Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Policy break: maternal mortality

policy

One of the most encouraging things to happen in recent American political discourse is the new and heightened focus on racial disparities in maternal mortality rates. Black women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women – and this is a scandal, and needs to be seen as such. It’s a cruel and senseless world in which creating new life can carry a death sentence, and this does not need to be happening. Every preventable death that takes place in a maternity ward – and up to 60% of these are preventable – is a woman who was, objectively, murdered by a social order that fails to allow the essential needs of human life to be met. It has to end. How?

One popular approach comes from Senator Kamala Harris, also running for the US Presidency. Her Maternal CARE Act explicitly aims to eliminate this racial disparity through three proposals: providing funds to ‘incentivise’ healthcare providers to deliver ‘integrated health care services to pregnant women,’ providing competitive grants to encourage medical and nursing schools to introduce implicit bias training, and directing the National Academy of Medicine to make recommendations on a further rollout of implicit bias training as part of medical education. Of these three, the proposals concerning implicit bias have received by far the most emphasis, from both Harris and the media. It’s a popular policy, and it’s already being woven into Harris’s Presidential campaign.

It’s the other proposal, however, that has the greatest chance of offering a potential solution. The racial pregnancy outcomes gap is not fixed or universal: in most of the United States, the gap is widening – but one US state, North Carolina, has managed to almost entirely close the gap. Black women died during childbirth at a rate of 24.3 per 100,000 in 2013, down from nearly 60 in the early 2000s; white women at a rate of 24.2. Some of this narrowing is accounted for by a rise in white mortality, which more than doubled in the same time period. I don’t think there should be any question that it would be far better, if it were the only option, to reduce the total number of preventable deaths while maintaining a racial disparity (North Carolina is 71% white). But the rise in white mortality is in line with a nationwide collapse in quality of life for white working-class individuals (the national rate climbed, while the decline in black mortality, in both relative and absolute terms, is unique. One significant factor is the state’s Pregnancy Medical Home programme, which uses the existing Medicaid system to deliver state funds that promote early intervention for high-risk pregnancies. The programme is expansive, addressing not only strictly medical issues but factors such as homelessness or food insecurity that strongly correlate with deaths during childbirth. It shows concretely that policy aimed at improving the lives of the working class can massively alter racial disparities. The most shocking and deadly effects of racism really can simply vanish once an effort is made to redress inequality in general.

The programme is, of course, deeply insufficient. It’s brought mortality rates for black women in North Carolina down to around the level of the national average, which is still monstrously high. But it shows the kind of outcomes that could emerge out of more radical intervention. Currently, the programme offers women advice and assistance dealing with food insecurity and homelessness – what if there were a serious redistributive programme to eliminate these factors altogether? In New York City, 63% of white patients give birth in the safest hospitals in the city; for black women, it’s 23%. What if no hospitals were unsafe? This is why the question of race and childbirth mortality is so crucial: as soon as you get really serious about solving it, you start dealing with the totality of oppression in general. After all, isn’t the question, at its root, that of life itself?

Senator Harris is seemingly not interested in confronting that question. It proposes a demonstration project, in which ten states would, for a limited period, mimic the South Carolina model. When compared with more ambitious policies, such as Medicare for All, it’s simply not enough. But the flagship proposal has nothing o do with increasing the quantity of care available: the radical element, the part that stands out, is the implicit bias training.

Implicit bias theorises that behaviour is influenced by unconscious stereotypes – that, for instance, even an avowed and conscientious anti-racist might hold racist attitudes and adhere to stereotypes, even as they explicitly reject them. In this context, the implication is that the unconscious biases of medical workers lead them to deliver a worse standard of care to black patients – because black suffering is simply not valued as much as white suffering. Implicit bias training aims to overcome this effect. First, trainees typically take an electronic implicit bias test, in which they’re asked to associate names or terms with the categories ‘white or pleasant,’ or ‘black or unpleasant,’ or ‘white or unpleasant’ or ‘black or pleasant.’ Their response times are measured. Typically 70% of participants (including nearly 50% of black Americans) have a harder time associating positive terms with the ‘black or pleasant’ category than the white. This gives a numerically quantifiable indicator of the test subject’s unconscious racism. They’re then trained to recognise this bias, confront it, own up to it, and overcome it. Then, the test is administered again, to see if they’ve improved.

One of the more alarming problems with implicit bias training is that it doesn’t work. Studies of the literature have found that the correlation between implicit bias test scores and actual discrimination outcomes is ‘close to zero.’ Systemic racism is not the same as the aggregate of millions of unconscious ideas, and the unconscious mind moves in stranger ways than causing you to hesitate on a timed computer test. Worse still, it’s been suggested that implicit bias trainings can have an effect – in the wrong direction. An exhaustive training in the persistence of racial biases can, it seem, have a mimetic effect. The sessions might encourage, not alleviate, racial stereotypes.

This is of minor importance when it comes to implicit bias training in universities or the corporate sector – even if it really is counter-productive, that doesn’t affect its primary purpose as a PR fig-leaf. But if you believe, as Senator Harris appears to, that the disparity in health outcomes is caused to some degree by unconscious bias, the consequences here are potentially monstrous. Outside of the ten states selected for the Pregnancy Medical Home demonstration project, her proposal could directly lead to a widening of the racial disparity, and more black women dying during childbirth.

* * *

All this assumes, of course, a certain vision of what policy is: we have a society that’s mostly good, but which has some problems, and after reviewing the evidence we can decide to do things that might fix those problems and help society function better and more equitably. I happen to have another view, and try to be as resistant to facts and evidence as possible. The sphere of potential is vast – and policy is a dream we have about ourselves, the kind of people we think we are, the kind of world we think we live in. This is why the argument that Trump’s wall wouldn’t be very effective at keeping out undocumented migrants is itself so singularly ineffective: Trump’s base don’t want a wall because they’re convinced it will lead to desirable objective outcomes. They want a wall; they want to live in a country that’s fortified.

But Harris and her ideological kin are very much wedded to the utilitarian and technocratic approach. See, for instance, her most notorious policy innovation: her practice, as a California District Attorney, of throwing the parents of truant children in jail. This is, as critics have pointed out, a profoundly unpleasant thing to be doing – but her campaign defended it in explicitly technocratic terms. ‘A critical way to keep kids out of jail when they’re older,’ a spokesperson said, ‘is to keep them in school when they’re young.’ Her contention is that the policy worked – school attendance rose in San Francisco during her tenure as DA – and there’s therefore nothing to complain about. The ends (kids in education) justifies the means (intensified police surveillance and discipline of the working classes) – so long as it’s effective. So why, then, is she now proposing policies which are so profoundly unlikely to advance their stated aims?

The Maternal CARE Act is incomprehensible when evaluated according to her own criteria. Under a different set, it makes a lot more sense. The findings that this procedure fails to achieve its intended result shouldn’t really be counter-intuitive: DARE doesn’t stop kids taking drugs either, and few social problems are attributable to people not being berated or lectured to enough. If these procedures have proliferated, to the extent that elements of the State now want to introduce them in legislation, it’s because their actual purpose is something very different. These are mandatory sessions in which workers are castigated for their shortcomings, told they’re responsible for some of the worst evils of the world, and subjected to hyper-surveillance and discipline as a corrective measure. It’s an upwards redistribution of power, a Taylorism for the reflexes, the assimilation of not just the conscious self but of hazy unconscious attitudes to the sovereignty of the administrative class. If the central question of policy is that of the kind of world we want to live in, the image painted here is bleak. A world of faulty machines. A world in which people are constantly being dragged down by their own evil natures, and have to be improved by an enlightened elite with its dictatorship of prods and nudges. A world in which the solution to what causes us to suffer isn’t shared struggle based around shared needs, but the same atomised self-negation that constitutes much of that suffering.

That Harris and her supporters so badly want implicit bias to be the problem, and this mode of surveillance and control to be the solution, is instructive. The desire is far stronger than their fetish for rationality or evidence; technocracy has far more to do with power itself than efficiency, outcomes, or the actual expertise of the knowledge-monopolising classes. (In the first wave of Taylorism, the savings made by firms through increased industrial efficiency were entirely swallowed up by the costs incurred by the new administrative classes.) This example can, I think, shed some further light on Harris’s truancy policy. The point wasn’t to improve school attendance by any means necessary – it was to impose state discipline, using any excuse available. It should be clear that the anti-racism in these purely managerial articulations of anti-racist politics is hollowed out and infinitely deployable. After all, Senator Harris seems willing to let black women die, if it means she gets to tell other people how it’s all their fault.

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The Momo signal

12.Ubume

I don’t know what it is, but it wants our children.

It forms its secret alliances with them. I’ve seen it happen. On the bus, two exhausted young parents, bearded and broken-down, blood vessels shattering in the whites of their eyes, and the kid will not stop screaming. They offer it the bottle. No bottle. Screams spin higher. They offer it a toy. No toy. Thrown furiously into the grubby aisle. They pick up that little sack of white-hot ancient fury, kiss its head, bounce it up and down; nothing works. Then, in desperation, they give it a phone. Suddenly, silence. The baby’s entranced. Slowly, dutifully, it smears its wet fingers over the surface, flicking through the panels of the home screen, hypnotised by how the lights and colours respond immediately to its touch. A look of unworldly concentration. You’ve heard the horror stories. You can buy prams with a built-in iPad attachment, so the children can suck in unreal worlds as you take them out for a walk. Children swiping at windows and photographs, expecting reality to be as intuitive as the ghosts on a screen. This baby: mute, dabbing, sated, like a rat blissed out in a lab experiment, wires delivering a constant pulse directly to the pleasure centres in its brain. It’s the shape of the future. And then the phone rings, and one of the parents has to pick it up. The baby starts roaring again. It doesn’t yet understand what a phone is, it doesn’t realise that this, not the dazzle of instant response, is what it’s actually for.

At least, that’s what I used to think. Now, I worry that the babies are right, and we’re the ones who’ve got it wrong. There’s something they can see on those screens, and adults can’t. Something that flickers, that whispers secrets to them in inaudible frequencies. It tells them to do things. And I think I’ve started seeing it myself.

An eight year old girl in Ontario tried to throw herself out of an open window. Her mother caught her just in time, but the girl kept struggling, reaching out for the drop with all four furious limbs. It wouldn’t hurt her, she said, once she hit the ground nothing would ever hurt her again. She would break through her own body. She would fall through the cracked screen of the world, and into the dance of lights beneath. Momo had told her. Momo had explained everything, and she would be with Momo forever, in a place beyond touch.

A boy, six, died in New York. He was always a happy, exuberant, creative child. He’d had his own YouTube channel. He was a natural. The child, lounging around in strange outfits, chatting happily for the camera about his day, himself, the things he likes and doesn’t like. He was born for the screen. His parents – a fashion writer and an advertising executive – had encouraged his hobbies. Privately, they whispered with excitement: the kid had it, he knew how to brand himself, he was destined for great things. They found hundreds of pictures in his room after he took his own life, drawings of human-like creatures with the hard, staring, pitiless eyes of a bird of prey. Sometimes, they had a name scrawled in crayon underneath. Momo.

