Dust devils swirl haphazardly around the rangy frontier. The white silt effluvium is so fine and prominent, it feels like pulverized air, blinding your eyes immediately as you step out from your rented RV. A vulture with one large white blind eye limps across the playa, dragging his baggy gizzard on the ground behind him. You take your first promising footstep into this new world, like a Neil Armstrong in your re-issued H&M moccasins and green grip tape over your nipples, ready to Instagram your way to nirvana.
But something immediately looks wrong. In the dusty forlorn infinity, the temporary city shimmers and hums like the nightmarish echos of Pompei, those petrified corpses who were perfectly preserved in molten ash for two thousand years. Ancient mummified castaways stir from their fetal position, two lovers embracing one another, or a boy running away from the cascading inferno, are all jolted back to life. From space, Burning Man looks like a fungal scab, a menacing ulcer of a greying crust emulsified with florescent specs of a cosmic turbulence. From the ground, the garish otherworldly architecture and fashion comes to life.
But still, you remind yourself, you’ve arrived, under the miasma of a dust-choked sky. What was once the normal sedentary loneliness of the desert, and its strange otherworldly milieu, now clamors with posh squadrons, armies of bohemian zombies. The clouds creep away sullenly, leaving the scorching sun overhead just an evil all-seeing eye. Days go by. You’ll never know how many exactly. Days are just a construct anyways. Your posse has just crawled from your kuddle puddle, leaving the cloistered air of the tent whispering with strange gasses left behind. Your best friend, Alchemy, got a tattoo of an eagle’s feather on her forearm a week ago, and now it’s infected, festering like the gurgling ponds that brought the first forms of life to earth. Then there’s Leaf, a thirty-five year old trust fund prodigy, with really great energy. He starts one of his usual bits about various conspiracy theories. Katy Perry is actually JonBenet Ramsey. Chipotle’s E. coli outbreak was a manufactured bioterrorism because of their anti-GMO policy. Pokémon Go is a government ploy to spy on our location. California’s drought is geoengineered, and you should actually water as much as you like. There’s Indigo and Bear, a polyamorous couple from Venice Beach, who carry their baby in an olive green linen wrap (Bear also uses this as a loin cloth when using his personal cryo-chamber, so he still gets the full-bodied benefit but his wife doesn’t see his cock shrunken down to a root nodule). Indigo is on a tangent from the California drought topic: ”That’s really interesting. Because I ‘water’ my plants with my mensuration—I prefer to say ‘my monthlies,’ honestly. Menstruation is so clinical, and women aren’t clinical things are we? You don’t study us in a lab do you?!—and they’re thriving!” As Bear continues nursing the baby from his teet, Indigo takes another blotter tab of acid, and proceeds to collapse to the white ashen earth, her limbs writhing with expressive freedom, her sunburnt tits now covered in the enviable desert patina. She moans and gasps for air, but only inhales the weightless sediment, choking and coughing violently until she passes out and slowly cooks down to a shriveled hunk of jerky over the remaining days. Finally, there’s Areola, a sapiosexual boho chic creature, more accoutrements of free-spiritedness than flesh. The delicate chain that used to connect her nose piercing to her ear medallion is now the size of an anchor chain, the dead weight dragging on the ground behind. Her gold and hemp bracelets have swollen into pointless heaps of jewels and rope. She murmurs something incoherent from behind the mulchpile of glittering flare.
You know something is wrong. Burning Man was supposed to be better this year. But none of the events went as planned. Every yoga session is some predictably sepulchral rehearsal of people trying to do headstands, and falling and kicking each other in the teeth and balls. You were told there were going to be lectures of varying topics—communal living, benefits of psychedelic mushrooms, nuclear energy—but now the speeches are spoken word diatribes about how the land we’re temporarily residing on is land stolen from the Paiute. Where was once a vendor giving out free vegan cupcakes sits a puppeteer’s haunted den of curdling blue frosting, and a Smerdyakov character hunched on all fours, shoveling the candied slop into his toothless mouth, his lip-smacking greed a violent masticated torrent of offense. Even the sex orgy tent, once a reliable triumph of polyphagous voyeurism, is now a shamble of coruscating gore, the edges of the tent fluttering its tattered wind flaps against the sanguinary sky, its skeleton of acacia wattles cracking into anemic splinters, dry sotols and tumbleweeds clustered at the edges of the abandoned entryway like lost artifacts from a time when things actually grew from the soil. Most of the famously garish art structures are just rotting heaps of warped lumber under the sky of a seething cauldron.
An Andean condor lands crookedly atop the circus-tent-point of the huge shade structure, and stares directly at you. He stretches out his wings like a cormorant, and blocks out the sun, the ominous eclipsing shadow sending a cool shiver rippling across the citified badlands. You turn to Alchemy. “Wh-Wha-What’s happening?” you whisper through trembling glittered lips. “I want to go home.” She turns to you, and she too glares at you directly in the eyes. “But we are home,” she smiles, and clenches your hand harder, her talons crunching your hand into a nub of broken bones.
Someone dressed in steampunk post-apocalypse leather walks by on their thirty-foot stilts, teetering across a lifeless army of strewn bodies, looking more like a Dali painting than the typical swollen haze of fun you’re used to out here in the desert. You’ve always identified as being homefree rather than homeless, but still, you know this is not the place you were promised. You scream, and flail your arms like a child having a temper tantrum. You wake from this nightmare. Thank god. You’re in the warm dark cocoon of your bedroom, and flip the pillow over to the cool side, and flop your head back down in relief. But then, your bedroom door creaks open slightly, and you jolt up in terror.
A woman steps in, mostly naked, with half her head shaved and the other half with unwashed dreadlocks down to her ankles. She is dressed in this perverse silvery space lingerie, and tip-toes toward you with every floorboard beneath her creaking violently. She pirouettes with long pink and purple ribbons, like predatory ivies sprouting from each finger. She dances in front of you, for you, like a menacing mating ritual, trying to seduce you into her torture chamber. She smiles like a cartoon serpent, and her eyes widen, the glossy whites of her eyes shimmering with mother-of-pearl. “You’re home,” she slithers. “Welcome back.” And you smile, fading away again to sleep.
“Understand that this is not madness. It has something to do with conscience.” -Dr. Giberian, in Solaris (1972) moments before he kills himself
Americans love war. The story of America is a love story with war, a sinewed and shirtless landscape of promise. It’s a story of its endless infatuation of new frontiers of strewn bodies ripped from their limbs, armored vehicles charred into the ashen faces of hieroglyphic skeletons, little fires dotted haphazardly around the ruined countryside still billowing with black smoke. It doesn’t matter where these love stories take place—the more locations the better. In the jungles, the tendrilled ivies smother the limp bodies of good country boys, the orgiastic fecundity of life screaming with predatory insects and birds. In the deserts, the top half of a man in his light tan fatigues and shield style sunglasses drags himself across a parched eternity. In the foreign cities, the nightmarish urban chimera shimmers with the deafening chorus of explosions as if they were a good-spirited firework display.
The classic American love story is something it craves over and over again, with a quenchless appetite for conflict, for the virtues of heroism, bravery, freedom, these amorphous nameless ideas that are usually just used to justify any form of government sanctioned horror. All this is obvious. But where did the War Desire come from? Why are we enslaved to the impulses and instincts that only magnifies our inhumanness?
In 1950, Bertrand Russell gave his Nobel Prize speech on the four desires of political importance, in which he details the instincts of inextinguishable desire that separate us from the rest of the animal world. We are base creatures, wheezing our way through the filth of a biological maze, eating and sleeping and fucking our way through an embarrassingly ephemeral mortality. But since much of the developed world seems to have solved those base desires—too many days you find yourself eating a frozen pizza from your bare chest, with the blackout curtains pulled shut, nursing another excruciating hangover, swiping through the libidinal eternity on one of seven dating apps on your phone—it’s apparent we are cursed by other impulses that separate us from the frogs croaking at the edges of a rippling stream.
Russell notes that when a boa constrictor eats a meal and is satisfied, she goes to sleep, and is no longer consumed by the demands of hunger. But ours are infinite, never satisfied. Our curse is not the chronic condition of apathy, indifference, laziness, or procrastination, but the execration of conquest, the endless importunity for more. In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel maps out the need of citizens who feel compelled to go to war, where we are confronted with a life and death charge of existing further, where the importance of recognition is the foundation of all other endeavors, including intellectual advancements that create the comforts of the modern age. We are under the influence that conquest will bring the betterment of our days, driven by the desire for more. The four desires that make up our political world, Russell declares, are Acquisitiveness, Rivalry, Vanity, and Love of Power.
To consider the American war machine through the lens of Russell’s four desires is to consider the decadence of our perversity, the hoary and grizzled beastliness that wants nothing more than to own the charred crumbs of earth over the next hill. Acquisitiveness is absurdity materialized into its spectacular emptiness. It’s the machine of capitalism dooming everything under its minatory storm cloud, possessing everyone into a trance of collecting things on top of more things, like rudimentary tinker toys representative of personal security. It’s why the sleaziest greased-up billionaires landing a helicopter on a hundred foot yacht aren’t satisfied with what they have, because someone is building a three hundred-foot yacht, and cladding themselves with a larger entourage of hotter girlfriends. And similarly why a homeless man hobbling through his seismic maze of blue tarps and tent poles and an emptied dumpster’s worth of old clothes and burrito wrappers still has to collect more, because more will ease his condition of imploding melancholy. But the truest political condition is the homeless man and the billionaire hand-in-hand on a magnified level of three hundred and thirty million people, creating another organism altogether. On a geopolitical level, Acquisitiveness is why after the formation of the thirteen colonies, the US continued to spread outward like a fungal scab, why it bought the territory of Louisiana from the French, why it invaded Mexico for what is now the American southwest, why it manufactured the idea of Manifest Destiny to justify the pillaging of native peoples, why it bought Alaska from Russia, and stole Hawaii as their own.
Rivalry seems more simple in a way. Russell states that Rivalry is a stronger desire than Acquisition, that we are intoxicated into a delirium of competition and conquest, that the barbarity is more palpable and evident in its execution.
The U.S.’s involvement in the Russo-Ukrainian War is a befouled sublimation of these four desires. There is a separate moral question as to whether and how the Americans should help Ukraine in their effort to defend themselves against Putin’s Russia. But becausewe can, we are easily compelled to engage in every gleeful convulsion of war that comes around, like a person who reliably invites themselves to every party and wedding and bacchanal. Of course Ukraine begged for help—the US has by far the most bloated military budget, and Russia is its most famous rival. The prelude of the apocalypse is always just around the next conflict. But the question as to why can we help—why do we consistently have the means to engage in every foreign conflict that beams our interest. It is a matter of the origins of desire. There is a cruel giddiness on part of the US to be in rivalry with Russia. Neither country got to truly flex their might during the Cold War, neither got to fire a missile that dominoed into a florescent circus of death. And it seems as if the litany of war generals suffered from an unrealized urological temptation, a dead-end in the cul-de-sac of a lover’s war. They got so close, and they tried with all their might to turn the world into a sprawling cathedral of rubble and charred earth. Russia and the United States are the two leading nuclear superpowers, but neither is yet bold or truly nihilistic enough to engage first, and so they fight through the proxy that Ukraine is. US intelligence sources have gloated to helping the Ukrainians kill Russian generals and sink Russian war ships, expecting that this halfhearted and indirect way of war is more acceptable. This approach, of killing a manufactured enemy for the sake of it, is Rivalry.
