The Spectacle of Independence Day

This July 4th let’s ponder the way in which our lives are dominated. Our existence slyly orchestrated. Our experiences siphoned down highways dotted with endless signs that ask in that prodding way “why aren’t you happy yet?”  

“Kids are in cages” we answer. “They are ripped from their families trying to escape violence and poverty that this country created in their own. They’ve been herded into pens. They sleep on concrete floors.  

“They are deprived toothbrushes, clean water, ample food. They are watched over by vicious and unfeeling people who have been trained every step of the way to dehumanize and humiliate. We cannot be happy in the midst of this.” 

Armed guards step out from behind each of the signs. They ready their rifles. And they ask, once again, “why aren’t you happy yet?” 

* * * 

Fifty years ago Guy Debord and the situationists looked at the way in which the logic of commodity had insinuated itself into every aspect of daily life. Building on Marx and Lukács he zoned in on the concept of reification, the way in which a commodity makes the manufactured seem natural, and the social relations of any given time appear eternal. Starting in the 1920s, mass media and consumerism had aided in the spread of this logic and its further transformation into a “common sense” worldview. 

This is the spectacle. Under the spectacle everything becomes a simulation of sorts. Materials and items are no longer viewed primarily in terms of what they can be used for but what their value is on the market. And since literally every item in our lives is a commodity, since even our time and consciousness are subject to that same process, every human interaction becomes transactional.  

With this transactional nature comes all kinds of other behavioral assumptions. We punish those who don’t live up to the transaction, praise those who do, conspire behind backs of both. Human bonds are based not on camaraderie, sympathy, solidarity, mutual recognition of talent, but on whether we can get back a return on what we invest in them. Every human interaction is mediated through this prism, and ideas that subvert them are easily sucked back into the system and sanitized. If commodity and bureaucracy present themselves as eternal and above history, what they achieve is placing us outside of the historical process, outside of our ability to experience and change the conditions of our lives. 

It is not quite correct to say that aesthetics play a role in this. More to the point, what the rise of consumerism, public relations, the streamlining of state and private media all managed to accomplish was a version of what Walter Benjamin called “the aestheticization of politics.” Aesthetics, the practice and study of how the environment can be changed to interact with our sensuous lives and subjective selves, becomes woven into political economy.  

For Debord the phenomenon of the spectacle could be accomplished through the implication of force (the maintenance of order through constant threat of violence that characterizes authoritarian states, which Debord called “concentrated spectacle”) or the illusion of choice in a society overwhelmed by commodities (“diffuse spectacle,” which we associate with consumerism).  

In most modern capitalist societies, however, Debord saw a fusion of the two prevailing. This he called the “integrated spectacle,” achieved through the close cooperation of state and private enterprise. Underneath the apparent abundance, very real and crude machinations of secrecy move. We are both convinced and coerced into the belief that this is the best of all possible worlds, systems, nations.

* * * 

In 2013 McKenzie Wark, radical author and one of the best living experts on the subject of Debord and the situationists, postulated that we had transcended the previous forms of spectacle. He wrote: 

These days one might speak of a disintegrating spectacle, in which the centralized forms of mediating the spectacle break down into fragments but retain their commodified form. Thus these days we all have to participate in making display ads and writing advertising slogans – selfies posed in newly purchased outfits – assuming the burden of doubling the consumption of things with the consumption of images. All against the background of what Debord called a sick planet, groaning under the weight of waste. 

Wark was correct. The brilliance of capitalism’s use of technological innovation has always been in its ability to parse and rearrange the process of production. It eliminates whatever it needs to eliminate and outsources whatever it can outsource. To make us not just complicit but active and enthusiastic actors in the market, even when we are not consciously working or buying something; this is truly genius. 

And yet one wonders whether the disintegrated spectacle even captures it anymore. As so many of the threats and specters we thought were long gone return and collide and mix with new existential threats. The new always brings with it markers of the old. Even as the disintegration continues, new ways are (re)discovered to integrate and infuse. 

