His girlfriend, standing behind him, is knocked forwards, and it jabs deep just under her chin and comes out again, followed by a halting piss-stream of blood. There’s no sound. ‘Whoa,’ he says, noncommittally, as he rights himself; he still doesn’t know what’s just happened. She crumples dead. This carriage is not safe for me. As the first screams rise, and the panic of people crammed immovably in place spreads, I duck and sidle out back to the vestibule. My voyage begins.

This was not, as I discover, the first death. They might have all started like that – accidental – but the killing made too much sense to end that way. In the rubbery intestine between carriages a sprawling clot of people has formed, a pearl around a corpse. The body flails helplessly as the train lurches from side to side, still being kicked and pummelled furiously by an inner ring of maddened passengers; it’s already too disfigured to tell what its age was, or its sex. I don’t ask what crime the victim committed. I already know: they didn’t have the proper reservation. I move on, squeezing past the murderers. Sorry, I say. Sorry, they mutter in reply. The train is a linear Gormenghast, a sucession of reclusive bubble-worlds, each of them with the same decor and the same grisly violence, each brutally different. In the little restaurant car, children run and scream through the burst contents of bags of crisps and other people’s luggage. There’s blood crusting under their nails. They turn dagger-sharp eyes to me, and I move on. In the quiet coach bodies dangle silently from the overhead rail, mouths yawning in wordless screams. I bump my head against one with a barely audible thwock, and a lone impatient tut sounds out from somewhere behind me. I move on. I journey for a very long time, for what feels like years, pushing politely past the killing and the dying, fighting when I have to, fleeing when I can. I’m looking for something. A space where I can catch my breath, just a breath of air that’s not been made humid by sweat and frenzy. No luck. There are, I hear someone whisper, plenty of seats up in first class; you just need to buy a £12 upgrade. Impossible. By this time I’ve seen it myself: the drinks trolleys barricaded against the entrance, the sloping pile of corpses abutting it, every poor mangled idiot still gripping his credit card. And behind them, painted in grime and ichor on the frosted-glass sliding door, the face of the god: bearded, smiling warmly, the faint outlined suggestion of a nude woman clinging behind him on his kiteboard. Not a god who might save us. Richard Branson is a god who has already come to deliver us all.

I soon realise that this isn’t mere anarchy. This is the train responding creatively to its crisis, in the only way a privatised British rail service knows how. All the normal rules of decorum are still in place, the rules that let thousands of people travel amicably across the country while speaking as few words to each other as possible, the rules that give the reservation ticket its magical power and are inscribed in tiny polite jargon on its back – it’s just that the rules that ensure peace are being enforced by increasingly violent means. We are all good and valued customers, and we all have a right to be on this train. It’s just that there’s not enough room for us all. How else can we process our abstract equality? The marketplace of violence will sort everything out. Here, cloistered on a speeding train, we have spontaneously generated the most perfected version of the neoliberal utopia: thousands of subjects, all imprinted with its rational doctrines, working things out. The system is fair, I know it is – because in every carriage I cross, each bristled knotted carpet strewn with blood and viscera, the seated passengers are tapping placidly at their phones, leafing through the g2, idly munching Jelly Babies or nibbling at supermarket sushi, as if nothing were happening at all. Not my problem, their eyes say. They should have bought a proper ticket.

There’s so much I don’t remember.

Not the murder and the bloodshed – I will remember that forever – but more basic facts. Why was I going to Crewe? Why did I leave London and its nurturing stink? I paid, I think, twelve hundred pounds for my ticket. Sometimes I can’t help the vague disquieting feeling that there was someone else with me, that I was idly chatting in my stolen seat to someone important, someone that I knew but can’t now remember, until we reached Milton Keynes and everything started to become the same as it had always been. On this train everyone is only alone. Sometimes, as I edged my way through cacophonous carriages, I’d put a hand against the windowpane and try to look outside, at scenes that felt wrong. Were we moving? Sometimes there seemed to be deserts outside, sloshing dunes in the blue twilight, running like water from vast buried scales, beneath this train gritted still by a million chattering grains of sand. Sometimes I saw the sullen fields of England crisscrossed by tracer fire, paratroopers tumbling strangled from invisible planes, and over the horizon Coventry burning. Sometimes the darkness outside was lit by a tiny pinprick of the noonday sun, burning cold to the faint peripheries of this faraway solar system, where the 19:26 privatised Virgin Trains service from London Euston ploughed through sterile Hadean rock that had glittered lifeless for four and a half billion years, and under contellations unseen by humankind. At one point, I briefly locked myself in the bathroom, shortly before a furious minor tribe ripped out the door. I sat shivering on a toilet seat that pathetically begged with a coprophage’s masochism: ‘Don’t feed me wet wipes or sanitary products – they make me feel very poorly.’ I tried to connect to the onboard WiFi, and instead of a username and password, it asked me for the true name of God.

Despite what you might have heard, I said, we did not collapse into savagery on the 19:26 privatised Virgin Trains service from London Euston. But if I’m honest, I don’t know what you might have heard. As the train finally slid into that dry and hungry mouth at Crewe, having experienced minor delays, I found myself cowering in another vestibule. Most of the others were dead; the screams and gurgles, at least, had faded. And above the bins, behind blood-smeared glass, was a screen showing live CCTV from throughout a clean and orderly privatised train, resplendent with soft comfortable inviting empty seats. The god’s eye view. Onscreen, the only people left standing, or cluttering up the vestibules, were the ones who obstinately refused to sit. There, on one seat, with his hand on his companion’s knee, hunched over an open copy of René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred, scrolling through his phone between its pages, was myself. I remembered the man who had taken my seat at Milton Keynes, the one that looked for a moment exactly like me. He was arriving at his destination. I had no idea where I had ended up. I still don’t know where I am. As the doors pinged and hissed and opened, I stepped out of the 19:26 privatised Virgin Trains service from London Euston, and into the truth.

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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.

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.

David Miliband isn’t real

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It is the bleak, chilly summer of 1978, and Primrose Hill is under siege. A fortified citadel of flowerbox houses aches with quiet fret, while down in Chalk Farm and Camden Town a crude Amoco Cadiz-tide of punk is lapping bitumen-black against their toes. The kids these days – they’re spitting on each other to say hello, they eat live rats, they swap VD like Panini cards, and there’s no love any more, only leather and swastikas, they’re all getting off on the mutual infliction of pain. And then the worriers look at their own children, jelly-eyed and milk-happy, and think: what will happen to them? We’re at the end of something. The winter about to arrive is already seeping into its past; icicles claw into the heart of July, and everyone somehow knows that when the sun starts to sink this year it might not rise again for two long decades.

Ralph Miliband is reading in the garden, tapping cigarette-ash into patio puddles that glitter with a dying age’s sickly-grey sky. He’s hardly had time to register the strange young men in mohawks gobbing phlegm on passers-by, he’s already accepted that however informed his analysis of the political situation London will always baffle him, that his adopted home still grunts danger whenever he shuttles back from lecture tours in the cloistered sycamore-shade of New England. But even in this politico-prepubescent tumult it’s impossible to ignore the facts: something is clearly wrong with eight-year-old Ed, his firstborn and only son.