Russell continues on in his acceptance speech, noting how potent and intoxicating the desire of Vanity is in political thought. He likens it to a child who is always performing, always demanding his parents to “Look at me.” Look at me! Maybe it warrants an eye roll from time to time, but at least the “look at me!” of a child is the relatively innocent conceit of him or her trying to show the adult how capable they are of doing adult things like making their bed, or tying their shoes, or wiping their own bum. But as things usually do, it gets less palatable with age. The look at me! of a trophy wife plopped into the passenger seat of a sports car zooming around with the owner’s bald head shimmering and bobbing above the convertible doors is quantifiably more ostentatious, although presumably still not warranting any organized violence yet. We see these, and the opaque steam of regret billowing out from our heads like coal-choked smokestacks.
Vanity might at first seem unusual here to include. Maybe it’s just a little adolescent ego that hangs on to the tethers of old age. We all have some lingering symptoms of Narcissus, staring at ourselves in the bathroom mirror too long every single morning morning. But the “Look at me” of political desire isn’t the quaint innocence of Narcissus. Narcissus was a Boeotian pederastic myth of banal pedantry. To think of the Narcissus story now is to envy his sapient—although archaic—virtues. Because no one else was affected by his self-obsession but him. He was a Thespiaean hunter who merely rejected the romantic advances of others and stared into a pond his whole life. Once he died, a bunch of daffodils grew in his place. The Vanity we are cursed by is a ghoulish temptress crawling down the plank of self-consciousness on all fours, her mouth foaming with selfish delight, luring you into her black leather-stained dungeon. You are a slave. You can’t get away from her, her fangs are plunged into your throat, inscribing fate with parasitic dictation. “’Look at me’ is one of the most fundamental desires of the human heart,” Russell said. A child doing a summersault in the park is an acceptable, appropriately banal act of conceit. But when the world stage of geopolitics is grossly divided into good guys and bad guys, then the pretense of vanity on a global order compels the US to swoop in on a white horse, bloated like a false prophet, the venerating cameras of its own fabricated culture industry glistening the sky with spectacle. It wants to parade in slow motion, lit only by the low stems of an ancient candelabra, saving the dogs even if it has to kill the young men.
The US knows it hasn’t fought a good war—or at least one that will stand through the reputation of time and popularity—since the Second World War. In its war in Afghanistan, it exhausted itself over twenty years, spent $2 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives, and famously and flamboyantly achieved nothing in the end. The Taliban took the country back in two weeks in one of the most embarrassing big budget spectacles in recent history. The Iraq War already seems like an antiquated footnote of imperial despair, a militaristic death drive that was so disoriented with the senselessness of revenge, and its wild-eyed berserker rage, that it would have invaded the local park if it could have. The Gulf War was too short—a triumphant hammer of premature ejaculation that left the US unsatisfied and wanting more, alone in the desert amongst its brumous blankets of burning oil wells. The Korean War, the forgotten war, a dramaturgy of dementia, a completely stupid and pointless slaughter. This keeps going, but the bottle of wine I’m drinking is getting low, so I can’t sustain our military failures all night. But the logic goes, maybe the Russo-Ukrainian War will serve as a redemptive force, a conflict that we can get involved with that will edge the needle back a little in our direction. We can help the underdog, the country with a former comedian as its president.
Most of the major downtown streets in the US are unlivable ruins of depression, shellshocked corridors of queazy juxtaposition: with apogean sprawls of open casket human suffering on one bit of sidewalk, and a garish litany of graffiti-painted purple wings you can take your photo in front of as you give the peace sign on the next. You’re a cute eagle, feeding into an algorithmic demon world, floating somewhere between countless blocks of homelessness, zombies shuffling barefoot across shattered glass, and the pink florescent sprawl of a minimalist bar that serves twenty dollar simple cocktails. A nativity scene of modernity: dying families asking for your spare change, next to a linen bourgeoise army serving only expensive arugula enemas. But as Trotsky famously said, “foreign policy is an extension of home policy.” Of course none of even the basic social services provided in nearly every European country is available. If you slip up for a month or two—miss your rent because the interest on your student loans are crawling through the windows like predatory invaders, or you get your car booted because too many tickets have collected over the months because the No Parking signs are incoherent five-lined equations and there’s no reliable public transportation to get to your job that’s an hour-and-a-half away, or four miles, just across the city—you’re shoveled out onto the streets, left to rot amongst the undulating tremors of dreams turned to nightmares.
Whatever the case, it’s irrelevant to the war machine, because the military budget is a force of indiscriminate hunger, a bloated man-eating tumor that needs more bodies and more money every succeeding year. Both parties agree on this, year after year, it’s the only agreement they have across party lines. Let the people degrade further into ruin, but let us have a military that can kill with unbroken splendor. But still, the first three political desires of Acquisitiveness, Rivalry, and Vanity are not enough on their own to let a people openly suffer as the military reliably get their coffers resupplied with the most lustrous and bedazzled bombs.
Russell’s fourth desire is by far the most potent and powerful: The Love of Power. But in this example, Russell begins to falter. He makes some rather insipid distinctions between Vanity and Love of Power, stating that in Vanity, there is glory, which does not typically exist in the Love of Power. He claims that a boss will derive more satisfaction by denying his employee extra time off rather than approving it, and this proves the dangers of a Love of Power. I don’t fully agree. Or at least, this is a terrible example. Look at the behavior of children, boys mostly, when inspecting something as innocent as a row of ants. With an a priori compulsion for violence and power, unified as a single interwoven arabesque of cruelty, the children won’t just let the ants carry on their way. Either, they will build a wall as an impenetrable confusing obstruction, or they will do something more obvious, like burn the whole line of ants with a magnifying glass, commanding with the fiery bolts of Zeus blazing down on screaming villagers. The thing is, we don’t really grow out of this into adulthood—the Love of Power just transforms from playing God with helpless bugs, to flying predator drones over a real village in Yemen, and destroying it with hellfire missiles with an Xbox controller in a warehouse in Las Vegas. Our tools get better, but our targets usually remain without names or faces, as abstract as an anthill.
Deleuze and Guattari argue something similar in Capitalism and Schizophrenia, that of a “desiring unconscious”, a transcendental motive woven into the fabric of man, that comes before any knowledge or power or culture exists in any sort of relatable context. The deterritorialized flows of capitalism are in direct conjunction with the desiring machine of politics, a “plane of immanence” that has already dictated the fixations of its trajectory. You hear leftists regularly make calls to get money out of politics, as if they were two separate entities, as if politics has been slurried with the interests of too many wealthy people, and if we could only turn over Citizens United and maybe a few other similar rulings, we could reverse the trajectory of its contamination. Maybe to a degree. This is a notable aim. But money is politics. It’s an inseparable distillation of what that position of power is. In A Thousand Plateaus, the concept of the War Machine was in direct opposition to the State apparatus as a foreclosure of possibility, working in conjunction with nomadic people.
Of course, Putin fabricated false reasons for invading Ukraine. He previously claimed that Ukraine’s interest in joining NATO was the cause. This was a lie. Because, of course, the true reasons fall under the same four desires. The invasion of Ukraine has already led to incredible amounts of death and misery, the miasma of its hell billowing beyond its murky shores. But what is there to do about it? If we really feel bad for the Ukrainians, we can put their flag up in front of our house, or repost an article headline that we never actually read on social media, or donate to another war machine that will fill the pockets of someone else. The monster chews away at us, as we despair in helpless barracks.
The US is amidst a love story with war. Since its inception, the US has invaded Tripoli, Marquesas, Algiers, Cuba, Greece, the Falkland Islands, Sumatra, Fiji, Samoa, Colombia, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Japan, China, Haiti, Hawaii, Korea, Philippines, Panama, Mexico, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Iran, Lebanon, Congo, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Brazil, Indonesia, and on and on. It never ends. They have around 600 military bases located oversees, unnumbered and unnamed black sites. Russia has fulfilled its similar share of invasions, stacking a totem of conquests the way frat boys stack pyramids of empty beers cans. Their involvement in Ukraine is just another drunken brutal mess.
The US should always condemn these types of invasions, and in some cases there is justification for helping militarily. But it has to begin by ending and reversing its own imperial legacy. In its darkened and smutty nightmares, the US dreams of what the world could look like: the star-spangled sky as a tapestry of blood-soaked ribbons, a finale of an everlasting sunset shining across the ruins of a pulverized city. A fourth of July marching band marching through smoldering streets littered with castaway limbs. Its foreign policy is now is domestic policy. It brought the war home. And we’re at home when we are at war.
Just tweeting about it isn’t enough. If you want to have any effect on the world, you have to buy the place we now communicate from. Or better yet, become the Internet itself.
Of all of Elon Musk’s brilliant ideas—colonizing a planet already conquered by desertification instead of fixing this one, mining rare minerals for his electric cars, drilling tunnels under the vast hellscape of Los Angeles’ homeless infinity so his cars can whiz around in autonomous cogs, selling flamethrowers to kids because he liked the movie Spaceballs, naming his kid X Æ A-12—buying Twitter might be his best. It’s far from a done deal, but the desire is clearly there. He very well may end up spending $44 billion on buying this ephemeral fluttering realm where humans can clamor in their own privatized monstrosity of bias.
If he’s successful, it would be akin to ironic genius, because the Internet isn’t real. It’s an invisible demon that wants to control every second of your life. Look at yourself. You used to spend your time collecting flowers and drawing cute pictures of frogs. You used to walk barefoot through streams of moss and heavy reeds. You used to fly kites and make wishes every time a ladybug flew from the tip of your finger. Now, the streams are all dried up, and you’re staring wild-eyed into a rectangle, ignoring the wild beauty out your window. The Internet is this other make-believe dimension of tremendous banality that sucks your face into a vortex of pixelated gore. It’s like one of those glow lamps on the edge of a white-picketed porch attracting the masses of mosquitos like possessed evangelists, and incinerates them like a marshmallow roasted over the atomic bomb.
And Twitter especially. To really experience Twitter on a carnal level is to be trapped inside a casino high on mushrooms, the half-mustered musings and reactionary conspiratorial rants spinning out of control like the infinity of the rolling turbines of slot machines. Twitter itself is hell. It’s the festerings of illiterate lunatics, the desperate pleas for some ubiquitous tone of irony and pre-programmed wit, the desperation for a moment of going viral within the microcosm of their own arena. To have an account on Twitter is bad enough—to participate in this anarchic duel, to want to be a part of a conversation of drooling armies. But to want to own this public arena and its 330 million monthly active users is to suffer some advanced level of dementia.
Something terrible could happen if Musk buys the social media giant. At heart, he’s a loner and a nerd, his high-end hair plugs sprouting like fertilized weeds, his Occupy Mars shirt now just a tattered rag of failed irony. For the $44 billion he would buy this invisible universe of anger and vitriol with, he could have cleaned up all the plastic in the world’s oceans, or restored the lost jungles destroyed by agriculture, or revamped advanced nuclear energy, or given nearly every person on the planet a sheet of high-powered blotter acid and brought world peace. Instead, he will throw his great wealth at the illusory light behind the screen, to be Oz himself behind the huge curtains. But the real problem is that if he does buy it, he will finally be realized for who he is.
Part of the lore of genius is to be draped in shrouds of mystery. You tell yourself that someone is too smart to participate with our blubbering quarrels, our intense superficiality. They’re too busy being smart, thinking up equations of whatever, implementing innovative ways to save the world from our flamboyant idiocy. But when Musk involves himself in the normal exchanges on Twitter, he overexposes himself to the masses, participating in the garishness with the rest of us, pretending to know things, flexing proudly in the mirror like an eight-year-old pretending to be a bodybuilder. His tweets resemble more the mind of a Buzzfeed listicle writer, as he asks his one hundred million followers what their favorites cheeses are, or his continued support of Dogecoin, or his endless supply of 69 and 4/20 jokes. “I put the art in fart” he tweets. “Jack in the Box should do double duty as a sperm donor clinic.” “69 days after 4/20 again haha.” “Pronouns suck.” What happened? Many still consider this man the one guy who could save our species from self-imposed doom. Is he really just another shitposter who got lucky with PayPal and some enormous government grants?
