On Donald Trump

What price a few more self-indulgent, windy words? What can be said about the inauguration of America’s first post-truth president that hasn’t already been said?

I’m just going to write. These are half-formed thoughts at best, but they’re better than silence. Better than acquiescence. Writing, attempting to make sense of the chaos and contradictions of the world, and to arrive at truth through words, is fast becoming a revolutionary act in itself in the age of emojis and cat videos. Those of us who believe in the power of words, in the search for facts, for truth, are in the minority now.

But then again, we always were. Sallust once wrote that only a few people truly desire liberty. The rest seek nothing more than fair masters.

Democracy itself has been brought into disrepute by Trump’s election. The Chinese government has incorporated him into its own propaganda, to mock the very idea of free elections and multiparty democracy. What’s the point of elections if they hand the levers of state power over to a racist, misogynistic buffoon? Vox Populi, Vox Dei indeed. It’s hard to swallow that particular trope with a straight face right now.

On the one hand, obviously, this is all terrifying. A fascist who meets all the criteria that Umberto Eco laid out in his seminal essay on ur-fascism, or ‘eternal fascism,’ is now President of the United States. Trumpism is as ludicrous and full of contradictions as its ideological predecessors in Germany and Italy, but it was powerful enough to sway a sizeable rump of the American population into believing that only the strongman could save a declining republic. And at a time when the stock market is shattering records, and unemployment is at a historic low. This seeming contradiction should give us pause for thought.

On the other hand, this is all very exciting. The battle lines are clear. The cause is just. I never thought my generation would get the chance to fight fascists in the streets for the soul of civilization. I thought our grandparents would be the last to have the privilege of fighting for truth, beauty, freedom, and love against the forces of evil. The liberal, capitalist order seemed unassailable, unquestionable.

Now, of course, it has never looked weaker, more desperate, more pathetic. I wonder if we’ll miss it when it’s well and truly gone. In fact, I’m almost certain we will. Moderation, compromise, consensus, stable jobs and financial security have always been an underwhelming sell. Liberalism has always been unheroic, ungrandiose. It makes no pledges of eternal struggle, no promises of the ultimate sacrifice. It merely encourages peace, trade, good governance, an avoidance of extremes. This is always going to strike some people as being insufferably dull. There are always going to be angry young men wanting to die for some sacred cause, unwilling to accept the adult compromises of jobs, children, taxes. It’s much more exciting to throw your lot in with something heroic. Witness the appeal of Zionism, or the Islamic State. Witness my own excitement at the prospect of glorious battle.

But of course, the other side now controls the most sophisticated machinery of political surveillance, intimidation, and oppression that there has ever been. They’re better armed, better situated, and better prepared. I don’t think any of us on the left really understood that this could actually happen until it was too late. And now that it’s here, there’s not a lot of time to catch up. The other side has been stocking up on canned goods and buying high-powered assault weapons, ultimately served well by their anti-state paranoia. We may lose this fight.

I’m reminded of an interview I heard last year with Cornell West. The interviewer asked him, if he was so pessimistic about the chances for the victory of the causes he championed, why he continued to fight? West responded that if at the end of all the struggle, of all the causes, all the shouting, the end result is that we of the left lose, well then we lose. It doesn’t mean the fight wasn’t worth fighting.

This is a fight worth fighting. Nativism, bigotry, homophobia, xenophobia, unfettered greed, the destruction of the planet itself as a habitable place in this universe; these are all worth fighting tooth and nail, to the bitter end. Who cares if we win or lose?

On Brexit and the end of the UK

British voters have rejected the European Union, and voted to leave the organization irrevocably, as EU leaders have made clear will be the case. David Cameron, having recklessly gambled his premiership and his country on a risky and unnecessary referendum, has resigned in disgrace. He may well be remembered as not just one of the worst British prime ministers of the century, but very probably one of the last.

The Scottish National Party now has the perfect justification for a second referendum on independence, which they will almost certainly win. The Good Friday peace accord in Northern Ireland is threatened with collapse. Markets and the value of the pound sterling are in free fall. Euroscepticism has been vindicated, encouraged and inspired across the rest of the EU. The centrifugal historical forces that have been at work in the British Isles over the last half century are reaching their inevitable culmination; the end of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

An interesting side effect of the European Union and its promise of a federated continent of nations was the impact it had on the older multinational conglomerates of Britain and Spain. Both countries constitute multiple nations ruled by single monarchs, along the lines of the old Austro-Hungarian empire. Separatist forces in Scotland and Catalonia, always present, have been emboldened by the rise of an alternative narrative for their existence: as European countries. Not subjects of ancient crowns.

Now, for Scotland at least, which decisively voted to remain a member of the EU, the time may have come to free itself from an arrangement that no longer suits its needs, wants, or aspirations. In their upcoming referendum on independence, they will decisively detonate the idea of a united Great Britain, consigning it to the historical dustheap, and dissolving the state back into its constituent elements of Wales, Scotland, England and Ireland.

What often gets forgotten in discussions of Britain is how very, very new it is as an idea. It isn’t even more than a century older than the idea of America. The Act of Union that united, for the first time ever in recorded history, the peoples of ‘Great Britain,’ was passed by the Westminster parliament in 1707. That’s only seventy years before the birth of American nationalism in 1776.

Scotland and England had dwelt before then in a highly uneasy personal Union since 1603, sharing a monarch after James VI of Scotland’s accession to the throne of England, but very little else. James and the kings who followed him, despite their best efforts, for the most part failed completely in their efforts to unite their Scottish and English subjects within one state. Both countries retained their separate parliaments, churches, and legal and educational systems. Even after the union of the parliaments in 1707, the kirk and the educational system remained distinctly Scottish. Canada owes its university system, to take one example, to Scotland, not to England.

Only when the Scottish state was completely bankrupted by a failed scheme to colonize the isthmus of Panama in the 1690s in the Darien scheme were the conditions for a political union between Scotland and England even remotely possible. And even then, it was more of a hostile takeover than it was a genuine coming together. England agreed to forgive Scottish debt, largely held by English banks, if Scotland surrendered its sovereignty.

Ironically, what the Act of Union ended up meaning for Scotland wasn’t all that different from what the European Union means today to Greece, Portugal and other ‘peripheral’ Eurozone economies. It meant shotgun marriage, into which the weaker partner was browbeaten and threatened by her domineering new partner.

The people of the British Isles had never, ever been a unified political entity before 1707. The Romans, the Saxons and even the Normans had all failed to subjugate the entire archipelago and bring it under one political system. So the Stuart dynasty’s total failure to create a ‘British people’ was really only to be expected. Throughout the personal union, and for much of the political one, the English continued to call themselves English, and the Scots Scottish.

The Irish, until the very recent past, were little more than subject peoples in the context of the British state; violently conquered and widely regarded as subhuman papists well into the nineteenth century. Ireland’s narrative of national struggle actually bears a closer resemblance to those former British colonies in India, Africa and the Middle East than it does to that of Scotland. It is one of the ironies of British imperialism that it was never more cruel than when it struck closest to home.

British identity first came to mean anything at all to those English, Scots and Welsh who set out for the colonies; for Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and what would become the United States. When confronted with the French, the Spanish, or the so-called ‘savages’ of India and North America, the differences between Welshman, Scotsman and Englishman began to seem trivial by comparison. And as the Empire grew and strengthened, with many Scots in particular at the vanguard of its expansion, people began to take pride in their Britishness, and not in their peculiar old nationalisms.

All took pride in their destiny as ‘Britons,’ and aspired to rule the world forever as such. The late nineteenth century was the high point of ‘Britishness.’ It is in this period, and only in this period, that it was possible for a Scot living in Montreal named James McGill to found a university in his name, and on his tombstone, to refer to the city of his birth as Glasgow, North Britain. It was a sentiment that would have been laughable, if not unthinkable, in earlier times, and which has become so yet again today.

After the Empire began its long decline in the aftermath of two devastating world wars, British policymakers tried, at first, to salvage some remnant of the world order they had once headed by devising the Commonwealth of Nations, which is still attempting to continue by free association the processes begun by imperialism. To this end they attempted, in 1962, to free up immigration from the ex-Dominions in order to give practical heft to the fine words they were speaking.

In order for this to make any sense, these policymakers were forced to resort to some expedients that they found rather distasteful. Most importantly, as the Labour opposition incisively pointed out at the time, if the citizens of Canada, Australia, and apartheid South Africa were truly still members of some kind of glorious British world-order, then so were the citizens of Jamaica, Nigeria, India and Pakistan. What, then, was to stop them too from immigrating to Britain to claim the prosperity that the elite were telling them was their birthright as inheritors of the imperial legacy?

Nothing at all, was the obvious answer. And so the definition of Britishness was at last expanded to include the subject peoples of the former colonies, opening the doors to the mass immigration that is at the root of Britain’s current national anxieties. Though Enoch Powell’s famous analysis of the problems this would eventually pose was and is deeply distasteful, coming as it does from a place of deep racism and bigotry, it also wasn’t inaccurate, as the history of British race relations in the twentieth century has amply demonstrated.

Then in the 60s and 70s, a succession of British Governments (both Labour and Tory) began resolutely turning away from their imperial heritage and any attempt to make the Commonwealth a viable entity. It was Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath, with his famous 1971 white paper, who would eventually bring Britain into the EU, and decisively reorient Britain as a European nation.

This came as a deep psychological shock in the colonies. In the words of the famous Kiwi historian JGA Pocock, ‘Mother Britain ran off and joined the EEC.’ The former dominions felt quite betrayed by this at the time, and a great deal of Canada, Australia and New Zealand’s postcolonial search for identity in the second half of the twentieth century has indeed been largely a response to ‘Mother Britain’s’ total failure to reciprocate their deep interest and sense of connection with her.