Marion, for her part, is worried to bits. It’s normal for children to have imaginary friends, even at Edward’s age, but he’s doing it all wrong. For a start, David is older, and all Marion’s research at the LSE library informs her that this shouldn’t be the case. Edward doesn’t blame his made-up brother for pranks and mishaps, because there aren’t any; Ed is such a docile boy, quiet and conscientious, eating his vegetables and eagerly sitting down to do all his homework (which also worries her, a little; she remembers what happened to good and obedient people not so long ago) – and when he gets his praise, because regular affirmation is so important for a growing boy, he always says the same thing. Oh, it wasn’t me, I’m no good at school, David did it for me. It was David who helped with the dishes, it was David who drew that nice picture, it was David who tidied my room, David David David. She’s had to tease out little details about this son she never knew she had, piece by piece – Edward realises that nobody else can see his brother, but that’s why David does so much helpful work around the house; he wants to be recognised, he wants them all to be a family. But David bullies him too, David tugs on his ears and calls him stupidweakuseless, and Edward can only agree. All through the spring she relayed this to Ralph in those long late night transatlantic phone calls, and he’d always said not to worry, it’s normal for children to have imaginary friends. And then one night, curled up safe and warm on the trembling balance between storytime and sleep, Edward had muttered: goodnight David. David does everything. One day I’ll kill him.

Ralph always tried to be a kind father, even an indulgent father; he loved his son, he’d dedicated Marxism and Politics to him, and he could hardly wait until the little fidgeting creature in front of him was old enough to disagree with it. But he was also a good Leninist, of a sort, and he knew that sometimes one had to be harsh; some brief, scientifically applied harshness now might just be able to remove any need for all the kindness and patience of psychiatrists and clinicians for decades to come. So he calls Edward out into the garden and sits there, one leg folded over the other, a book splayed open over his knee, the pose of a man who has better things to do, and says: Edward, it’s time we had a chat about this David character. The change is immediate. Edward stops twitching, he sits bolt upright as a flash of utter terror floods his big brown eyes with black. And it’s strange; the air outside is dead and perfectly still, but shadows seem to be moving across the walls of the house. Yes? says David, and for a moment Ralph forgets what he was supposed to say. Young Edward still seems out of sorts, but thirteen-year-old David is perched nonchalant on the edge of his chair, picking at his toenails. It’s the fifteenth of July, his birthday, and tonight the whole family is going to Marine Ices to celebrate. They’d planned it for weeks. Could Ralph really have forgotten that he has two sons, that he’s always had two sons?

One thousand years ago the people that lived on this hill would scatter salt on their doorsteps as a barrier against the ælfe, but Ralph Miliband knows that all history is only class struggle. Thunder bellows over Primrose Hill, and in the park the cuckoos in their trees scream their victory in hideous unison.

* * *

The early twenty-first century was a time of incredible ethnological fecundity; perched on the far edge of the great era of demicentennial revolutions and counter-revolutions that started in the late eighteenth century and would come to end in the grand catastrophe that it had always predicted for itself, the years between 2010 and 2020 saw an immense flowering of chiliastic prophecy, cults of personality, interpretative schemata, fantastical creatures, and hero-figures. In this study I wish to focus on one particular such myth, which was briefly present among a small and largely unremembered tribe calling itself the Parliamentary Labour Party (rough translation: ‘the council of chieftains of those who till the soil’). The hero-cult of David Miliband is remarkably developed for its time, a period in which most myths were provisional, intended to be of use to a singular instant, and speaking to neither future nor past, perhaps indicating exogenous origin or a refracted version of narratives from earlier, more sophisticated eras.

The story of David Miliband describes a struggle between two cosmic brothers, one good and one evil; the evil, younger brother seduces the people of the tribe, and convinces them to band with him to defeat his older sibling, who is forced into exile, journeying across the seas to the West. As he departs, the good brother curses those who have betrayed him; thereafter they enter a fallen state, the earth does not yield up its fruits freely, the land is beset by natural and human catastrophe, and the tribe will be persecuted wherever they go. Redemption can come only when they have purged their tribe and their souls of this original wickedness; at this point the vanquished brother will return from across the sea to lead them once again to victory. Crucially, this return was not placed in some far-flung future, but was expected (despite the presumable antiquity of the mythic events) to be perpetually imminent and eternally immanent; any moment could bring salvation from evil.

This narrative has a number of important antecedent: the theme of an antagonistic duality out of balance with itself could be considered as a continuation of the Zoroastrian and Yezidi traditions of the Near West; a Levantine heritage is also manifest in its figuration of a returning saviour, although this is of a type more similar to myths of the Far Western Americas. (Some scholars have attempted to draw a parallel to the Biblical narratives of Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, hunter and agriculturalist – note the identification of David with a banana and his brother with a bacon sandwich – however. it should be noted that here the scriptural principle of ultimogeniture is reversed, with the younger trickster-brother a figure to be despised.) My general contention is that the David Miliband myth is, at root, a solar myth, in which the westerly setting of the Sun and its eventual reappearance is cast as a metaphorical vehicle for redemptive, apocalyptic hope.

As always with this kind of study, we must be on guard against any kind of reductive literalism. It may be comforting to ascribe a kind of primitive credulity to group such as the Parliamentary Labour Party, but such tribes often have a sophisticated oral culture and a remarkable level of self-awareness about the social function of their mythic apparatuses. It’s very likely that none of the people who told the David Miliband story, or who publicly wished for the hero’s return, would have actually believed in his physical existence.

* * *

David Miliband ruined his chances of taking the Labour leadership when he was photographed holding a banana outside the party’s 2008 conference. Suddenly he looked ridiculous, a clown cartoon, the banana-man, a figure as waxy and as primary-coloured as the fruit in his hand. We would be in error to not consider the deliberate responsibility of the banana in all this, the possibility of a vegetable intervention in human political affairs, the expression of a long musaceous plot.

It’s well known that the banana plant is incapable of reproducing by itself: centuries of selective breeding have made its fruit entirely seedless, a long sugary appendage the blind, crazed, wordless organism endlessly extrudes without ever being able to know why. Only human labour, cutting and splicing, can reproduce the banana, and even then its vast genetic uniformity leaves it vulnerable to every kind of parasitic disease. The banana, mushily phallic, the great agricultural desideratum, the object of salivating desire who totemic presence crushed Latin American social democracy again and again over the twentieth century, is entirely sterile. A synthetic monster, a fruit tending towards the apocalypse. When the human species finally goes extinct, we’re taking the bananas with us. Most other forms of life are horrifying insofar as they present a potency alien to all human understanding; the banana is horrifying in that its weakness is all our own.

Bananas rot fast; they love decomposition, they love to fall apart. The banana-phallus, the thing that everyone wants but which you don’t have, your dick shrinking and liquefying and blackening into a putrid stump throwing up clouds of tiny burrowing flies. That moment with the banana was a visual gaffe, but how would a banana proceed except by failing at every turn? Examine the connections. The CIA overthrows democratic governments to protect banana plantations; David Miliband quits British politics to become president of the International Rescue Committee, a charity founded by Trotskyites but occasionally accused of operating as a CIA front organisation. The stink of rotting bananas hangs in the air long after you’ve thrown the things out, and Westminster still can’t seem to scrub a Miliband-y whiff out of its crumbling halls. David Miliband is long, and curved, and ever so slightly yellow. David Miliband has two adopted sons, which is commendable, but the fact remains that he was unable to produce children through ordinary sexual processes.

Is David Miliband a banana? What’s under that waxy-smooth skin, once you peel slowly and see? Did we domesticate the bananas, or have they been waiting for a very long time, ready to start ruling over us?