In our more emotionally vulnerable moments, we sometimes remind ourselves that even the richest people aren’t happy. We tell ourselves it’s okay that we’re so depressed, so down and out, so insufferably hopeless, because the rich are probably just as miserable. Only fetishizing bigger houses and faster cars, it sometimes feels that they don’t do anything all that remarkable with their money. But more importantly, as evidenced by Musk’s ephebic scribe of fatuous witticisms, we’re reminded that the richest person in the world mightactuallybe an eight-year-old flexing in the mirror.
If he does buy Twitter, Musk will stare out at the world from inside the clattering machine of his corner of the Internet. From the tableau of public comments he’s made on technological plutocracy: things like AI is our greatest threat to humanity, we’re part of a simulation, we need to implant the Internet inside our own skulls, we realize how sick and nihilistic he really is. He wants to own the scroll of infinity, and see if something intelligible comes out. Twitter is much like the infinite monkey theorem, which states that a monkey randomly hammering the keys of a typewriter for an infinite period of time will eventually write every great work of literature. Under the deceptive concept of infinity, of course a monkey will write all of Shakespeare or Milton or Melville. But the chances are so incredibly rare that for the sake of good sense they are completely impossible. Even writing the word “banana” by randomly hitting the keys is less than one in fifteen billion. Twitter’s endless diatribe of hot takes is so inane and miserably idiotic, that for the sake of good sense, something intelligible is impossible.
People love to project how awful the Internet is for children, putting limits on their screen time, putting the safety filters on Youtube so it will only show them the most annoying stars that they can then mimic to their parents. All the while the adults drive at eighty miles an hour while staring hypnotically into the phone like the glowing orb of a scrying stone, texting their girlfriends furiously, watching an Instagram reel of a cute raccoon stacking wooden blocks like they were toys, tweeting angrily to politicians. The Internet is slowly rotting us into digitized beings, into actual robots ourselves.
One of Elon Musk’s stated goals of taking over Twitter is to remove the many bot accounts from the social networking app. It’s been estimated that somewhere in the range of a quarter of all Twitter accounts may be just robot code programmed to spew out inflammatory disinformation. If you think Twitter will be better without the bots, then you presuppose humans will do a better job, hammering out their opinions and stale one-liners with their greasy thumbs on every issue that comes into vogue for the day. Let’s hear three hundred million people’s opinions at the same time about how we could have pulled out of Afghanistan better; or what Will Smith’s slap meant to the black community; or what AOC’s dress meant by being at the Met Gala. It assumes humans will perform better than the robots, something he has already proven is wrong: his self-driving cars are involved in far less accidents than the cars driven by humans. The robots are already far better than us in every conceivable task. We are more incapable of ourselves than the dictation of computer code.
The only redeeming quality of Twitter is the entertainment. Its unique rapturous gore of debate is hilarious, and is meant to be inefficacious and fruitless. Its natural state is as a grotesque carnival of discourse. It serves best to entertain, to watch the seriousness at which people take the opinions of others they’ll never really interact with. It’s the political pedestal of the masses, as they scream into the starless void, listening for an echo amidst the eternity of the same. The majority of politics is meant as an avocation to fill the internal skies of your own profane boredom, to pretend to believe in something, to be enraged again and again until your last breaths are spent gasping at what the Republican Congressman tweeted this time. You think about these people sometimes: those who remain slouched in a rocking chair on their front porch for decades, with a shotgun mounted on wall above them, complaining about how the world is changing too fast in the wrong direction. And you wonder if when the rocking slows for good, if they wonder what it was all for, grumbling about everything beyond the horizons, the distant thunderclaps glowing with a violent turquoise.
But Elon Musk admittedly believes in the virtual world more than the real one. His immortality is engraved in the computer code of ones and zeros. So, for him, buying Twitter and taking it private isn’t a matter of how he could better spend his money—it’s about believing in the Internet more than the pristinely flawed materiality of this one. If he does buy it, he’ll be one step closer to realizing his true goal: of becoming computer code himself. He’s said before that he wants to die on Mars, but his actions resemble something even more inhuman. He wants to be the emperor-in-exile, conducting great fortunes of absurdity from behind his digitized gates, like Mickey Mouse composing gorgeous spectacles in Fantasia.
If you tried to explain the Internet—and Twitter for that matter—to someone a couple hundred years ago—say, Walt Whitman, or James Joyce, or an original cowboy, or a Native American—they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. You would try to explain that it originated from the development of packet switching that was commissioned by the Department of Defense in the 1960’s, and now it’s the global system of interconnected computer networks, and it’s grown into the main user face that we communicate and experience the world from, whether it’s showing our relatives our newborns over Zoom, or watching pornography, or sharing photos of our salad we had for lunch, or sending vitriolic sentences to politicians. If we said all this to an old cowboy, they would only stare at us with confused fury, and hopefully carry on their way.
This is to say that you know something is wrong with the Internet’s tyranny over your own life. When your grandmother talks excitedly about a TikTok video she saw or an Instagram reel, you quietly squirm in revulsion. Not because old people aren’t cool enough to be sifting through these corners of the Internet, but because you know it’s from a demon-haunted world.
If you’re plugged into the Internet, you never really leave it. You may set your phone down for a few minutes, but you’ll still be a somnambulant prisoner, floating through the automated verses of instinct and habit until you can step back in. You’re in it when you’re taking a shit, when driving a car, when making love, when wandering through a huge old-growth forest of hanging lichens and moss and wild mushrooms, you can’t help yourself from taking photos and editing them for the others in your social arena to see and applaud you over. You’re never only in the forest—this other dimension that we made up is tugging you, pleading you to step back in, to show it what you’ve been spending the last few minutes doing. Twitter is the mutinous calligrapher of all our collective thoughts paraphrased down to one or two lines at a time.
Elon Musk has commented before that most of us are already cyborgs to some degree—we’re just very rudimentary forms, hacking away our thoughts with our thumbs. And although while we’re never only in the forest, we’re also never only on Twitter, combing through the unintelligible infinity of various plagiarized statements. Musk wants to be entirely inside, not tickling his toes at the shores like the rest of us, but totally submerged. We are only partially cybernetic beings, and his obsession with owning Twitter comes from his desire for us to be there fully. He wants to be inside the loamy digitized womb of the Internet, an enraged king hammering at his castle. He will go mad amongst the roaring complexity of servers and thickets of circuitry. He will be alone, hopefully, screaming his signature fart jokes into the infinite void.
“Deep down, the US, with its space, its technological refinement, its bluff good conscience, even in those spaces which it opens up for simulation, is the only remaining primitive society. The fascinating thing is to travel through it as though it were the primitive society of the future, a society of complexity, hybridity, and the greatest intermingling, a ritualism that is ferocious but whose superficial diversity lends it beauty, a society inhabited by a total metasocial fact with unforeseeable consequences, whose immanence is breathtaking, yet lacking a past through which to reflect on this, and therefore fundamentally primitive…” —Baudrillard, America
“Why only in America? Why is this American exceptionalism so awful?” When Sky News correspondent Mark Stone asked Ted Cruz this question, in relation to the recent massacre of schoolchildren, the senator sneered with his beady eyes, and stormed away. His salt and pepper beard now trying to cover his usual greasy cartoonish villain face with an attempt to look scholarly, like an Oxford professor who reads books. But his usual bottomless contempt for people looks more like the hooting of an altered beast. Who can blame him? This is his America.
But Cruz did retort with something that at least used to be true. He asked the reporter why people from around the world come to America. It begs a moment of consideration. I have friends from much more prosperous, safe, resplendent countries, who move here to work and begin families and raise their children. They spend years to obtain a green card. And when more children die in classrooms than police die in the line of duty, it behooves me as to why you would want to raise children here. A hundred and ten thousand people died from overdose last year. The homeless walk through the streets like zombies, covered in filth, screaming at the setting sun. There’s no affordable healthcare. California will be in complete ashes, and New York will sink.
When Baudrillard published America in 1986, it stood out as a reflective portrayal of the country’s sprawling banality juxtaposed against its vicious idiomatic splendor. He wrote about an amalgamation of culture whipped up in a chaotic, self-immolating flurry: the national anthem by Jimi Hendrix, permanent trailer parks like high-class ghettos, “giant hamburgers on the sixteen-foot-long billboard.” The extravagance of banality that, to the French philosopher, is a “luminous, geometric, incandescent immensity.” Culture as the main export, from a country of cannibalizing filth. Its “human flotsam of conviviality” as our collective consciousness, like the tremors of a school of fish or flock of birds that make it function as a single being. Our obvious loneliness marching en masse, the stereophonic hammering of a people without footing. This is what he took away from touring through the United States. He wrote of the Texan hills and the sierras of New Mexico, the sublime eternity of driving through our deserts without any finish to the frontier. His chapter on New York, although strangely childish and naive in its observations about the sound of sirens and the range of weird hairdos, remains persistently objective. “Why do people live in New York? There is no relationship between them.” It’s a childish question, but in its noblest form. Why do we live here? Or, why do we persist the conditions in which we live?
Baudrillard’s America was published three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, something that prompted the political scientist Francis Fukuyama to write his famously inept book, The End of History and the Last Man, a treatise on the universalization of Western liberal democracy, that we had progressed to the final and complete stage of political evolution, and eventually all others would follow. It seems absurd now for a self-assured intellectual to ever have thought that, let alone written four hundred pages trying to prove it, dominating the conversation of our cultural victory. Baurdrillard too wrote that “the US is utopia achieved,” that we are correct in our conviction of being the center of the world. To read America today is not all that different from watching the nostalgic reels from home videos, where there’s an innate glamorized innocence to the way we trotted around the backyard in our underwear, chasing dandelions dancing in the breeze. It’s lacking the embolism of violence that percolates through the dominant culture.
I live in Los Angeles, and we are dominated by the hegemony of homelessness. It used to be that you had to occasionally step over a homeless man sprawled out on the sidewalk, his barefoot and open porcine belly blackened with the soot of unwashed years, as you calmly ignored any consideration of if he was sleeping in the blazing summer sun, or just dead. But now, the unhampered ubiquity is inescapable, what we calmly refer to as homeless encampments, as if fifteen blocks of rancid despair were just some of the diehards leftover from a musical festival. The writer Michael Shellenberger says we should follow the Dutch’s example, and call them “open drug scenes,” because rape and arson and hard drug use are the standard issue norm, and we should not treat them all like victims of the system. I don’t entirely agree with his thesis, but it’s true that the appetizing benevolence of what we call these surrounding storms of catastrophe is propagandistically naive.
School shootings weren’t yet in vogue at the time of Baudrillard’s America. Mass shootings have taken over the arena of horror where serial killers once dominated, and mass shootings at schools have a particular volcanic tragedy. America is the only place where the routine sacrifice of children is deemed a sad but acceptable price to pay for the rightto use the weapons that do so.
In 2003, the Bush administration banned all news coverage of coffins returning from Iraq. It was a depraved propagandistic tool to prevent any anti-militarism sentiment, a boorishly inhumane lever to not recognize the young men and women who died for nothing, who’s bodies erupted like fireworks over a landmine or when pummeled with bullets that were designed to explode when entering a body. And we weren’t even allowed to see the coffins, much less the bodies. The bullets of an AR-15 explode when they enter a body. The parents of the children who died at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde had to provide DNA samples because many of their bodies were too unrecognizable. I used to think that if Ted Cruz and Greg Abbott had to see the exploded bodies of eight year olds, they might shift their positions on gun control, but I don’t think they would. I think ideology is too strong, like some irrefutable Aristotelian epistêmê, where the freedom to own machines of massacre is obviously tantamount to the massacre of children.