Britain continually betrayed and belittled the feelings of English Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and repeatedly demonstrated how little they really meant to her. The mother country’s lack of interest forced the commonwealth dominions to try and find some kind of identity that wasn’t rooted in Britishness and Britannic pride.In that context, it was possible for someone like Pocock to anticipate precisely the problem that is consuming Britain right now: In his famous lecture, he incisively noted, during a discussion of fellow historian AJP Taylor’s attitude to Scotland, that

If it has been psychologically possible for [the English, Scots, Irish and Welsh] to annihilate the whole idea of the Commonwealth, white as well as non-white, it is not altogether beyond the bounds of possibility that “United Kingdom” and even “Britain” may someday become similarly inconvenient and be annihilated, or annihilate themselves, in their turn….It is not inconceivable that future historians may find themselves writing of a “Unionist” or even a “British” period in the history of the peoples inhabiting the Atlantic Archipelago, and locating it between a date in the thirteenth, the seventeenth, or the nineteenth century and a date in the twentieth or the twenty first.

He gave this lecture in 1975, but it was barely noticed outside of academic historical circles.

Now that Brexit has arrived, and Britain’s political and economic ties with the European continent are up for review, the UK Independence Party, and the British nationalists it represents, have touted the Commonwealth as an alternative security alliance and market for a post-Brexit Britain. They are remarkably blind to the fact that very few people in the rest of the world, including the commonwealth countries, remember British rule with any fondness. The history of the British state’s interventions in world affairs is one of arrogant meddling in other people’s affairs, blithe rhetoric about their own racial superiority, and outright violent subjugation and rule. Brexiteers are living in a fantasy world, where the grateful Commonwealth will answer the call to come to Britain’s aid with a loud ‘Ready, aye, ready, we stand by you.’

Outside a few paleo-conservatives, miles from the current of mainstream opinion on these issues, imperial sentiment in the former dominions has completely and utterly died. Even the Conservative governments of the recently deposed Stephen Harper in Canada, Malcolm Turnbull in Australia, and John Key in New Zealand, who probably do feel more nostalgia for the empire than most of the people they ostensibly lead, would find opposition totally insurmountable if they went too far in their efforts to restore their countries’ respective status as British colonies.

Stephen Harper, in particular, embarrassed himself with his ham-fisted efforts to restore the old imperial iconography here in Canada. Few people quite understand why he did it, let alone support the restoration of the monarchy and other British symbolisms to the Canadian state. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals almost immediately began the process of dismantling the old symbols upon their election last year.

If Britain really does decide to leave the EU and turn away from the European project, the question inevitable presents itself: to what precisely will she be turning? The old dominions are done with her, and have built postcolonial identities of their own. America has lost interest in any ‘special relationship.’ China, Russia and India are eager to humiliate her, and settle old scores.

Britain will likely discover that the era when it could go it alone, as a great power in its own right, is over. Maintaining the mere cohesion of the state itself will absorb most of a post-Brexit Britain’s energy. A robust presence on the world stage will be sadly beyond it.

The British state could only really have been preserved, like a museum piece, in the context of a united Europe. Together, Europe’s nations are the world’s largest economy and one of its most powerful diplomatic and military forces. Apart, and the ignominious exit of the UK from the Union may lead to still other countries departing, they are merely a squabbling collection of nineteenth century relics. The harsh winds of 21st century diplomacy and security realities will blow all the colder outside the warm, cosy confines of the EU; as Britain is about to discover.

 

 

On Big Gay Fascism

You’re looking at the new face of the European Far Right. Mathieu Chartraire; Tetu magazine’s Mr. Gay for 2015. The magazine named him France’s hottest man about the community. He likes long walks on the beach, candlelit dinners, and xenophobic race nationalism.

...Gay Icon?....

Ew, not her. The cute guy on top of the post.

Marine Le-Pen, the leader of France’s Front National, is probably the most influential figure in French Politics right now. She may even be the single most popular one as well, though that says more about the near-universal disgust for the older, established political parties than it does about her. She preaches national unity and solidarity against an encroaching, evil other. Or, less charitably, racism, bigotry, and hatred. Certainly nothing new in European politics. She’s also, and this does seem to be causing some surprise, very popular in France’s Queer community. Dreamy Mathieu likes her, and it’s causing a stir. They (or should I say we?) prefer her by a margin of ten points over their heterosexual peers. This is being held up as being odd, even surprising. People don’t quite know what to make of it.

It doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s nothing new, and given the current political climate in France, and what life is actually like for gay men, (The larger Queer community’s struggles are often similar, but often very different as well, so this post will focus on my own tribe, about which I can speak) it makes a fair bit of sense.

First of all, hands up who remembers which party was by far the gayest in the Weimar Republic? Need a hint? Well, they were into bold, striking colour schemes, flamboyant ceremonies, and really stunning uniforms.

Gay Icon

Note the angle of the wrist…

For years, the prevalence of homosexuality in the Nazi Party was one of the things people held up as evidence of their barbarism and moral depravity. I’m currently halfway through American broadcaster William L. Shirer’s Rise and Fall of Nazi Germany; a well-researched and footnoted work of history, but also more of a primary source and a memoir of his time as a journalist in Berlin at this point than a great work of scholarship. He dwells frequently on the prevalence of ‘sexual perverts’ and ‘moral degenerates’ in the early Nazi Party.

The SturmAbteilung, or SA, Hitler’s first paramilitary shock troops, were notorious in Germany for being full of young, violent, blond gay men. Their leader, Ernst Roehm, was probably the closest thing Hitler ever had to a personal friend. Shirer introduces him as a ‘tough, ruthless, driving man – albeit, like so many of the early Nazis, a homosexual.’ The early history of Nazism, like the early history of most ultranationalist movements is a shady one, full of drunks, drug addicts and people from the poor, despised fringes of mainstream German Society. Not unlike modern Greece’s Golden Dawn. And in the thirties that included, as it almost always has, gay people. Shirer takes it for granted that his audience in 1950s America shares his disgust for homosexuality and cringes with him at this obvious proof of the evil and moral corruption at the heart of Nazism.

Hitler knew that Roehm was gay. He didn’t approve, and there would be no worse badge to wear in the concentration camps than the pink one that denoted a homosexual, but he also didn’t really give a damn. He was a sociopath. So long as people were useful to him, he didn’t care about their morals or proclivities. As soon as they stopped being useful, he would care equally less about ruthlessly killing them. And when the time came, in 1934, to eliminate the SA in the infamous Night of the Long Knives, he didn’t have any trouble finding an excuse to justify his wholesale slaughter of his most loyal lieutenants. No one in Germany mourned them. They were just a bunch of damn queers after all.

People have always hated us. Everyone else on earth is a member of a hated minority in one place, and comfortably in the majority somewhere else. Gay people are a minority everywhere. Times and places where gay men and women have been able to live openly in history are few and far between. And they’re brief. We always get the shit kicked out of us in the end. The best place in Europe to be gay in the 20s and 30s was Berlin until it wasn’t. Straight people do not like us. They think we’re disgusting. Subconsciously, science is proving that most of you feel the need to wash after you speak to me.

I have to admit that sometimes I can get really, really angry about it. It’s irritating that people have such strong feelings and opinions about an aspect of myself that I had no more hand in choosing than the colour of my skin.

It certainly meant I snorted with contempt every time I saw a hysterical report about Ebola. Even if the risible hypocrisy of the contrast between straight white people’s panic at a single case in Texas with their indifference to thousands of people dying horribly in Sierra Leone wasn’t enough to do it, I would remember that North America had already been ravaged by a deadly, horrible disease. It was the 80s, and we called it GRID. Gay Related Immuno-Deficiency System. It really used to get them rolling in the aisles at Reagan’s press briefings. Eventually Rock Hudson died emaciated and terrified, so Middle America finally felt that little twinge of fear that meant there was money for research into a cure. Nobody gave two shits about AIDS while the only people dying from it were us queers. We were just getting what we deserved, weren’t we? Sure, loads of straight Africans have it now too, but well…

Personally, I’ve had it easy. So easy it often makes me uncomfortable. I was born in 1989. By the time I realized I might be gay, society’s attitudes were already changing. I came out not long after Canada legalized gay marriage. Sure, I had to sit through endless dorm room chats while I was still in the closet about my fundamental inferiority, and how if my schoolmates had gay sons they would kill them without a second thought.   But for the most part, compared to what my first boyfriend had to go through, or what people like me still go through in most of the world, I really have no right to complain about having been persecuted. We all know what Putin’s been doing by now. If I’d been born in Mosul, ISIS would have thrown me off a high-rise building by now. And a lot of people would have turned out to watch.

But it’s early yet. And this stuff can turn on a dime. It frequently does. Ask the Jews. The difference is no one ever gives a shit about us. No one ever misses us when we’re gone, and no one ever really asks why we needed to be rounded up and shot. Everyone already knows.

Right now the cultural climate in the places I’ve lived is generally against open homophobia. Politeness is on our side. I remember in my first year of university having a smoke out the back of college with one of the Rugby Jocks. I’d heard tell that this guy might be homophobic. He was perfectly nice, and we were getting along fine on a wave of pints and good cheer. I hadn’t asked, but he took the time to explain to me that because I wasn’t obviously effeminate, he didn’t mind me so much. let me know that I was the ‘least offensive gay person [he’d] ever met.’

I didn’t make a thing of it. He was being nice, and I appreciated that he was making the effort. But still, for a long time afterwards I couldn’t help but think to myself…thanks? I appreciate your tolerance of my existence? I’m glad I don’t offend your sensibilities as much as other deviants do? I guess it must be a bit like when a black person bristles at a well-meaning generalization about ‘you people,’ or a Native American sighs an exasperated little sigh when people empathize with his or her ‘plight.’ But I don’t know for sure. I’m still white and from a privileged background, so I can’t pronounce on that with as much authority. This is why there’s such a field of inquiry as intersectionality. This shit can get complicated.