Nick Cohen is in your house

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This is urgent, so I’ll get straight to the point. Nick Cohen is in your house. Yes, that Nick Cohen, the Orwell Prize-shortlisted writer, journalist and commentator, the author of five books, frequently published in the Observer and the Spectator, the one who looks like a kind of malignant egg, with his pervert’s dent of a top lip, his strange remnant of a haircut, and those eerily mild eyes, the faint twirling eyes of a man who likes more than anything to observe, to spectate: he is in your house. I don’t know exactly how he got in there. I can’t tell you exactly where he is. Nick Cohen might be hiding under your bed, rolling a carelessly drooped bit of fabric between his gleeful fingers. He might be in your closet, his breath hard and ecstatic through the slats as you unthinkingly undress in front of him. He might peek through cracks in the plaster, he might take photos while you sleep. You think you know your own home, but so does Nick Cohen, and there are a thousand places he might be, film camera in hand, watching you. He could be standing right behind you, pale bloated fingers hovering just above your shoulders. Don’t turn around. You won’t see him unless he wants you to see him. But you can speak to him if you want. Take out your mobile phone and call your home number. You’ll hear it ring, and then his voice. ‘I told you I was in your house,’ he’ll say. ‘I’m in your house right now. You need to listen to me. The regressive left poses a very real threat to free speech.’

Nick Cohen is a bad writer with terrible opinions, but there are teeming thousands of those; there’s something else about him that makes the man so creepy. His views are, broadly, those of the liberal commentariat in general, and arguing against them would just mean repeating the same lines, endlessly, until every newspaper columnist in the country has heard them. An utter waste of time. This is why you have to resort to personal attacks. ‘So you’ve got a problem with what I have to say?’ Nick Cohen asks. ‘You want to silence me?’ And it’s true, I don’t agree with what he says, but that’s not the problem: the problem is that he’s saying it while inside my house.

If you’ve seen the 1997 David Lynch film Lost Highway, you’ve met Nick Cohen before. He is the Mystery Man, the sinister deathly-white figure at the party who is, simultaneously, in your house. I’m not just saying that Nick Cohen looks absolutely identical to him – although he really does; they have the same bulbously terrifying face, with its deep-set eyes and its obscene red gash of a mouth – but that they are, quite literally, the same thing. (A brief detour. Lynch scholarship is still very much dominated by Slavoj Žižek, and under this Lacanian rubric his films are held to be all about dreams, the play between fantasy and reality; the point, as Žižek puts it, is ‘to discern in [the film] the part of (symbolic) reality and the part of fantasy hallucination.’ Less scholarly critics are also fond of this line – describe a film as ‘dreamlike,’ and you’re suddenly under no obligation to make any sense of it whatsoever. This is nonsense. A film is fantasy throughout, there’s no point in trying to identify which part of it contains the ‘real’ narrative and which does not; it’s as stupid as trying to work out whether Tony Soprano dies at the end, as if he were ever alive. Lynch’s films aren’t about dreams, they’re about media, infinite layers of image and representation. The camera in the Mystery Man’s hand, the tape mailed to your house, the video you watch from your seat until you find yourself, suddenly, within it. Reducing the Lynchian vertigo to oneirocriticism is actually deeply boring. Dreams are just a rearrangement of reality, but if you fold the process of representation you get mise en abyme, the image emerging from the void.) The Mystery Man tells you that he is in your house, and that you invited him in, even though you’re repulsed by him, even though you don’t want him there. Later, he shoves his camera in your face. ‘And your name,’ he barks. ‘What the fuck is your name?’

Nick Cohen is in the political left. It’s not that he’s part of it, exactly; he doesn’t fight in the left’s struggles, he doesn’t seem to care about leftist causes, but he’s there, within, watching. This has been, for some years now, his journalistic gimmick. He’s on the left, yes, but he’s also possibly the last journalist in Britain to still defend the 2003 attack on Iraq, he endlessly whinges about student no-platforming of fascists or the censure of Charlie Hebdo‘s state-sponsored racism as a threat to freedom of speech, and he’s never met a socialist government or a popular resistance movement that he didn’t loathe. But because he’s on the left, his global hostility to actual socialism must therefore be an authentic leftist position. A strange, greasy three-stage manoeuvre: first he’s in the left, then he is the left, then you’re not. Nick Cohen’s favoured term for people who don’t think exactly like Nick Cohen is ‘pseudo-left’: people who oppose imperialist wars, for instance, or defend successful socialist revolutions – what the fuck is your name? This was the subject of an entire book, but it seems the theme hasn’t yet exhausted itself. In his most recent article, an utterly bizarre outburst, politically useless but the kind of parapraxical emission that’s always been of interest to psychoanalysis, he writes that Westerners who have solidarity with the progressive government in Venezuela are exactly like sex tourists. During the Labour leadership contest, he dismissed support for the socialist Jeremy Corbyn as a kind of ‘identity leftism’ on the part of the narcissistic youth, people who just want to see their opinions reflected in someone else – a strange critique, coming from a man whose only real connection to the left is that he identifies himself as being within it. But there he is. Nick Cohen is in your left. As a matter of fact, he’s there right now.

Nick Cohen is a Jew. He’s not halachically Jewish – one paternal grandfather, enough to claim Israeli citizenship, not enough to help make up a minyan – and neither is he in any sense culturally Jewish. It’s not only that he never spun a dreidel or had to ask why his penis looked different to all the other boys’; as anyone who’s read his columns will know, he has no connection at all to the great Jewish literary, comedic or radical traditions. But he has decided to be a Jew. In fact, he’s decided to do so not once but twice. He’s not actually converting, you understand; no siddur will pollute his atheist’s hands. He’s becoming a Jew first of all so that he can claim for himself a slice of Jewish oppression, so he can rub oily indignity all over his face – but also so he can have a peek at his newfound co-religionists, and he doesn’t like what he sees. In his most recent statement of conversion, he spares a few lines for those actual Jews who oppose the state of Israel, people like me. ‘Whenever I hear Jews announce their hatred of Israel’s very existence,’ he writes, ‘I suspect that underneath their loud bombast lies a quiet plea to the Islamists and neo-Nazis who might harm them: I’m not like the others. Don’t pick on me.’ If this invective was coming from someone who was not Jewish, it would be recognised for what it is: a collection of classically antisemitic tropes, the cringing Jew, the cowardly Jew, the conniving Jew, the Jew who will lie and grovel and dissimulate to protect himself and his miserly little pile of belongings. That would be unacceptable; surely nobody would publish him, not even the Spectator. But Nick Cohen is in your Judaism. As a matter of fact, he’s there right now.

Nick Cohen is in your house. You might not think you want him there, but you invited him in. It is not his custom to go where he is not wanted. And it’s been a pleasure for him to talk to you.

Meet the family

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The government budget is like a household budget. We need to live within our means. We can’t spend money we don’t have. We have to balance the books. Yes, it will be tough. Yes, a lot of people will lose the lifelines they depend on. But the government budget is like a household budget. We need to live within our means.

All this makes an intuitive kind of sense – money is money, no matter how much of it you have – which might be why governments across the world are so keen to repeat it to anyone who’ll listen. But just who is this household? Who are this family? We’re supposed to imagine the same kind of family that holds close to family values and enjoys family entertainment: a dual-income, high-earning, hard-working family with two impish but adorable children and a lightly sketched backdrop of uncles and godparents. Tammy’s finger-paintings are on the fridge, George knows absolutely everything about dinosaurs. These are fundamentally decent people, who through no real fault of their own have ended up getting themselves into a bit of financial bother, and will have to make some sad but unavoidable cutbacks. Caravans in France now, not river boats up the Mekong; good honest cheddar instead of chaource, a DVD boxset instead of a patio extension. They might be in a lot of debt, but the interest is always paid in full; their credit rating hardly dips. These aren’t people who will ever have to choose between food and heating on a week-by-week basis. These aren’t delinquents. They’re model citizens, and like all models their faces are frozen stiff. Mum likes Scandinavian detective dramas, and Dad tolerates them well enough after a nice glass of Chablis. They don’t blink. They don’t breathe.