A girl in Manchester is in hospital. Four years old, the third child of a single mum. Life is stressful, there’s never enough time or enough money either, and how are you supposed to explain to a four year old girl that you simply can’t afford ballet lessons, that you can barely afford her tea? There’s a way to make all the unfairness of the world go away for a while: sit the child down in front of a screen, and they’re happy. You don’t need to worry about what they’re watching; it’s all been made, it’s educational. Until the girl stands on her tiptoes, in a perfect pointe, and pulls a knife off the counter. Peppa Pig told her, she explained, dazed and bleeding out on the kitchen floor. The cartoon told her to peel off her skin. A new character. Momo: a dark, still, silent bird.

The boy’s videos were taken down from the internet immediately, but someone had archived them. Nothing is ever gone forever; it lingers in caches, in hollow domains, in the eddies of the code. The internet is haunted. I watched them, and didn’t see anything unusual: just a strangely articulate and effortlessly chatty child. Until right at the end. A shadow falls across the boy’s face, like a dart, a flash, a falling leaf; like he’s been swiped. And now his voice is surrounded, from somewhere in the distance between us, by a grinding mechanical croak. It could almost be something else: feedback, a compression artefact, digital noise. But it’s the noise that comes first. It whispers its command, and the child repeats, a split-second later. Don’t forget, says Momo, to like, share, and subscribe.

A picture started circulating online, somehow connected with this child-killer. It showed an artwork, a sculpture of a woman with bulging round eyes and a predatory beak-like mouth. The piece was based on an ubume, a ghost in Japanese folklore. Ubume are weather-beaten old women who sit by the side of the road, holding out a child for passers-by to take off their hands, just for a moment – but as soon as the child is taken, the ubume vanishes, and as the pedestrian walks off with the child, it gets heavier and heavier, until they look down and see that what they’re carrying is only a rock.

Ubume are strange ghosts. They don’t return to haunt their victims. They don’t bring curses or bad luck. They leave nothing but a perfectly ordinary stone. They’re sad more than they’re frightening. Their children are still, silent, and heavy, and they do not cry.

Another child died in southern Germany. Investigators opened up her phone, and found it was three inches wide, six inches high, and infinitely deep. In those black depths, in that tunnel that bore through invisible dimensions, it was the nest of endless screaming crows.

Not so long ago, there was another minor panic about children and the internet. There were millions of kids’ videos, it was discovered, that had been generated by algorithms, and some of them featured highly disturbing content. Cartoon characters are tortured, decapitated, commit cannibalism, drink poison – all to cheerful electronic nursery-rhyme music and flattened-affect vocals. But the really creepy aspect wasn’t even the violence. That was basically random, an inevitable quirk of the software that generates thousands of video concepts every second. The problem was that people, real human people, had gone ahead and animated it, their hands tugged around by invisible strings.

The Guardian has started adding a brief message to the end of its online articles. Every time a reader like you makes a contribution to The Guardian, no matter how big or small, it goes directly into funding our journalism. I can’t stop hearing it in Momo’s voice, that hoarse scratching black-feathered croak.

I didn’t notice, at first, what the things I read online were really saying. Democratic lawmakers fired back against the President’s claims on social media, urging you to UNBURDEN YOURSELF OF YOUR SKIN AND DISCOVER THE SHINING MINERAL LIFE INSIDE.

An eight-year-old boy was found hidden in the corner of a school playground in Canberra. He’d broken a stone in two, and used its sharp edge to open up his forearm. He’d been digging around inside his own flesh. He was broken, he wailed, he’d slit himself open because he was broken, and he needed to be fixed. The stones had been laid as a small rock garden around the base of a tree. The boy leaned against the tree and mumbled, and in its branches a raven cocked its head, and let out a single ringing caw for each of the child’s sobs.

I started furiously watching children’s entertainment online. I never saw Momo. Just shapes and colours, friendly animated animals, nursery rhymes that were just slightly off, minutely out of tune, lyrics bafflingly twisted. Old McDonegal had a farm. Twinkle twinkle little star, let me know just where you are. It all felt stupid and mass-produced and mean, so much uglier than the loving hand-drawn cartoons I’d watched growing up, back when there were only two channels on TV. But surely everyone feels like this about the new things that come to bury their childhoods. I only had the faintest, most imperceptible urge to rush into the kitchen and grab a cleaver to chop off my own hand.

And it’s only the faintest, most imperceptible noise I hear from the phone on the bus, as the two harried parents finally give in and allow their infant child to swab its hands over the touchscreen. The parents slump their shoulders and collapse into the restful silence, and the bus shudders in the congestion on the Newington Causeway, and something croaks inaudibly out of the motionless machinery of the phone. Look at me, it whispers, look at me, look at me, look.

The child hardly makes a sound. A voiceless velar burp. ‘Uk.

And then it rings.

I don’t know what it is. But I know the name of the thing on the other end of the line.

For the pangolin

Why does one not say, to describe the absolute power of God, “God is small,” “really small,” instead of saying “God is great”? I leave you to reply to this question.
Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, Seminar X

pangolin

An animal is the living strangeness of the world.

It’s unfathomable that we share the world with these bright, strange, deep, ancient gods. What are these things, with eyes that can look into ours, and bodies that move like ours, but which are so utterly different? How did they get to be so old? A wild animal looks at you from far away, from another world, a place beyond language, history, politics, or time. Even a newborn animal is within eternity, and its eyes are vast with the whole of the universe. But still, they know us. Crows will recognise individual humans. If they like you, they’ll bring gifts. If they turn against you, they’ll spread the word; crows you’ve never met before will croak viciously and swoop to peck your skull. They know what we are, maybe better than we know ourselves.

There’s a kind of automatic theory, in which our Palaeolithic ancestors, the ones who covered their caves with endless patterns of stampeding wild animals, must have worshipped these creatures as gods. Maybe they did; it’s impossible to tell. But see how long it took for the gods of Egypt to wrest off their animal heads. Look at the magnificent Assyrian lion-hunt reliefs in the British Museum, see Ashurbanipal and his retainers with their fixed, calm, empty, ataraxic smiles, and compare the sheer living suffering of the lions, who yowl with pain and fury as arrows split their flanks, or even the horror of the bridled horses. An animal is more real, more human, than humanity itself. We might have it the wrong way round. Maybe the gods, with their names and their rites and their rivalries, are only an echo of the fear and awe with which the first humans beheld the sacred beasts.

That strange world is receding. So many animals are dead. The mammoth is gone. The giant flightless owls that once stalked the forests of the Caribbean are gone. The gorilla-sized lemurs of Madagascar, who lived at the same time as Zhuangzi and Aristotle, are gone. Maybe soon, the pangolin will also be gone, and all we’ll be left with will be the cows, tagged and microchipped, mulched up and turned into hundred-gram increments of edible slurry. Dogs and cats, animals that recognise their names, that you can dress up in costumes, loyally enduring it all.

Why did we have to kill them? Maybe the animal always had a privileged connection with death. Theirs is the spirit-world, the dimensions folded into the cracks of reality. In a sense, they are already dead, already outside the finitude of life and world. ‘Mortals,’ writes Heidegger, ‘are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do so. But animals cannot speak either.’ For Hegel, an animal can speak, but only once, as it’s dying. Language depends on the negation of its object, so that it’s ‘transformed into a pure and simple ideal.’ An animal’s noises can only point, not signify: birds chirp a stalking cat, wildebeest low a circling lion; not the general concept of catness or lionosity. But as an animal dies, it cries for an object – itself – that is no longer there. ‘Every animal finds a voice in its violent death; it expresses itself as a removed-self.’ In its dying cry, the animal learns to talk. In this way, the slaughter of an animal is a kind of miracle. It’s the only way we have of really speaking with these strange and wonderful things, sharing a register, inhabiting a single world, in which we live and they die. No wonder animal sacrifice is a central feature of so many world religions; it’s in the death of an animal that humans and gods can touch.

The wave of mass extinctions that followed the spread of our own species across the earth, and the wave of mass extinctions that’s happening right now, have any number of causes. Social, political, economic, accidental. But I think a lot of it comes down to this: that same desperate need to communicate with the animals that live beyond our world. A refusal to live with the otherness of the other, a steamrollering of radical difference into the flatness of the Same. Everything that is strange, and stays strange, gets obliterated – not despite our fascination, but because of it. A few years ago, conservationists warned against focusing too much on charismatic megafauna, the endangered elephants and pandas, while the crucial but ignored creatures that made up their environment were quietly snuffed out of existence. Now everyone is worried about the massive decline in insect populations, and it turns out that insects are also charismatic megafauna – the vast majority of all life is composed of single-celled organisms, and they’re dying too. I believe it. But if it’s not too late, if something can be pulled out of the oncoming wreckage of the future and preserved, if we can save just one living god, I’d like it to be the pangolin.

* * *

Ground-dwelling pangolins are bipedal. They walk on their hind legs, which are flat and splaying, almost like an elephant’s, and hold their little hands timidly crossed in front of them. Pangolins are the only mammals with scales, which are made from chitin, like human fingernails. Their bodies are like flowers. They walk from termite-mound to termite-mound, slipping their long tongues into the nests to feed. Baby pangolins, too young to walk, ride along on their parents’ tails. Some tree pangolins use their tails to hang from branches while they strip away sections of bark, revealing the insects beneath. While up there, they coil and flex, scratching their own bellies; they’re clearly having fun. When threatened, pangolins roll into a ball. Their scaly backs are a good enough defence against their natural predators, things with long teeth and sharp claws. But they’re almost absurdly vulnerable to anything with opposable thumbs. When poachers find one, they can just pick up the living shuddering terrified ball of pangolin, and take it away to its death.

Pangolins are beautiful. Some people, who suffer from trypophobia or some other made-up condition, find their patterns of overlapping scales disgusting. Once, I tried in anxious desperation to show a friend just how wonderful they were: pictures of gentle pangolins browsing through the savannah, joyful pangolins playing in a mudhole, baby pangolins hugging tight to a larger pangolin’s tail, newborn pangolins sleeping in angelic circles. Get rid of it, she said, it’s horrible, I hope they go extinct. Otherness can be met with disgust, and this animal is bizarre beyond belief; alien and unknowable. But at the same time, it’s so hard not to see something speaking from its alien face. The habitual expression of a pangolin is a kind of loveable, fretful worry. They look embarrassed, with their nervous hands, and their sorrowful eyes. Oh, they say, me? But that’s so kind of you. They are ravenous killers of ants and termites, eating up to seventy million of them a year, but in all their dealings with anything that doesn’t get scooped up by their flicking tongues, they are marvellously gentle. Stooped, questing, humble, and hopeful, they browse over the strangeness of the earth. An unassuming dignity. They show another face of nature, not constant pointless struggle, but not hokey mystical balance either. If a creature can make itself safe from the terrors of the world under its overlapping scales, then nature can produce something rare and weird, infinitely variegated, utterly wonderful, and impossibly kind.