Today, on July 4th, there is a military parade in Washington, DC. Awesome destructive power is rhythmically rolled through city streets, simultaneously encouraging wonder and threatening its use. Spectators cheer and clap and listen to music. We become even more emotionally invested in a system that when push comes to shove will gladly use that same force against us. 

Meanwhile, so much of online chatter seems to be boosting and reifying the idea that we should not call them “concentration camps” (we fucking should). But of course, given what we know of the medium, this narrative doesn’t just come from the “top down.” It’s not melodramatic to say that we are supervisors to our own virtual petty bureaucracies in which others read as disposable. This is the shape of participation in a process in which we are monitored and manipulated, in which commodification and securitization are quickly becoming synonymous. 

Is this a new phase? Are capital and the spectacle showing themselves capable of centralizing through decentralization? Hasn’t this always been how it operates to one degree or another?

Is the Trumpian moment, with its reality show redeployment of “America First” rhetoric, simultaneously searching for new ways to isolate and atomize, the moment of, for lack of a better term, “re/dis/integrated spectacle”?  

And what, exactly, does this mean for resistance? Actual resistance. Not the kind that comes with a hashtag in front of it. 

Twenty-Five Things You Can Call a Concentration Camp Other Than “Concentration Camp”

Pity the middling white ego. Noticing nothing but oppression as far as the eye can see. Having its drive back from the Hamptons interrupted by marching Black people, hearing people speak Spanish at the grocery store, encountering homeless people in broad daylight who refuse to decrease the surplus population. Oppression is positively everywhere for this poor, disgruntled soul! 

Now, there’s a new addition to the long list of oppressors of the white ego: the act of definition. The dictionary, the thesaurus, the mutability of the English language that somehow still refuses to let you speak to the manager, even the guy who invented Godwin’s Law. Whose name I can’t seem to remember… 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez thinks that, just because people of a certain racial and ethnic background are being separated from their families and detained without trial at the border, she can draw some kind of historical parallel to other times when people of a certain racial and ethnic background were separated from their families detained without trial.  

How dare she? Doesn’t she realize that if we want to defeat the right then we need to appease the right? That the fragile ego is best when it is coddled and that it won’t by any means take advantage of our generosity? Maybe it’s just me but I don’t think we are going to get anywhere by riling up the likes of Dick Cheney’s daughter. We all know she’s learned how to waterboard by now…  

And so, in that spirit, in the American spirit of compromise and reaching across the aisle, here are some alternative names for that loaded, ugly phrase “concentration camp.” 

1. Civility Camp 
2. America Was Already Great Camp 
3. Euphemism Camp 
4.Trump International Hotel Rio Grande 
5. Plausible Deniability Camp 
6. Camp Where People Are Concentrated  
7. Liz Cheney’s Wacky Fun Time Camp 
8. Freedom Camp (with fences and bars) 
9. Friendly Neighbor Camp 
10. Concentration Lamp 
11. The American Prison System
12. The Circular Route of History Makes Me Uncomfortable Camp  
13. It’s Not a Concentration Camp Because You Don’t Like to Think You’d Have Been a Nazi In the 30s But It’s Definitely a Concentration Camp and You’d Definitely Have Been a Nazi In the 30s Camp 
14. ICE Bucket 
15. Camp of American Exceptionalism 
16. Mean Puerto Rican Lady Made Me Cry Camp 
17. Gary 
18. The American Public School System 
19. Guantanamo 
20. The American Mental Healthcare System
21. I Can’t Believe It’s Not a Concentration Camp!
22. We’re Still Charging You $1850 a Month In Rent Camp 
23. Actually, They Were Fascists, Not Nazis Camp 
24. Ignore That FDR Also Called the Japanese Internment Camps “Concentration Camps” Camp 
25. Disneyland 

Disclaimer: Lest anyone think I am “making light” of all this, I’ll simply paraphrase Stewart Lee and point out that the aim of this post is to use the rhetoric and implied values of the American moderate (and by extension the American right) to satirize the rhetoric and implied values of the American moderate (and by extension the American right). And even if you’re made squeamish by that, perhaps this explanation will nonetheless save you the trouble of writing an angry and useless email. 