Baudrillard said that America is the origin of modernity. Because colonization is the ultimate coup de théåtre, replacing all subtraction of values with heightened cosmetics, we lack all mythical authenticity that typically gives a place its cultural identity. We have lawless militarism. Our extraordinary military budget serves the police, giving much of its excess equipment to even some of the smallest departments. Some of our biggest blockbuster cinema works in conjunction with the military, known as the military-entertainment complex, contractually supervised by the Department of Defense’s Entertainment Media Unit. Navy recruitment skyrocketed 500% after the original Top Gun. Zero Dark Thirty was largely funded by the CIA, with the rather oafish “Queen of Torture,” Alfreda Scheuer, played by the red-haired temptress of Jessica Chastain. Torture is sexier with a low cut top and aviators. In Dialectic Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer’s social critique of the failure of the Enlightenment, their chapter, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” argues this point specifically, that popular culture is as manipulative of mass-scale apathy as factory-line consumer goods are. I don’t agree that it’s quite that monolithic, but movies like American Sniper are obvious cruel fetishisms of death, slaughter gaffed as glorious. Movie stars love making their proclamations in support of gun control, or how the NRA is merely an ATM for corrupting politicians, but don’t seem to bat an eye at their military-sponsored spectacles of death. The moderate abstraction of our death drive is enough for most the rest of us to swallow it gleefully.
American exceptionalism is akin to its glorification of death. Baudrillard said “America is the original version of modernity.” But he also said it “is the only remaining primitive society.” This isn’t a contradiction. It’s because we don’t have a past, no real origin story of hammering at the edifice of a slow evolution, that we are both modern and primitive. Our buildings are a crumbling chimera of rubble and stucco finish, its ideologically-fixed banality a permanence on splintered asphalt roads, as the homeless stagger like zombies between the scintillating pornography of sports cars zig-zagging between them like they were traffic cones. We are the entrails of glamour dying in a deserted paradise, the leftover ruminations of broken dreams. There’s a Lamborghini dealership down the street from me, and a half-mile long stretch of people smoking meth in their tents down the embankment from it.
American exceptionalism is the adolescent shame of your own awkward inability to do anything about anything. We can pop our beating pimples with the help of the bright lights of an expensive vanity, but we’ll still be ugly. Share a meme to your Instagram stories that your friend shared earlier (but only to your stories and not a real post, because that’s permanent and you know the memory of this school shooting will eventually fade away like all the others, and you don’t want to mess up the fine curation of your profile layout). Do MDMA with other liberals in matching wide-brimmed straw hats. Repeat impenetrable statistics about gun violence. Drink your morning matcha in your underwear on your backyard patio as the farts escape without a sound.
In America, Baudrillard wrote that “the important point is that the whole of America is preoccupied with the sect as a moral institution,”with our collective madness for a shimmering oasis of abstract and cherrypicked freedoms, where every military intervention is at least intended for good, where the accruement of material dominion and proprietorship is the real religion. To be the star-spangled whores of moral attention. And, Baudrillard continues, if we were to lose this moral perspective of ourselves, we would collapse. I think for the most part we have lost the moral perspective. Maybe there’s a few diehard aberrant patriot types who still deeply believe we are the moral vanguard of the world, but the self-examined cynicism is winning for obvious reasons. It’s always there, but the two recent mass shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo are routine reminders of our primitiveness, that our barbarism is now modern, that we can do what we’ve always done but this time with more efficacy. And then we can protest it behind small screens, as a Netflix show rolls into the next episode.
As Baudrillard notes, America is both utopia achieved, and a sprawling desert of deformity. We are the juxtaposition of paradise and hell wrapped into the same firework careening through the sky. But there’s no end; there’s no spectacle of a grand finale. If he wrote it today, I would like to think Baudrillard would have more to say, but this time with more evidence to our misery. But maybe he wouldn’t even write the book. Maybe the opportunity for a readable critique about America without coming across as obvious and cliché has already passed, and the fluttering examples he makes of Disneyland being paradise and Santa Barbara being paradise seem only like quaint nostalgia. Because the moral milieu of those places have also deteriorated. If we were a book, or a novel—judged by recent trajectory—we’d be pulp, collecting dust in the smoldering sun. So maybe Ted Cruz sneered at the question about our American exceptionalism being so awful because he knew it will only get worse.
They wait in the knee-deep red sludge that’s quietly humming like a muffled symphony. Justice Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Amy Coney Barrett, John Roberts, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Brett Kavanaugh, Elena Kagan, and Neil Gorsuch all huddle inside the crowded and pregnant womb of a young woman. The claustrophobic air is pumped with a fog machine, choo-chooing red steam until it’s hard to see. The crimson, translucent glow casts a moody artificial sunset tone across their faces, as they stand around in a circle, looking solemn. Its slimy, nutrient-soaked walls dripping in the gelatinous muck. It reminds one of the same gurgling fortune that created life out of nothing, when all there was was space dust that is somehow kept glued together with gravitational pull, and life arose seemingly out of nowhere, from the gaseous vents at the bottom of the ocean, and somehow dominoed into complex self-aware lifeforms.
The nine Supreme Court Justices are hot. They’re tugging at the collars of their ridiculous gowns, wiping the sweat from their temples and brows. They’re waiting for the meeting to begin, rendering the same formal orchestration as the masked ball ritual scene in the movie Eyes Wide Shut. In fact, they’ve modeled every meeting based on that scene…or was it the other way around? Their dull and spiteful jitters in preparation to enact some demonic carnival for millions of women they’ll never know personally. A sexually repressed Clarence Thomas, whose face and overall posture has collapsed into an amoeba-like, formless glob, takes up what little light there is. His decades of cynicism was enough to kill the last of the pollinating bees during his earlier years as a lawyer for Monsanto.
Outside, there’s only horizons of asphalt and condominium complexes. Drones whiz by overhead, dropping off Amazon parcels of cat food and cordless headphones and purple curtains this time because you returned the green ones. Joe Rogan blares on the city-wide emergency loud speakers: “Look, I’m just keeping an open mind! I was on DMT once, and saw this baby crawl out of the soil and sat in my lap, and it was me!! It didn’t really look like me, but I knew it was me, you know what I mean? So when the woke mob says [he does his weak, girly liberal voice] ‘Oh, I’m pro-choice,’ what are they saying about the soil baby that’s a reflection of their own, you know? Besides, I have a sensory deprivation tank and a cold plunge!!!!” His testosterone booster injections trigger a delayed response with the gorilla coffee he drinks, and his neck veins burst, sending a spray of blood across his studio like a Jackson Pollock painting.
A jack-lifted truck drives down the empty street with an American flag waving behind. The conservatives won, and now flags are mandatory. The “Don’t Tread On Me” flags are mandated by every Republican governor. Every single house and car (which is all just tract housing and trucks with those fake bull testicles known as “truck nuts” dangling freely from the toe hitch) are issued at least one flag each, turning the low sky into a flittering arena of yellowed flotsam, the collective and intersecting butterfly-effect of their waving flags cause storms spanning from Norway to Thailand, the smoldering skies churning like cauldrons, as a tornado bursts onto the Siberian tundra with a baleful wrath, pulling up weeds and trees in huge clumps, lifting barns into a confetti of splinters. Roadkill fatalities caused from the swinging truck nuts skyrocket, hitting squirrels and raccoons and opossums square in the forehead—their evolutionary progression had started to adapt to dodge cars by freezing right under the middle of a car, but not yet realizing the fatal mistake of those huge brass nuts.
The Democrats protest all of this. To stop the storms, they march in their pink pussy hats; while some of their own self-immolating attendees protest the pink-pussy people because they say their hats are strictly pink and it implies only a white woman’s pussy is at risk, and therefore the grandmother pastime of knitting is inherently racist. College-age Republicans counter-protest in their hats, which are simply gargantuan felt testicles bobbing from side to side as they march. A buck-toothed man in oversized cargo shorts and a bulletproof vest, who walks with his feet pointed out like a ballerina’s, begins a chant: “I don’t eat pussy! And my dorm room is messy!” He pushes his bicycle helmet up above his eyebrows, so he can continue to avoid every crack in the sidewalk, in order not to break his mother’s back. Everyone in the group does this, hopping to-and-fro from one unbroken section of sidewalk to the next, creating a sort of embryonic form of goose-stepping. It’s hideous to watch. There’s even a conspiratorial faction of the right that believes the deterioration of our streets, the splintering of spiderweb cracked roads and sidewalks is an attempt from the elite to break more mother’s backs. The pro-life position, they claim, is having the full health of the mothers in their best interest. Can a mother with a broken back give birth to more babies? they ask in their meetings. The buck-toothed man’s mates continue the chant as before. Clearly, they have rehearsed this bit, as everyone knows the words without missing a beat. “A cute baby is pretty adorable! If I break my mom’s back, it would be real horrible!” They then all pull out framed photos of their mothers from their back pockets. “This is my mum! There are many like it, but this one is mine!” The featureless landscape of office buildings and condos and tract housing cul-de-sacs fills with more than the usual banal lurking contempt of its own, and the hatred becomes real. Battalions collect more forces. Everyone has their flags and their bumper stickers and their hats, as the sprawling hideous void of society materializes into a billowing storm cloud, the clattering fiefdoms beyond the city erupt in flames.
Back in the poor young woman’s womb, are the justices, shifting from side to side with impatience for the formal deliberation to begin. Amy Coney Barrett tries to force a smile while working through the maze of a rather complex Cat’s Cradle that she made for herself, but she breaks down in tears. She attempts to show Neil Gorsuch her creation, but he scowls, and then accomplishes hacking up a marble of mercurial-colored phlegm, telling the others with casual confidence that his rock hard little morsel of barf is the postmodern pearl, and they should all invest in his industrious hobby. The four-month-old developing fetus bobs over them like an illuminated orb, its gigantic size in comparison causes Roberts to faint. Under a Freudian understanding of psychosexual development of the id, Kavanaugh never developed beyond the oral stage, and so he simply sucks and licks and chews everything around him. He grabs one of Alito’s earlobes which sags like an empty canvas, and begins sucking on it like a pacifier, to which Alito admonishes: “You idiot! We’re here to look presentable. Even the Taliban have victoriously ruled that all women wear full gowns with a face covering, and all you can do is make us look like fools! Now get up, and straighten your own goddamn gown.” Alito then clears his throat as to get everyone’s attention and begin the meeting, but then this descends into a coughing fit. He gags, then wipes his eyes. “Ahem. Anyways, so happy you were all able to make it. We thought it’d be a fun treat for the viewers at home if we had this deliberation in-person. In person.” There’s a long silence, as the other justices look around aimlessly, not understanding another one of Alito’s strangely garish attempts at humor. Then, Kavanaugh finally gets it, and shrieks more than laughs, with a gaping lipless mouth. “That’s enough, Kavanuagh, quiet down,” to which Kavanaugh abruptly stops, and does the Charades game motion of zipping his lips shut. “We’re here to discuss the already infamous case, Chicks vs. The Harness of Serfdom,” Alito continues, “in which we’ll discuss such topics as When walking a woman on a leash, it’s better to have a harness around their chest than one tight collar around their neck; When ‘trimming the hedges’ or ‘mowing the lawn’, or any other libidinally suggestive garden duties, it’s your responsibility—not the State’s—to keep your mind clean. Umm, let’s see here…” he flips through some pages, squinting. “Oh right, right. Disney princesses won’t show midriff; Bellybuttons are simply that, buttons. They are not scars leftover from being in the womb, because there really is no womb; Ummmm, Now that condoms are illegal, the black market is popularizing criminals pulling them over their head like they used to with pantyhose…what should we do about that?; and lastly, and this is really my favorite, Mary Magdalene was a whore, so, do you think Jesus scored or what? Kavanaugh now presses his bellybutton with the palm of his hand over and over as if it was a buzzer in a game show, and makes the accompanying buzzer sound with his mouth. “It’s not that kind of button, you idiot!” Alito exclaims. “Why do you think it’s in the same vertical line as the buttons on a shirt? You think that’s just a coincidence? Think for once in your pathetic life.” Kavanaugh proceeds to wipe his nose with the length of his forearm. Amy Coney Barrett, being one of the few members of the ecumenical covenant, People of Praise, a parachurch community of about 1,700 members, most of whom are Catholic, and whose two founders were involved in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and advocate for the practice of speaking in tongues, begins screaming in gibberish. Her eyes roll to the back of her head, and her hands raise to the ceiling, shivering, groping the sordid red air. “HAIL!!!! Shabada-diddy-slim-shady…TITS ON RATTLESNAKES!!!” Her glossolalia collapsing in on itself, and she gasps for air before beginning this routine again. Breyer finally looks up from the murky sludge that makes up the ground, and asks, “My God, the poor woman’s a schizophrenic.” Alito’s eyes widen in disbelief. “Are you nuts? This is a religious experience, she’s speaking to God.” “Oh, I see,” Breyer replies. “I’ll shut up then.”