The government budget is like a family budget: this looks like a literary simile, but it’s not. A literary simile works because it brings together two things that are fundamentally very different; you get a sense for the specificity of the object by its comparison to something of a different type. Eyes like fire are not really going to give you third-degree burns, legs like tree-trunks tend not to be covered in moss or have weevils scurrying under the bark. Nobody would usually bother to write that something is like itself. The family-government simile is far stranger, far more medieval: its principle is consistency, a variant on the Great Chain of Being, rooted in the idea that a similitude between two things indicates that on some level these things are fundamentally the same. In the end, it’s mystical and vaguely Hermetic: as above, so below; the state mirrored in the family, the family in the state. An idea of some antiquity: remember all those jurists who held that as the first paterfamilias, the Biblical Adam was also the first king; remember how often the sovereign has been described as the father of his people. Which is not to say that any of this isn’t true. But if the government budget is like a family budget, what are this family really like?

Let’s meet the family.

To begin with, forget about any friendly twenty-first century cosiness; status-symbol Agas, pictures pinned to the Smeg. Unlike most families, these people hardly know each other. Unlike most families, this one is incredibly old. It can trace its ancestry back for centuries, tens of centuries, and over the years its children have done many very notable things, almost all of them involving a great deal of death. The house has been in the family for generations. It sits alone on a low but perilous crag, surrounded by endless miles of thin, fallow, shivering heath. The grass and the nettles have been chopped piebald by various half-hearted attempts at gardening; here and there stand a few miserable clumps of trees, too old to give fruit, but still not exhausted enough to topple over for the mushrooms. There are no National Trust tours; the place is an eyesore. Every generation builds some hideous new wing in whatever style is currently fashionable, but it only takes a few years to fill up with must and crud. A thousand years of useless heirlooms washes slowly from one end of the building to the other. Gunk-scrubbed medals from forgotten wars, oil paintings turned fully abstract by the cracking lacquer, ornamental silver pisspots; a place must be found for everything, and family life goes on in the tiny gaps between all this accumulated stuff. The door creaks as you enter; of course it does. It’s dark inside. The air stinks. Rat droppings, rat poison, and rot. Welcome home. You’ve lived here all your life.

Here are your monsters. The father is – there’s no way to put it kindly – a brutish and violent thug. Most of the time he turns his inexpertly focused anger on his two younger children, roaring his horror at their ingratitude with small, creamy specks of outraged snot dripping from the edge of his moustache. He’ll pick up some piece of household crap – a toilet-plunger, a priceless vase – and fling it squarely at the centre of their torsos: look at what we had, look at what we built, don’t you have any respect for anything? Blood has been spilled, in glugs and drabs; little sprays of it brown around the edges and melt slowly into the general grime of the wallpaper. Sometimes he’ll lock them in a cupboard, or one of the dozens of chilly garrets – not without their dinner; he always remembers to feed his children, even when he keeps them chained up for months on end, it’s a point of pride. The kids are skinny and sooted but never starving. In fact, he’s utterly convinced of the justice of everything he does; he knows that if everyone would just listen to him and do as he tells them then none of this would be necessary. It’s an attitude he carries into his relations with the ordinary folk of the nearby village: every so often he’ll drive his car screaming to the local supermarket, and start brutally beating anyone he encounters with his antique cane. It’s for their own good, he’ll explain. And to be fair, while dozens of people have head their bones broken and their heads caved in, nobody ever calls the police.

With his wife, whom he despises, the anger takes a different form. He’s never once raised a hand to her; instead he rummages through her jewellery box, pulling out one string of lumps after another: do you really need this? Or this? Useless, vanity, trash. Shining arcs of gold and gemstones are lobbed unceremoniously out the window or fed into the waste disposal unit. Next it’s her clothes, slashed with his penknife or ripped apart by his bare hands; she wanders the grounds in silk and satin rags. Sometimes she’ll spend hours assembling a meal from the Jamie Oliver website (she was never a natural chef) only for her husband to stride in and tip it directly into the bin. She is, as far as he’s concerned, a sentimentalist, a wastrel, and a drunk, utterly unfit for motherhood. I gave you three fine young sons, he screams at her, and you’ve ruined them. This is at such a pitch that the kids, whatever turret or dungeon they’re confined to, can’t help but hear. She looks up, briefly, woozily. They’re lovely boys, she says. Lovely boys. And it’s true that she indulges them, endlessly offering new toys, desperate kisses, sips from whatever bottle is being attacked that afternoon, hundreds of gold stars, but it’s not like she really loves them; these are gifts given to replace the love she doesn’t feel, and always half in fear of what her sons might do if they ever found out.

In fact, it’s clear that there’s very little love anywhere in this family. The gold-star system must have started as a fun game, years or decades ago, nobody really remembers: completing some household chore would get you one gold sticker, and in a house so vast and ugly there are always plenty of chores. Somewhere over the years, it became something very different. Absolutely nothing will get done now without a few gold stars being placed next to someone’s name on the noticeboard. Making a cup of tea gets you one gold star, beating back the encroaching nettle-fields with a stick gets you two, shooting a rabbit or partridge for dinner will bring you five, and if husband and wife manage to successfully complete their joyless fuck of an evening they’ll both reward the other with a full ten. It’s cold and mercurial, but for a long time the system did seem to be working. The stars themselves were made by the eldest son, a frankly terrifying creature: round, placid, heartless, and very nearly thirty-five, he spent most of his days in his childhood bedroom with safety-scissors, coloured paper, and glue, making sure that whatever happened, he would always have more gold stars in reserve than anyone else. He’d give them out to his shivering siblings, usually in return for their putting on some painful or embarrassing display – running naked through the nettles, cleaning out his wax-clogged ear with their tongue. But not too many. Really it was the job of the parents to reward their children, which they did: the mother desperately, as if her life depended on it; the father grudgingly, and even then mostly just giving them back to his favoured first-born. The system worked.

Worked. The past tense is crucial. Eventually, the eldest brother somehow managed to stab himself in the eye with his safety-scissors; after that, none of the gold stars he made were fit for purpose. Gross, misshapen blobs, the points barely distinguishable, cheap triangles, things that no self-respecting person could ever accept. He’d keep on making them, not really knowing what else to do with his life, until the entire room was crammed floor to ceiling with shiny monstrosities, scattering in flurries at his frequent belches and his nocturnal snorts. Meanwhile, outside, crisis loomed. The family was giving away far too many gold stars to itself and not taking nearly enough of them in. Chores were going undone. It wasn’t just that family ties were beginning to fall apart, but the building itself, collapsing from its usual state of chaotic disrepair into a very real risk to everyone’s health. For a while there was an attempt to fix the situation by offering a massive gold-star subsidy to the eldest child, in the hopes that it’d induce him to return to his previous level of workmanship, but if anything this just made the problem worse, nearly wiping out the available supply. Something had to change, and for once the parents were in total agreement. There were enough gold stars for everyone; the problem was that they had too many children for them to go around. One wouldn’t be missed. The youngest: he was so scrawny, already it was like he wasn’t really there. And the estate was so vast, with so many places to bury an inconvenient corpse. You need to live within your means. You can’t spend money you don’t have. You’ve got to balance your books.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: pedantry in space