So why would some of us feel inclined to vote for a party like the Front National, when it seems superficially like such a counter-intuitive decision? Well, for a start, we’re not a monolithic ‘group,’ as some people think, and so we don’t have a monolithic opinion. We’re united only by our sexual preference, and often by veryLittleElse. We’re an ‘invisible’ minority as opposed to a ‘visible’ one, and we only ever have to reveal ourselves as such if we choose to. If you’re a fan of X-Men, being gay is a bit like being Charles Xavier. Sure, he’s technically a mutant too, but he’s also rich, white, and a professor at Oxford, so maybe that makes him a little harder to relate to if you’re The Beast, and you can’t actually go out to pick up normal humans in bars with your fancy mind-reading tricks.

I'm totally a mutant too, guys!

I’m totally a mutant too, guys!

But intersectionality bites both ways in our case. There’s less of the solidarity that other underprivileged groups feel for each other. And most of those other underprivileged groups hate us too. If you’re poor, black, gay and West Indian, and your family are ultraconservative Christians who will disown you for being who you are, then you’re going to have a tougher time of it than I did, I freely admit it. And if you’re gay and Muslim? Jeez, I don’t envy you one bit. I’ve met gay Muslims. Yes, they exist. No, I’m not going to tell you who they are. They have to be SERIOUS about keeping that away from their families. Dead serious.

THAT’s the crux of it. That’s why Mr. Gai 2015 is leaning towards Marine Le Pen. Because sometimes when two gay men get beaten up in the street for holding hands? As happens. They get beaten up by Muslim men. Sometimes the devil you know beats the devil you don’t. So it goes.

It should go without saying that I have no desire to feed into some bullshit apocalyptic narrative of Islam vs. the Christian West. I have no desire to play that game. But it should also go without saying that when I see photos of ISIS throwing people like me off a building, and I know that that isn’t a minority opinion in the Muslim world, it makes me look at guys walking down the street in flowing robes, white caps and beards with a bit of side-eye. I’m usually right when I take a guess at what they think of me. If you put a gun to my head and made me choose? I’d take the chance that Marine Le-Pen isn’t full of shit over the implementation of Sharia law. Yes, I know that’s a false choice. No, I don’t think we have to go there. But the idiots on the extremes really want us to. And the people of France have spectacularly taken the bait. And so I get why some gay men (and women?) are falling for it. Fear does crazy things to people. And people like me have an extra reason to be scared of radical Islam. We take it very personally. Because there aren’t any circumstances under which I can pretend that they aren’t also aiming at me when they shoot up a government building or a magazine’s offices. I’m on their list.

I’m going to close with a story that could superficially be taken as evidence of the aforementioned side-eye, but which I actually think is a sign of hope. At the height of the Rob Ford fiasco I was in a cab in Toronto being driven uptown. I was talking to the cab driver. I usually do that, because it’s invariably interesting. But that week everyone in the goddam city was exchanging meaningful glances about the latest exploits of everybody’s favorite town drunk.

He was a recent immigrant from Pakistan, and a very conservative Muslim. He was explaining to me how he was still going to vote for Rob Ford. Apparently he was a nice man, and he’d done a reasonably good job. After all, everyone was entitled to a private life. What business was it of his if the Mayor smoked crack on his own time? I was cringing through my nods and smiles, but did feel compelled to politely ask if that logic would still apply if Mayor Ford was gay? Would that still be his business? Would he still be voting for him? It wasn’t a barbed question. I was curious to see what he would say.

He thought about it. He clicked his mouth and tilted his head a bit to a side. Then he shrugged, and said sure, of course he would. If the gays put up one of their own, who was he to judge? They were good people. If a gay mayor did his job well, it was no business of his.

Sure, sure, ‘people.’ But you know what? I actually am grateful for tolerance. I don’t get mad when people make little mistakes out of ignorance. Why would I? I’m grateful they’re trying. I get mad when people make hate a part of who they are. We all get these little bigoted reactions from our Id when we’re scared or pissed off. The measure of being a good person is how effectively we tamp them back down again. Tolerance, respect, courtesy and basic human decency go a long way to defeating hatred. As Prince Faisal puts it in the classic film Lawrence of Arabia, ‘for [Lawrence] mercy is a passion. For me, it is merely good manners. You may judge for yourself which is the more durable motive.’

So sure, if it’s a choice between the National Front and ISIS, I can bet most gay people will choose the National Front. But that’s a horrible choice. So let’s start finding/figuring out a political movement that doesn’t suck. We’re going to need one pretty soon here.

On Technocracy and Revolutionary Anachronism

Tucked away deep in the heart of McGill University’s student ghetto near the corner of Milton and Aylmer in downtown Montreal, is The Word, a secondhand bookstore of semi-legendary local stature. Blackwell’s in Oxford may be more impressive in scale and scope, but it has all the backing of one of the world’s finest universities. Housman’s Radical Bookshop near King’s Cross Station in London may have a more dramatic history, but it’s more of a political collective than a true bookstore. Nicholas Hoare here in Canada may have been a slicker operation, but like so many other independent bookstores it wasn’t, in the end, sustainable in this era of Indigo, Amazon, and Kindle. Yet for the moment, through all the fireworks of creative destruction, The Word continues to stock a truly mind-boggling array of used classic texts from the various canons of world literature for very reasonable prices. It is a book lover’s bookstore, understated, antiquarian, fusty and traditional. You can’t even pay with a credit card.

I can think of no more intrinsically revolutionary place in the world.

We live in an age of simulation. Electronics and computers have, by this point, succeeded in insinuating themselves into every single aspect of our lives, thereby transforming them completely.  We don’t have to go to the library or the bookstore if we want to read a book. We can download it instantly from our desk. We don’t have to buy a record to hear music we love, or wait till a certain time of day to watch a TV show we’re engrossed in. We don’t have to go to bars or look through the classified ads of newspapers to find potential lovers. There’s a handy app for that. In fact, depending on your individual tastes, quirks and proclivities, there’s actually quite a few. Life can be, and for some people already is, conducted from bed.

And we celebrate it. The culture of convenience. The culture of comfort. Above all else, the culture of the new.

We fetishize technological advance to a degree that we’re unable to consider it rationally. We don’t stop to think about the implications of a new app, a new social network, a new website, a new gadget. We immediately assume that because it is newer, it must therefore be better. Like the adrenalin rush that seizes us when we finally get our hands on the latest Iphone, our overwhelming need for the fix clouds our rational senses. It’s the same kind of demented fixation that drug addicts experience when their minds zero in on their next hit. Nothing matters but acquisition. It wears off, sure. But there’s always another one coming along. This crazed compulsion to innovate, to rush headlong into the twenty-first century, doesn’t just seize individuals, it can seize whole institutions, even whole societies. It’s the impulse that drives an ancient school to throw out its meticulously collected library in two years, or a government to set fire to its paper records because everything is going digital now. The work and meticulous effort of centuries obliterated in minutes to satiate the ever-hungry idol of ‘progress.’

It’s the culture of waste, planned obsolescence and creative destruction that Aldous Huxley so presciently predicted in Brave New World. In his dystopia, where Henry Ford is worshipped as a prophet, waste isn’t just celebrated, it’s considered a quasi-religious duty. Children have forgotten the old sports that required nothing but a ball or a bat. They must play new, expensive games that demand mountains of disposable materiel each time they’re played. Even human aging has been outlawed. Artificially incubated humans are given sixty years of perpetual youth and pleasure, then die and are unceremoniously cremated for energy. Sex, drugs and unquestioning deference. Less brutal a world than Orwell’s, yet far more seductive and alluring. And in many ways closer to being realized today. A dead-souled world of pure pleasure, driven only by the technocratic will to control.

Our technocracy is head-quartered, for the most part, in Southern California. They don’t call themselves technocrats; they have much sexier buzzwords for themselves. But technocrat is the accurate term. Their discourse is private, and none of their decisions are regulated by any outside body. Some governments pretend to try, but 60-something bureaucrats are, and will forever be, hopelessly ill-equipped even to understand most of the companies and products they presume to ‘regulate.’ It is impossible to regulate something that you don’t even understand. And the technocrats of silicon-valley, fifty-somethings at the absolute outside, will always understand it better than the humanities-majors of the world’s governments. How could they? The language that these technologies are created with is fundamentally exclusive and elite. And it is so by design, not by accident. Hyper-specialized programming languages aside, it is impossible to read technical, or even non-technical documents from any of these firms unless one is a long-standing initiate in the Eleusinian mysteries of computer programming and web development.  Thus, they are a law unto themselves. And the fountains of money they earn allow them to smooth over any other inconvenient bumps along the road to ‘progress.’

Us, the ordinary users, are mere data clusters, to be harvested for what we provide that is profitable while using the service that lures us in. Like flies into a pitcher plant, we don’t realize what’s being taken from us as we lick up the honey. Why would we? It’s ever so delicious and convenient.

And the inescapable, undeniable fact of our modern digital existence is that when we’re hunched over our laptops surveying our screens, in humble obeisance at a billion little altars all around the world, everything we do is quantifiable, and as such, easily measured, analyzed, and even predicted. The all-seeing algorithms are still a lot slower than we are at the moment, prone to amusing mistakes, but they’re closing in.

The best way to be free of them? Walk away.

It’s still possible. Though it may not be forever. As a good general rule of thumb, assume that if you’re doing it on a device that can be connected to the internet, then it isn’t private. But thankfully, most of the rest of human technology allows you to be.