A rumbling is felt under their feet. The dark red nutrient bath curdles into a thick foam. There used to be a fountain that gurgled like a fabulous spring, and the womb would hum in its coquettish mass, pulsing around the fetus as an invisible slow-moving lightning storm. These multitudinous involuntary forces aren’t like that of a clattering machine, but rather as a unified and benign world that manifests all of life’s forms from a subterranean infinity. But suddenly, there’s a rupture in the system, and the warm liquid cocoon turns into a huge fondu sculpture splashing violently from underground tremors. The nine Justices clamor for something to hold onto, something solid, but the viscous knee-deep ground slips out from under them, and they summersault backwards, dunked head-to-toe in the coruscating muck. Their meeting is ruined, sending Alito into a psychotic diatribe, his spit-soaked exclamations about how it’s not over ’til it’s over. The developing baby rolls over them, crushing Kavanaugh mid-scream, as Thomas easily drowns under his heavy black robes. There’s a struggle afoot, but only inside, as the young woman whom they are inside of casually gets ready for bed. She dropped her toothbrush, and had bent down to pick it up. She holds her tummy, feeling it rumble gently, the baby kicking the inner wall. She smiles, and takes a deep breath as she stands back up, sending the Justices again into a huge tidal forced baptism of blood and embryonic tissues.
Finally, in bed, her husband puts his ear up to her taut and glossy stomach, mistaking the Justices’ faint whimpers for the cute rumblings of their baby. His eyes widen in excitement, as he leans his ear in closer, obsessively trying to listen, as if he were listening for morse code inside a seashell. “Baby, I can hear the baby,” the husband says. Alito croaks his last feeble cry. “America is the violent extroversion of a people in exile. I was only trying to wrangle you back to a time and place of good behavior.” And his voice fades under the gurgling in the womb.
There’s something worse than the burning of books and famous paintings, as the Nazis famously did. Because in these actions, there’s always the unavoidable revulsion of response in its popularity, through whatever libidinal temptation and payoff it promised. Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible was banned; Shakespeare’s King Lear was banned; so was Darwin’s Origin of Species; D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover; Ginsberg’s Howl; Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. The list is endless, and only demonstrates the resilience for knowledge and art and the unshackling of our primordial armory. In the end, the art or the science or the poetry almost always won. What’s worse than banning it or burning it is the indifferent disregard for it. If Guernica were painted today, if Moby Dick were written today, barely anyone would notice. Maybe you’d see the painting on your phone for two seconds, maybe a hundred professors would listen to a third of the book during a long car ride, but other than that any pièce de résistance will shrivel like a discarded foreskin under the gargantuan trauma and schizophrenia of a generation cursed by its own madness, by knowing they lost the world and will never get it back.
We destroyed this world, so we invented a new one. The internet isn’t real, in any real sense of the word—it’s the imaginary pixelated nebulae of an entire species, a mockery-tableau, as if it were our one and only collective magnum opus, a sprawling scroll of illiterate infinity. Whether we know it or not, we are haunted forever by the dungeons of coruscating shadows that we manufactured: the ejaculatory infinity of TikTok dances mashed together with political tantrums on Twitter, and Youtube tutorials on every conceivable topic or videos of Jordan Peterson sobbing as he talks about postmodernism, hammered together with the edifying immortality of amateur pornos and dizzyingly grotesque flip books of 2am dickpics sent through iMessage. Christopher Columbus thought the New World was in the Americas, among the terraqueous loamy horizons where rivers of gold could be made up and never realized. Look at us now—this frontier of digitized horror is beyond what the peasantry of early explorers could ever imagine.
But then again, the internet is real. Bitcoin is real in the sense that its servers demand more energy than entire countries. It exists somewhere, electrical currents surging like mycelial monstrosities gorging through entire mountain ranges of coal. So, the new craze of non-fungible tokens (NFT) are our Lascaux cave paintings of this new world—the first, already-primitive doodles of an era dominated by fraud.
Schopenhauer famously believed the only redemptive mode of the orgiastic nihilism that devours us is through art and the aesthetic experience. Faint quivers of meaning and awe can be felt in these triumphs; and although a symphony or painting is meaningless in every definitively reductive way, it still signals the titillating siren calling us to carry on. Love, for example, is a ridiculous drive made up of complex synapses surging with a supply of vasopressin and oxytocin, but we still crave it even when we know it’s just our programing. The same is for art. It may just be a single frame of mirthful diversion hanging on an eggshell Swiss Coffee wall, but you still need it. Without it, the debilitating void of a blank wall looms over you like a blizzard of realized misery reminding you that you’re not interesting enough to buy something from Ikea to fill that rectangle of space. If you told someone just a few hundred years ago that a blank wall was the equivalent of a traumatizingly banal existence, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. NFTs are the first iteration of what you never knew you needed.
Because the original image on a screen is the same as the jpeg or a screenshot of it, the owning of whatever the image or gif or text is, is the drama of our new dementia.
We have already bridged the gap that the screen that you’re staring at right now (and the screen at work, and at home, and in bed, staring at your phone while the tv is on and your laptop is idling by, and as you stare down at it in your car as you’re weaving in and out of traffic) is identical to the real world of loamy empiricism. Twitter is just more of a deranged form of the original chatrooms that existed when the world wide web first started. TikTok is the new Jazzercise studio, the new university classroom. NFT galleries are the new Musée du Louvre of today. And that’s not being hyperbolic.
Baudrillard’s treatise on the simulacra of our day-to-day couldn’t be more accurate in its ubiquity and its evilness. In Simulacra and Simulation, he describes the simulacrum as the total unraveling of originality into false premises. There are four stages of this. The first, rendering as a reflection of our reality. The second, a perversion or distortion of this into a fake reality. The third stage, a copy with no original. And the fourth and final stage is pure simulacrum, or, the signs and images that are totally divorced from reality itself—the rendering of something that has no original. A new truth. This is only possible in the postmodernity of Late Capitalism, where the terraqueous landmarks of the reality that has given us life evaporate under the influence of our false renderings. There’s no longer paintings of real places. And there’s no longer money that represents real value somewhere. The value is strictly perceived, and perceived in the future. And the art—if we can call it that anymore—is a formless perversion of nothing anymore. Our renderings of feigned chimera may as well rule over us. We spend more time in these strange artificial empyreans than everywhere else combined.
One of the largest NFT projects is Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC), whose description on the homepage of their website is “A limited NFT collection where the token itself doubles as your membership to a swamp club for apes. The club is open! Ape with us.” It’s just a collection of thousands of individual poorly rendered apes dressed in strange clothes. It’s a deck of virtual baseball cards—that’s what all NFTs are in essence. You know the masses of devotees are the same people who ran the Pokémon Go craze—otiose nerds wandering in public and across crowded lanes of traffic like drugged pigeons, telling you through visible cloudbursts of spit, that no, you just don’t get it, it’s revolutionizing both art and finance into one!! They’re unique digital assets! These people are monstrous actually. Every article you read that describes what NFTs are compares real paintings to real NFTs. One compared DeKooning’s Interchange (which sold for $300 million) to Chris Torres’ Nyan Cat NFT ($600,000), which is one of those blockish rudimentary-pixelated renderings of a cat with a poptart for a torso, flying through the night sky, trailing a rainbow behind it. It says that the copy of these two images are the same on your screen, and therefore the originals are the same because they’re originals. They both have “original traceability.” This is incorrect. The DeKooning is clearly real, in that it was made with oil paint, on canvas, and it hangs on the wall. And the original NFT is quite literally the same thing as the copy—an amputation from the real. The simulacra is all-consuming now—a vast cosmic void that has pulled us into its control like the demonic forces in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. This is, indeed, the new flesh.
So let’s get it over with. Let the museums hasten their rot. Their transition from the démodé formality of canvas and paint and the appreciated renderings of their subjects are already giving way to the pixelated grisliness of our modernity. The museums will soon turn to fortresses of rubble, ornate ceilings ruined into spiderweb-cracked plaster, marbled columns now only partially standing like the brittle anorexia of empires. The grandest scale paintings of Thomas Cole and Frederic Church have been ripped from their frames and eaten through by moths and silverfish, and are now used as the simple dish rags and tattered ponchos for the homeless. The once famously grandiose auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s give way to the sanguinary gore of crypto bros lecturing to chicks about the blockchain.
The sun sets with a violent crimson filling the sky. The armies of NFTs have arrived at the doors of all the great artistic venues, and they’re here to revolutionize the financial world through the most childlike finger doodles. Jack Dorsey’s first tweet that he sold as an NFT for over $2.9 million summersaults down the crowding hallways of the British Museum. CryptoPunk #7523, which sold for $11.8 million, scatters its large pixelated blocks across the floor like confetti. The NFT for the World Wide Web source code ($5.43 million) digitizes the air into noxious perfumes, and the world’s last remaining rodents suffocate under the drama’s grotesquerie. Ten thousand Bored Apes enter the bombed out doors of the MET. One is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and ushanka hat, with a slice of pizza dangling from his mouth the way Clint Eastwood holds a cigarette in the old westerns. Another ape is wearing bunny ears, and has X’s over his closed eyelids. Another is clad completely in leopard print, drooling from his mouth, rubbing his genitals all over Da Vinci’s Vergine delle rocce. Strange amoeba-like creatures bounce around like gleeful villains, demanding that they want more money, or rather, they want more digital coins.
We lost the future long ago. The phytoplankton will soon disappear entirely from the ocean, starving every living thing from its oxygen. The forests are burning in the Arctic. What were once the lush dew-drenched canopies of oaks and moss and the deafening chorus of towhees and tanagers and red-capped woodpeckers, are now graveyards of split and splintered trunks and maybe a gaunt coyote sucking on a petrified dead rat. The gurgling riverbeds that swayed with overgrown green reeds are now mass graves of fossils and skeletons. So you wait for the next vacation. You buy a hologram for a wife. You buy some digital image on your phone with a made-up currency while hunched over on the toilet, taking a shit. You are the future, and you have arrived.