Havana Notes

It is early afternoon in Havana, and someone hands us a small flier. It reads: 

We are a collective of artists that come together every night at a small, dark and decadent underground hideaway. It also happens to be the best dance floor in the city. Looking for something with a little more edge than La Bodeguita or El Floridita? Come find us. 

In a few hours our large group – mostly white and indigenous United Statesians – are headed to the address provided. We walk down narrow, partially lit cobbled streets nestled between tall, ornate Old World buildings, past families playing dominos on card tables, countless stray dogs and cats, and the municipal headquarters for the Cuban Communist Party in Old Havana.  

There is, every few blocks or so, a building that is a shell of itself. Whether it is being renovated or torn down is difficult to tell. Investment for development and construction is painfully slow to come in. What’s more the city’s administration is determined to maintain as much of the aesthetic integrity of its architecture as possible. This means not just construction workers but artisans trained in crafts that haven’t been needed for most buildings in decades. Recently the government has set up colleges and arts schools dedicated to training young students in these crafts. But again, there are few resources with which to keep these institutions running.   

Occasionally, there are buildings that simply cannot be revamped or rebuilt, and these are to be demolished in order to put in a park or garden. In Old Havana – an area where structures are as much as five hundred years old – there is a notable lack of green space.  

The underground club is, as promised, small and dark. We each pay five dollars or convertible Cuban pesos to enter. We are given a free drink. After that each one is four dollars. Compared to what I am used to paying for alcohol in Los Angeles, this is a steal.  

There are two cozy rooms, one for the bar and one for the makeshift dance floor. In the middle of the latter is a small vinyl covered sofa. By the end of the night there will be perhaps a hundred people crammed in there, dancing to a mix between hip-hop, reggaeton and roots reggae. Our small group is likely the only American presence and, other than a couple of English rugby players, probably the only non-Cubans in the place. 

The artists’ collective hosting us is, for tonight at least, showing off its creative talents primarily through the medium of dance. The ceiling is criss-crossed with strong metal bars, not too unlike a lighting truss over a stage. Throughout the night, several young dancers will jump up on the sofa, grab the bars and perform moves that are physically remarkable whether you know dance or not. Dances that don’t merely employ the legs or hips or torso, but rely on the strength and flexibility of arms, necks, the ability to tangle and un-tangle one’s self from their partner in mid-air. 

There is a rather straightforward gender dynamic. Plenty of same sex couples dance with each other, and there are several non-binary dancers in the room. They are far from a marginal presence. In fact it is they who are often seizing the spotlight in the center of the room throughout the night. We sweat, we gyrate, we lose track of time for the sake of a place whose distinct air we have never breathed before. 

Catching my breath by the bar, I notice that as my friends and I come up, we happily pay the requested four dollars for a beer, a glass of wine, a shot of tequila, a mojito or Cuba libre. However, when someone from the neighborhood comes up, speaking Cuban Spanish, they aren’t charged a thing. Has this night been put on “for us”? Not exactly. We’ve been invited here to pay what are, by American standards, very cheap prices in order to pay for their night out, their revelry.  

And we have no complaints. We have been shown something of Havana that is quite separate from the official narrative. Something of the social rituals and leisure of people whose desires and stories have been shown to American eyes only through the most manipulated lenses. 

* * * 

I won’t romanticize Cuba, no matter how enchanted I found myself during our short visit. But neither should anyone concerned with the imaginary of human liberation dismiss it. Suffice it to say that in twenty years as a Marxist I’ve never encountered a theory that seems to satisfactorily explain the Cuban socialist experiment. The leftist realm of “critical support” seems to be entirely occupied by those either entirely uncritical or woefully unsupportive.  

The closest to an exception I’ve come across is that of CLR James and his co-thinkers. He understood that revolutions are less events than they are processes, and that processes can be shaped one way or the other by any number or combination of social forces.  