Want to be sure the NSA doesn’t know what you’ve been reading or thinking? Read a book. Or buy a physical newspaper.

Want to support a musician you like so that he or she doesn’t have to moonlight as a barista anymore? Turn off the streaming service and go buy their vinyl record. And a turntable. Records can’t be wiped out in a computer crash, and turntables will only ever need electricity to play them.

Want to have a private conversation with a friend? Arrange to meet them in person. It’s hard to spy on two people on a park bench without being noticed. It’s incredibly easy to spy on a Facebook chat. Or a Skype call.

See how the branding has started to infiltrate our very language? It’s not that long until everything is trademarked. The hashtag will be ready in advance long before anyone bothers to dream up the thought.

This isn’t to say that computers aren’t useful, and that they don’t have a place in our future. If I was advocating that it would make me a luddite; a word that gets thrown around a lot these days by idiots as a sort of generalized slur aimed at people who even vaguely question our technocratic utopian future. The Luddites were a group of nineteenth century English religious fanatics who smashed up factories in the early decades of the industrial revolution to take a stand against the machines that were driving them out of work. It’s easy to sneer at their backward provinciality. But then you remember that many of their children would lose their limbs, eyes or lives to machines in those factories at ages like six or seven, and if you have a spark of a human soul, you learn to at least use the word with a bit of sympathy. They weren’t wrong. They just lost.

We’ll probably lose too. Humanity’s techno-dystopia probably isn’t stoppable. But we can disengage from it as individuals when and where we can. It’s easy to be a revolutionary in the digital age. Just don’t throw out your books just yet, and read them from time to time. If you really want to, buy a typewriter. That was the German secret service’s response to the NSA hacking revelations. If something really needs to be secret these days, put it on paper.

And maybe put a sticker over your laptop’s webcam. You already would have by now if you knew how easy it is to hack.

On World War Three, the Uses of History, and the Greatest Generation

Calvin and his Duplicate

Calvin and his Duplicate

Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, is fond of moving from the particular to the general, or vice versa, to see if something is true. If an ethical or moral maxim holds true as a good thing for one person, it stands to reason that it might hold true for society at large as well. Likewise, if something can be said with truth about society, it probably can be said about an individual person as well. This isn’t uncontentious, and as a method it may not always stand up to close scrutiny, but it’s a tendency in classical Greek thought, and Kant’s famous categorical imperative has always struck be as being a kindred maxim.

For my own part, I find that the most dangerous times in my life are usually those when there isn’t really anything pressing that I have to do. Often in these periods there are plenty of things I should do, plenty of things I probably could do, and any number of things that I should probably get around to doing at some point. But never anything that I immediately need to do. Or more accurately still, nothing that can’t be easily put off as a task for future Nick to worry about. I often enjoy these days thoroughly, relaxing and frittering my time away on unimportant pleasures.

The reason these times are so dangerous is that all of those things I avoid during them have an alarming way of turning into things that I absolutely, no bones about it have to do. And when future Nick turns into present Nick, and that life-changing essay needs to be handed in tomorrow, and I’ve done no reading, or that critical presentation needs to be delivered and I’m going to have to just wing it, or more often than any other, there’s no more money left and no reasonable prospect of more appearing anytime soon, so no more cigarettes for a while, present Nick tends to loathe past Nick with the fire of a thousand suns. If my temporal selves ever met in the real world, present and future Nick would quickly agree that past Nick needed to be immediately lynched, and all three of us would immediately vanish in a puff of smoke like Calvin’s perfect version of himself when he had an evil thought.

If this is true of me, and long, painful experience has shown me that it is, then there’s a chance it’s true of society at large as well.

Climate change is the most obvious example here. We could rearrange our entire society to save our planet from ecological destruction. We could cease burning carbon based fuels, put serious effort into researching alternative sources of energy, and actually work at putting them into practice. We could spare a moment’s thought for the populations of Sub-Saharan Africa or the Indian subcontinent, or the denizens of New Orleans or Miami or Venice when we fill up at the Esso. But that sounds like a lot of work, and fracking means we’re never going to hit peak oil anyway, and I have to get home because there’s something really good up on Netflix.

But exactly the same logic applies to Syria, Iraq, and the broader unfolding crisis in the Middle East. A crisis which the left-wing British newspaper The Guardian recently  announced in its editorial  was a conflict on the scale of the Second World War; one that justifiably could be referred to, from the moment they deigned to enlighten us about it, as World War Three.

The headline was risible to me, as someone who’s been following events in the Middle East as avidly and as closely as a westerner who doesn’t read Arabic and isn’t being paid is capable of doing since the Egyptian Revolution of January 2011. I can only imagine how much more risible it must have been to a citizen of Syria since 2011, or of Iraq since 2003. How pleasant that the white liberal media has finally woken up to the scale of the events it has been trivializing, cheer-leading, downplaying, condemning or ignoring since they began, I can imagine them thinking. I can’t wait till it’s Lyons, Sheffield, Atlanta or Montreal that’s a smoldering pile of rubble, littered with the spent cases of depleted uranium shells. The editorial itself is perfectly sophisticated, and makes in essence the same point that I’m making here. It is, however, still a bit risible that people don’t seem to have understood what they meant.

It’s not even a very good historical analogy. Yes, the Second World War is the last time Europe was pounded into the primordial dust by the malevolence of its own sons and daughters on a scale like we’re witnessing in the Middle East of today. But the last time anywhere in North America ever had that experience was the end of the US Civil War and Sherman’s march to the sea. And the last time what you might call ‘Western Civilization’ (a useful shorthand for Europe and her contemporary colonial outgrowths around the world) experienced a war as savage, unending, and as religiously malevolent as the poisonous death-struggle now enveloping the Middle East was the agglomeration of savage, deadly conflicts in the seventeenth century that historians traditionally lump together as the Thirty Years War, when Protestant and Catholic butchered each other for possession of the heritage of Christ.

So when I read simplistic opinions about conflict in the Middle East, either opposing or defending western intervention in it, I find them at times a little difficult to take seriously. Because both proponents and opponents of Western intervention seem to miss the most important point of what is happening there, which is that it is happening, and will continue to happen,  in spite of anything we do about it. We have missed our chance to intervene in any meaningful way. From now on, and since at least two years ago, events in the Middle East control us here in the West, and not the other way around. If you’re curious, the only moment where Europe and the Anglosphere could have meaningfully intervened, and many people would disagree with me even in thinking it was possible then, was a brief moment in 2011.

This is the third world war. Right here, right now. We in the west are completely peripheral to it, and no decision we make or any intervention, military or humanitarian, that we undertake will make the slightest difference to its continuing, or even, if I’m completely honest, to its eventual outcome. We will be merely an additional complication for both sides to recognize and deal with. The bombs we drop, or God forbid any troops we deploy, will be pawns in a game that not even the governments they serve are actually playing. Their usefulness will be relative, and impossible to predict. What is bad for ISIS may be good for Iran and its puppet Assad regime. What is bad for Iran and Assad may be good for the sheikhs of Dubai and Saudi Arabia. It will make absolutely no difference to the outcome of the conflict itself. We aren’t directly involved in this war yet, but we can’t rule out that it won’t come home to us someday soon, as a different war did to America on December 7th, 1941. We have that day fresh enough in our minds to remind us of how thoroughly events can rule the powerful, rather than the other way around, but we have to go a little further back for a better analogy to what might be happening right now to the United States and the world order it’s presiding over.

Before Christianity or Islam existed, in the Middle East of the second century BC, then chafing at the clumsy, brutal attentions of the rising Roman superpower, there was a prophecy floating around attributed to the ancient Greek Sibyl. It informed the Romans that

Not foreign invaders, Italy, but your own sons will rape you, a brutal interminable gang-rape, punishing you, famous country, for all your many depravities, leaving you prostrated, stretched out among the burning ashes. Self-slaughterer! No longer the mother of upstanding men, but rather the nurse of savage, ravening beasts!”

This was mostly wishful thinking. Rome’s mastery of the Mediterranean was unquestioned, and would remain so for centuries to come. It wasn’t even a prophecy that required supernatural explanations. A reasonably keen observer of the Roman political situation in 140 BC could well have spotted the tensions that would eventually culminate in the bloody civil war that would bring down the curtain on the Roman Republic, and usher in the age of the Augustan Emperors. The Sibyl was probably just a very convenient pen name for a keen geopolitical analyst who knew his/her prognostications would be much more widely read if they came from the mythical Sibyl. But this was known from Egypt to Asia Minor as the preordained destiny of the Roman people. The Romans knew it too, and while they alternately scoffed, grew fearful, excoriated each other for their depravity, and tried to put their own house in order, they were haunted even in the moment of their world-spanning triumph by the suspicion of their impending doom. Every European empire that has followed them, from that of Spain to that of Britain to that of the United States, has been plagued by similar Cassandras and rumours of Cassandras.

But it came true. The history of Rome from Marius and Sulla to Romulus Augustulus is the history of Roman butchering Roman, and of the gradual ruination of the Italian peninsula. By the age of Justinian, Rome was a provincial backwater with a famous name and a lot of crumbling ruins. The Barbarians never invaded. That’s one of history’s great myths. For the most part they were invited in when there weren’t enough Romans left in the world to fill an army. The Goths, the Vandals and even the Huns served as foederati in the armies of the various rulers of the late Empire so they could go on killing each other and their fellow Romans, until eventually they were all that remained, and only the idea of Rome had survived. It is one of history’s little ironies that many of the near-eastern peoples they fought, and occasionally that they conquered and dispersed, like the Jews, the Armenians and the Persians, have endured where they did not.