The Afghanistan War was always supposed to be invisible. After the initial fanfare of our cimmerian payback following the 9/11 attacks, it hid away into the depths where it always meant to be. The Iraq War was the same. Remember the exuberant media coverage of the toppling of the Saddam statue, and the cheering children running after our Humvees. And then it all went away. It’s why Bush ordered the Pentagon to prevent all news coverage of the bodies of American troops being brought back from war. It’s why there was no draft—a draft would only popularize our natural revulsion to war, sending kids straight out of high school to bomb some sandbox of infinite hell, their pimples oozing larger than their undeveloped prefrontal lobes. It’s why much of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were outsourced to private mercenary armies like Blackwater. When former NFL player Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire, it was initially covered up to look more heroic than it was. And it largely did stay invisible.
For two decades it’s been waging on quietly, like a cancer gnawing away at the throat of American decency, our reputability pulverized into the scorched earth we’ve left behind. It’s been almost entirely removed from our daily consciousness. In 2020, between NBC, ABC, and CBS, the Afghanistan war was covered for a grand total of five minutes. For the entire year. Even when The Washington Post published The Afghanistan Papers,which revealed high-ranking officials knew early on that the war was not winnable, and took great efforts to mislead the public into thinking it was moving along steadily and successfully, it doesn’t seem to have made the impact the Pentagon Papers did for the Vietnam War. In Craig Whitlock’s newest book, The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War, he details how the US government partnered with Afghanistan, funneling billions into their coffers, funding lavish palaces of excess and glee. He explains that the Afghan population didn’t see the billions of dollars we were spending as money to spread democracy, or to legitimize some form of nation building, but rather to prop up leaders with deeply corrupt and brutal histories. In many rural Afghan communities, populations saw the Taliban as preferable to the Afghan government, who shared little historically, religiously, and ethnically with the Afghan people. Even Donald Rumsfeld’s internal memos, just six months into the war, admitted that he suspected American troops would be there forever.
Maybe there’s too much other noise in the world today. Maybe our attention spans have fully rotted through. Who knows why this war has largely stayed invisible until now. The truth is, everyone will forget about this Afghanistan story—about what permanent hell we’ve punished a nation of 35 million to. You too will forget about this episode in our miserably despondent legacy—there’ll be another election, or another natural disaster, or another cat meme or TikTok video that takes your attention for a while. You’ll go to Burning Man, do some mind expanding drugs and show the world how free spirited you are; you’ll travel to Tulum, and finally forget about all this too. Down the spiraling tangents of illiteracy, a generation consumed by their own embarrassing brutality.
Immediately following the 9/11 attacks, it was Hunter S. Thompson of all people who wrote the most prescient predictions of despair, for, of all places, ESPN.com :
“Make no mistake about it: We are At War now ― with somebody ― and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives. It will be a Religious War, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy.”
I’ve never been to Afghanistan, and I’ve never been to war, so in one sense I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m just ingesting content I consume mostly online and spill it out for another helping, another blog post, another diatribe about the nihilism of our politics. But in another sense, many of our instincts are correct. Why was Hunter Thompson—the wild drug and gun enthusiast—right, while almost none of the experts were? As is famously noted, none of the highjackers were Afghani or Iraqi. Fifteen of them were from Saudi Arabia, and it was planned and organized in Hamberg, Germany. Everyone, from Bernie Sanders to The New Yorker, supported the invasion of Afghanistan. It had unanimous support in the Senate, and only one dissenting vote in Congress, Barbara Lee.
So, most of us can be accused of not knowing what we’re talking about. But you can watch Adam Curtis’s BBC documentary, Bitter Lake, and realize we never would have won a war there, not if we spent five trillion, not if we instituted the draft, not for anything. You can watch Ben Anderson’s Vice documentary, This Is What Winning Looks Like, and realize that in 2012, when the documentary was made, it was clearly not winnable, and spending another nine years there was insane. You can read Stathis Kalyvas’s 2006 book The Logic of Violence in Civil War, and understand that the complexity of tribal conflict is beyond anything an American military can undermine and declare their own to fix. You can read James Bradford’s Poppies, Politics, and Power: Afghanistan and the Global History of Drugs and Diplomacy, and understand that it was largely drug control policy and intervention that created the Afghanistan poppy trade what it is today. In addition to, in the documentary Bitter Lake, it explains that it was American engineers in the 1950’s who built massive dams throughout the country, thus raising the water table, and bringing salt to the surface, allowing poppies to thrive in the this new soil. You can Spencer Ackerman’s Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, and map out our almost logical collective insanity of the last twenty years. Afghanistan just happened to be there, in the hazy midst of our madness.
Humans have been hammering out their quarrels in Afghanistan for at least 50,000 years, one of the oldest agrarian civilizations in the world. There’s an almost rugged transcendence in knowing our sprawling tantrums of tribal adolescences began there. It was controlled by the Medes, of the Iranic tribe, between the Nuristani and Indo-Aryan groups, until Darius the Great took over with his Persian army, establishing the Achaemenid Empire. It changed hands constantly, from Darius III to Alexander the Great, to Seleucid Empire, to the Grego-Bactrian Kingdom, leaders from Chandragupta Maurya, eventually defeated by Seleucus I Nicator. Islam only became dominate in the 7th century, a blink of an eye on an earthly cosmological scale. Before that, it was of course sects of Hinduism and Buddhism, but also myriad forms of Paganism, Zoroastrianism, and Surya worship.
History is a funnel of distilling complexity down to our more modern brutish monotonies. We condense religion and language and wild species and tribal sects and everything else down to an abbreviated worship of banality, organizing our lives like accruements lined up neatly on a mantle. Our congratulation is being one of seven billion pawns rummaging through the wreckage. History is digested almost as a fiction, in order to convince ourselves that this ephemeral polemic of subjectivity actually matters. We are the conjugated feral beasts of someone more interesting, hammering through made-up diatribes and reality tv dramaturges of self-importance.
Religions—like that of the Zarathustra—, empires like that of the Median, bubble out of the muck of our ancestors, throwing their fits of rage for a while, until they burn out and evaporate into whatever’s next. What’s next is just marginalia. If you read the ancient history of Afghanistan, you’re tempted to accept that our cimmerian and spiteful installment of the last two decades of war is just another footnote in their sprawling episodic tapestry of turmoil. But it’s still unconvincing. Everyone seems to be up in arms about our American reputation: We pulled out too quickly, abandoning girls and women to the mercy of the Taliban. We abandoned interpreters and translators who sacrificed themselves and their families. These things are important, no doubt, and our legacy is justifiably embarrassing and brutal because of it. But by focusing only on those issues, it presumes the war was justified, and could have succeeded if we only did it differently.
In retrospect, it’s easy to be smug about our failure there. It’s been called the graveyard of empires for a reason. The British lost there in the First Anglo-Afghan War—or as the British call it, the Disaster of Afghanistan—fought between 1839 and 1842. The Soviets fought a nine year war alongside the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, eventually being defeated by the Afghan mujahideen (the precursor to Al Qaeda, and heavily funded and trained by the CIA), as well as other Shi’ite and Maoist rebel groups. Operation Cyclone was one of the most expensive covert CIA operations, lasting from 1979 to 1989, funneling $630 million to the mujahideen in 1987 alone. Reagan welcomed the Mujahideen leaders into his Oval Office in 1983, as pictured at the top of this article. The divisive partisan milieu of our body politic wants to criminalize the whole Afghanistan catastrophe as party issue. It’s Reagan’s fault, or Bush’s, or Obama’s, Trump’s, and now Biden’s pullout method. As if our collective dementia has clogged our memories all along.
But this is not the correct thinking. The defense budget was and is the only thing both parties continue to agree on. Matt Taibbi emphasizes this in a column on his sub stack, quoting Chuck Shumer in 2018: “We fully support President Trump’s Defense Department’s request” of a $160 billion increase for 2017-2018. So who cares if our exit strategy wasn’t tidy. It’s a distraction from the real politics of war. On September 14th, 2001, Barbara Lee was the only Congressperson to vote against Afghanistan War, receiving thousands of death threats as a result of her vote. The entire war, from the beginning, was a deliberate siphoning of domestic wealth into the coffers of defense contractors and their rubble-cathedrals abroad. Since WWII, our intervention has never been good. Clinton said his biggest regret of his precedency was not intervening in Rwanda. That seems fair, but who knows what the result would have been if we did. That’s the problem with only knowing the results of our actions now, in this exact weave of reality: we have no alternative to compare it to. These types of exercises merely comprise encyclopedias of hypotheses. The state of our present-day horror, however, demonstrates a complete failure in military and political prudence.
There is a lot of talk about women and girls, and how they will now be treated under Taliban rule. Just the other day, a report came out that a Taliban leader pleaded with women to stay indoors because his men hadn’t been trained on how to treat women and girls. The Taliban just killed a pregnant policewoman. These shouldn’t be brushed off, of course. But you have to ask yourself why everyone cares all of a sudden. What about the night raids and drone strikes we conducted that killed countless innocent civilians? When U.S. and Afghan forces conducted night raids, in one remote village after another, capturing and killing whoever they deemed guilty, they turned entire villages against them in a matter of moments. Jeremy Scahill’s book and subsequent documentary Dirty Wars, covers these night raids extensively, highlighting a family celebration in a small village when American forces conducted a night raid, killing young men, pregnant women, young girls. Admiral William McRaven returned later to the village, offering the family a goat as an apology.
When the military whistleblower Daniel Hale revealed that ninety percent of deaths from drone strikes are deemed collateral damage, thus innocent civilians or noncombatants, no one seemed to care then. Or at least, it wasn’t covered on the nightly news. In fact, Daniel Hale was recently sentenced to four years in prison for leaking these classified documents. So, yes, I too fear the future for women and girls under a Taliban rule. But I’m not convinced that the nightly chorus of pundits trembling about their well-being is at all genuine. They never seemed to care before. It’s our war that we failed to stop, and it’s our war that we will all be involved in, in some way, for the rest of our lives.
Elem Kilmov’s masterpiece Come and See, which is far and away the best war film ever made, is about a boy in a Belarusian village, conscripted to join the Soviet partisan forces and fight against the Nazi German occupation. He is a bright-eyed, blonde-haired boy who thinks he’s headed out for a great adventure. But as he experiences the murderous reality, the piles of bodies surrounding him, the rape and torture and defeating bombs, he deteriorates into a withered shell of himself—an adolescence cannibalized by trauma and revolt, irreversible decay as the horror swells all around. We’re entering a new era impregnated by a similar horror. Though most of us have not seen war up close, we all are affected by the collective madness that has conquered us all.
The young actor had to be hypnotized in order to perform the roll, as the director knew no one could realistically play someone who had seen such profane quantities of evil. This is true for the whole lot of us. Most of us can look back at our hazy origins of innocence, when swimming pools and backyard barbecues would progress without too many ripples. There’s footage of British teenagers marching off to fight WWI, believing it would be merely a patriotic duty of a couple or few weeks. And it’s sad in a way, because you know many of them will soon be crawling around the muddy, blood-filled trenches, crying for their mothers. The first twenty years of this millennium has been entirely consumed by this same ruptured innocence, a generation cursed by illiterate trauma that coats every normal interaction.
It’s always there, wherever you go. At backyard barbecues, the air is choked with knowing there’s fires in Siberia and Greece and Algeria and Canada and California, and hurricanes and floods, and it’s only going to get more histrionic and hellish as the years go on. At beach parties, when you should be relaxing, drinking a piña colada, looking at the women in bikinis from behind your sunglasses, you know this is an ephemeral and illusory frame less meaningful than a cozy dream. We spent $2 trillion—or $300 million a day, every day for twenty years—on a war that should never have been waged, shoveled off into the volcanoes of misery. It’s impossible to emphasize how much we actually wasted: how much human life we mutilated, the massive defense contracts, this twenty year machine consuming and killing everything in its wake. And then the Taliban took everything back in two fucking weeks. This ontological a priori death drive is more expansive than a singular private momentum that Freud went on about. Our death drive is wholly collective and entropic, consuming us en masse until we’re all out there in the desert together, gnawing at the last turds of existence.