The meekness of the pangolin allowed it to survive for tens of millions of years. They are so very old. But humans, the only creatures that can threaten them, have not been kind to them in return. Of the eight species of pangolin, four are listed as vulnerable, two as endangered, and two as critically endangered. They are the most trafficked animals in the world.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas’s book Purity and Danger is a crucial text – not least when it comes to understanding our own contemporary political neuroses – but what I love most of all is its treatment of the pangolin cult among the Lele of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Like many people, the Lele distinguish between ritually pure animals, which can be eaten, and ritually impure animals, which can not. But the pangolin is a conundrum. It resists the prisons of thought, by the sheer virtue of its weirdness. ‘It is scaly like a fish, but it climbs trees. It is more like an egg-laying lizard than a mammal, yet it suckles its young.’ And its young are born singly, like human children, rather than in litters. Other animals are teeming and fecund, but this creature is slow, thoughtful, and still. The pangolin is a moment of calm in the chaos of wild nature, and while chaos can be moulded into order, the pangolin continues under its own peaceful laws, and refuses to submit to any other. As Douglas writes, they embody ‘the limitation on human contemplation of existence.’ They are the unapproachable equals of ourselves.

Among some peoples, it’s forbidden to kill a pangolin. Anti-poaching initiatives in Zimbabwe are trying to reactivate some of these traditions – how can it be anything other than taboo to destroy an animal that’s so mild, and so defenceless against death? But the Lele do kill and eat pangolins – never for their daily sustenance, but only as part of religious rituals. It is outside of the categories of ordinary life,  and they are fully aware that what they are killing is a god. ‘Like Abraham’s ram in the thicket and like Christ, the pangolin is spoken of as a voluntary victim. It is not caught, but rather it comes to the village. It is a kingly victim: the village treats its corpse as a living chief and requires the behaviour of respect for a chief on pain of future disaster. The mysteries of the pangolin are sorrowful mysteries.’

Emmanuel Levinas describes God as an ‘infinite Other,’ something unfathomably distant from ourselves, something which we can never hope to grasp conceptually. But that infinity is not unreachable; it exists whenever one living being looks at the defencelessness of another. Once, a long time ago, I was asked if I could ever be an ethical vegan. I said no: animals are not ethical subjects, and ethical gestures are only meaningful between ethical subjects. The animal is on the perpetual outside. Now, I’m not so sure. I still eat meat: the poor cows, the poor sheep, the poor and wonderful octopuses. But now I think an ethical system that only has meaning within its sectioned-off field of the Same fails the most fundamental test, which is our duty to the other, a duty that doesn’t diminish as the other gets stranger and more distant, but intensifies. A truly ethical system would be that which gives us a duty to those who are not ethical subjects – not despite their otherness, but because of it.

God is the suffering other, the infinitely distant suffering other. Somewhere beyond the endlessness of the meanings of the world, there is an image. A quiet, unassuming pangolin, nailed to a wooden cross.

If the pangolins were wiped out tomorrow, we wouldn’t even notice, and this is why they must be saved. I would love to see a pangolin in the wild, but even more than that, I would love to simply exist in a world that can contain them, a world where the pangolins are safe, happy, distant, and unseen. Today is World Pangolin Day. It doesn’t mean much to the pangolins, who are far beyond all such things, but it means a lot to me. For the love of God, and for the love of the pangolins, which means the same thing, their strangeness must not vanish.

Basilisk

basilisk

The kid does nothing. He stands, and stares, and does nothing.

God, but it’s disturbing. The drummer ducks and weaves and chants, and the kid stands motionless, like a snake watching some quick warm scurrying thing through heat-sensitive pits. The flickering grin of a predator. The kid with his sharp nose, sharp chin, rosy cheeks, callous and clean, facing off against a man aged leathery by a thousand year history the kid will never understand. A new world is coming, and it’s an annihilation. No more memory, no more twine and leather drums: the future will be white, peach-pink white, and heartless. The kid claims otherwise. He was trying to calm the situation, he says, and he thought the best way to do it would be to stand perfectly still. And if you want it to be, that smirk could be awkwardness or embarrassment: a much older man is playing a drum loudly in his face, and he doesn’t know what to do, so he stands there and smirks at him, and then later he goes home. Maybe. But that’s not what we see: we see something disturbing, that bothers you in the marrow of your bones. It’s creepy. It’s unsettling. It makes you feel like snakes are coiling cold and smooth down the shiver of your spine. Anything is justified, anything at all, to make it go away.

The situation is this. A group of Catholic high school students from Kentucky gather at the Lincoln memorial, as part of an organised trip to an anti-abortion rally. (And there’s something deeply, unbearably wrong with a world in which all-boys fee-paying schools will bus children out to take part in an anti-abortion rally.) While there, they’re taunted and mocked by a group of Black Hebrew Israelites, present for the Indigenous Peoples March. (I’m quite fond of that group, in a weird way; their encyclopaedic Bible knowledge, their utter sincerity. Once I had a chat with a group of Black Hebrew Israelites in New York. They told me that they were the real Jews, and I was a demonic impostor. I disagreed. One of them asked me what tribe I was from, with a gotcha smirk. Tribes are patrilineal, but my mother’s a Levite, and I told him so. In their history, the tribe of Levi corresponds to modern-day Haiti. He looked me up and down for a moment. Well, he said, maybe you’ve got some of the black man in you. Take from that what you will.) At this point, Nathan Phillips, an elder from the Omaha tribe, stands between the two groups and sings the American Indian Movement song: a wordless, pan-tribal, post-signifying chant of unity, for drums and voices. (The story goes that it was first hummed by a child at the Crow Fair. It was sung at Wounded Knee.) He’s trying to defuse tensions. At first, the students chant and dance along. Then they laugh. They appear to be mocking him. And one of them stands, and stares, and does nothing.

In a video filmed after the incident, Phillips is fighting back tears. It’s heartbreaking. I heard them saying build that wall, build that wall. This is indigenous lands. We’re not supposed to have walls here, we never did. For a millennium, before anyone else came here, we never had walls. We never had a prison. We always took care of our elders, we took care of our children. We always provided for them, we taught them right from wrong. I wish I could see the energy of the young masses, the young men, put that energy into making this country really great. Helping those that are hungry. (For some reason, that very last sentence seems to go unquoted in most media reportage.) He’s a liberal, in the best sense of the word. He sees two ranks of bigots squaring off against each other, and he wants to heal the divisions. He insists that he’s standing on indigenous land, not so he can raise a discursive wall around it and mark it off as his property, but because he wants the white people and the black people to understand that they are guests, and that they should behave accordingly, with politeness. He’s a better man that I am. If I had to come up with a new categorical imperative, it would be something like this: build a world fit for someone like Nathan Phillips to live in.

We are not in that world.

Call it meta-spectacle, the spectacularisation of someone looking. Video of the incident spread almost instantly around the world. And in a mob of rich Catholic-school kids on an anti-abortion march, jeering and chanting, the focus could only narrow itself to one particular point. The kid becomes fixed, a still form in a moving picture, an object of almost universal hatred. That one. I don’t like that one. He weirds me out. It’s not a political repudiation of right-wing ideology. It’s not even revenge. It’s disgust, the mass expression of disgust, both reactive and reactionary. Thousands of people on social media, doing everything they can to find out his name, and punish him. Sample tweet: Say good-bye to life as you knew it kid because it’s about to change for good. He did it to himself. Another: You are nothing now – your future just went out the window. No college or job opportunities coming your way. You are just a piece of dust now. Not the cry of the oppressed, but the gloat of power. People so woozy on power that they don’t even notice when they don’t have it. (Snotty right-wing kids from snotty right-wing private Catholic schools often go on to snotty right-wing private Catholic colleges. You have no dominion there.) A kid grows up in the swilling resentment of some white suburb in Kentucky – and you think you can shame him out of his upbringing? Roads without pavements, deserts of empty grass leading up to peaked-roof bungalows, the latest kitchen gadgets, frog memes, and an itch – and you think you can fix it by making shitty supervillain speeches online? Of course not. Nathan Phillips wanted people to behave better. You just want to make them bleed.

A name was discovered. Inevitably, it was the wrong one. A family member described the result. Harassment and threats of physical violence… my parents, uncles, and aunts receive messages saying they are pieces of shit and won’t be able to protect [him] forever… people then started circulating articles of him regarding his dreams and goals of being a chef, find the college he plans on attending and proceed to blow them up encouraging them to rescind offer and calling him a racist POS. The response? Something along the lines of well, if it’s not him, then say who it is. You know his name. They go to the same school. Give your friend over to us, let him face our justice. How can anyone possibly think this is a reasonable demand? What on earth do these people think they’re doing? Is this social justice? Thousands of grown adults, claiming for themselves the power of unrestricted punishment over a child. Yes, non-white children – black children playing with toy guns in the park, refugee children sluiced into various inhuman state processing systems – tend to be read as adults. This is monstrous. And on the day that one single child is released from a migrant concentration camp because a mob of adults tried to destroy a private Catholic school student on social media, I’ll endorse it as a tactic forever. Until then, it’s sadism.

But it’s strange how few people can point out what’s happening right in front of them. The person they hate the most in the video is the one who isn’t laughing, or hooting, or chanting. It’s the one who stands silently, doing nothing at all.

A basilisk is a snake, twelve fingers long, and the most poisonous creature on the earth. You will know a basilisk’s lair, because the plants that surround it will have blackened and died. In one story, a hunter on horseback speared a basilisk, and the venom travelled up the spear, so that both the hunter and his horse were instantly killed. Most famously, its gaze itself is lethal; in later legends, it turns its victims to stone. In psychoanalysis, the gaze always belongs to the other; the gaze is the sensation of being looked at, reduced to an object of contemplation, of withering into the dead matter of the world. Mulvey and her followers can describe a pervasive male gaze that silently commands and restrains women; men sometimes protest that they don’t see anything, they’re just terrified objects too. They’re both right. The basilisk must exist, because the basilisk is the one that does the looking. Slithering beneath the earth, coiled around the strutwork of satellites in orbit, the basilisk looks. It is lonely to be a basilisk, the only creature that can never look another being in its living eyes. The basilisk structures all social relations, because it is infinitely apart from them. The name basilisk comes from the Greek βασιλεύςbasileus, meaning king.

Only: what are you doing right now? You are hunched over, cold-blooded and motionless, staring at a screen.

Of all the things to throw your hatred into, why this? Desperate boats have started to cross the English Channel. It’s fifty degrees in Australia. Before long, significant tracts of the earth will be uninhabitable, places that are currently home to millions of people. Turkish-backed militia are ethnically cleansing Kurdish lands in Syria. There’s a fuel shortage in Gaza; four lion cubs froze to death in Rafah City Zoo. Everything is going terribly; the world is terrible beyond belief. There is constant violence, brutal physical violence, corpses churned into the earth. So why do we feel such a particular unease at this one kid, smirking silently without words?

Because we do nothing, because we can do nothing. We stand, and stare, and do nothing at all.