Now, in the Twenty First Century AD, or CE, as we’ve arrogantly begun to call it, the superpower bluntly trying to shape the Middle East to its liking is the United States of America, and its capital is even more removed and distant from the fighting and chaos it tries desperately to control. Unlike Rome, America is unwilling or unable to summon the cold brutality needed to truly put an end to the strife that so worries it. When the Jews revolted against Roman rule three times in two hundred years, Rome eventually razed Jerusalem to the ground, renamed it Aelia Capitolina, butchered the Jews and their leaders and statesmen, and obliterated the very idea of an independent Jewish state. It won them peace and quiet, for a time.

America, for very good reasons, is unwilling to truly unleash the full fury of its military arsenal on the Middle East. They certainly could bring peace to the region if they did, but only if they were willing to leave it a radioactive wasteland devoid of all life, human or animal, and to live with a faint green glow in the eastern sky for the next few thousand years to remind them of what they did. They are willing, instead, only to deploy short-term solutions; supporting this state against another, bombing this group of Islamists, supporting that one, and cracking down on another through a proxy. I’m glad they’re only going that far, I suppose, because all of humanity might be wiped out by the nuclear option, But the measures they’re taking will only, perhaps, buy time. And in the end they will likely only spawn more hatred and engender still deeper chaos.

The barbarian invasions of Europe may be one of history’s greatest myths; Rome’s decline was entirely its own fault, and wasn’t imposed by any kind of external force. The insistence that every great empire’s decline will unfold exactly like Rome’s might be another, but far and away the greatest myth of them all is that the study of history will teach us lessons about how to avoid making the same mistakes our ancestors did. Even when this is true, which it rarely is, it doesn’t prevent us from making fifty new mistakes to make up for the old ones we successfully avoid.

Why study it then? I’m honestly not sure, and I ask myself almost every day. The best answer I’ve come up with so far is that, like poetry, you may not see why it’s relevant when you first read it, but five, ten, twenty years down the line, as your life unfolds and good and bad things start happening to you, something might come to you and you’ll remember, in a flash of insight and understanding, that line you read that made no sense at the time, and you’ll be glad you took the trouble to read Auden, or Whitman, or whoever else floats your boat.

As an example of what I mean, something from my knowledge of history that keeps coming to me recently, and giving me a little bit of hope as I look at a world stage that only seems to get bleaker, darker and still more terrifying, is a line from John Adams. In 1773, as tensions between Britain and its thirteen American colonies kept rising higher and higher, and compromise and moderation became less and less possible, or even desirable, he wrote to his wife Abigail that he despaired of his fellow Americans. He called the problems they faced ‘too grand and multifarious for my comprehension,’ and of his generation of Americans, he wrote  that ‘We have not men fit for the times. We are deficient in Genius, in Education, in Travel, in Fortune, in every Thing. I feel unutterable anxiety.’ John Adams went on to be the second President of the new United States, and that generation of feckless losers he’s describing went on to be the Founding Fathers of the United States, reverentially cited by their descendants as the ultimate arbiters of political wisdom. Even when they weren’t. Even when the person speaking knows nothing about them at all, and is massively distorting who they were and what they intended. They’re who he thinks of when he things of the perfect generation of Americans; the ones whose example this contemporary one is so spectacularly failing to emulate.

I may not know much about the future, or whether there’s any truth to these claims about History, but I do know that I can relate exactly to how he felt when he wrote that. In this narcissistic, shallow age of selfies and lattes and hashtags and textspeak, it’s really hard to believe that any of us, let alone most of us, like our grandparents in the so-called ‘Greatest Generation’ will prove more than we appear, and rise to the really insurmountable challenges we’re facing on pretty much every front of our collective existence. And maybe we won’t. Maybe we’re totally doomed. Worst of all, maybe we totally deserve to be.

I obviously don’t know that, and I have no way of knowing. But if history has any lesson at all here, it’s that my opinions on the subject are irrelevant one way or another, and we very well might be all right in the end. So let’s be prepared, and do the best we can with what we’ve got, because if we pull it off, then we, not our grandparents, will end up being the Greatest Generation.

On Letting Western Jihadists Come Home

A few years ago, a British comedian made a brilliant video entitled Gap Yah, viciously satirizing privileged British teenagers and young adults taking a year between school and university to go find themselves, or save the world, or whatever it is they go to do. Tarquin and his friend were British, but they could have been from Canada, France or the United States. It’s pretty standard for young westerners to go do community service or something similar in the ‘third world’ or ‘developing countries’ for a little while in their young years before they get bogged down by adult responsibilities. Yes, I did it too. I laid water pipes, planted trees and built stoves in Peru, and I felt incredibly weird the whole time. Did I do some good? Yeah, maybe. Should I have been doing it? I’m really not sure at all.

There’s something totally insufferable about the whole idea. For the most part, and I can’t imagine this has changed much since I did it in 2006, it’s a matter of taking selfies and feeling good about oneself, then eventually getting bored, or realizing that one isn’t actually making that big a dent in the problem, and then going home.

That’s what’s insufferable. We go on vacation, help the poor brown, black or purple people deal with their poverty, and then we go home, to Starbucks Lattes and IPhones and clean water and comfortable beds.

The thing is, this is exactly the same thing that young British, French, American or Canadian Muslims are doing right now in Syria and Iraq. Only the circumstances and the reasons are different, and those differences are kind of cosmetic. In many important ways, they’re doing the same thing for a lot of the same reasons; teenage angst, alienation, anger, and boredom all play big roles, as does a sense of guilt at their comfortable lives and desire to do good for the poor benighted people of some faraway land. In their case, however, they’re going to kill and be killed, not to build schools or plant trees. And recently, like a lot of us eventually do after our service junkets, some of them have begun to realize just how stupid an idea it was the whole time.

Their IPods don’t work anymore. Most of the time they’re not really doing anything glamorous or exciting. The bathrooms are dirty and they’re uncomfortable most of the time. Rapine, murder and butchery aren’t quite as fulfilling as they were led to believe they would be.They want to come home and see their families and go back to the lives they knew. They’re seeing that maybe those Kufar aren’t so evil after all. At least back in the land of Jahiliyya they have regular access to toilet paper.

But out of fear, anger and a little bit of racism, we won’t let them. We should. We should even encourage it, and set up a process by which it is gradually, and very eventually possible. In a way that acknowledges the gravity of their mistake, makes damn sure they’re being sincere in their remorse, and punishes them justly for what they’ve done, but also in a way that leaves them a path open back to a normal life. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s also in our interests, as well as the interests of the people of Syria, Iraq and wherever else these people are wreaking havoc.

When young, stupid white kids from western countries go gallivanting off to save the world, not even the people who think they’re being silly think they also deserve to die. Even if they get into serious trouble in one of the places they go to, nobody seriously suggests that they aren’t worthy of consular protection and assistance, and nobody says that their parents are wrong to be glad they’re back, and to let them back under their roof. I imagine Gap Yah’s parents and the British government did eventually get him out of that Burmese prison. Yes, he was an idiot, but stupidity isn’t a capital offense.

Except, it would appear, when you and your parents are Muslim. Then rich, white politicians are apparently perfectly free to brag about how they will burn your passport and never let you come home. Then your parents will receive verbal abuse and even threats because of your stupid decision, and have their motives and loyalties questioned if they worry about the fate of their children. After your government refuses to help you, and you die, your parents will be forced to become political props as well as suffer unspeakable grief. And, by the way, even your mistake will be angry with you, and publicly seek to kill you even if you do come safe back home. Which is tragic, because you could, and still can, do a lot of good there.

When young, often disadvantaged and justifiably angry Muslims in western countries are mulling over the idea of flying to Syria, who do you think is going to have more moral authority telling them that it’s a stupid idea, completely unIslamic, and that they shouldn’t do it. An ex-Jihadi? Or some western politician like Boris Johnson, whose biggest passport problems involve how much tax he’s able to avoid paying out of his ludicrous, undeserved wealth? The ex-head of MI6, Richard Barrett, who has probably had more experience with problems like this than armchair right wing experts around the world (or, for that matter, armchair left wing experts like me) is explaining in the British press that “many of the people who have been most successful in undermining the terrorist narrative are themselves ex-extremists.” It’s terrifying when young westerners decide that ISIS has a more fulfilling narrative of life to offer than we do. It has to make you wonder a little bit how bad ours actually is.  It’s completely in our interests to let these people back to help make sure that that doesn’t happen. They have a chance to do good, and to atone for their mistakes, and since we and our fellow citizens are the ones who stand to benefit from it, it would be suicidal of us to let them die alone and unloved in a foreign country for no good reason.

But what’s good for us or for our ex-jihadi citizens isn’t really the biggest issue here. What is is what’s good for the citizens of the Middle East, for whom this isn’t a theoretical problem, and for whom the tyranny of the Islamic State and the constant threat of violent death aren’t problems happening on the internet or in the papers. It’s right outside their door. This isn’t a hypothetical war, and these aren’t hypothetical issues for them. They are the ones dying, and they can’t just switch off the computer to make it go away. It’s a paralyzingly awful situation, for which there is no easy or obvious solution. Western intervention isn’t going to make it stop, military or otherwise. This is a war that isn’t going to end anytime soon, no matter what anybody says or does. It’s a horror from which there is no escape. It’s not a place people should be jaunting to lightly. And that goes for the people going to join the Kurds, too. The last people in the world whose help the Middle East needs right now are crazed German bikers, and the Western right should stop cheering them on, because they’re not even a tiny bit morally superior to the western jihadists.