Jeff Bezos never came back to Earth. He can still be seen up there, if you look closely on a night with no moon—the Amazon logo like the fading stain left behind a shooting star.
When he and his younger brother boarded the New Shepard—the rocket ship made by Bezos’s space company Blue Horizon—he had no intention of coming back. This is already not a habitable enough rock to come back to; we ruined it, turned it into one of the other planets with opaque clouds of sulphuric acid. No, he ruined it. He made us buy towering monuments of plastic toys, all shipped and suffocated in that trademark rectangular bubble wrap. He made us buy those 4-in-1 inflatable pool floats that are shaped like a crocodile. He made us buy a Dyson ball vacuum; and then a miniature-sized fake one for our kids. He made us buy those hipster-chic security cameras. He made us buy the virtual assistant AI with the sexually enticing name of libidinal paralysis, Alexa. Earth used to actually be a nice place in the universe. It had swirling turquoise oceans filled with the bioluminescent octopus and sea turtles, the Glaucus Atlanticus blue sea slug, the narwhal, the ribbon eel, the frilled shark and goblin shark, and predatory whales as old as the dinosaurs. The sprawling orgiastic terrariums of moss and lichens and mushrooms that grew amongst the old growth forests all helped fill this terraqueous orb, and somehow levitated in empty space, spinning around in the benevolent circumstellar habitable zone, known as the Goldilocks zone.
When Jeff Bezos looked out from his portal window, he had no intention of coming back. The ship lifted out of the thick mass of smog like a shimmering erection slowing rising out of a witch’s stew. He cackled maniacally, still wearing his aviators, his bald head slippery with a thin coat of Vaseline. He looked down as the last armies met in the ashen rubble of an old city, its skyscrapers of bursted windows and the stained steel armory that couldn’t last long enough for a real empire. Shopping malls had been left abandoned, their plain stucco coating crumbling into a slurry of sand and kindergarten paste; their food courts invaded with king-sized rodents dragging entire pizzas into their locked away dens under the ten story parking structure that has already deteriorated into the groaning skeletons of rebar and concrete that falls apart like bread crumbs. What were once painfully dull neighborhoods of track houses that wandered through labyrinths of cul-de-sacs, where every grass lawn had at most one dainty tree supported by two wooden posts larger than the tree itself, were now barricaded training grounds for opposing armies, preparing for widespread civil war. Free two day shipping was canceled, and the militias assembled.
As Jeff Bezos lifted off, he looked down on them all—all those humans running around desperately amongst their bombed-out cities, like crazed ants whose hill was smothered and ruined by a lonely schoolyard bully. The New Shepard left the mesosphere and almost immediately into the exosphere, as the flight commander flipped some switches, turning on the magnetoplasmadynamic thrusters and their unique plasma propulsion specially designed for exoplanet exploration, sending them hurling through the soundless arena of eternity, the distant flurries of other worlds whispering in some absurd fantasy.
Jeff Bezos left because he couldn’t stand being the richest person on the planet any longer. On this planet any longer. Even after the divorce, and giving up half of his wealth, he’s projected to be a trillionaire in his lifetime. He had to eject himself into the vast nothingness of space, into the infinity of other galaxies and stars, to find out if there’s someone wealthier. Or something wealthier. Because everyone knows that in space is where true wealth lives. Every last scrap of gold ever discovered on Earth came from a supernova explosion or from when neutron stars collide. It can’t be synthesized in chemistry. All the original gold was pulled to the center of our planet upon its formation, and so all the existing gold has come from astroid impacts. The simple truth is: Jeff Bezos is not nearly rich enough. He got rich selling books to a people that don’t read anymore. Imagine the cosmic wealth he could attain if he reached the stars—the stelliferous plumes of priceless empyrean glitter spreading a full lightyear across, as he basks in the violet enthusiasms of their clouds.
On Earth, we are boorish hicks, a singular aggregate of inbred distant cousins smashing rocks together in the sandbox of time. From the ionosphere, he realized us as a mass of ants that could be swept away and easily forgotten. But from space, he came to the final and full realization that we are the microscopic virus maggots chewing through the rotting carcass that we made the Earth to be. Jeff Bezos has said before that ever since he was five years old, he has dreamt of traveling space. He’s known since before he became Jeff Bezos. This space journey is his return home to where the gods live, amongst the astral throes of infinity. When Walt Whitman wrote about his own mortality, he wrote “If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.” Bezos wants the opposite: to be found still glimmering in that ephemeral milk stain behind a shooting star.
Once the New Shepard fully left the gravitational pull of the Earth, Jeff Bezos unbuckled his harness, floating out from his seat and summersaulting forward out past the main cabin. The ship commander spoke into their synchronized headsets that it was against protocol doing this so early. Jeff’s brother reached out with a helpless hand. Jeff bounced around aimlessly against the ship’s walls like the digitized ball in those old pong games, the laws of physics still dictating bodies of mass in these weightless skies. His glossy circumcised head stuck out eagerly from the hugely floppy astronaut suit—it ached and pulsed with a sullen heartbeat for the coruscating grandeur of something better than himself. It wasn’t on Earth—a preposterously small pebble of dew and bacterial peasantry. And it surely wasn’t on this ship. This ship was already a claustrophobic hell of authority and the simple machinations of mankind. Bezos was destined for castles of spiraling hallucinations, the primordial gases made up of shades of crimson and vermillion we’ve never seen before. He reached the back-bottom of the ship, rumbling above the rocket boosters attached securely beneath it. He flipped open the simple plastic shield, and tightened his grip around the large red lever, hesitating for less than a moment before he made that singularly fateful twist-pull motion.
A child with an unkempt bowl cut stood on a pile of soot covered bricks that were once stacked in an order that made up his home. He looked up at the enormous night sky filled with the conflagrant disorder slowly swirling around overhead. Gunfire whizzed by his head, as the militias closed in. And all at once, the large familiar stroke of a shooting star poured from the top of the sky—a friendly logo appeared, a smiling arrow, connecting a to z, making the boy smile one last smile.
I guess it wouldn’t have been long before he’d be found eventually. You can’t just wander off into the designated frontier, and never be seen again. I imagine this guy Rocco hoped to only be found by the right people, the people who would pity him and give him food…and somehow always elude the authorities who came out here every week on horseback looking for him. We just don’t live in that kind of frontier anymore. There’s no more wilderness that will sustain a man, at least not one that will nourish him the ways we now need to be nourished. There’s no more wilderness, no more mutated strata of stars and spectacle, no more cathedrals of ferns and bright tendrils. There is, at best, a pathway, winding its way through the long shadowy peaks, and you can ooo and aww at the highlighted things, the way runny-nosed children do while bobbing along a slow ride at an amusement park.
But this guy, you’d almost think, wanted to be caught. Sympathetic hikers left him whatever trail mix and instant-cook chili they had remaining on their return to the parking lot, and he just piled the enormous heap of the plastic packaging into a small mountain by the river. Rumor had it, he would join couples having a romantic night alone in the natural hot springs, and would always be naked, and made everyone uncomfortable. Anyways, he was probably going to be found eventually, but he sure didn’t make it any easier for himself.
Eloise finished packing the tent as the sun finally rose over the ridge of the mountain. Everything was in order. Breakfast was eaten, and the last of the coffee was poured, and Ernest was washing the dishes in the clear miniature waterfall that flowed from the edge of the hot springs. Pastures of moss melted like dessert over large stones, the whole coruscating arena of lichens and songbirds and wildflowers hummed under the weight of another morning. Four mountain goats walked delicately along the steep slope of the mountain, sending discarded shards of rock in small cascades down towards the stream.
They’d been out here three nights, and another two hiking out, but would hike back the entire thing in one day. It was their first camping trip together, and they both felt as good as they had in a long time. They must’ve had sex three times a day…in the tent, and on the beds of moss, and on the large flat stones circling the hot tub. And for both of them, it felt like what people mean when they say they made love instead. The man thought about this, and thought about how cheap words become, especially the older we get. What a shame, he thought. Even the most brilliant things go all lukewarm whenever we try to tell them to others. Even when we tell them to ourselves. He washed the last of the silverware, and piled them all together. She watched him stand up from the edge of the pool, his face entering the sunlight from its lower bed of shade, and she knew confidently for the first time that she could love him.
When they started hiking, they hiked briskly, wanting to get back before nightfall. They must have covered ten or eleven miles in a few short hours, chatting aimlessly and excitedly along the way. They had seen many people on their way out, but hadn’t seen anyone else during their days at the hot springs, and hadn’t seen anyone all morning while hiking back. “I guess that Rocco guy must’ve moved on. Gone to the city, or another lake or river…or maybe he died,” he said. “Don’t say that,” Eloise said. “That’s not nice.”
Just then he saw through the trees ahead of them a group of horses crowded together. He thought they were just riders enjoying themselves, but as the leaves cleared saw that they were all sheriffs, waiting near the pile of trash that Rocco had made. They were standing around the river’s edge, the horses’ necks depressed, drinking from the slow current passing through the long green reeds. Little tadpoles with legs sprouting miraculously swam haphazardly amongst the tangles of algae and rotting debris. The sheriffs all had bulletproof vests, and their full globular necks swelled like hams from out the tops of the vests. A few of the men had perfectly shaved heads, and although they all wore cowboy hats, the bald sides of their heads gleamed like a glossy porno against the sun. Two of the sheriffs were women, real thick and masculine like, overcompensating for some deserted manliness they lost forever ago. They’d seen Magnificent Seven too many times, convinced a cowboy hat and some long ruffled leather gloves that puffed out like bellbottoms out passed their forearms made them Teddy Roosevelt. As if they were purposefully reenacting this cinematic nostalgia in their own company, like those flamboyant cads who do those Civil War reenactments for children and their goading parents. They spoke amongst themselves, not yet seeing Ernest and Eloise.
“Yeah so we got these kumquat trees in the backyard that I planted six or seven years ago,” one of the sheriffs said to another.
“A what tree?” another asked.
“A kumquat tree.”
“That’s gross. What’s a kumquat tree?”
“Well, exactly. My wife hates the sound of the word kumquat. Says it makes her all squeamish, like the sound of the word ‘dangle’ or ‘panties’ or ‘discharge’ or something. She makes me refer to it as the ‘pom-pom tree’. So I got a bunch of jars of pom-pom marmalade for you and the family if you want any.”
“God no. Thanks, but that stuff gives me the runs.”
“Hogan, how you know it gives you the runs if you didn’t even know what a kumquat was?” a third sheriff remarked.
“Hey you guys,” the man named Hogan said suddenly, seeing Eloise and the man on the other side of the river. “We got a coupla…coupla people.”
“Where ya’ll from!” the leader of the group asked. He had a thick dark mustache, gold-rimmed aviators that dug into his fat temples, and a mouth full of chewing tobacco. He spat into the clear water, and the loogie of tobacco spit swirled and spread out and disappeared.
“Ojai. Couple hours down south, if you know it,” she said.
“Yeah we know it…Not much out here is there?”
“What do you mean?”
“Not many people. Rocks mostly. You come all the way out here for rocks? Ya’ll have great rocks down in Ojai, seen ‘em when I was a kid.”
“Uh, no not many people I guess. You’re the first ones we seen all day. We saw your horse shit on our way out, but it was old shit.”
“Yeah, that was our horses’ shit.”
“No animals allowed on these trails, except ours. So it musta been our shit,” Hogan repeated.
“Thought it was from recreational riding, people just enjoying themselves, you know, but I guess you come out here every week huh?” Eloise replied.
“Yeah, we the only horses that ever come on this trail…Hey boy, you speak?” the leader said, pointing at the Ernest. The other deputies looked up from their reins or from each other, and all stared at the man.