As such, his “critical support” of the Cuban Revolution was both genuinely critical and actively supportive. He was clear that the 1959 revolution had made massive gains in kicking out western imperialism and American interests, in redistributing resources to the poorest Cubans, but also that it had failed to put decisive democratic power in the collective hands of working people. He also gladly participated in the January 1968 Havana Cultural Congress, which was one of many such gatherings held in the city during the era of anti-colonial rebellion.  

This process – a process countless radicals found worthy of their participation – grabbed the imagination of people across the world during this era for a very good reason. For many Caribbean revolutionaries – not just James but Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Claudia Jones and countless others – the significance of the Cuban experience was found in the possibility it presented for the forging of a new, independent Caribbean identity. Specifically one that radically departed from the path of colonialism, subjugation, and genocide that western capitalism had imposed on the region.  

This vision is a powerful one, and it has endured through countless events and actions that could undermine it. Even as the Cultural Congress was underway, black Cuban writers and intellectuals critical of the government’s lack of action around racism were prevented from participating. In the later summer of that same year, hopes that Cuba might present a model of development independent from Moscow were dashed when Fidel supported the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring. And yet, the idea of Cuba as a locus of Caribbean liberation continued. Not because of what it had become, but because of what it might have the potential to be. 

Now, of course, that process is both isolated and stalled. Its horizons have been narrowed greatly. Not just by the fall of the Soviet Union, but the sclerotic imaginations of those who have inherited leadership from Fidel and the slowly dying original generation of revolutionaries. Miguel Díaz-Canel, president and likely successor to Raul Castro as First Secretary of the Communist Party, was born in 1960. He has little actual memory of the revolution or the dynamic processes it unleashed.  

The Pink Tide that briefly gave Cuba much-needed oxygen in terms of ideas and resources has receded. Chavez is dead and Venezuela is in crisis, thanks largely to US meddling virtually identical to what Cuba has been subjected to. Brazil, the largest economy in Latin America, now has a far-rightist in at its helm; he routinely threatens to sever diplomatic relations with Cuba. 

All of which needs to be kept in mind when considering the new travel restrictions imposed by the US this past Tuesday. Sixty years of these types of restrictions have done very little to destabilize – let alone dislodge – the Cuban government. It is worth asking whether they are in actuality even designed to. Cruise ships, private and corporate flights have been banned, but commercial flights are as of now unaffected, and people are still allowed to go to the island for business trips.  

The types of traveler affected most by these restrictions appear to be the tourist and the student. Steve Mnuchin, he who helped design Donald Trump’s slow-motion economic catastrophe in the US, claims the rules are designed to “help to keep US dollars out of the hands of Cuban military, intelligence, and security services.” Except that these are visitors who are most likely to spend their money in ways that go most directly to ordinary working Cubans. For example, our ability to support a small artist collective. Pointing once again to the gap between the actual impact of sanctions and embargoes and their stated targets. 

These restrictions are, along with the above, an easy propaganda boost for Trump. Not just in terms of the saber-rattling against Venezuela, but in his renewed push to prove that “America will never be a socialist country.” Imperialism is talented at turning the economic into the ideological, and it has a readymade reserve of support in the most hardcore segments of Trump’s base. For these people the mere presence of a welfare state in Cuba is enough for them to denounce free education and healthcare as “communism” anywhere in the world. That such social programs are now popular demands among large swathes of young people in the US is all the more reason to punish its presence anywhere. The free movement of people and ideas be damned.  

Photos by Kelsey Goldberg

Here In the Empire

Poway, California. The final day of Passover. 

According to one eight-year-old child in attendance, the shooter aimed for the kids first. 

The rabbi was shot through the hand, losing his index finger, and reports say that at first he attempted to continue speaking from the front. A member of the congregation, sixty-year-old Lori Gilbert Kaye, the only one to die, jumped in front of him.

The rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, will later write in a New York Times op-ed, “today should have been my funeral.” 