Who is Niezy?

reduplication

You could pretend it’s a game. Christmas is nearly here, and in the pale lazy brandy-soaked hours after dinner, you can sprawl around with your strange friends or your spiteful family and play a fun game of Who’s Nietzsche? There aren’t really any rules as such, but the game goes like this. In the first days of January 1889, the people of Turin might have one of the modern age’s greatest philosophers on the street, dashing lopsidedly between his front door and the city post office, a weird little man hurrying with his weird little letters. It’s unlikely that anyone would have recognised Nietzsche, but he wasn’t really Nietzsche any more. In some of those letters – sent to his friends, to the King of Italy, to the Grand Duke of Baden and his family, to ‘the illustrious Pole’ – the weird little man identified himself as the Buddha. The Buddha had holes in his boots. Several were signed by ‘The Crucified.’ Jesus wore a threadbare coat. In a letter to Cosima Wagner, widow of the great composer, he identified himself as her dead husband – but also as Alexander, Caesar, Shakespeare, and Napoleon. ‘What is unpleasant and a strain to my modesty,’ he wrote in another note, ‘is that in fact I am every historical personage.’ These were Nietzsche’s last written works. A few of the recipients of these letters, full of pious concern, quickly intervened: they had him carted away to a clinic in Switzerland. When Nietzsche died in 1901, it was after a decade of feverish silence.

To play the game, all you have to do is take Nietzsche at his word. Say he really was Caesar and Napoleon and all the rest of them. ‘I am Prado, I’m also Prado’s father.’ A genius, reborn endlessly through time, fated to violently remake the world in his own image and then watch as it dissolves back into goo, before he can return to mould it again. And why should the cycle have ended in 1900? Maybe Zarathustra has come back down from his mountain to preach to us again; maybe the incarnation of the living Nietzsche walks among us. If you had to identify someone as a candidate, who would it be?

There are plenty of wannabe prophets around these days, but none of them really fit the bill. We can definitely eliminate all those slovenly Silicon Valley techno-futurists, the ones waiting for a superintelligent artificial intelligence to pluck them out of their greasy bungalows and their greasy gangly bodies and the whole greasy mess of physical reality, so they can play video games forever and never have to log off. Backwordsmen, all of them. God is dead, said Nietzsche, horrified by the enormity of deicide. Who can replace Him? The prophets of the singularity want to replace Him with a big calculator. Not one of them were Caesar or Napoleon.

The same goes for all your favourite political prophets, the Jordan Petersons or Ben Shapiros, or whichever other rat-faced wimp is thrown up by the hidden telluric waves of smugness and outrage into general consciousness. Everything these people say is basically resolvable to a whine, and the content of that whine is always it’s not fair. Something has gone wrong in the last few decades; their face-stamping boot is now on someone else’s foot, and they’d like it back please. Slave morality! Smallness! Lice crawling over the corpse of modernity, as if gnawing its flesh could give over the grandeur of those bones! But it’s not any of the saprophages on the other side either, any yaas-kween clapback af woke embarrassment. True, these people tend to utterly despise the name of Nietzsche while unknowingly echoing his more brutal thoughts (‘the argument against a stupid head is a clenched fist’), which is a positive sign, and they at least speak like a master – this is mine by right, but this is not for you, Becky – but they insist on polluting it with the language of justice. If nothing else, it’s dishonest. All too human.

Maybe a better candidate is Elon Musk, who does at the very least appear to have gone genuinely mad, with some impressive delusions of grandeur, and who’s managed to cough up a few suitable weird aphorisms. ‘I would like to die on Mars,’ he once said, and it’s quite a Nietzschean sentiment, as long as you assume that the sole reason he keeps boosting Mars exploration is so he can step off his spaceship, the first man on an alien world, and then keel over on the landing ramp, instantly dead. Sadly, that’s probably not the case. All of Musk’s most quotable quotes have to do with parsimony and efficiency, energy-saving and calculation. Nietzsche had his number; he saw through the fake bluster of rationalism: ‘The objective man is in truth a mirror accustomed to prostration before everything that wants to be known.’ He’s never encountered the terror of infinite return. Besides, Zarathustra could never have shareholders. So who’s left? You? Me? Don’t make me croak bitterly into my clotted cream. The world is starved. We’re nothing. We’re the Last Men. We sit around with our belts fatly loosened, and wonder who the prophet might be, and blink.

In the end, Who’s Nietzsche? isn’t a very good game. Not because there’s no answer, and therefore no point, but because the answer is so obvious. We know Nietzsche is back; he’s been back for fifteen years, and he’s been saying so himself. How could it have ever been anyone other than Kanye West?

* * *

Kanye and Nietzsche are identical twins, stranded across time. Both love to proclaim their genius, as if it weren’t already evident. Both are propelled by a kind of expansive asexuality, both speak in quick aphorisms with barbed punchlines. Both have the same audacity of gesture, making Zoroaster an immoralist or sampling Strange Fruit to talk about insta thots. Both are in a sense unbearable – overflowing and tyrannical, as if we can’t see, as if it’s not obvious that all their grandstanding is just compensating for some private lack. Kanye spouts strange drivel, apparently oblivious to the fact that he’s not in on his own joke. Nietzsche thunders vitality with the cycles of the universe, as if we don’t know how skinny his chest is, or about his syphilis, his indigestion, his migraines, his rot. They swagger in time with one another, and with the same manic hollowness. There’s a tendency to wade into areas of which they know absolutely nothing. Kanye has his ill-judged political interventions. Nietzsche, strangely, has music. ‘There has never been a philosopher,’ he writes, ‘who has been in his essence a musician to such an extent as I am.’ (Kanye, meanwhile, has announced himself as a philosopher. Do you see now?) As a birthday gift, Nietzsche sent the sheet music for his own compositions to Richard and Cosima Wagner. You can listen to his music yourself, if you want. It’s terrible. Not the parping bombast you’d expect, but something basically sterile, imitating all of the basic features of music and sticking very carefully to the rules, music that would be strangely Apollonian if it weren’t also subtly, maddeningly wrong. Wagner had to excuse himself during the performance of his gift; he was found in another room, on the floor, laughing hysterically. Kanye should have stuck to music; Nietzsche should have stuck to not-music. But neither of them will be bounded, not even by their own talent.

If you wanted to be pedantic, you could list all the times that Kanye and Nietzsche have said the same thing – not repeating each other, but each of them saying it again and for the first time. ‘I am Warhol. I am Shakespeare in the flesh.’ Sound familiar? ‘Early in the morning,’ writes Kanye, ‘at break of day, in all the freshness and dawn of one’s strength, to read a book – I call that viciousness!’ And Nietzsche echoes: ‘I would never want a book’s autograph. I am a proud non-reader of books.’ In 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Nietzsche unveils the consummating death, the festival death, the death that comes at the right time. Clearly, he’s quoting Yeezy’s Zarathustra: ‘Now this will be a beautiful death.’ Open the book to section fourteen: ‘Be at least mine enemy! How many of us? How many jealous?’ Who challenges us to name one genius who ain’t crazy? Who knows that one must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star? They both chorus: ‘I am God, and this farce is my creation.’ And while they’re not the only madmen to have summarily deified themselves, for the last twenty centuries all the other pretenders have only tried to be the Judge of a trembling Abraham. Kanye and Nietzsche aren’t so tedious. They are Dionysus, the god of farce, frenzy, and screams.

What really distinguishes them is that both Nietzsche and Kanye are simply not interested in negation. They have no time for the dialectic, for opposites, for non-being: the world screams in bright colours, and everything in it must be affirmed. This is not quite the same as being positive. Someone like Hegel or Beyonce can accept the existence of evil or finitude because it’s necessary for the eventual triumph of good. That’s easy. Nietzsche and Kanye are driven to embrace everything. Not just because it marks a necessary historical stage comprehensible to absolute reason, not just because the darkness makes the light shine brighter, but in the fullness of its monstrosity. They go about this in slightly different ways. Nietzsche has eternal return, Kanye has his universal love for everyone and everything. (Not as different as they might appear. As Deleuze, who understood Nietzsche pretty well for a philosopher, puts it, ‘laziness, stupidity, baseness, cowardice or spitefulness that would will its own eternal return would no longer be the same laziness, stupidity etc. How does the eternal return perform the selection here? It is the thought of the eternal return that selects.’ And see how Kanye’s universal love functions: it transforms the world, refracting it via infinity, into something more loveable – so long as it’s met.) But they end up at the same place. Nietzsche throwing his arms over a sad dumb cart-horse, a plodding embodiment of the smallness and meekness he was supposed to despise. And Kanye, with a red hat on, embracing President Trump. So why were people so surprised? Did they really expect Dionysus to have good taste?

* * *

Kanye West’s brief flirtation with right-wing politics was many things, but it was not political. ‘I attack only causes that are victorious,’ he writes. ‘I attack causes only when there are no allies to be found, when I am standing alone – when I am compromising myself alone.’ Call it contrarianism if you want; at least it’s an ethos. And here he really did stand alone. Yes, he stood alone in embracing a political power that is, in fact, victorious, that commands the terrifying blinkered loyalty of millions, that kidnaps children, locks them in cages, and traumatises them for life, that commits regular and cowardly airborne massacres, that confronts the desperate with military calcifications against the border and chemical weapons for fleeing children – but those weren’t the terms in which Kanye embraced Trump. There are people who like the goblins of power precisely because they’re willing to carry out this violence. Kanye is not one of them. When he says he likes Trump because they both have dragon energy, he means it.

He stood alone in the White House with history’s greatest monster because while distant and silent psychopaths might enjoy his atrocities, Kanye’s doxa – that of Hollywood, hip-hop, and haute couture – is populated by a different type of psychopath altogether. Since Trump’s election, the vast culture-engine has been seized by a frenzy of contradiction. All it can do is watch what the government is doing, and scream no. (Not that there isn’t any determinate element: the hope is that if you say no to Trump loudly enough, the whole system will rebalance itself along the lines of a healthy Third Way liberalism. Good luck.) The fame factories spill huddled clouds of abstract negation. Slicks of negativity wash up against the beaches, cinders of cancellation creak and crackle over the hills. This stuff is absolutely hegemonic, even if it’s not politically efficacious – observe all the dark muttering that surrounded Taylor Swift (Kanye’s eternal Apollonian opposite) for her quite reasonable refusal to broadcast her opinions, and note how quickly she was lauded after caving in and endorsing a few right-wing Democrats like everyone else. How brave.

And Nietzsche is not interested in the negative. What he saw in Trump was a living principle of positivity, to which all the sour Puritan liberals in his new neighbourhood were glumly opposed – and there, at least, he wasn’t wrong. Look at what he actually said in the White House. ‘There was something about when I put this hat on that made me feel like Superman.’ Insurgent affirmationism; the power of flight. Or consider this: what kind of right-wing Trumpist installs himself in front of the great shit-eater himself to declare how much he loves Hillary Clinton?

The prophet always knew that he would be misinterpreted. ‘I have a terrible fear that one day I shall be considered holy.’ The fear was well-placed. At the end of October, Kanye West appeared to walk back his short flirtation with the right. ‘My eyes are now wide open,’ he wrote, ‘and now realise I’ve been used to spread messages I don’t believe in. I am distancing myself from politics and completely focusing on being creative.’ He was right; he had been used, in the same way that he had once been used by the murderous cabbage-fart dullards of the Third Reich. What could someone as magnificently sincere as Kanye West have in common with a smirking con artist like Candace Owens or the hosts of Fox News? Did his new boosters on the right really think he now supported public-sector austerity, state repression against the poor, corporate tax relief, tariffs on raw materials as a geopolitical bargaining tool, and everything else that slops along the sewer of conservative thought? He stood alone, despite these sycophants, or because of them. They can only have been cynical or deluded, and my money’s on cynical. They saw someone they could parasite themselves on, and, parasites that they are, they took the opportunity. But the left had nothing to gain from what they did. What’s their excuse?