Neil-deGrasse-Tyson

Something terrible happened to you in outer space. All you can remember are the last few moments, the sun fading to a speck as you and your crew broke free from the solar system, the ship’s systems suddenly shutting down, the panic and blackness inside, shouting and sobbing, outside the phosphorescent fringes of the wormhole as it opened up in front of you – and then you woke up, sweat-slick in your own bed at sunrise, with the birds singing outside, in another universe. You are trapped in the world of the popular TV astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and you know this, because here the sunrise isn’t a sunrise at all. In fact, the earth is a sphere orbiting the sun, so the sun does not in any sense actually ‘rise’ – it’s just that you happen to be positioned right on the moving line, known as the ‘terminator’, that separates the illuminated portion of the planet from its dark side. And the birds singing aren’t really singing – actually, they’re just emitting a series of noises without any of the tonal qualities that distinguish singing from other vocal emissions. And the bed isn’t yours, because scientists have never been able to find any way of isolating ‘ownership’ in the physical composition of any object. You jump out of bed and start banging frantically at the walls. Is there no way out? Where are your crew? You rush to the window, and almost collapse in horror. It’s all there, spread out in front of you, exactly like home: everything is exactly the same, but in this sick parody of a universe it’s all been twisted into something hollow, meaningless, and mercilessly dull.

Pink strands of cloud fizzle up from the horizon, and you know that actually the horizon is just the curvature of the earth, and that the clouds, which were once believed to be inhabited by angels, house nothing of the sort. A few people are already outside in the streets below you, jogging, going to work, but they’re not really people. Actually, they’re just apes of the family Hominidae, most closely related to the genus Pan, going about their ape-business, which remains primarily motivated by the ape-needs of food, shelter, and sex. There is nothing that isn’t instantly boring. It’s too much. You rush into the kitchen, rattling the drawer in sheer panic (actually just dyspnea, tachycardia and dilation of the pupils caused by a surge of epinephrine in your body), pull out the knife (actually just a piece of metal attached to a piece of wood), and open your wrists. The blood (which was once thought to be one of the four humours, governing personality traits, but which is actually primarily used to transmit oxygen) glugs out, darker in colour and slower than you’d expected. It’ll be over now, you think. But actually, you’re not dying: you’re just a collection of atoms, and every single one of those atoms will remain. Not only are you in this universe, this universe is in you.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is, supposedly, an educator and a populariser of science; it’s his job to excite people about the mysteries of the universe, communicate information, and correct popular misconceptions. This is a noble, arduous, and thankless job, which might be why he doesn’t do it. What he actually does is make the universe boring, tell people things that they already know, and dispel misconceptions that nobody actually holds. In his TV appearances, puppeted by an invisible army of scriptwriters, this tendency is barely held in check, but in his lectures or on the internet it’s torrential; a seeping flood of grey goo, paring down the world to its driest, dullest, most colourless essentials. He likes to watch scifi films, and point out all the inaccuracies. Actually, lasers wouldn’t make any sound in space; actually a light year is a unit of space rather than time; actually, none of this is real, it’s just a collection of still images projected at speed to present the illusion of movement, and all the characters are just actors who have never really been into outer space. When the rapper B.o.B. started loudly declaring that there’s a vast conspiracy to hide that fact that the world is really flat, Neil deGrasse Tyson immediately jumped in to refute him, even featuring on a eye-stabbingly awful rap song insisting that ‘B.o.B. gotta know that the planet is a sphere, G’ – a passionate, useless, and embarrassing defence of the blindingly obvious. In a world that’s simply given, brute fact, any attempt to imagine it into an entirely different shape must be stamped out. Why? The subject-matter is cosmic and transcendental, the object-cause is petty and stupid. Neil deGrasse Tyson strides onto stage to say that actually the Earth orbits the sun, that actually living beings gain their traits through evolutionary processes, that actually your hand has five fingers, that actually cows go moo, that actually poo comes out your bum – and you are then supposed to think yes, I knew that, and imagine someone else, someone who didn’t know it already, some idiot, and think: I’m better than that person, I’m so much smarter than everyone else.

A decent name for this tendency, for stars and spaceships recast as the instruments of a joyless and pedantic class spite, would be I Fucking Love Science. ‘Science’ here has very little to do with the scientific method itself; it means ontological physicalism, not believing in our Lord Jesus Christ, hating the spectrally stupid, and, more than anything, pretty pictures of nebulae and tree frogs. ‘Science’ comes to metonymically refer to the natural world, the object of science; it’s like describing a crime as ‘the police,’ or the ocean as ‘drinking.’ What ‘I Fucking Love Science’ actually means is ‘I Fucking Love Existing Conditions.’ But because the word ‘science’ still pings about between the limits of a discourse that depends on the exclusion of alternate modes of knowledge, the natural world of I Fucking Love Science is presented as being essentially a series of factual statements. There are no things, there are only truths. The fact that the earth is a sphere is vast and ponderous: you stand on its grinding surface, as that fact carries you on its heavy plod around our nearest star. The fact that the forms of organic life emerge through Darwinian evolution is fractal and distributed, so that little fragments of that fact will bark at you in the street or dart chirping overhead. The fact that there is no God, being a negative statement, is invisible, but you know for certain that it’s out there.

Which is not to say that there’s any requirement that these facts be true. None of this is real. Those multicoloured nebulae are not real objects, they exist only in fantastic pictures overlaid with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s face and some vague sentiments about how wonderful the universe is when it’s very far away from human life.  The images are digitally stitched together, the colours are fake, the shapes are not anything that could actually be seen out the window of your spaceship, a real-life nebula is about as exciting as a damp fog. If you’re going to love the natural world, really Fucking Love it, it’s best that you know as little about it as possible, or it might start to seem less lovable. Like when Neil DeGrasse Tyson quipped that ‘if ever there were a species for which sex hurt, it surely went extinct long ago.’ It’s a perfect Tyson fact, true because it’s basically tautologous, its scientific quality having everything to do with the idea that actual phenomena are just instantiations of abstract laws, and nothing to do with any scientific observation, such as listening to the yelps of cats fucking at night, or to women. Or when his TV show Cosmos described the sixteeth-century astrologer Giordano Bruno as a martyr for science, executed by the Catholic church for proposing a heliocentric solar system. See how the idiots persecute us, the rational, with their superstition and their hostility to objective thought. The reality – that Bruno believed in magic, worshipped the ancient Egyptian god Thoth, and was executed not for heliocentrism but for denying the divinity of Christ – is ignored, because that isn’t Fucking Science Love. Or when he decided that ‘Italy valued cathedrals while Spain valued explorers. So worldwide, five times as many people speak Spanish than Italian.’ A spurious reconstruction of the past from present conditions, or the I Fucking Love Scientific theory of history: successful tribes were populated by little atavistic Carl Sagans; if Italians didn’t slaughter millions in the New World it isn’t because the peninsula was at the time fractured into multiple city-states (some of them occupied by, uh, Spain) which supplied significant amounts of capital rather than colonists, it’s because they weren’t interested in spaceships.

But all this is pedantry, the perverse insistence on how the world is, the total apathy to how it could be different. Pedantry could be broadly defined as a hostility to metaphor, the demand that every object stand for itself and nothing else, that words function in the same way as numbers. Which is why it’s pointless to criticise Neil deGrasse Tyson or the I Fucking Love Scientists for being the pompous, self-important, and utterly cretinous pedants that they are: it’s just falling back into their own dismal, boring logic, insisting that a thing is what it is rather than something else. It won’t help you, lying dazed on the lino, the blood now spluttering in half-congealed dribs from your arms, running diagonally to the corner of the room, where the cat is skittishly starting to lap it up with tiny flicks of its tongue. You lie there, and you try to remember if you ever did really go into outer space. It was so black out there, you remember. And all the stars were so far apart.