Anyone who refuses to feel some combination of shock, despair, and absolute rage at all of this has no business reflecting on the politics of it. 

* * * 

To what degree is America willing to let antisemitism simply exist as part of its landscape? How often must something be “unfortunate” and “senseless” for it to finally be deliberate and structural?  

The former two are in the vocabulary of rehearsed dismay, of those who see bigoted violence as sorrowful but inevitable. There is a deception – unconscious or not – in such a routine. It obscures the way in which atrocities always fit somewhere into a system’s necessities. 

Make no mistake: antisemitism, the oppression of Jews, is very much a structural phenomenon. Though it predates capitalism, it took on a very specific role in its rise and the concomitant spread of European imperialism. Sai Englert, in his 2018 article for Historical Materialism, illustrates how the rise of capitalism and the modern nation-state subjected European Jews to “colonial processes of racialization,” excluding them from the national identity while conversely promising political liberty through assimilation.  

That process reached its crescendo in World War II and, inextricably bound up with the conflict itself, the Holocaust. The demotion of most European nations to, at best, junior partners in an ascendant American empire after the war’s end was part of a global rearrangement in the geopolitical terrain. Maps were redrawn, new walls were thrown up that in some cases left the most powerful nation-states in disarray. But the images of the ghettoes, the concentration and death camps, of industrially perfected genocide, left a mark on global consciousness that took the form of the refrain “Never Again.”  

Of course, refrains always run the risk of being empty words. Plenty of antisemites and antisemitic ideas ran and continue to run through the halls of American industry and politics. Look at any strain of reactionary thought over the past seventy-five years – anti-communism, opposition to civil rights or queer liberation – and you’ll find tinges of the same modern/classic judeophobia. 

Antisemitism never went away. It merely had its place in American life shifted. Its current “return” is both an intensification of this shift and a reemergence of the old in the age of a very troubled empire. 

Empire, it should be emphasized, is not a conspiracy. Conspiracies are conducted and decided behind closed doors. Empires are hidden in plain sight, built in the brazen light of day, sewn into our routines and perversely grafted onto our sense of a stable future. As such they push and pull on our conceptions of self and other, on the boundaries of identity and subjectivity. It also, quite frequently, weaponizes them. 

* * * 

John Earnest, the man who shot up Chabad of Poway, made his motivations clear in his manifesto. He praised Tree of Life synagogue shooter Robert Bowers, and Christchurch mosque shooter Brenton Tarrant. Like them, he sees Jews as operating in concert with Muslims, non-whites generally, “cultural Marxists” and others as undermining whites and Christians.

Against the backdrop of Christchurch, Tree of Life, Charlottesville and beyond, ignoring the obvious is impossible. But you can still minimize it. It is unsurprising that Meghan McCain and Ted Cruz are blaming Ilhan Omar’s criticism of AIPAC for the events in Poway, brushing aside the proof that Earnest was also likely behind the Escondido mosque arson in March. It is a narrative that deliberately ignores the assault on Muslims, as well as the rejection of AIPAC by so many American Jews.  

It is not simply that it is easier to convince an Islamophobe of antisemitic ideas. Islamophobia is deeply entangled with contemporary processes of racialization, the delineation between “good Jew” and “bad Jew” proffered by the establishment right. These same processes, it should be noted, are also pushed by an Israeli apartheid government that is cozying up to the global far-right

Fascism is by its nature a distillation of imperialism’s most virulent logic; each sees in the other a funhouse mirror version of itself. If it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the rhetoric of the mainstream right from its fascist counterpart, this is why. Both rely on a vision of the repressive state as the only reasonable bulwark against the brown hordes lapping at America’s gates. 

Consider how Trump responded when he learned that Jonathan Morales, the Chabad member who chased off Earnest, is a border patrol agent. “Sincerest THANK YOU to our great Border Patrol Agent who stopped the shooter at the Synagogue in Poway, California,” he tweeted. “He may have been off duty but his talents for Law Enforcement weren’t.” 

Capitalizations are Trump’s own. 