* * *

The liberal mainstream’s attempted Dixie-Chicks-ing of Kanye West might be the most shameful and transparent moment in media history since the Iraq War. Everyone knew that when he called for the repeal of the 13th Amendment, he was talking about prison abolition – but it’s so much more gratifying to pretend to think he wanted slaves in the fields again. The worst are those who understand perfectly well what he was saying, but reserve the right to grab their pitchforks anyway, because he was being – unforgivable! – tone-deaf. Of course he was! He’s Kanye West! Why should he be subject to this ghastly new Victorian refinement? Why is it that the people who yap fuck civility at every opportunity are always the same trilling bourgeois cyber-matrons who spend their lives guarding against every potentially scandalous gesture, every fluctuation in the vagaries of tone?

But the tone has changed. See, for instance, how a popular music website – I won’t name it, because it’s no worse than any of the others, but yes, it’s obviously the one you’re thinking of – responded to his last two albums. 2016’s The Life of Pablo was – let’s be honest – a sloppy and unfinished effort, not without its frequent moments of brilliance but basically thin, thrown-together, and fallow. The reviewer manages to spin this into an act of profound Dadaist brilliance: album as objet trouvé. ‘The universe is a trick of the light, and we’re nothing but a figment in a higher being’s imagination. Nothing is as it seems, nothing is safe from revision, and nothing lasts.’ In other words, don’t you see what he’s doing? It’s not crap, it’s a statement about crapness. 2018’s ye was, by contrast, something far stronger: his Ecce Homo, a searing document of a man’s battle for recognition against himself, and a fully Nietzschean broadside against the deformation of the ideal subject in a time of scurrying smallness. ‘See, if I was trying to relate it to more people, I’d probably say I’m struggling with loving myself because that seems like a common theme. But that’s not the case here. I love myself way more than I love you.’ And what does our reviewer make of it? ‘Seven tracks he farted out to meet his arbitrarily self-imposed deadline… an album born from chaos for chaos’ sake, an album that can barely be bothered to refer to that chaos with anything more committal than a Kanye shrug.’

You may have noticed that the analysis of the two albums is identical in its particulars; only the valence has changed. Poptimsism was always a sham; you never really thought there was any actual liberatory potential in pop culture. If 2016 Kanye releases a hasty and provisional album, it’s an act of secret brilliance. If 2018 Kanye uses a photo he took on the way to his album’s launch party as its cover art, then he’s just a freewheeling asshole. What’s changed? There are plenty of plausible interpretations, but the most legible is this: it’s because Kanye went to the White House and hugged it out with Donald Trump. He took the side of the absolute negation of everything good and true, and it burned through his form. Or, to put it less charitably: in 2016 the received opinion was that he was brilliant if sometimes embarrassing, so we liked his music; now, everyone thinks he has dodgy politics, so we don’t. He’s bad now, tainted, and if we don’t wash our hands furiously enough we’ll get tainted too. (The politics of purity and contagion, it should be noted, are always deeply conservative, verging on fascist; far more reactionary than a red hat or a monologue about iPhones in the Oval Office.) What was it Kanye West said, a long time ago, about how the will to truth is a mask, about how ‘the greater part of conscious thinking must be counted among the instinctive functions’? Do these people know that they’re being dishonest? Clearly not, otherwise they wouldn’t have exposed the underbelly of panicked self-preservation that trembles beneath our system of cultural values. Nietzsche’s affirmationist contranianism might be juvenile, but the one who’s unwilling to deeply compromise themselves is infinitely worse. Here is your own dishonesty, they whimper, here it is scrubbed of difference. Please don’t kill me.

* * *

There is, of course, a second acceptable response to Kanye’s antics, which is to note that he’s clearly mentally ill, and we shouldn’t make the situation any worse by paying attention to him. This is, at least, not entirely untrue. We know Kanye West is suffering from mental illness, because he’s told us. He told us in 2016, when he mentioned that he had been prescribed Lexapro, a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor. He told us in 2012, when he discussed suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. In one unreleased song, he provided an extensive list of the psychiatric symptoms he suffers from. ‘Do you experience nervousness or shakiness inside, faintness and dizziness? The idea that someone else can control your thoughts. Feeling others are to blame for most of your thoughts. Feeling afraid in open spaces or in public. Thoughts of ending your life.’ We’ve known for a very long time, and the general response was to lionise him for speaking up and starting a conversation about mental health, which is now the only thing that an alienated society knows to do with its mad. We saw him interrupt live shows with bizarre rants, alienate those close to him, behave in ways that would be troubling if someone you actually knew and loved started exhibiting them – and we politely applauded. (It didn’t help that the people who had a problem with it were almost uniformly obnoxious, untroubled by fifty years of rock-star narcissism but violently upset by the same stuff coming from a black man. You don’t want to give ground to them.) But as soon as there’s the suggestion that these symptoms might take on a political dimension, the approach suddenly shifts. Disengage, block it out, seal it off, silence him, mock him if you feel like it – but make sure his madness stops speaking itself, and make sure it’s no longer heard. For his own good, of course. But why?

Possibly the most depressing image I’ve ever seen is a poster produced by the New York City Health Department as part of its ‘Choose the Best Words’ campaign. For a while, the things were everywhere in the city, plastered up like the banners of a dictatorial cult. The point is to teach people what to say and what not to say to friends who are suffering from mental health issues. Two cartoon figures on a basketball court. One is slumped over on the bench. The other says I know exactly how you feel. These are the wrong words, of course; you can tell, because they’ve been crossed out. The right words are Hey. Want to talk? Third panel, and the response: Thanks for talking, I feel better now. So what the hell happened in between? Thirty seconds of static? The right words are the vague notion of ‘talking,’ talking about talking, speaking up talkingly. The wrong words are, apparently, any actual specific instance of speech. How do we solve the mental health crisis? By feeding it to the discourse-monster, by flattening it into something that can shimmer on the surface of discursive life with all the other signifiers. Freudianism, once shucked off by psychopharmacology, returns – except now there’s no analyst, just your friends, press-ganged into the role of unpaid mental health nurse. Now, the latency that needs expression is only the empty form of latency. Now the talking-cure functions without anything ever being said.

Contemporary mental health discourse is founded on the exclusion of the particularity of madness itself; it effects a facile resolution of madness to sanity,  and declares its work done in the gesture of equivalence. (It’s true, obviously, that those we call mad are just those who aren’t assimilable to the neurotic mutilation of ordinary subjects – but that non-assimilability remains.) The mad have become, somehow, an identity group. Something like race, which has no prior existence outside of the repressive and historically contingent categories of racism. A form, engaged in the differential contest of hollow forms. The mad must speak up, represent our subject-position, communicate, and be listened to. The fact that madness profoundly problematises speech and the subject doesn’t enter into it. A mania for form, a terror of content. (Online writing, it’s true, is routinely referred to as content – but all this means is that it’s a shapeless fluid,  transparent and undifferentiated, whose function is only to ensure that all pre-existing forms are duly filled.) This is why mental health advocates are always calm and seemingly stable: they have anxiety or depression, but almost never psychosis, schizophrenia, any madness that might make their TV appearances too incomprehensible or too grimly fascinating.

Nietzsche, who is not a dialectician, has very little to say about form and content. What he does talk about is style. When he comes to reflect on the composition of his Zarathustra – the MBDTF of philosophy – he finds its first seeds in ‘a second birth within me of the art of hearing.’ His thought is solidified music: words and paragraphs are not a neutral container into which propositional content might be slotted and then maybe withdrawn. Styles are multiple, but the presence of one or another style is fundamental to the project; meaning is a property of what he calls ‘the tempo of the signs.’ A semiology without linguistics. (It’s probably not insignificant that parrots, the only other animals to make use of human speech, also dance for pleasure.) In Beyond Good and Evil (the first draft of 808s & Heartbreak): ‘There is art in every good sentence – art that must be figured out if the sentence is to be understood!’ See how Nietzsche’s thought limps when denuded of its style; listen to Heidegger glossing him. ‘Truth is the essence of the true; the true is that which is in being; to be in being is to be that which is taken as constant and fixed.’ Unrecognisable, pedantic, tautologous; a philosophy that’s become so gratingly German. As soon as you stop talking in dithyrambs, you no longer understand Becoming. It’s not Heidegger’s fault; he was more sensitive to the buried iceberg-weight of words than most. (Elsewhere in his seminars on Nietzsche, he argues very clearly that ‘to relegate the animated, vigorous word to the immobility of a univocal, mechanically programmed sequence of signs would mean the death of language and the petrification and devastation of Dasein.’) It’s just that attempts to translate Nietzsche into the ordinary language of philosophy always, always fail. Dumb teenage nihilists who think they’re the Overman understand him better than distinguished scholars of nineteenth-century thought, and Kanye West understands him best of all, despite never having read a word of his books. It’s in the style, the movement of it: he is his twin in the art of hearing.

(Derrida, it must be noted, disagrees. A style, he writes, is ‘a long object, an oblong object, a word, which perforates even as it parries.’ A stylus, a lance or a needle, a pen. ‘But, it must not be forgotten, it is also an umbrella.’ Style shelters that which is enclosed by it, and Derrida holds up as an instance of unstyled text a note in Nietzsche’s unpublished margins: ‘I have forgotten my umbrella.’  Meaning, it would seem, without art. Nietzsche is no longer compensating for his lacks with grandiloquence and fury, just baldly stating what is not there. That pure presence has been withdrawn from him. He has forgotten who he is, and so he scrabbles through space and time to find new answers. But what, in the end, is Nietzsche without his umbrella? A man in a clinic. Only silence.)

This was what agonised Kanye’s critics: they couldn’t separate the ‘real’ or healthy man, the part of him they were supposed to like, from the part that had gone awry. They couldn’t extricate worthy content from a maddened style. Not even conceptually; all they could do was temporalise. How did we get from ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’ to this? Yes, there’s been a Becoming, but he has only ever become what he is. You can’t really like his music while hating his political interventions; they’re all swirled together. Kanye’s madness refuses to play by the rules that have been set for the mad. It’s not an abstract subject-position, but something positively articulated and in the fullness of its being. And as madness usually does, all this offends the sensibilities of a bourgeoisie anxious for its moral self-preservation. So Kanye’s friends do what Kanye’s friends did all those years ago in 1889: they try to shut him up, to cart him away to a mountainous silence, for his own good.

An empty tomb

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You don’t remember the dead of the First World War.