Why you’re not quitting Twitter

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You have decided to stop using Twitter. You won’t pretend that there was some sudden moment of epiphany, some limpid instant scrolling elsewhere-eyed through ten thousand other people’s keening attempts to entertain, when you realised that this was no longer for you. Thinking of things in terms of moments and instants, that thinly sliced, superficial, impermanent digital Now – that’s part of the whole pattern of thought you’re trying to break out of. You want to do things deeply, slowly, properly; you want to have insights that can’t be compressed into one hundred and forty tossed-off characters. You’re tired of being snide, of the enforced narcissism, of being beholden to your brand, of manufactured outrage, of all those internecine arguments with angry ovarious hordes, dank keyboard-grubbying imbeciles, crude men smearing chip fat in iridescent streaks over their phone screens, people who don’t even work in the media.  You, comic books reviewer for the New York Oboe; you, occasional guest panellist on the BBC’s  Sweary Wednesdays; you, noted online thinkfluencer and inventor of the #DonaldTrumpHasHairlessShins Movement; you have had enough.

You’re going to start living in the real world again. You looked out a window, a real one, made of glass, and you saw a little bird, a real one, alive, not some sinister blue logo. You saw it trembling between the crooked branches, going about a business wilder and stranger than anything in our smooth fake online lives, and you thought your heart would break from the sheer beauty of it all. You made an off-colour joke at the bar – a real bar, made of real bricks – and there was nobody to pounce or denounce, nobody tried to eject you from the premises, and you felt so incredibly free. You’re streamlining your life now. You went out and bought twenty shirts, all in the same shade of grey, because life is too important for clutter. You’re going to go for walks in the park and read books in cafés and cook simple but wholesome meals incorporating flavours from three lesser-known continents. You’re going to stop wasting time and do work, real work, good work. Maybe a novel. But before you go, you’re going to write a little meditation on why you have to go, something longform, something thoughtful, and then you’ll compose your final missive to that abandoned, insular world. ‘Goodbye, Twitter,’ you’ll write. ‘I’m off, and here’s why.’ You’ll think for a moment. You’ll add a short appendix. ‘#Media #Twitter #Writing.’ You’ll think for another moment. You’ll delete the hashtags. You’ve been thinking a lot lately.

This isn’t a cynical move, but at the same time you do think you’re doing it at the right time, because Twitter is dying. The site lost two million users in Q4 of 2015, and because you understand such things, you know what this means. Social networks don’t really make any money, the profits come from the expectation that if they keep growing, sooner or later someone will figure out a way to properly monetise their userbase. Small companies get bought up for vast, parodic sums; big companies float themselves on the stock market and surrender themselves to the predictive powers of the market. It all depends on the capitalist symptom of reckless, tearaway growth: you conquer the world, or you die; nothing in between. And Twitter has failed to conquer the world, so its stock is collapsing. You’ve seen things collapse – families, relationships, buildings, countries – and you’ve learned that if you have a chance to spare yourself those awful final days, you should take it. Leave the place to crumble, and may those still inside be swiftly crushed. The indifferent waves of silicon will reclaim it, the jagged fragments of lost startups. Like the GeoCities, of which nothing remains, all those names pathetically repeating themselves – ‘Hi, I’m Mike, and welcome to my Formula 1 page’ – now silent, all those hideously personal colour combinations reduced to the desert whiteness of a 404 page. Or Myspace, which like all the other places where you used to hang out as a teenager now feels shameful and threatening, sullen graffiti, the lingering tang of body spray, the numinous autonomy of something you no longer own. Or Friends Reunited – remember Friends Reunited? – which only wanted to help, and got got no gratitude. Death will suit Twitter well; you’ll look back on it fondly, it’ll be far more loved as the nostalgic name of something you used to do than as the monster gobbling up your life.

So why does this brave real world you’ve decided to start living in feel so familiar? Why does it feel so false? You’re going to start writing, you’ve decided, without distractions: so the day yawns open at you, a stinking cavern of dead black time, and you find you have nothing to do. How many times can you water a plant before the thing gets waterlogged and dies? You tried tracing its long glossy leaves with your fingertips, marvelling at the intricate patterning in its mesophyll, and have come to the sad conclusion that plants are actually quite boring. You try to read a book – Middlemarch; you’re slowly sinking down the list of great novels to read before you die – but your gaze slips from the first sentence in one paragraph to another, searching for the point – and you think: when I do die, will it really matter if I’ve read this stupid thing or not? You have a funny observation about the day’s news, clever but not really good enough to make copy, and given that all your friends are online you text it to your mother. She doesn’t reply; for four damn hours she doesn’t reply. ‘Ha! x.’ Could it be that you’ve forgotten how to live? It’s being cooped up in here, it’s these four plain walls. You need to do the unthinkable. You need to go outside.

You leave without any clear aim or destination in mind, but it doesn’t matter. You’re a flâneur! You’re the poet of the material world! Passing by a chain coffee outlet, you decide to drop in, listen to people talking, gauge their lives and concerns through good, old-fashioned, unmediated, personal voyeurism. And, even though you won’t need to say or do anything, the patrons will silently admire you, and maybe even want to fuck you – how could they not? You order your filter coffee (‘No, no milk, I’m a deeply serious person’), unfold your newspaper, and wait. But it’s so strange: half the people there are just looking at their phones; glancing up occasionally into the eyes of their friend or lover with unalloyed disgust, as if repulsed by their needling physicality – and the ones who do talk seem to have a compulsive verbal tic you’d never noticed before. Before they say anything they’ll always address their interlocutors by their full names. ‘Stephanie Jones: Didn’t they say it’d rain later?’ ‘Mark Eyabunoh, Corey Adelusi: Ha ha! That’s so funny.’ It reminds you of something, something unpleasant. This place is wrong. But when you rush outside, they’re all at it. Someone seems to be walking down the street, acting normally, but a hideous change comes over them as soon as you’re in earshot. A furious political argument erupts between two strangers; they look as if they’re about to claw each other’s eyes out. Teen girls scream about One Direction as you approach. Drivers start singing football chants out their windows, staring spittle-flecked and manic in your direction and only yours. One woman dances, thrusting a picture on phone into your face: ‘Here’s what I had for lunch!’ A schlubby-looking man in a brown suit and purple tie seems to be in the middle of an epileptic fit; his hands judder, his shoes scuff against the pavement, and he croaks, over and over again, ‘Taylor Swift: Show us your feet. Taylor Swift: Send us foot picture? Taylor Swift: Show us your feet. Taylor Swift: Send us foot picture?’ You don’t stop to help. You just ignore him. You learned, somewhere, to ignore.

Other people aren’t good for you, it’s clear. They’re strangers, witless and dull; what you need is nature. You start to head home, back towards the high street, maybe you’ll rent out a cottage somewhere in the barren north where there’s no wifi. But as soon as you turn the corner, every head snaps suddenly to fix its gaze on you. ‘Tosser,’ says one shopper after another. ‘Arsehole.’ ‘Pompous twat.’ They crowd on you, breathing halitosis and malice into your innocent face. ‘Why do you keep saying I’m a tosser?’ you yell. ‘I don’t even know you!’ The nearest creature, a skinny man in glasses and store-bought stubble, smirks. ‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘You don’t know me, because you’re a tosser.’ Everyone laughs and claps and starts giving this smug prick his comradely pats on the back. Maybe it wasn’t Twitter. Maybe you really are a tosser. But surely that can’t be true?