* * * 

More news as I was still writing the above: a shooting on the last day of classes at University of North Carolina – Charlotte, killing two and injuring many others, and the murder of a Sikh family of four in West Chester, Ohio. The suspect of the UNC shooting is in custody but there is no word of a possible motive. There is no known suspect for the West Chester killings.

I could write that this is one of those weeks where America appears to be coming apart at the seams, but that would be to imply that there is something unique in the terror. There isn’t. It is by now utterly quotidian. Utterly American. 

Debating gun control offers very little. Yes, this country has become a murderous parody of itself, the place where André Breton’s eighty-year-old description of “the simplest surrealist act” has come to life. And there are influential political forces who have aided in making this a reality. 

But what we are witnessing would eventually, even if all guns were to vanish tomorrow, find some other equally violent expression. Empires are ruthless places while in turmoil; they require outsiders, an us and a them, and the kind of atomization that makes these acts inevitable. 

Similarly, the liberal ideal of multiculturalism is a poor ideological defense against racialized terror. A different conception of identity is called for. There is something to be said in what Robin DG Kelley refers to as “polyculturalism,” a framework that allows for both the autonomy of cultures and the inevitability that they will converge, morph, and redefine themselves.  

All cultural transgressions create new foci and axes, which then collide and bend and create new ones still. What this points to is an interpretation of culture not as a series of untouchable monoliths but as a process (a cultivation if you will) ultimately shaped by humans. The question then becomes “which humans?”

Recent years have seen a renewal of interest in pre-war Jewish radical ideas, those that informed and came out of the socialist Bund and other similar groups. It’s seen in formation like Jewdas in the UK, the Jewish Solidarity Caucus of DSA, in books like the recently republished Revolutionary Yiddishland. Prime among these ideas is that of “doikayt,” the Yiddish word for “hereness,” expressed more lengthily in the slogan “vauhin mir lebn, dos iz aundzer khoumland” … “Wherever we live, that’s our homeland.”

Again, refrains always run the risk of becoming no more than rhetoric. The critical charge of this one, its actionability if you will, is in its implication of militant recognition. A rejection of the meek quietism of “thoughts and prayers,” “tolerance” or “acceptance.” If it echoes other mantras of revolution and self-determination – the Black Panthers’ “community control” or the Zapatistas’ “¡Ya basta!” – then all the better. Those who survive the empire can also redefine themselves without its permission.

Civilization Never Happened

I.

There is a truly noxious moment in Kenneth Clark’s 1969 BBC documentary series Civilisation. The art historian, knight, and life-peer stands across the Seine from Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral and ponders the meaning of the series title.  

“What is civilization?” he asks before peering over his shoulder. “I don’t know, but I think I can recognize it when I see it.”  

It isn’t roads or agriculture that define Clark’s civilization, not plumbing or shelter, modes of production or complex systems of governance. Not even the grand buttresses and spires he is obviously referencing as he glances across the river. 

Just “I can recognise it when I see it.” Almost the exact same phrase used by a US Supreme Court Justice to describe pornography five years before. “I know it when I see it.” The definition is in the definition.  

“I know it when I see it.” The refrain of the charlatan. Of they who believe that their level of education is its own argument, regardless of how much attention they may or may not have paid during class. Everyone who has ever been in a position of unchecked power has their variation of it.  

It was fitting that Lawrence O’Donnell included Clark’s words in the closing segment of his MSNBC show on the night of the Notre-Dame fire. It was followed by an assertion from French President Emanuel Macron (he who has spent the past five months trying unsuccessfully to quell a full-on insurgency in his own country) vowing to rebuild. The message is clear: Notre-Dame is a symbol of this great thing we call civilization, and civilization must be maintained.

Which begs the question: how the fuck do you rebuild something you can only know when you see? How do the blueprints for something like that work? Or is civilization itself, like so many other words and phrases, simply a convenient concept for the powerful huckster? Convenient because its aesthetic trappings can be so easily unmoored from actual meaning? 

II. 