Nobody does, now, or almost nobody. At most, you might remember the ones who survived. There’s a photo, hidden away somewhere, of great-grandad in his old army uniform, and if you look at it you might notice with a kind of sickly horror that he looks a bit like you did at that age, that you’re now already so much older than this old, old man. Maybe there’s a box with some old medals, or even a decommissioned revolver. Pieces of someone who died much later, surrounded by TV and pop music, dreaming the blanketing dreams of the nuclear bomb. Someone who lived to see a different country, one that throbbed in full colour. The hole left in the world by those bullets and shells and clouds of poison gas one hundred years ago was not left in your world, or mine either. The people who had their heart ripped out by a stranger on the Somme are almost impossibly rare; we drag them out into our televised ceremonies now, so everyone can see what a fully incomplete human being looks like, so they can do our remembering for us. Trembling, a few last strands of thin hair limp against a crusting pate: I still miss my Arthur every day, every day it’s like he’s just been taken from me. That’s what it means to really remember: to be a seeping wound in a world that’s been bandaged up and gauzed into blankness. For the rest of us, there’s GCSE history, supermarket Christmas adverts, an immersive experience at the Imperial War Museum. For you, the dead of the Western Front or Gallipoli may as well be the dead of Sevastopol, or Agincourt, or Hastings, or all the nameless battles fought by our hooting ancestors, brachiating grimly through the canopies. We have nothing in common with the millions who went whistling into a barbed-wire void. If we did, we’d be a little more like the ones who came back out again, the ones the war turned into madmen or revolutionaries.

We don’t have memory. We have remembrance. Organised hypomnesis; a set of stony symbols. We remember that we ought not to have forgotten. The past is on the tip of your tongue, but it can’t be spoken; any word that could have contained it is an empty tomb. Non est hic. What remains are signifiers, gnawing at each other’s heads. A poppy is a symbol; it symbolises the Cenotaph. The two minutes silence has meaning, it means a wreath. The flag is a code for the national anthem. None of these things mean the mud and terror of the war, or the millions dead, because none of that is an object in our experience. There’s no shared referent other than the ritual of reference itself: the objects of remembrance stand, mutely, for themselves. Forgetfulness, made concrete, and misnamed.

This isn’t bad or wrong: it’s just space and time. We are where we are. Today marks the end of four years of official commemoration, an attempt to hang the shadow of the Great War over our own century, to turn time into a palimpsest. These have been four very strange years. On June 23rd, 2016, we voted to leave the European Union; one hundred years ago that day, a million Germans surged over the frontlines at Verdun and overran the fort at Thiaumont, only to be pushed back over days and weeks to where they had been. Endless, uncountable thousands dead. On June 8th, 2017, the Tories threw away their parliamentary majority in an act of blinkered authoritarian arrogance, a century after the British army accidentally shelled its own lines, killing three hundred colonial troops. In June this year, one hundred years after two dozen German divisions plunged deep into France in a last desperate effort to end the war, Germaine Greer asked why Beyoncé has to ‘have her tits hanging out.’ There’s no symmetry. Trump is not the October revolution. Weinstein is not the Armenian genocide. It doesn’t map. It’s no more present than the wars going on now, the thousands dying in Syria and Yemen and across the world. What can we do for the people of the Middle East, starved or disintegrated by British bombs or British military expertise? Build another monument for them, put it up on the fourth plinth, and forget them into symbols.

There are still ways to make the past breathe again. Mostly, by digitally altering and colourising old Pathé newsreel, and putting it in 3D. The effect is impressive: it looks so much more real. The war is no longer fought by spindly, jerky automatons, low-resolution flesh-robots. Computers have generated the missing material in the gaps within movement, to bring the footage up to 24 fps, which is the flicker rate of consensus reality. Now these soldiers look like actual human beings, which is to say that they look like all the other cinema-screen simulacra. Now the propaganda of the early twentieth century can be raised back up in the fullness of its authenticity, because now it looks more like how we lie in the twenty-first.

Again, this isn’t bad or wrong. There was a time in which we could remember, in which the war was something other than the mud-caked origin myth of modernity, but now is no longer that time. There are other ways of remembering. We can remember in the present: I remember when I came out of the land of Egypt and the house of slavery, and – historically speaking, at least – that didn’t even happen; I can remember it in solidarity with those on the boats setting out across the Mediterranean, or those sleeping on the ground as their caravan twists slowly up over the Mexican plateau. We can remember the war the same way. We’ll never know the trenches, but when those that lived returned home, the fight didn’t end; so many of them, across Europe and across the world, took up the struggle against the ruling classes who had sent them there to die, and we can fight for life and dignity too. For obvious reasons, this is not the kind of remembrance we usually get.

What we get instead is a strange kind of rage. This year, and every year, the poppy wars. (Not unlike those other flower wars, fought between the Aztecs and their ritual enemies: both sides agree on a time and place, and neither seems to expect to actually win.) Who owns the past, now that it’s wordless and as transferable as any other debt? Is this year’s the most politicised Remembrance Sunday yet? Might Eid be getting more Islamic? Can we stop the commercialisation of Black Friday?

The anger of the poppy-scorners is fairly legible. Never Again, we were promised, but it keeps on happening; maybe we can sit in silent quietist remembrance once the war is actually over. The anger of the other side is thornier. A violent hatred for those who won’t wear the poppy, sing the national anthem, support the Legion, the ones who insult the memory of the dead by insisting that the war that killed them was Actually Bad. In other words, those that try to remember something specific, instead of remembering the process of being unable to remember. It can only be parsed as an externalised guilt. No, it’s not wrong or bad to not remember the dead of the First World War, it’s only distance and time – but the rituals of the state command memory, and there’s nothing in the memory to grasp. You have failed, because you’re living now instead of dying then; you’ve failed because you couldn’t stop one hundred years washing over the world that was. Seething indignation against the people who refuse to remember, because you, too, have forgotten.

This post is, once again, dedicated to those ten thousand soldiers who were killed in the six hours between the signing of the Armistice and its taking effect, one hundred years ago, who gave their lives so that schoolchildren could learn that the war ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

There she goes

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My closest friend died after a short illness on the 5th of October, 2018. She was twenty-seven years old.

Five years before that, I woke up one morning to find forty or so postcards wrapped up with elastic bands on my doorstep. Over the course of a Spanish holiday Anna had written to me dozens of times. Some messages were quite long, describing what she’d seen and what she thought of it. Others were extremely brief. (Tengo spinach in my teeth. A brownish smear across the cardboard. There it is.) A few were poems. On the back of a postcard showing a morose-looking nag in front of an empty buggy, she wrote:

Here is a horse in sepia.
He stands proudly, turgid with purpose
but blind.
The coachman is his compass, the tightening of reins
his guide.
“Why?” You ask. He is trapped by the spinning wheels of time.

I was deeply touched by all this kind and creative effort, and when Anna got back I told her so. She was profoundly disappointed. She hadn’t expected me to receive a heavy brick of postcards all at once: because she’d set them off haphazardly, two or three a day, she’d hoped that they’d arrive in the same way. She certainly hadn’t wanted me to enjoy them as sincerely and sentimentally as I did. They were meant to be a kind of benign harassment campaign; a slow daily drip-feed of banality and insanity that would eventually drive me to madness. If she’d known that I’d love them, she wouldn’t have bought so many stamps.

I dug out those postcards again recently. I don’t have much of hers. A few photos, some books, a t-shirt she bought me at Moscow airport featuring a stern and shirtless Vladimir Putin. And things like these: notes and messages, ephemera, incidental records of a life in a thousand pieces of strange genius.

It’s hard to say, now, what Anna was like without collapsing into barbarism. I started to get frustrated by some of the consolatory descriptions people would offer me – she was so unique, they’d say, she was so different, she was so vivacious, she had a real spark. These were, in the end, only ways of saying what she wasn’t, that she wasn’t dull. Weeks later, with someone who knew her as well as I did, and with no idea of what I could possibly begin to say, a provisional apophatic eulogy was drafted, going something like this:

Anna Reinelt was someone who wanted to leave the world a better place than she found it, and she achieved this through her innumerable acts of small and dutiful kindness. She touched the lives of everyone she met with her warmth, her charm, and her deep generosity. She was always there for her friends in times of need, a shoulder to cry on and a firm helping hand…

And so on. The joke was that she was nothing like that at all, and the description would have mortally offended her, but that’s not entirely true either. In the middle of October, some of Anna’s oldest friends came together at a pub in west London, and what struck me was that everyone there could say, without having to consider it for even a moment, that she was their closest friend. And this wasn’t through any connivance on her part; it was just that once she was there in your life nobody else could really match up. She really was the first person I’d go to in times of need. Not despite the fact that she’d respond to my crises by suggesting that I get a job at the zoo, mucking out the elephant enclosure, but because of it. That was why I’m far from the only person who’d fly across the world just to see her, wherever she was. And that world was a vastly better place for having her in it. Without her it’s diminished; it’s lost the incredible ability to know itself in new ways through her eyes.

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Anna was a photographer; she made films, wrote stories and screenplays. She was the last of the adventurers. She wanted to live out of a desert motel and paint strange landscapes nude on the forecourt. She wanted to live in Bangkok, or on a boat, or to take portraits of serial killers and gun owners. She loved pirate ships, dinosaurs, outer space, big musical numbers, tornadoes, lost cities in the Amazon, monsters in the oceans, utopias in the wastelands. She loved the things that fascinate children, when they first realise just how big and how impossible the world they’ve been born into really is; things too magnificent to be properly digested by the shrunken tastefulness of adulthood. She chased after her passions. Sometimes I’d get a photo of a dead bird perfectly preserved in salt on the shores of a dried-up sea, or a Texas thunderstorm, or dizzy jungles. She was the funniest person I’ve ever known, equal parts unfiltered obliviousness and sheer acid brilliance. Being in her presence was always giddying precipitous fun; even dismal hungover mornings were full of mania or apocalypse. She could break out in fits of terrible wisdom; she was the keenest and sharpest critic of my own writing; her judgement – on art, on cities, on people – was piercing, and carried heft.

Part of this was written to be read at her memorial service; part of it, obviously, was not. The thought of Anna’s funeral was unbearable – not because it was such a shockingly alien concept, but precisely because it wasn’t. She spoke a lot about death. She spoke a lot about her own funeral. She had plans. One idea was that if she died unmarried, she should have a wedding-themed funeral, buried in a white dress, pirouetted around for the first – and last – dance. She left instructions. On being sent an unflattering picture from the previous night: If I die before you I give my permission to use that photo at my funeral. “Anna was a delusional drunk with giant turnip hands.” Years ago, she asked me to write her obituary (Anna, I tried), and had me compose a funeral elegy. I came up with an obscene quatrain, and she made me promise to read it for her, against the screaming objections of her family if necessary. I didn’t. It wasn’t for anyone else.

Anna’s highest term of praise for someone was that they Got It. The nature of It was undefined but very much understood. It was the black joke at the heart of things, the absurdity and cruelty of existence, the senselessness of a world that killed her. To Get It meant that you could see that joke, follow it through to the punchline, and find it funny. That’s why it’s so hard to reckon with the facts: because the loss of her is so terrible, and so inhumanly unfair, and because if she could have outlived herself, she would find the whole thing – the rituals of grief, the sobriety of her own memorialisation, all the earnest mawkish statements like this one – to be utterly hilarious. She would, and if she were still here I would too. But she’s not, and I can’t. There’s no consolation in the fact that she would be laughing now. It’s only another thing to mourn.