The birth of that new cult gave you time to escape, at least, so you scramble panicked up a hill, some big comforting grass-edged tit, to look out over the city and try to take stock of things. Maybe you’ll sketch the view in your Moleskine. On a grey and blustery afternoon, there’s nobody else in sight. The trauma recedes a little; it’s almost peaceful. But the skyline doesn’t rise slowly inch by inch over the horizon, like you’d imagined; it jumps out suddenly, fanged and snarling, in the break between two trees. Patches of sunlight swim jellyfish-like between the skyscrapers, the whole giddy tapestry of human life is laid out in front of you. And there, hovering fifty feet above midtown, are three huge, spectral symbols. You know what they are. Reply, Retweet, Like. No. You clench your eyes tight and frantically jab at the other button like it’s the only thing that can save you. Report abuse. Report abuse. You need to block it all, it offended you, it needs to go. This mustn’t happen. Give me control. Make me admired. Make me loved.

You can’t quit Twitter: you, writer; you, comedian; you, journalist; you, early adopter; you, self-confessed nerd and unapologetic brunch snob. You created it, with your earnest musings and your boiling self-regard; you summoned the demon, and while its name might change the beast will never be able to relent. You bring Twitter with you wherever you go, because you are Twitter. And it’s dying, because you’re already dead.

American aphanisis: in search of Donald Trump

American society – the industrial society with anonymous management and vanishing personal power, etc. – is presented as a resurgence of the “society without the father.” But we are warned: the society of brothers is very dejected, unstable, and dangerous, it must prepare the way for the rediscovery of an equivalent to parental authority.
Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus

Something strange about the question ‘is Donald Trump a fascist?’ Already, it’s the wrong question.

If we define fascism as a discrete political ideology whose advocates in Europe came to brief power in the first half of the twentieth century, as a checklist of traits that we can match something up against, then Donald Trump is not a fascist. He’s not created any paramilitary body, he has no mystical insignia except his own name, and there’s no indication he’d try to suspend the operation of formal democracy. He doesn’t want an economy in which capitalist production satisfies the needs of the nation rather than private profit; he doesn’t glorify the aesthetic qualities of war; he doesn’t seem to have any line on art, degenerate or otherwise, whatsoever. In fact, he doesn’t really have any politics at all: all his reactionary positions are provisional, calculated for thrust and impact; they’re projectiles; it’s the trajectory that matters more than anything like content. And in any case, you can be a right-wing demagogue without necessarily being essentially homogeneous with the death camps and the Final Solution. But all this only makes sense if we define fascism as a discrete political ideology, which it isn’t. And to simply say the opposite, that Trump is a fascist, that the politics of evil have once again broken into the mainstream, is just as stupid. Actually listen to Trump’s supporters, see what they say about him. ‘He’s just saying what we’re all thinking.’ Donald Trump has one hand grasping at the stars and the other slimy with brains; he takes the swarming private agonies that drill away at the inside of your skull, the ones only expressible as a wordless scream, and screams that scream right on national TV. Donald Trump, the shaman-king, maps the cannibal fury of the imaginary on a symbolic terrain. He says what people are thinking. And what are people thinking? Without anyone other than Trump to tell me, I went to find out. This is a travel blog. This is what I did on my holidays.

I’d hardly arrived in Los Angeles, and already they were trying to deport me. At various stages in the long line for immigration, an array of machine terminals scanned my fingerprints and my retinas and asked me if I was importing explosives or genocidal ideology or bull semen. A signposted ‘pledge to travellers’ explained to me what I could expect: they promised to ‘cordially greet and welcome you to the United States,’ to ‘treat you with courtesy, dignity, and respect,’ and to ‘present a single face worthy of this great nation.’ Big video monitors drooped from the ceiling, playing on repeat a short message of welcome from the peoples of the United States. ‘Welcome,’ said a punk girl on rollerblades. ‘Welcome,’ said a cop in full SWAT gear as gunfire crackled from somewhere out of shot. ‘Welcome,’ said a colourful Latinx family in chorus, waving from a kitchen table heavily encrusted by charming Catholic tat; Virgin Mary keychains glittering deliciously among the flakes in their breakfast cereal, a clone army of plastic Popes standing to attention where they should have had teeth. ‘Welcome,’ said a toothless meth addict, hunched over shivering on the corner of a filthy mattress; and while it was out of focus, the city behind him seemed to be on fire. ‘We need the end of your tongue,’ said the passport control guard. I must have gaped. ‘It’s a new security requirement,’ he said, picking up a pair of secateurs. ‘We need to snip off the end of your tongue. Please extend your tongue no less than one inch and lay it on the centre of this tray here.’

Clearly something was wrong. The guard held my tongue up in gloved fingers, examining it from various angles, before making a few experimental prints on my passport with the bloodied edge where it’d been cut. He held the thing up to me. ‘What does that look like to you?’ he said. ‘Uhkluhgh,’ I said, trying to be friendly and polite and not attract any suspicion. I’d lied: my blood was seeping through the paper; it didn’t look like a cloud, it looked like a blot. ‘Doesn’t look much like a cloud to me,’ he said.  ‘Clouds look like other things. A doggy, for instance.’ He snapped my passport shut. ‘Follow me, please.’ I was led through a tight warren of peeling-linoleum corridors to a secondary screening area, a grubby little waiting room, full of other people, almost silent. Two sounds: one, the flat rhythmic wheeze of an ageing, bloating Mexican in a cowboy hat strapped to an enormous respirator, his eyes washing from one side of the room to the other in subdued terror; two, the minute sobs of a twelve-year-old boy as a woman in uniform explained exactly how he’d be murdered once the paperwork for his deportation to Colombia went through. Very occasionally, the snap and clink as officials trotted through the room, pulling on blue rubber gloves, grabbing some unfortunate by his cuff and dragging him behind a door to be interrogated.

I must have waited three hours before my turn came and I was hauled before what were, I think, a pair of identical twins: the same cueball heads, the same dented noses, a pair of taut and glossy tits. They seemed to know everything about me, and at the same time nothing at all. Somebody had faxed over an itemised list of every time I’d had sex, the date and duration stamped in crowded black numbers with lines through the zeroes; they made me go through the whole list. ‘Get a bit excited that time, huh,’ they’d crow, or, ‘losing all feeling, are you? Worrying that you have a diminished capacity for physical pleasure, buddy? Starting to feel like you’re too good, too rarefied, for the most basic biological and psychological urge of human existence-‘ and then, in a grinning parody of my accent – ‘mate?’ But then none of their documents spelled my name the same way twice, and there was no sign that they even knew why I’d been sent to them. ‘Why is it you think you’re here?’ one asked. ‘We want to hear it from you.’ ‘Because my tongue didn’t look like a doggy,’ I said. ‘I can tell you,’ he said, ‘it’s not that.’ His companion nodded. ‘It’s not a crime in any jurisdiction if your tongue doesn’t look like a doggy.’ They spent a while going through my old school reports. Wants to coast by, doing the absolute minimum necessary. Socialises very poorly. Doodles in maths. The first threw up his arms. ‘He must have done something wrong,’ he said. ‘Fuck this. Let’s just shoot him.’ ‘Please don’t shoot me,’ I said. This seemed to upset them. ‘Listen, bro,’ one said. ‘You are a visitor in the United States of America. You do not make the rules. I make the rules. You do not tell me what to do. You want me to deport you? Piss me off, and I’ll have you put on the next plane back to…’ He scrunched up his face. ‘The uni-ted king-dom.’ And then they put a bag over my head, tied me to a post, put a gun to my cheek, and pulled the trigger.