Five years after Clark’s special, the BBC showed John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. Berger’s four-part documentary was intended in part as a rebuttal to Civilisation. While Clark’s series was imbued with a noblesse oblige version of “everyone has a right to culture,” Berger asserted that the right to culture also meant the right to shape and contribute to culture. He investigated how the photograph had revolutionized our interaction with the aesthetic. The transmittable image provided not merely the ability to bring an object’s representation to whoever might pick up a magazine or photo album, but the ability to manipulate the object’s meaning, to make it either conform to power or reveal the potentials of the radical democratic.  

What one finds when they look at aesthetic history through this prism – the radical democratic, the socialist in other words – is that there has not been a single artistic-cultural item that has remained untouched by it. And why would it? History happens. Nothing and nobody are exempt from it. Particularly when humans themselves become the motor of historical change.  

During the French Revolution, Notre-Dame’s look and feel, its meaning, all had a question mark placed over them. With the church’s power now openly challenged, openly threatened in fact, crowds of revolutionaries and laborers periodically stormed the cathedral and ripped down its statues. It was not mere anti-religiosity motivating this iconoclasm. Tearing down and decapitating 28 statues of the biblical Kings of Judah had an obvious anti-royal resonance to it. 

In 1793 the cathedral hosted the Festival of Reason. Notre-Dame de Paris had become the Temple of Reason. Its busts of religious icons were replaced with those of Enlightenment philosophers and radicals. Robespierre’s naïve-but-admirable attempts to renovate every aspect of material and spiritual life were in keeping with temporal rupture, not erasing the past so much as changing history, its trajectory altered as the masses stormed it.  

III. 

Neither politician nor historian have any clue what to make of moments like these. They have wasted millions of words and pages equivocating, attempting to parse the “good” from the “bad” in the French Revolution. It is a watershed for Enlightenment ideals, but gave way to excesses of the rabble that any unchecked ruler would find monstrous. During the revolution, reason and rationality carried with them the possibility for humans to collectively control their own destinies. Now they are less thrashed out than benevolently bestowed. 

Take France’s precious laïcitéThe doctrine of secularity, of reason’s ultimate triumph over myth and superstition, is today so arbitrarily applied that it may as well be a myth itself. Teachers can be prevented from wearing hijabs, but when a Catholic cathedral burns the government vows to rebuild. True, the events of the 1790s show that Notre-Dame is a site of history well outside the peculiarity of one religion. But Macron isn’t interested in rebuilding history. He is interested in preserving the past. 

Civilization needs the past. More than roads or plumbing or agriculture or other prosaic markers of society, civilization needs the past. Most pointedly it needs that past to keep its parts static and unmoving, to sit conquered and quiescent while monuments are built on top of it. It needs symbols that withstand the actual ebb and flow of events.  

When the gilets jaunes graffitied the Arc de Triomphe, smashing the faces of statues and busts, liberal and conservative alike swooned. Clearly the working and poor were nothing but nihilists, and that nihilism was proof that their grievances were ill-founded. The great ruptures in the story of France had already happened, and they were to remain in place, their agreed-upon meaning undisturbed. The future of its people – burdened by austerity and chastened by the imminence of a dying planet – were likewise carved from stone. The definition of existence had been decided, those who threatened it were wreckers. 

IV. 

There is something else discomfiting about the triumphalist fervor for rebuilding. Eighteen years ago the Buddhas of Bamyan were dynamited by the Taliban, less than a year before the United States invaded Afghanistan and officially launched the War on Terror. Archeological sites and museums were ransacked during the occupation of Iraq. ISIL, the militarized death cult that was bound to emerge from western-wrought carnage, has destroyed parts of Palmyra, ancient Sufi shrines in Libya, the Green Mosque in Mosul. 

It is not unfair to say that the pressures of empire have uprooted much of what we have come to call “the cradle of civilization.” There was always the risk of Orientalism in this label: the east is ancient and stuck in its ways while the west is modern and enlightened. But again, that’s the beauty of a pliable word. 