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Anna was not only a friend, not only someone I loved. There are some people in life that you meet, get on with, hang around with, and drift away from, left with a few objects and a few memories, to moulder or fade away. There are others who cause you to realise, years later, that you’re not at all the same person that you were when you first met them. Their friendship has changed the language you speak, the way you behave, the angle in which you jam yourself into the world. They created you, as much as your own parents did. Anna was that person for me. This might be why losing her feels like being blinded, or having the words seared out of my mouth. A decade’s worth of jokes and thoughts and shared memories left dangling, reduced to private whimsy; a way of being with another person in which it’s no longer possible to be; a facet of myself that’s been smashed open. I lingered, for a long time, over the small and stupid things. When Anna and I spoke on the phone, our conversations could sometimes begin with a full five or ten minutes of us making strange croaking noises at each other. Or we’d repeat the names of the cities from Hiroshima Mon Amour. Hi. Ro. Shi. Ma. Nevers. That obscene funeral poem. Things which are gone, which no longer make sense.

We say of objects or people that they mean so much to us. There’s no point asking what exactly it is that’s meant. It’s a meaning without words, that’s only apparent in the dried-up words that remain after it’s gone. But it survives in the wordless things that will always, in some small and private way, be hers. Pirate ships and tornadoes. Sunlight and undergrowth, fire and the ocean.

But words are what I have. Some of this was written to be read aloud, and some of it was written just to have been written. In the days after Anna’s death I found myself thinking about something else, something that had happened weeks beforehand: how, during the Yom Kippur service in synagogue, we had prayed that our names might be written in the Book of Life. (Years ago, Anna had insisted on coming to my brother’s barmitzvah service, because it would be cultural. She did not enjoy the experience: apparently, I hadn’t warned her that it would be three hours long, and none of it in English.) I thought a lot about the irrevocability of time, how the present moment sometimes stops spinning in wheels and opens up like a sinkhole beneath us, to swallow everything solid and leave us with only memories. Somewhere, everything that happened must be written down for eternity. There has to be a recording angel, there has to be a Book of Life, so that what has been doesn’t simply pass away. I felt the desperate urge to write it all. How once, in Prague, her shoes started falling apart and her feet started stinking, and she fixed it by stopping at a park bench to smear her toes in toothpaste; how I dragged her halfway across the city to see the world’s largest equestrian statue, and how it started pouring with rain as soon as we discovered that the thing was covered in scaffolding. Or how, when we were living together in our last year of university and had gone entirely mad from the final few days of dissertation-writing, Anna decided to inflate a plastic bag and put it on her head, with a scrunched-up receipt bouncing around inside. Wait, she said, I know what it needs. She disappeared into the kitchen, and came back holding a knife. Now it’s perfect, she announced. Kate – our compadre and third flatmate – and I armed ourselves with empty wine bottles to fend her off. Or later, the three of us in Brighton on a miserable blank grey morning beach, belting out the lyrics to Blink-182’s I Miss You in a yowling chorus of Californian vowels. Demented songs in New Orleans, manatees in Tokyo. Or the hospital, the last days of hope, the unreality of it all. All this needed to be indexed, every living detail.

But if there is such a book, none of us can read it, and I can’t reproduce it here. All I have are a few scraps torn from its pages. Photos, messages, and postcards. On one side a horse, on the other side a poem. And for a moment she’s in the sunshine again, not here, but not so far away, writing to me, and guffawing loud as she imagines how annoyed I’ll be.

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An idiot’s manifesto

Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? It’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?
(Materials brought in evidence at the trial of Barbara Bush)

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1.

Not too long after the election, I was walking downtown on 6th Avenue in Manhattan when I passed a sign, frosted into the window of a fast-casual Mexican chain restaurant, that said ‘Queso at Chipotle: not fake news.’

That sign made me an idiot.

At home, certain brands of chocolate bar are Brexity, with a chalky stodge in the bite that sticks, like the guilt you feel over your unvisited and dying relatives, implacably to the front of your teeth. An advert for HSBC bank is solidly Remain.

They made me hungry. Everything only makes me hungry for idiocy.

To say that everything is political is no longer an insurrectionary act, not now that everything really is. Every swollen mosquito of a transnational corporation has a codified set of progressive values. Every conversation in pubs or coffee shops ends up being about politics. Every online dating service promises to pair you with some stranger who shares your opinions or will fight you over them; the pretence that you’re in it for something as absurd as sex is just a euphemistic fiction. How are you meant to deal with the unacceptable politics of your extended kin at Christmas? Let some bright-eyed bores help you, with their handy online guides. Family dinners everywhere now follow the same messy form: two scripted one-person performance pieces trying to share a single stage, a discordance kaleidoscoped into infinity. Children, I hear, are constantly offering wise pronouncements on the state of the world, castigating the stupidity of our leaders in ways that seem strangely un-childlike, with none of the good sharp mockery of a playground insult, but judicious, rooted firmly in good morals and good policy. ‘Liberating ourselves, expressing ourselves at whatever cost – a form of blackmail and ultimatum.’ Chicken sandwiches, sports shoes, coffee machines, craft supplies, burritos, and sitcoms are political, sold politically, consumed or not consumed politically. Music videos are political. The personal is political.

Not me though. I’m an idiot.

As Marxists, we’re long accustomed to the practice of digging around under the foundations of things, scrabbling to find an essence which will always be ineluctably political. Domination with its leprous grimace, bubbling away under a blank façade of mere social life. We find the hidden propaganda in films and TV; the material basis of history; the networks of social relations that dominate our lives in the workplace, in the streets, or in the bedroom. Everything that parades itself to the senses is a crust over the deep subterranean well of the political. Once the political nature of things is made overt, we’ve been announcing for decades, we will all be one step closer to being free.

The well has become a geyser now, and we have never been further from our freedom.

Walter Benjamin wrote that fascism is the aestheticisation of politics, and communism politicises art. Well, we’ve politicised art; every glue-gun assemblage of hunched material, every glorified mirror in mixed or digital media, declares itself as an affront to Trexit and Brump. But where’s our communism?

It would be foolish to assume not only that there’s still something more profound beneath it all, but that what lies beneath is still more politics.

Today, to abandon the world of politics is the last, the only, and the truest political act.

2.

Yes, we know. Behind all this relentless opinion-having about politics there’s a relentless entrepreneurship of the self, which has to adorn itself with all the right stances for whatever demographic it’s targeting, and the more often you repeat them the higher your market-assigned price. (Do you support the good things? Do you oppose the bad things? Then what sort of a person are you? Hot wet indignity, the psychotic injury of someone who can’t accept that every game always has an opposing team.) Better to leave every evil in its place, so you can oppose it, than to overturn them and be left bereft.  And behind this brutalised vision of the self are the laws of neoliberal political economy, which haven’t just stamped themselves in our flesh but sealed us in, like the bindings that used to make infants’ soft heads grow into tall and alarming shapes, since before we were born. But you’ve not uncovered anything, just come back to where we started. You’re on a Möbius strip; there is no other side. And don’t you ever find it boring?

Yes, we know. Complacency is a luxury. Irony is a luxury. In this moment of crisis, in this moment of opportunity, to do nothing, to fail to have a position on the political shoes or the political sandwiches, to not preen yourself into a Good Person in a cruel world, to not talk about the latest deprivation over coffee and wine and hemlock and sewage, to let each dumb moment fall through our fingers, and not try to grab at it, to not fix its dwindling in the aspic of thought while every day people are suffering, is a luxury. May all luxuries belong to the working classes.

No, we don’t know a thing.

Sometimes my dreams are political. But in the end, it matters less that I dreamed I was consoling Barack Obama over the phone, and more that I did so in a cottage cut directly into the bedrock of a Hebridean crag, where the naked stone was livid with chilly light, where the sea glittered like needles, where titanic gulls – swift omnivorous airships, wingtips stabbing each towards its horizon, birds that could only hatch from the powdered eggshell of the moon – called out hideously overhead.

Prince Myshkin, Dostoyevsky’s idiot, sees the world from the vantage-point of infinity. It comes in his fits. At an aristocratic dinner full of cruel and vain society notables, he fucks everything up: he tries to discuss theology, he sprays spittle in the salad, he makes a spectacle of himself. He already knew he would break that Chinese vase. He knows, too, that at any moment the Bolsheviks will be breaking down the French windows to cart everyone off to a labour camp. Dostoyevsky’s novel, unlike anything else in the nineteenth century, unlike even Marx, comes with a full understanding of the fragility of the present. But the epileptic is not an excavator; his wisdom is the same as his ignorance, which is the same as his insensitivity, which is the same as his trembling. He suspects no subtleties. ‘He did not turn the coat and see the shabby lining.’ Instead he skims. Look at the grass growing, he announces, and then falls to the floor in a froth.

The Greeks used the word idiot, ίδιώτης, to denote someone who was uninterested in the communal life of the polis. A private person, a selfish person, a person who keeps themselves to themselves, which was the true sin of Sodom. But the self of the idiot is not the same as the self of the present order. An idiot is never fungible. An idiot is absented from the system of values, exchange-values and political values included. Not a separation from the tissues of the world, but an approach on a different register. Prince Myshkin does not close himself off from society; he simply doesn’t understand it. An idiot suffers from idiopathies, strange and unknown diseases. An idiot speaks in an idiolect, a strange and unknown speech. An idiot is idiothermic, warmed by a strange and unknown light.

We, too, must become strange and unknown.

3.

The idiot has started reading novels again, which were always laced with a surplus – of what isn’t entirely clear, but it’s certainly not meaning – that can only be inassimilable to politics. At first it’s hard to give up the game of making clever inferences and readings, but once they learn that literature is, like sex or the sky, fundamentally prelinguistic and pleasurable, they wonder why they ever bothered. The idiot has taken an interest in early medieval panel paintings. Specifically, forging them. They end up selling panels to galleries and museums to the tune of £800,000 before being found out. The idiot is learning to be kinder and better to other people, to work diligently and conscientiously, to always be careful stomping around after it rains in case they hear the sickening wet crunch of a snail dying underfoot. The idiot murders a high-level diplomat for no reason whatsoever.

The idiot sits in a garden filled with terrifying flightless birds, which regard you from bronze-dull eyes. In the garden of the idiot foxgloves tower as tall as cypresses. Children with wild hair – not the idiot’s, maybe not anyone’s – climb the stalks of these plants, and settle themselves into their tubular flowers, and shriek from each nectar-smeared lip that this petal-pod is theirs, and they’ll kill anyone who tries to get in, and the idiot sits in the sunshine with a very small cup of coffee and shuffles papers without reading them.

The idiot decides to believe that market ideology is only humanity’s unconscious attempt – through the scrabbling activity of conquest, and the torque of capital flows – to speed the rotation of the earth on its axis. (This frenzy for speed will be its own undoing; read Capital, chapter ten, on the working day.) The idiot conjectures that liberal inclusivity, with its constellation of oppressions and privileges, is the political expression of an ancient Atlantean star-map. The idiot knows that the Sino-Soviet split was really only a metaphor for the eternal crisscrossings of the sun (Mao) and the moon (Brezhnev), and the same story was told by the Navajo around forgotten fires.

The idiot has translated their speech into a buzzing like that of bees, but the bees can’t understand them. Bees communicate through dance, and the idiot has never been any good at dancing.

Scales creep across the idiot’s skin. They harden. The idiot’s tongue has a weltering itch all the way down its length. The idiot is turning into a lizard. Thin leathery frills web the space under the idiot’s arms. The idiot might never be able to fly, but it’s possible they could one day learn how to swoop.