One thing I want to make absolutely clear is that these people aren’t just idiots. They are, but many of them are very likely rapists, murderers, and traitors to the countries they’ve come from as well, by any sane person’s definition of the word. The penalty for treason has historically been death, but it isn’t anymore. When they do come home, they should be prepared to do time in prison for any crimes they’ve committed, and probably also to lose any and all privacy they’ve enjoyed in the past, at least for a good long while. In a situation like this, where so much rides on a person’s sincerity, society actually is entitled to know what you’re saying in private, and to see what you’re doing in private. You can’t be speaking out of both sides of your mouth about your repentance, and in a situation like this it’s only prudent that you’re being monitored around the clock, for your own safety, and that of the people around you. This is probably one of the only circumstances in which the sort of dragnet, total surveillance that our security services are subjecting all of us to right now (Hi guys!) is actually justified. Which, by the way, is why they should deploy their resources to that end, and not to collecting the dick pics of innocent strangers.

I do support western military efforts against ISIS, and am glad that we’re helping their enemies in the region to kill them as quickly and efficiently as possible. The closest analogy in the European cultural experience to ISIS for stupidity, viciousness, brutality and unadulterated evil are the Nazis. And if Godwin’s law is in your head, get it out. The reason it’s so irritating when stupid people make stupid comparisons to the Nazis is that it trivializes the analogy when it’s perfectly, completely accurate. And in this case it is. That’s who you should have in your head. That’s the mature, intelligent comparison you should be making. So if these westerners really do believe in the divine mission of Caliph Abu-Bakr and are willing to die in service to a demon in human form, they should rest assured that they will.

But they don’t have to. Because they can also come home. And we should make sure that they can. Were they idiots? Yes. Could they have known what it was they were getting into? Yes. Are they the first young people in history to make a dumb ass decision that they later came to regret? Not a chance. Has their decision put them completely beyond the pale of human consideration forever? No.

The thing about ISIS and their twisted, lying ideology is that at its kernel there’s a small scrap of truth. But only in the same way that the Nazis had one was well when they said that the Treaty of Versailles had punished Germany unfairly. It had, but that in no way justified Nazism or the things people did in its name. In ISIS’ case it’s that there really are a lot of things about Western civilization that are deeply, deeply wrong, and which will destroy us in the end if we don’t figure out a way to fix them. Our society, with its dehumanizing greed, its horrific structural inequalities, and its vacuous inability to give us, its citizens, much in the way of meaning and purpose in our lives beyond waiting for the IPhone 7, is in serious, serious trouble. Going to Syria to wage jihad may be a stupid person’s response to that fact, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. This is a test of our situation and our way of life. If we can forgive this, and reintegrate people into our society even after doing something like this, then we’re probably going to be all right in the end.

But if we can’t, we’re probably on the road to becoming history. We’re often told that at the core of ISIS is a festering, maggoty heart of pure evil. I think that’s exactly right. But all the evil ever done in this world has been done with the best and highest of intentions. People always think, by their own lights, that they’re doing good, even when they’re doing unfathomable evil. And one thing that does need to be said about these kids? They thought this was the right thing to do. And no, the Gap Year analogy isn’t the best one available here. Western students and young people aren’t willingly or knowingly risking their lives for anything these days. But they used to. We actually have been here before. It was the late nineteen thirties, and the problem then was young Americans, Brits and Frenchmen going to join the international brigades to make sure Franco didn’t win the Spanish Civil War. George Orwell, Ernst Hemingway, and countless other much less famous names were so convinced that a better world was possible that they left behind everything they knew to fight for it. Was it their fault that Stalin and the communists betrayed those hopes, and the governments of their own countries decided Franco was the lesser of two evils?

These kids wanted to fight for something. They thought they were willing to die for something. Even that thought is a rare commodity these days. Maybe we should make sure we’re keeping it close to home.

On Classic Rock

My introduction to music was Led Zeppelin’s Greatest Hits. I was thirteen, and it was 2003. They’d been defunct as a touring band for over thirty years at that point. One of them was dead, the rest were entering their golden years, and there was nothing hip or relevant about them at all. I didn’t know any of that, but none of it mattered when I got a hold of that CD. I played it to death. Obsessively. Over and over again. I finished it, and I started listening again. I made my parents listen to it pretty much constantly whenever I was with them, figuring it was their generation’s music, so it was probably fine. I didn’t know that they had been listening to those songs for forty years, and they weren’t necessarily thrilled to be hearing them over and over again now. But they didn’t get angry. I guess they knew it was one of those things I’d understand when I got older.

I couldn’t believe this music existed. It was raw, it was pure, it was sexual, it sent lightning rods of adrenalin up and down my spine. A lot of it was hormones, true, but that wouldn’t have lessened the impact of the experience even if someone had told me. It was like a drug, and I was deeply, deeply hooked. It wasn’t just me, either. Discovering Jimmy Page’s ability to shred had immediate and far-reaching social implications. In grade nine at a boarding school, liking this music meant older boys noticed you. More than that, they were nice to you. They talked to you like you were that little bit closer to being their equal. You could rib them on their tastes and opinions and they wouldn’t mind. You got to know that this one thought Bowie was the greatest artist of his generation, and that one thought all glam was crap, and Black Sabbath were the only band to really keep the faith of early blues-metal.

I remember sitting in the dorm room of a Grade 12 later that year, whom I have to admit I kind of worshiped from a distance, while Dispatch played in the background, he played guitar, and I talked with a few of his friends in that self-consciously grownup way that makes actual grownups smile. I did my best to play it cool, but I was so excited I could barely keep it in. I felt like I’d arrived. These impossibly cool people, who I looked up to with a devotion that’s only possible when you’re thirteen and they’re eighteen were talking to me. They were basically grown ups. They were cool. They played guitar. And they were talking to me.

All through those years I latched on to different bands like a barnacle. First Zeppelin, then the Doors, then the Who, the Stones, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and most intensely of all, the Beatles. It wasn’t enough for me just to hear their music. I needed to know it all. Who they were, where they lived, what was going on, why they were making this incredible music and whether they had gotten the attention they deserved for making it. That last question wasn’t really a question at all, was it? But it felt important to me. Most of the books I’ve retained from this period, and even more of the ones I’ve since lost, are about one of these classic rock legends.

The stories were often better than the music. These legends that had built up around them and the iconic images and stories that went hand in hand. Zeppelin and the Shark Incident. Keith Moon’s hotel-destroying benders. Jimi Hendrix immolating his guitar live at Monterey. Pete Townshend throwing his Gibson at a guy in the crowd at the end of Woodstock. Simon and Garfunkel’s recording Bridge Over Troubled Water without speaking to each other. Lou Reed forming a band so ahead of it’s time that you would think they recorded their best albums yesterday, and so unsuccessful their records barely sold at all when they were together. Janis Joplin giving Leonard Cohen head on the unmade bed of the Chelsea Hotel. Roger Waters spitting on a fan at a Pink Floyd gig in Montreal and coming up with The Wall. Paul McCartney making tea for the crazed fan who climbed through his bathroom window and then writing a hit song about it. Michael Jackson’s childhood. Dylan introducing the Beatles to Allen Ginsberg and pot. John Lennon getting turned on to acid in 1966 by his dentist, of all people. (True Story)

It got pretty weird with the Beatles. I knew every single fucking thing that happened to them ever, down to where they were on different days of the ’60s. I knew where they met their spouses and which one had also slept with Eric Clapton. I knew which one had gotten his legs cracked by Ravi Shankar, and which one almost threw himself off the roof of Abbey Road during a bad trip. I knew who was in the studio the day they recorded which track of which song. I knew enough that if they were all alive, and I had known as much about what they were doing right now, and I knew any of them in any way personally, they would have ample grounds for restraining orders. At age fifteen I could have written a PhD about the inter-band tensions at play while they were making the White Album and their implications for American popular culture if it had had any historical value. Hell, maybe someday I still will. These weren’t just old tabloid headlines, these felt like the sagas of Norse heroes or the eversung deeds of Achilles or Priam. Only with colour pictures and a killer soundtrack. It felt important to know somehow, and I still remember a lot of it.

They were all interesting, and their music was really as good a guide as any to the social, political and cultural currents at play in the decades before I was born. But for epic scope, nothing quite compared to the Romance of the Beatles. No band had ever made it on quite that scale ever before, and no band ever would again. There was a moment, in 1967, when they played All You Need Is Love on the first live television broadcast ever shown to the whole world simultaneously. It was the BBC’s famous One World, and they were far and away the most watched part of the program. For probably the last time in British history, the eyes of the world were on London that day, and nowhere else really mattered. It makes up for a lot of the crap that is part of Britain’s historical legacy that they chose in that moment to play a song about Love by four mop-topped Scousers. It’s real modern history that’s already become legend, and will eventually become myth. And the songs are still pretty catchy.

I got older, true, and my tastes have changed. I like what’s going on now these days, and I know where to look to find the good stuff. I really don’t listen to Zeppelin very much at all anymore, because I’ve played them completely to death, and the thrill is gone. But it doesn’t mean I love them any less, and they’ll always have a spot on my shelf. It’s not uncommon for teenagers today to be convinced, like I was then, that all modern music is superficial crap and nothing worth listening to has been made since the 80s. Guitars, bad-boy posturing, long hair and rock and roll still mattered as much to me at age thirteen as they had to kids my age when they were totally new concepts in the fifties and the sixties. A lot of them, like I did, eventually go on to discover that there’s lots of good stuff being made right now in all kinds of different styles and genres. You might have to look a little harder for it, and it’s not usually topping the charts, which has given birth to the pervasive myth, announced with great fanfare every year since 1957, that Rock is Dead.

But rock never died. It never can. People can say it as much as they want, but like Buffy Saint-Marie’s magic, the heart will not believe. It just goes away to sleep sometimes, eventually to rise again. And the same goes for disco or R and B or Hip Hop or House or any of the other musical forms that fall under the amorphous heading of ‘popular music.’ They’re all going to live forever, as generation after generation discovers not just the music, but the cultures that go along with them all, and they make it part of who they are. The hitmakers of 2050 are being born right now, and they’re going to play guitars, rap, DJ, and whatever else it takes to show us who they are. And no matter what they decide, it’ll be perfectly fine. Because we do eventually discover, if we really truly love it, down in our souls, that music is about the journey, and if you ever feel like you’ve arrived at a destination with it, then really you’re just that little bit closer to death.