Afterwards, I thought: thank God that Donald Trump has not yet brought fascism to this country’s shores, or else there might have been bullets in that thing.

I was free: Los Angeles was mine. I was in the desert. I discovered that primitive society, that thing loosely theorised by early twentieth-century anthropologists, really does exist, and what’s more, it’s a recent invention. The home of Hollywood isn’t a sophisticated net of postmodern virtuality draped over the prehistoric hills; it’s the wilderness itself. I learned that the first time I saw someone dying of thirst, dragging himself by the fingernails along a deserted sidewalk untraversed in a century. On one side, low suburban houses with their clashing historical forms, melting mile by mile into the miasma; on the other, a thirty-six-thousand-lane highway. I walked and took the bus, two things you must never do in Los Angeles, convincing myself I was taking up the traditions of Guy Debord and Iain Sinclair and Ivan Chtcheglov. The announcement on the bus had a strange cadence, an underworked voice-actor’s drawl, someone trying to be a gangster or a cowboy. ‘For your own safety, please WATCH YOUR STEP when exiting the bus.’ (It’s actually the voice of former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, which is essentially the same thing.) In other cities people are stupid and comfortable; in LA they’re falling off the edge of the socius, and they’re afraid. Primordial danger: less a concrete city than the colloidal suspension of ten million anxieties. Fears loop and mingle, they amplify each other, so that the crack of a gun somewhere south of Downtown might echo and send the whole city sinking into the San Andreas Fault, so that the drought might bring packs of starved coyotes down from the hills to tear your children’s throats out, so that aliens might invade and strip-mine the earth of its sprouting alfalfa. People were afraid of Donald Trump. The weather was beautiful, and they wore big heavy winter coats whenever they went outside, which was seldom. Space worked differently. Two places close by could be entirely unrelated – downtown, the five-star hotels butted onto sad rows of pawnshops and dollar stores: unlike so much of the city, this place was real, and it was falling apart. Walking, it made no sense; in a car, you just get on the freeway to somewhere else, grab a wormhole, pinch the map together with hyperspatial hands. Less science fiction than shamanism. All the glamour and spectacle has very little in common with industrial modernity or its narrative conventions. You know how the film will end as soon as you see the trailer; it’s a fireside show, a ritual war-dance, masks and all, cinema from the howling infancy of the species. No wonder that as soon as Adorno and Horkheimer arrived in southern California, they started writing about barbarism.

I became fascinated by the sight of old people in the city, perhaps because they so clearly didn’t belong. You could watch them through windows at Burger King, vertebrae popping like blisters through their shirts, poking at their flat gristly crystal, looking so utterly defeated, like a cartoon of the dying year. I couldn’t eat anything until my tongue healed; I drank vegetable juice and looked at billboards. All the season’s TV shows were about what would happen if America were under occupation by cartoon Nazis, and the networks had decided to promote them by putting up propaganda posters from their imagined futures. Above the low houses, Los Angeles was full of swastikas. Imagine how America would look under fascism. So I imagined. They seemed to think that fascism meant banning entertainment, or the suppression of any form of enjoyment by a dictatorship that exists solely to be cruel. It meant, essentially, not being able to party. Whatever they did, it could therefore never be fascist. Walter Benjamin defines it differently. Fascism is ‘the aestheticisation of politics.’ It’s the subordination of all modes of life to entertainment; American fascism would first of all be fun. But any game needs its rules. I went to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, which told me that the Holocaust was the result of one man’s inexplicable hatred, and a cowardly population’s failure to confront it. Prejudice has no origin or cure. Intolerance causes inequality; inequality does not cause intolerance. At one point there were two doors, lit up in red and green: the red one said Prejudiced; the green Not Prejudiced. The green door was locked. After all, aren’t we all a little bit racist?

It was around that time that I started seeing Donald Trump everywhere. At the La Brea tar pits, a big gassy bubble globbed up to the surface of the pond. Just as the tension broke, its tear formed a puckered little mouth. ‘Winners,’ it whispered, leaving the stink of bitumen. Inspecting my turds one morning, I found them to be bright orange, like a newborn baby’s. Their creases and joins looked like a human face. ‘We will make America great again,’ screamed my shit. I tried to flush the thing, but it wouldn’t go down. ‘I’m being repressed by the establishment,’ it screamed as it fought its way upwards through the toilety gyre. ‘They don’t want to have me on TV.’ At night the moon swam hazy through a fume-fettered sky, big and round and wearing a combover that wasn’t fooling anyone. The moon sang to me in my sadness. ‘It will be a beautiful wall,’ sang the moon. ‘And Mexico is going to pay for it.’

There were storms and riots before I left. The drought was breaking, rain crashing seawards in ballistic volleys, a grey Pacific churned into something as messy as the land. Cops had killed another innocent black kid, they’d left his body out on the street for an ambulance that never came. The police knew they had an image problem; all that body armour, all those rifles and armoured vehicles, it made them look like the repressive forces of some distant dictatorship, which they were most certainly not. So when the mobs came for justice there was no tear gas or baton rounds. Instead, they held a recruitment fair. If you don’t like the way your police force operates, then join up and make a difference! We are an equal opportunity employer, read out LGBTQIA+ policy, learn about our retirement benefits. The leaders went first, scrawny young men taking selfies with oversized police caps falling over their ears. Only when about half the protest march had been deputised did the action start. As we drove to the airport, a freeway suspended five hundred feet over Inglewood, I saw blinding white streaks fall through the rain. Low rumbles as the warheads erupted. It was all so far away. Later, at the airport, Donald Trump’s face materialised out of the spinning blades on a jet engine. ‘Black-on-black violence,’ he said. ‘They should sort out their own communities before telling us what to do.’

Donald Trump, the billionaire property developer whose words get top billing on the TV news every night, is a political outsider – because he says what everyone’s thinking. In other words, he takes those things that are unsaid but which nonetheless structure the political discourse, and he says them. Sometimes people will try to defend Trump from accusations of fascism by pointing out that he doesn’t have any consistent politics, he’s only saying whatever will appease his reactionary base and whatever will provoke the media into giving him attention. Actually, they’ve just unwittingly stumbled on a fairly decent definition of what fascism actually is. All he does is gather up what’s already there, below the surface of things, and what’s below the surface is fascist ideology. As Ishay Landa and others have pointed out, it’s not heterogeneous to liberalism, but forms one of liberalism’s defence mechanisms, something that prickles up when class society finds itself under threat. Before the death camps there had to be colonial genocide and the Fordist assembly line; none of these things are intelligible without the others. We’re already living under fascism: all that violence and horror is a byproduct of the production process, it’s always been and always is latent to the capitalist order. Latent, in the full Freudian sense of the word: as in the latency period in psychosexual development, the false pause in which the same oedipalised energies of the initial stages are redirected outwards into the world, the repressive repression of that which is itself repressive – and as the latent content, the hidden content masked by the dream-work. And we are not awake.

Yes, Donald Trump is a fascist. But only because everything else is fascist too.

I’m writing this from New York City. It’s safe here; the Army came in and blew up all the bridges, and while the Bronx has been lost entirely all the other boroughs should be able to hold out. Life has, unavoidably, changed – Central Park is farmland now, millet mostly; a colonel with a tiny flat little nose went on TV to say that actually working with our hands ‘might do you people some good.’ You people; he didn’t actually use the J-word. I went down to Times Square, thinking that all the lights would be replaced by propaganda signs telling me in no uncertain terms what to do. But while there were tanks blocking off Broadway, Coca-Cola was still there. And that’s how I knew I would be OK.

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