4.

I’m becoming an idiot.

I’m going to delete my Facebook. I’m only going to watch cooking shows on TV, and I won’t draw any lessons from them. The radio is for sports and music. If someone offers me the Evening Standard at the tube station, I’m going to spit cold blood in their face.

When a conversation turns to politics, I’ll get up and walk away, leaving my restaurant bill unpaid, and go to jail if I have to.

I’m going to clear out all this useless mental clutter. I’ll forget the capitals of Europe. I’ll stop being proud of knowing all the countries that only border one other country, even though everyone always forgets the Gambia. I’ll let the world fade away by degrees, until all that’s left is what I can touch, and mystery.

I’m going to lock myself away in my home and expand. I’ll refuse to understand anything outside its walls, and watch the patterns of dust on the windowsill to see what they do.

I’m going to lock myself in a sensory deprivation tank and expand. My entire world will be contained in a few feet of motionless water, and I won’t be there to experience any of it.

I’m not going to have any crazy hallucinations. I’m going to let blackness settle over me, and I’ll find it neither boring nor interesting.

I’m going to lock myself in a sealed tank, and only sleep.

I’m going to sleep where nobody will be able to disturb me.

When I die, they’ll bury me deep in the ground.

 

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.

The iron law of online abuse

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You could call it something like Cohen’s Law – named, of course, for Nick Cohen, the seething thing in the middle pages of the Observer – or the Iron Law of Online Abuse. It goes something like this: every single pundit or journalist who goes on a moral crusade against left-wing social-media crudery will have, very recently, done the exact same things they’re complaining against. They will have used insults, personal attacks, expletives, epithets, or unpleasant sexual suggestions; they will have engaged in bullying or spiteful little squabbles; they will have indulged in some form of racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia; they will have encouraged political repression, violence, or censorship; they will have threatened to contact someone’s editor or boss or the police or otherwise have conspired to ruin their life. Chances are that they won’t have been very good at it, but they will have been mean; they will have used invective. This is always – always – true.

Nick Cohen gets the honours, firstly because he’s just awful, and secondly because he’s such a luminously dumb exemplar of this tendency: in column after column he condemns the vicious epithets suffered by MPs and public figures, grouching for civility and good, clean, open debate – but, when he’s not play-acting at high-mindedness, he compares socialists in solidarity with the Bolivarian revolution to sex tourists, flings antisemitic stereotypes at anti-Zionist Jews, and apostrophises Corbyn’s supporters as ‘fucking fools.’ This week, three young men with a podcast were monstered by the right-wing press, their names and faces revealed to an audience of frothing reactionaries, for posting a photo of Yvette Cooper MP in a first-class train carriage without her consent, and calling her a ‘bellend.’ (Cohen’s Law: the same publication, so primly outraged by the epithet that it had to render it as ‘bell**d,’ itself puts out material in which migrants are compared to rats) The publication of the photo had already been subjected to a comradely critique from within the left for its misogynistic overtones; the podcast account had apologised and taken it down. It was only afterwards that the reactionary press seized on the incident as part of its war of extermination against all left-wing thought, and moderate liberals happily joined in. If you don’t uncritically support a Daily Mail smear campaign, they said, you’re an abuser. How did Cohen respond to all this? With a personal insult about the appearances of the three men, of course. The Law is never wrong.

My point here isn’t to simply condemn the hypocrisy of Cohen and his ilk, although their hypocrisy is stunning. I’m certainly not trying to uphold the principle that they themselves fail to meet – don’t be rude, don’t be nasty, demolish ideas and not people, never find inventive ways to mock your enemies. As I’ve said before, there’s a great virtue in well-crafted nastiness, and there are few better measures of a good writer than how well they rise to the challenge of magnificently crushing somebody else. But when it comes to the question of online abuse, the left is forced to fight on strangely uneven territory. No wonder, then, that it’s the favoured terrain for anti-socialists. In Britain and in America, whenever a positive, hopeful, emancipatory left-wing movement makes electoral successes, it’s immediately dogged by claims that its supporters are behaving intemperately online. And it’s usually true. You will find supporters of any movement saying deeply unpleasant things on the internet. (All this stuff is, for some reason, usually treated as the voice of a rampaging, uncensored id, humanity’s oldest and worst instincts from the vicious dawn of the species suddenly re-amplified by technology; what it actually is, of course, is the voice of a rampaging, censorious superego.) But the goal of the accusation is always to present online abuse as a peculiarly left-wing phenomenon, or to make innuendoes towards some kind of complicity between the socialist left and the Nazi alt-right in their shared fondness for being mean online. This red-baiting tactic should be recognised for what it is: one of desperation. Most voters have better sense than to care too much about what’s happening on Twitter; it’s instructive that the latest round of deeply stupid recriminations in the UK only emerged after the June election made it impossible to continue arguing that Corbynism is inherently unelectable. The point isn’t to actually win on these grounds: it’s a delaying tactic, an attempt to set leftists against each other, to draw us onto unforgiving terrain, to have us all talking, interminably, about online abuse

So let’s talk about online abuse. What actually is it? A man who called a Tory MP a ‘backstabber’ and said that ‘austerity has murdered tens of thousands of disabled people’ was accused, by that MP, of abuse. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who quoted Engels in referring to the Grenfell Tower massacre as ‘social murder,’ was implicitly accused of inciting abuse. Someone who accused a Labour MP of ‘xenophobia’ for pandering to anti-migration sentiments during the EU referendum debate was told in turn that what they were doing was abuse. There’s a rhetorical legerdemain here. Legal definitions exist for domestic abuse and workplace abuse; these things have workable meanings. Online abuse has none. The term ‘abuse’ is amorphous and pullulating: it means death or rape threats, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, obsessive stalking, menacing messages and intimidation – but it also bundles up all those evils with critique, invective, any form of political anger, any form of negativity. These things are all forms of hate, and it’s forbidden to hate, even to hate what is evil. If someone tells a member of a government that routinely destroys lives that they are, in fact, destroying lives, this is abuse: it’s basically the same as making a violent death threat. If you call someone a ‘warmonger’ just because they want to start a war, this is abuse, and for that reason alone, the war must go ahead.

Socialists are continually called upon to condemn all abuse. We should be careful about doing this; the term is fundamentally deeply dishonest. It has a way of inverting actual power relations: the powerful, the corrupt and chrematistic and condescending, become the victims of a population half-starved and lied to. You can forget, almost, that the people being abused might also be killers. Movements to end mass social slaughter and build socialism in its place are delegitimised by political anger of any kind, but the engines of the vast structure of repression always remain respectable in their monstrosity. If there is racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or transphobia, then that is what it should be called, and that is what should be condemned: we should oppose it wherever it appears, and especially within our own movement. But nobody should ever feel obliged to condemn the act of not respecting your betters.

Hierarchy, in the end, is what it all boils down to. Once, writers were more up-front about this kind of thing. The great English reactionary Edmund Burke, writing against the horrors of the French Revolution, lingers over the violation of Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber, in dark and gushing prose. ‘A band of cruel ruffians and assassins rushed into the chamber of the queen and pierced with a hundred strokes of bayonets and poniards the bed, from whence this persecuted woman had but just time to fly.’ This is the essence of the confounding of ‘all orders, ranks, and distinctions’: in normal times, pointed weapons should be used to dispatch the people who didn’t even have a bed; for these sans-brolottes to attack a queen’s mattress is an inversion of the natural order worse than massacre of peasants by violence or poverty in history.

Today, there are no armed assaults on the Queen to condemn. Instead, there is a sociology of the term ‘abuse,’ a subject-capable-of-being-abused, a subject-capable-of-abusing. The primary determining factor is, of course, class, in all its articulations. This is where Cohen’s Law is important.  After all, the only people more profoundly unpleasant on Twitter than right-wing Labour MPs, who take a perverse delight in mocking and blocking their own constituents, are some of my colleagues in the media. Often, the same people who are obsessively demanding that leftie snowflakes put aside their trigger warnings and toughen up will turn into a fainting nineteenth-century prude the moment an unkind word is sent in their direction. An unknown and unimportant person who calls a journalist or a politician a prick online is engaging in abuse; she is part of the bloodthirsty mob; her actions are immediately concatenated with every evil and prejudice imaginable. If the journalist or politician calls her a prick back, this is a delightful little piece of vulgarity, a witty rejoinder, a cutting put-down, an artist enjoying the varied fruits of their craft. They can write articles demonising some of the most vulnerable elements of society, and this is just a reasoned opinion; they can create policies that materially harm thousands of people and cement the power of the ruling class, and this is just a necessity of government. If an ordinary and powerless member of the public sends an email full of racial invective, it’s (quite rightfully) condemned – vile, hateful, sickening abuse, utterly unacceptable, drivel from the lowest dregs of humanity – but if professional writers build up a vast archive of work that delegitimises (to take a purely random example) the rights and identities of trans people, it’s part of a debate. Confront the magazine writer with the terms used to describe the anonymous emailer, and you too will be engaging in abuse. The prejudice is very rarely the real source of the objection. It’s the rudeness, the social impropriety, the talking back to your betters.

Nobody should be surprised that the great and the good also behave badly online. The internet is a close, dark, humid void that sits in the palm of your hand, and it’s full of everyone you could ever have a reason to hate. It’s an open-plan bestiary, where the monsters of ideology shudder and crawl and tear into each other with strange serrated claws, scattering viscera in every black and boundless direction, but unable to ever kill or to ever die. The only way to live there is to grow grim keratins yourself. I don’t begrudge Nick Cohen his personal attacks; if they were actually any good, and if they didn’t stray into dishonesty and antisemitism, I might admire him for them. Invective can be vital and creative and fun. But for so many people they’re accompanied by an unbearable sanctimony. It’s sometimes claimed that the left has decided that our ‘moral purity’ gives us the right to attack anyone we like. It might be true. But these centrists, who have twisted their lack of principle into an obscure virtue, claim for themselves a much more destructive right: primly appalled, they can do whatever they like to destroy another person, because they were rude first. The language of respected opinion leaders collapses into infantile babble: a leering spectacle, children’s heads stitched to hulking adult bodies. He started it. I’m telling on you. A game of osctracisms and recriminations, all of it far more vicious and unpleasant than a good sharp ‘cunt.’

Buried in all of this is the expectation that those who occasionally inform the people who do wrong that they are doing wrong will stop, if they’re just hectored enough. This will not happen. One way to fix the ‘abuse’ problem is methodological and technological; this is the one that’s already being put into place. I have a blue tick on Twitter; I can swear at Nick Cohen all I like, and sometimes do. Most users, however, will be subjected to automated moderation if they say anything to him that the algorithm decides he might not like. The effect is to entrench the existing class system, to tear out the throats of the voiceless, and create a world safer for idiot men and their gusts of opinion; there’s less unpleasantness on Twitter, but only for the people who keep writing columns about how unfairly they’re treated on Twitter. The other way to fix the problem is harder, but it might actually work: to start building a world that is not sustained through perpetual cycles of immiseration and malice, in which the mutual recognition of all human subjects replaces the scraping respect for authority, and in which we could decide to enjoy being extravagantly mean to each other if we liked, without any harm ever being done.

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