But you’re still going to need to go through that phase in your teens where you live and die with the stories of icons long dead, and you feel their music the way it’s meant to be felt, with no reservations, and all the sweat, blood, hormones and tears you’ve got to spare.The way I feel about the classic rock of the twentieth century is essentially identical to the way that most western intellectuals throughout history have felt about the classical literature of Greece and Rome. Sure, great stuff is happening now, and we’re all contributing to it, but you still need a thorough grounding in the classics if you want to be able to understand any of it.

Livy and Lennon, Boethius and Bowie, Augustine and Garfunkel, Josephus and Janis. They do kind of go hand in hand, don’t they? And as long as they’re all with us, we can call all the wisdom of our ancestors to our aid. We’ve always been able to read them, but now we can hear and see them too. Keep the flame, keep the faith, and keep on rocking in the free world.

On Calvin and Hobbes

Far and away my favorite t-shirt right now makes a joke that’s only funny if you’ve read Calvin and Hobbes.

It’s actually only funny if you’re considerably more than a casual fan. It’s a drawing of Swiss Calvinist theologian John Calvin and English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the inimitable Bill Watterson style, with the two eminent dead white dudes making funny faces for the camera. It cracks me up. Occasionally it cracks someone else up, and we get along. Even if we just passed each other on the street and we never see each other again. If you get why that t-shirt is funny, you and I are friends.

I first discovered Calvin and his imaginary friend when he and I were the exact same age. My parents had just bought a ski chalet in Collingwood, Ontario, and I was checking the place out. On a bottom shelf in the living room, just about where a six year old child would find it, was a copy of the first-ever treasury of daily funnies. It was already there, in a place where I was about to make a great deal of memories. Whoever lived there before us had left it behind. I pulled it out and started reading, sprawled on the carpet in the late afternoon winter sunshine, as dust motes rose and danced in the air all around me. It’s one of those moments I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Because I was totally hooked. I didn’t get all the jokes, and I actually didn’t laugh out loud all that often. But I completely devoured it, and within a few weeks I had asked my parents to buy me another.

I wasn’t alone. In primary school those books were currency. I remember once seriously arguing with a fellow fourth grader about whether or not he should trade me his Lazy Sunday Collection for my Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes. He didn’t think it was the same value, because it had black and white short strips along with the full page color spreads. I remember being vaguely confused and frustrated because I thought the little black and white daily strips were actually more valuable. But the details are a little blurry through the rose-tinted glass of childhood memory.

They never stopped being great. I used to go to high school debating tournaments with one under my arm. Once a senior joked that he had glanced over to see me reading one during a debate with an expression of such intense concentration that you’d think I was reading Shakespeare, or a text on higher mathematics. But I was reading Calvin and Hobbes. A comic strip.

The thing is, Calvin and Hobbes may actually be on that level. Those comics weren’t just little laughs at the back of the paper. They were pearls of eternal wisdom served up in a manner that even a small child can comprehend. They could be completely frivolous, and they could be deeply, deeply profound. Sometimes they made no sense at all. One in particular, where Calvin’s dinner suddenly bursts into Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ monologue, for absolutely no discernible reason, can still make me belly laugh because I have absolutely no idea what that was supposed to mean, all these years later. Another one, where Calvin and Hobbes find a dead bird, and don’t do anything at all but briefly ruminate on how unbearably tragic life can be, and then sit under a tree and stare at the sky, haunts me more profoundly than a lot of serious classical poetry ever will. When they were at their most philosophical, they were also usually driving a wagon or a sled down a hill at subatomic speeds, which made for cool drawings.

Perhaps the most profound and hilarious one of them all is one of Calvin’s completely ludicrous show and tells, He gets up with a snowflake in a box, and points out that it’s spectacularly, completely unique, until you bring it in the classroom. Then it’s just another boring drop of water. Then he drops the mic, and goes back to recess.

That is profound shit. I don’t know anything about Bill Watterson as a person, and I kind of want to keep it that way now. I used to want to know, but I no longer do. It would ruin the mystery. Because the kind of guy who could write that is the kind of guy who exists beyond his mortal shell. Like pretty much everything Calvin says and does, that’s both something totally unbelievable for a six year old to say and do, and par for the course. Because the truth is six year-olds say and do stuff like that all the time, every day, around the world. We’re just not always paying attention when they do.

Hobbes doesn’t exist. Whenever you see him from an adult’s or a stranger’s perspective, he’s just a stuffed animal. But in the mind of Calvin, and so the mind of the reader, he’s as real as Pierre Bezuhov or Vladimir and Estragon. My own childhood best friend stopped responding when I asked him questions a long time ago. But I still keep him on a shelf, because that’s a part of me I hope I never let go. My capacity to make believe is my capacity to be human. And Calvin and Hobbes helps me remember that that’s totally OK. A TV show called Robot Chicken once made a joke about Calvin’s being schizophrenic, and it was funny for five seconds but also never funny again. Robot Chicken has been completely forgotten, and I think it’s still on TV. Bill Watterson stopped making Calvin and Hobbes cartoons around 1995, but those things will still be in print a century from now, if the human race still is too. And there’s nothing remotely controversial about that statement.

Because Calvin and Hobbes’ world is both innocent and wise, simple yet sophisticated, fragile yet unbreakable. It’s rooted in a time and place, but also completely eternal. It’s one of the few completely wonderful things to come out of the Reagan era, and it never mentions his name or acknowledges his existence. Those two things may be related. I once read a serious academic book that illustrated the tenets of Daoism through AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. I’m pretty sure that someone could do the same thing for Zen Buddhism using nothing but Calvin and Hobbes. I hope someone has already done it.

The last Calvin and Hobbes cartoon I ever read was also the last page of the last treasury ever published. It was called It’s a Magical World, and that was a deliberate decision on my part. Like putting down your old dog at home in his favorite window rather than on a cold metal table in the veterinarian’s office. The cartoon was simple, almost snow white, and didn’t make a joke. It was just two old friends riding off together into the winter twilight of a childhood that was never going to end. I cried when I read that. It can still make me tear up now.

It’s been 18 years since I first picked up Calvin and Hobbes. An incredible amount has changed in my life, and in the world around me. If nothing else about them were true, it would be enough that they are one of the only things in my life, apart from my immediate family, that mean exactly the same things to me at age 24 as they did at age 6. The relationship has complicated and changed, but it has only strengthened with time. I’ll never forget those two, and they’ll always have a big place on my shelf.

It’s a scary world. It’s a mean world. It’s a world where stupid, cruel, terrible stuff happens every day for no reason to people who don’t deserve it. But it’s also a magical world, and so far none of the awful stuff that has happened to me and the people I care about has put so much as a dent in that basic conviction. And that’s at least a tiny bit thanks to Bill Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes. I pray that I can be there for the people I love when that stuff does happen, because it will, and no bones about it. But so far nothing has shaken that inescapable feeling that something deep at the very core of things is good. And I also pray that nothing ever does.

Let’s go exploring.

The White Trash Oedipus: Rob Ford and Toronto’s Long, Slow Descent into Madness

“The genius of comedy is the same as the genius of tragedy, and the writer of tragedy ought to be a writer of comedy also.”

So says the character of Socrates towards the end of Plato’s classic work Symposium. On the one hand, this is exactly the kind of pretentious crap aristocrats say to each other at parties as the waiters are clearing away the champagne flutes at two in the morning. But on the other hand, it’s something the Ancient Greeks were acutely conscious of, and the reason that a well-staged production of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex still has the power to chill the soul thousands of years later, and a badly-staged one can have you rolling in the aisles long before Eddy claws out his own eyes to atone for unwittingly banging his mother.

Rob Ford has probably never read Oedipus Rex. Even if he heard the name bandied during his two terms at Carlton, I’d still bet good money that he’s totally unable to spell it. And yes, this is a good encapsulation of why he makes a lot of snooty pricks like me so very, very angry. But it’s also a fairly good parable about why he’s totally unfit to be mayor of Canada’s largest city. And yet so far, despite the crack scandal, despite rehab, despite the goddamn cancer he’s being diagnosed with as I write these words, he’s still running for public office. And there are an awful lot of people who are going to vote for him no matter what else happens. At this point he could publicly sodomize a puppy and still probably garner a respectable ten to fifteen percent of the vote.

Welcome to Toronto’s municipal politics in the waning days of the Ford era: a masterclass in insane contradictions more infuriating than the most impenetrable zen koans.

It hasn’t all been a joke. As he’s been barreling his way back and forth across the invisible line between tragedy and comedy, leaving it bleeding under his hooves like Pam McConnell on the floor of city council chambers, he’s been exposing some dark stuff about Toronto that we don’t often tell the rest of the world about, because we don’t necessarily always see it ourselves.

He’s completely blown the lid off of Canada’s strange, invisible class system, for one. I spent five years of my life in Britain, where class infuses everything people do, and they’re all acutely aware of it, conscious of their place in its intricate hierarchy, and don’t have to think very hard about how in any given situation they should relate to other people within its parameters. By the end of my first year there I was obsessively, unhealthily obsessed with the whole concept. Both because I hadn’t ever really thought about it before, and because my own place as a colonial within it was totally uncertain, oscillating wildly between its upper reaches and its nether depths. Coming back to Canada, I did start to dimly perceive that we have one too, even if we don’t often think about it. But it took the blazing white light of Rob Ford’s spectacular self-immolation to really bring its contradictions into stark, glaring light.