Note how few of these obliterated monuments have provoked the same indignation and resolve from western leaders. No refrains of “we must rebuild,” just “stuff happens.” Some parts of the past must be maintained at all costs, recreated if necessary. Others can be merely mourned. 

V. 

During World War II, the Philippine capital of Manila was second only to Stalingrad in terms of the fiercest urban fighting. By then the four-hundred-year-old city had already been rebuilt more times than the ancient city of Troy. The Battle of Manila between occupying Japan and the United States left it devastated. In particular the Intramuros, the “Walled City” of churches and administration buildings dating back to the Spanish colonial period of the 1500s, was almost entirely destroyed. 

It was under the murderous Marcos regime that the Intramuros Administration was founded as a subset of the Department of Tourism and tasked with rebuilding the Walled City. Since then, many urban planners and historians have been openly critical of the IA’s project. They have called the architectural style “inauthentic,” and compared the results of revitalization efforts to a theme park. 

Maybe that’s all civilization is anymore: a theme park. A great big gatekeeping operation of aesthetics, of pasts lionized or ignored, vying for the shape of a straight and uninterrupted march of progress that is ultimately hollow at its core.  

The past is, ultimately, far less consequential than history. Pity that most gatekeepers – be they bureaucrat or politician – don’t know the difference. Notre-Dame will undoubtedly be rebuilt and maintained. The same way that the rides at EuroDisney are periodically. And with it the idea that the past and history are synonymous: buttressed by unbending laws of what should and should not be, understood by a select few, observed and marveled at by the rest of us. The fever dream of civilization continues, and we are trapped in its walls as they are revamped over and over and over. 

Cut Threads

The world is an unsafe and painful place. Warsan Shire’s description of what the atlas answers when she asks where it hurts – “everywhere / everywhere / everywhere” – is impossible to deny.

Britain: two terror attacks in just about as many weeks. Both claimed by ISIS, both during an election campaign in which a leftwing, anti-austerity candidate with a solid anti-war record looks set to surpass the ghoulish status quo.

One could be forgiven for thinking that Manchester would mean a safe victory for Theresa May. Conservatives are experts at exploiting fears of insecurity after terror attacks, using them as a cudgel to beat anti-racists and peaceniks alike. It backfired this time. May’s move of putting the army on British streets merely set up Jeremy Corbyn to say what most had known for some time: that fifteen years of a war on terror had made the world dramatically less safe.

Now, another attack. This time on and near the London Bridge. It further proves Corbyn’s point. One may be tempted to be generous to May and think she wouldn’t make the same mistake twice, but her ineptitude and that of the Tories may yet surprise us again.

Consider the backdrop. May, the Tories, and much of the political and media establishment have been hammering Corbyn over the past weeks about his somehow dangerous insistence that he would not push the infamous red button initiating a nuclear attack. Commentators are now made “nervous” not by the specter of nuclear holocaust but by a politician’s refusal to initiate it. In the midst of terror attacks revealing just how far out of control the imperial project has spun the planet, the world’s rulers seem to be implying that if they can’t have it, nobody can, like a petulant four-year-old who would destroy their toys rather than share. Corbyn is chastised for being the adult in the room.

In reality, there is a great amount of consideration in what the establishment are saying. Even in their blinkered intransigence, there is cold calculation. Just because they are desperate doesn’t mean they lack motives. Method in madness, all that. Sam Kriss, in a characteristically thought-provoking blog post that went up just today, suggests that the harsh rationality of the nuclear age is more or less concomitant with the calculus of power and profit:

This is the ground of politics as administration and necessity and the root of the technocratic age. Once the life and death of every living thing can become a matter of calculation without ideology or ethics, so is everything else. People can starve to death in empty flats because there’s no magic money tree; thousands can drown on the Mediterranean because we don’t have the resources to take in any more. It’s common sense. Common sense in the twenty-first century is always common sense from the point of view of an atomic bomb.

There is, unavoidably, a cruel absurdity on the other end of this common sense.

This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.