His blue collar fans think he’s one of them, and his wealthy detractors find this risible because he’s never had to work a day in his life. But he’s also relatively new money, and the grit of industrial Etobicoke hasn’t yet rubbed off the family name. So he’s got a foot in both worlds, but somehow belongs to neither. He’s exposed some of the worst elements of both camps. Their unwavering support perfectly illustrates the crass, boorish pettiness and self-perpetuating proud ignorance of the working suburban poor. And the undying hatred of the chattering downtown elite illustrates both their totally unbearable snobbery and their nauseating but completely shallow pretensions and compexes about Toronto’s emerging status as a genuine world city. We’re growing up, sure. But we’re also starting to turn into the Eloi and the Morlocks from H.G Wells’ time machine, and it’s getting super creepy.

He’s also blown the lid off some simmering, perhaps even really dangerous ethnic tensions that are too often obscured by the downtown elite’s pious cooing about the glories of multiculturalism. The fact that Ford Nation almost certainly contains at least one urbane, well-educated Pakistani doctor who’s been driving a taxi for the last thirty years because of Ontario’s byzantine, unexaminedly racist system of credential recognition, and who is totally getting off watching the WASPy journalistic elite completely lose their minds is terrifying, if you stop and think about it. That there are people who rude people can call any number of horrifying ethnic slurs, who cheerfully going to vote this October for a person who calls them stuff like that to their faces isn’t just weird, it’s totally fucking insane.

The masks are falling to the floor. The elephant in the room is trumpeting in heat, and shitting all over grandma’s Persian carpet. There is a great disturbance in the force. Our noses are a bit out of joint. The old joke about Toronto being New York run by the Swiss is getting both more and less true. Less because the Swiss wouldn’t put up with this shit for two seconds, and more because the Swiss are also nowhere near as perfect as the rest of the world sometimes thinks they are. There’s still a lot of Nazi loot in the vaults of Zurich.

Honestly? I can’t. I can’t even. I just. Can’t. Even. Deal. Anymore. And while there’s a slim chance that the end is in sight, and this is the last time I’ll ever feel compelled to write something about Rob Ford? Two things are true:

First, how I feel about that reminds me of the scene in the Dark Knight where Batman asks the Joker why he wants to kill him, and Heath Ledger laughs and says “I don’t want to kill you! What would I do without you? You complete me.” And when you start seeing where the Joker was coming from, it’s possible you went round the twist a long time ago and just don’t know it yet. So that thought is festering.

Second, I honestly don’t know anymore. This is 21st century Toronto. Not Rome during a Borgia papacy. But suddenly, and I’m still not totally sure how it happened, municipal politics in my hometown has become better TV than Game of Thrones. And while it’s possible that John Tory or Olivia Chow will win in October, and everything will start to go back to normal, it’s also possible that Doug Ford will pull off an upset victory, and then Rob Ford will burst out of his stomach like Alien and declare himself King of the Andals, the Royhnar and the First Men. And if that happens, and it’s then followed by former mayor Barbara Hall bursting out of the sky riding a dragon and reducing City Hall and the financial district to a smoking ruin in vengeance for our repealing the plastic bag tax, then the truly weird thing about all of it will be this:

I will be completely unfazed. And Jon Stewart will put it in a segment, and the world will move on. Because no one, anywhere, can even deal with this shit anymore. Jihadis in Syria will see it today on the internet, and feel bad for two seconds about OUR problems.

I’m both totally losing my shit about this, and so bored with it that I could yawn. At exactly the same time. It’s either an earth-shattering drama with world-historical significance, or it’s of less importance than Kim and Kanye’s pillow talk. Or both. Or neither.

I need a muffin. And a hot towel. And possibly a nap.

Somewhere in Robyn Dolittle’s book Crazy Town, which to my shame I still haven’t found the time to read, she points out that Rob Ford and his family really do think of themselves as Toronto’s Kennedys. This is funny not because it’s a lot easier to picture Doug Ford on the set of Jerry Springer than it is Bobby Kennedy, nor because JFK’s supposed breeding was a total sham, and actual Boston Brahmin society loathed Joe Kennedy as a parvenu, new-money Nazi-sympathizer without a shred of basic human decency. This is funny because it is totally, completely, one hundred percent true.

They are the trailer park Kennedys. The blue collar Medicis. And Rob Ford is the white trash Oedipus. By wishing it, they have made it so.

I’ve never met Diane Ford, nor do I particularly want to, but I can’t shake the terrifying suspicion that I would much rather hang out with Jocasta. By comparison, the suicidal mother of Oedipus seems generally much more grounded and sensible, and we’d probably get along better. RoFo and DoFo may be schoolyard bullies writ large, but I don’t doubt for a second that they come by their demons honestly.

As Rob Ford copes with his cancer diagnosis, and Doug Ford rushes to city hall to file papers to register in his place, and the extraneous tabloid bullshit piles higher and higher around them both, maybe this is as good a time as any to try and take sensible stock about what exactly this all means. And we can’t do that until we stop indulging the narcissistic wankfest that is Furd Nayshun.

This became spectacularly clear to me yesterday when I realized that the health and sanity of some fatass rotarian gasbag who doesn’t even know my name had the power to totally ruin my whole day. That’s completely insane.

Seriously, it’s been spectacular to watch. It’s not every day you get to watch a world city completely lose it’s collective mind, and have a four year nervous breakdown live on late-night TV. But it’s jumping the shark now. It’s time for us all to stop indulging the lunatic pretensions of a gang of feral children, and let the grown-ups start cleaning up the mess they’ve made.

That’s really all. Let’s all go home.

Bread and Circuses: why I’m not watching the Sochi Olympics

I’ve loved the Olympic games since I was a child. Some of my earliest memories are of racing around the house in 1998 during the Nagano games pretending I was speed skating, or plunging down the stairs pretending I was a mogul skier. Mother was not amused.

But like plenty of other things that seemed inspiring and important when I was a child, including the West Wing and Saturday morning cartoons, the Olympics has for a long time now simply seemed saccharine and false. All that tripe about international brotherhood and cooperation, all that false drama and excitement just irritates me now. It’s fitting that such a sugary sweet spectacle should be sponsored by McDonald’s and Coca Cola. It’s the junk food of sports: exciting while it’s happening, but ultimately just garbage that will leave you feeling bloated and sick.

Yesterday the opening ceremonies were broadcast around the world, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t tune in. Not even for five minutes. I may glimpse the games here and there as I go about my life for the next few weeks, as they’re difficult to avoid completely, but I don’t feel any great desire to tune in at all.

I earnestly hope they’re a total disaster.

This is unusual. Even for Beijing in 2008, a games I found almost as repulsive as these, the Olympic spirit briefly descended, and I found myself tuning in from time to time. Vancouver 2010 I felt compelled out of national pride to at least catch glimpses of, though I was living in Britain at the time and they weren’t much interested. London 2012 I felt at least a little obliged to watch. Sochi I honestly couldn’t care less. The figure skaters will lutz, the skiers will ski, and the lugers will luge, just as they always do, but they’ll do so without me to watch. Not that they care.

Except I don’t seem to be the only one. So few people have bought tickets that most of the events so far will have plenty of empty seats. Foreign delegations from other countries are pitifully small and insultingly low-ranking. Indeed, as in the case of the American delegation, they’ve often been explicitly picked to make a point about Russia’s hateful anti-gay law. The publicly visible leaders of the world are staying away.

Perhaps this is because the Sochi games are making explicit what has essentially been true about the Olympics all along. They’re a masturbatory exercise in bread and circuses put on by an arrogant and entitled global elite for our entertainment every four years to distract us from our very real problems. They’re a chance for people like Mitt Romney to enjoy some nice canapes in a convivial setting while watching each other’s horses get put through their paces.

This is particularly obvious at this games. Sochi is an out of the way resort town on the coast of the Black Sea, with nothing in particular to recommend it to the outside world’s attention beyond the presence of Vladimir Putin’s outrageous summer palace, and of those belonging to his tame oligarchs. It’s the closest Russia ever gets to beach weather, making it a ludicrous choice as a locale to host a winter Olympic games. Unless you’re a pseudo-fascist kleptocrat with something to prove. Like Vladimir Putin.

The International Olympic Committee, one of the most morally bankrupt and corrupt institutions on the planet, was happy to oblige. I don’t know who’s palms were greased in order to get the games awarded to Russia in the first place, but I have no doubt they’re good and slimy now.

They’ve cost 51 billion dollars so far: the most expensive Olympics in history. By way of comparison, Vancouver cost about 7. But perish the thought that this might be because of Russia’s endemic and constant corruption. No, Vlady just wanted to put on a hell of a show. Never mind the arrests, deportations, beatings, jailings, and in all probability killings of Putin’s political opponents, Chechen freedom fighters, Muslims, and gay kids. Watch the pretty athletes do their thing!

You may be reading this thinking I’m missing the point. That this is about sport, and celebrating the achievements of amateur athletes. That I should take some national pride in Canada’s performance at these games. Well I could give two shits about the heptathlon, or mogul skiing, or figure skating, or any of the other pointless trained-seal exercises on display here. I don’t spend a great deal of my day worrying about the affront to our national pride if we don’t get a decent medal count. My day will go on much as it would have already regardless of whether Canada wins a certain amount of blue ribbons at this glorified dog and pony show. I don’t even really care if we lose at hockey. (Probably the most heretical thing I’ve ever said, as a Canadian.) Guess what? It doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that millions of Russians are suffering under a dictatorial president-for-life, and the international community is aiding and abetting his disgraceful display because it provides a moment’s distraction from their own crimes and follies.

I urge you to tune out this blaring noise as best you can. Focus on the important things. Let the games die.