“Yeah I speak, what’s the matter?”
“You see a cat in a purple robe, maybe asking around for food?”
“A cat in a purple robe?” Eloise asked.
“I’m talkin’ to him,” he said, raising his voice to almost a yell.
“You say a cat in a purple robe?” the man named Ernest asked.
“No offense officer, but are you talking about?”
“I think you know exactly what I’m talking about. There’s a guy who’s been roaming around here for some time, stirring up trouble, bothering hikers, pulling out his willy in the hot tubs, makin’ all sorts a folk uncomfortable.”
“Ohh, a guy. A man. Sorry, you had me confused there for a second.”
“Well, have you?
“No, we haven’t seen a cat in a purple robe,” Ernest said, annoyed now.
“We haven’t seen a cat in any colored robe,” Eloise added with a tinge of sarcasm.
“Ya’ll being cheeky with me now?” the leader asked.
“No mister, just trying to get along with you,” Eloise replied.
“Okay well, you better get a move on. We got ourselves a great shark hunt out here. Can’t be too careful. You two have a great day.”
They reached the other side, hiked up the hill just a little further, looking for a rock or something to lay their packs on, and rest, and drink the last of their water before the next big climb until it came down into the tall grass pastures a couple miles ahead, where the river slowed and swelled into these deep and magnificent turquoise pools. They had already planned on stopping there before, while passing it in the other direction, on their way out. They made a point of it, citing that it was a quarter mile or so off the path, and so they could get naked comfortably, and wash themselves and make lunch and have sex again under one of those huge willows that shaded the grassy embankment and hung broadly over the pool.
The man’s lower back ached even more than his shoulders, but he knew he couldn’t complain more than once, or else he would draw attention to it…or rather draw attention to his tendency to complain, especially because she had never made a mention of her own discomfort. She remained so positive and upbeat, he thought, even through the most strenuous climbs. She often made stops by herself, just to admire desert flowers, or to watch the way an insect crawled up the long slender stem of a plant. He wished he did things like that more, for himself, without any of the usual pretense with which he typically did things. Because at home, where he lived in this old cabin amongst the oak trees and the eucalyptus trees, he spent a lot of time in his garden, reading and writing and gardening, and sometimes feeding four adolescent foxes; but he wasn’t sure that these private courtesies made him happier in any meaningful way. He wished they did. Who knows, maybe they did somewhat. And he watched her carry out these moments that she made for herself, and knew they were full and resplendent in their delivery. He watched her long golden legs in front of him, climbing the hill with an ease he never noticed before. Goddamnit I’m hungry, he complained to himself. Food will be so good, because she’s making it. I feel so much better when I eat her food. I need to take better care of myself, he thought for the thousandth time. I’ll cook for myself more when I get home. I’ll cook vegetables and fish, and stop eating cookies and light beer every time I’m alone. I’ll tend to the garden more, stop smoking, take the time to make myself a cup of tea in the evening. I’ll take the time to just enjoy the tea in the garden as the evening rolls into night, and do nothing else but think, because I haven’t just sat there and thought about nothing in as long as I can remember.
As he watched her long legs walk in front of him, he thought about the time he lived in Norway, many years ago, on this remote archipelago way up north…and during the summer months when the sun never went down, he fished for cod with a friend or friends, from the rocks on the edge of the ocean. And they would cook it and eat it right there. Or at low tide, they collected blue shells from the base of one of the smaller nearby bridges. Or they would hike up to one of the small cabins that belonged next to one of their many mountain lakes, and catch trout, and gather boletes and chanterelles, and stay up all night telling each other stories of old love affairs. And he thought that it was sad that he never did those things anymore, that the days he would really remember were mostly behind him. He thought that maybe this trip would change things, that he would come out of it more restored, more in love with the terminable days that collapsed like rubble behind him. But the daily mania was so compelling, and the preserved tediums piled in front of him, convinced of their own worth.
They stopped on a knoll of crumbling rock…a shrub with bright yellow flowers shaped like little teacups sprouted from the wreckage, and a honeybee moved from one flower to the next, crawling around inside, covering himself in pollen, completely unarmed against the plant pheromones. They set their packs down, and she prepared a cup of tea from his heavy thermos.
He looked back to see again where the sheriffs had interrogated them by the river, where Rocco’s camp of trash and turds he had collected over the past few months were. Dried-up clumps of leaves and grasses hung like bird nests onto the branches of the trees six feet above the existing flow of the river. They were gray and old, from many years ago, but still proved that the river used to gush through there at least six feet higher than it was flowing now. And he imagined how much of the terrain that would have covered. He imagined how many more foxes and bobcats and songbirds would have come through, how much more florescent the greens would have been through those parts, how the soaked chimeras and cannibalisms that covered themselves in turquoise and gold would behave themselves, how the stelliferous nightmares swirled overhead in invisible hues. He remembered those last three nights the two of them spent, wrapped in each others arms as they watched the maple and willow leaves shiver against the light of the nearly full moon. Coyotes howled in their capsules of eternity…a skunk wobbled through the rocky shallows, his tail waving high like a surrenderer’s flag…the bur-sage and mallow and lupin yawning heavily amongst each other in their groups. Night after night, after every successive season and year, the flowers went on as before, glittering against the tan and otherwise banal sceneries with their thimbles full of dyed tinctures. Maybe it’ll be like that again someday, he thought, when the hills are replenished with greens and wild colors, and never ruined again. Damn. He wiped the sweat from under his hat and then sipped the tea from the tin cup that Eloise had poured for him.
Right then, Rocco popped his head up like a meerkat out of the overgrown thicket of chaparral.
“Oh fuck!” Eloise gasped, seeing him first.
His hair was a thickly matted dirty blonde, and his face was smeared with ash and already leathered by the sun, but his eyes were healthy and lucid, and he could have been good looking if he was good at looking after himself. He wore that purple robe without blame, buttoned neatly down beginning at his navel, like he was Hugh Hefner’s starving duplicate, clad in this absurd velvet gown in the high desert. He waved gently with one hand, as if he too had heard all the rumors about him—all the schizophrenic breaks and screaming, all the willy waving, all the spontaneous crying in the night, all the stealing of food and supplies and women’s underwear when they left for day-hikes. Because, he probably knew those stories were based on all the whispered gossip that traveled through countless ears of hikers over the course of those several months he’d been there. It was an uncoordinated game of telephone, one hiker to the next, expanding and elaborating an already ridiculous tabloid of conversation. It was as if he had heard those rumors too, and wanted to resolve all of them and calm everyone’s nerves with one complete smile.
“Hi guys. You don’t have any leftover food you don’t want to carry back with you, do you?”
He spoke in a higher voice than Ernest expected, purposefully meek, but genuine still. The sheriffs were no more than fifty meters away, walking in a single-file cavalry procession. Eight white cowboy hats bobbing along obediently; eight horsetails cinched tight above the asshole, plumb in their very noble and attentive posture, their huge vascular and sinewed legs heaving forward flawlessly. You could see them all in the same picture frame: eight sheriffs on horseback, walking along the riverbank, about to disappear behind the dense canopy; and then Rocco, a hungry fugitive, carelessly outsmarting the authorities for another time. He was mostly innocent of course, hunted out of boredom, the sheriffs’ despondent gallantry shoving along as before.
“No, we don’t have any. Sorry,” Ernest said.
“No worries, thank you guys,” he said sweetly.
Eloise rustled through the top of her backpack, and pulled out a canvas bag full of several foods and snacks. “You can have this. It’s got lots of goodies.”
“Thank you,” he smiled shy and excited.
Eloise tossed the bag over the many coastal sage scrub and poison oak and creosote, and he caught it with both hands, thanked them again and ducked out of sight again.
“Oh my god,” she said more to herself than to Ernest. “I had something in that bag I was going to give you.”
“What was it?”
“I need that bag. Wait!” she then yelled across the thick shrubbery.
He popped up again. The velveteen robe shimmered against the sunlight. The last sheriff in the line of horses turned around at her exclamation. He first looked at Eloise, who stood there with huge and horrified eyes, and then to Rocco, who saw Eloise staring terrified in the direction of the sheriffs. Rocco then glanced in the direction of the sheriff, his casual insouciance barely acknowledging him.
“Hey Meatball! Hogan! Lance! You guys!” the last sheriff yelled. “There he is!” He gleamed, pointing eagerly in Rocco’s direction.
The other sheriffs’ necks bulged with blood like enormous cocks. They all turned around in unison, and tugged on their reins to the right, pulling their horses’ necks erratically. Rocco ducked behind and under the line of creosote, and disappeared into the thicket. The sheriffs all left the delicate order of the trail, and started galloping their miniature stampede through the grasses and into the shallow riverbed like they had always wanted to, like it was their cinematic fantasy to finally be able to do this, amongst some doughty dream that never existed in reality. This is what it was all about. This galloping climax is the ephemeral flurry of why they hoisted themselves up on horseback day after day in the first place. Ernest could see the top of Rocco’s head darting through the gaps in the shrubbery as the sheriffs closed in almost immediately. Eloise gasped, and screamed one desperate No! as the last sheriff (who was now the first sheriff) grabbed the collar of Rocco’s robe with one hand and yanked back the reins with the other. The horse skidded to a stop, and the sheriff rolled off the horse with all his weight, collapsing onto the poor transient, the two of them just a heap of bodies on the edge of the riverbank. The other sheriffs arrived in a second, surrounding the mass of wrestling tumble beneath them, like some profane order of fraternity. Rocco tried to escape, pushing the sheriff’s lips and nose up with the bottom of his palm. The sheriff punched him in the face, breaking his nose, sending it into a gurgling spring of blood. Rocco miraculously stayed conscious, and kicked the sheriff in the testicles, and tried to scramble away on all fours between two of the horses, frightening one, it frantically rearing on its hind legs, throwing off the fattest sheriff. The horse landed back down with one hoof on Rocco’s head, crushing it against a rock in the riverbed, killing him instantly.
Eloise screamed, the masticated gore of the man’s head and hair crushed into the pomaded uniform of the purple robe. Bits of bone speckled against the glossy colorful nebulae of the crimsons and violets that crowded together in their puddle. “Git outa here!” one of the sheriffs yelled to the man and woman; and then he heaved himself off the horse awkwardly, swinging a pudgy leg around in order to inspect the crushed head of the stranger they just killed. Ernest and Eloise didn’t move, speechless at what just took place in front of them. One of the female sheriffs started walking up the trail on her horse towards them. “Come on Eloise. Let’s go, or she’s going to stomp on our heads too.” “But they just killed him!” she cried. He grabbed her arm and pulled it up the trail. “That horse is on steroids. And she probably is too. Come on.” They turned away, walking up the rest of the hill to where it crested amongst the scraggly rubble of an already deteriorating mountain. They looked back as they walked up, and the lady had stopped but was watching them to make sure they fully left the scene. Eloise cried as the body of Rocco lay there completely limp, and the sheriffs stood around staring down at him, not yet sure what to do.
They stood at the top of the hill, and watched two of the sheriffs lift the dead body of the man, flipping him over onto his back, as another sheriff gathered the reins of a few of the horses to tie them securely to a tree.
“What are we supposed to do,” Eloise asked. And the man didn’t say anything. He stood there, staring down on one side of the mountain at the turquoise pools a thousand feet below. A red tailed hawk soared by without a sound, without flapping its wings. All that sky beneath him, searching for an isolated tremble amongst the many exits and entrances of where gofers thatched in the vast expanse around him. And Ernest turned and looked on the other side, where the man lay dead. He didn’t say anything. The hawk landed in front of them, on a dead scrub bush that had once grown from a crack in a rock jutting out from the furthest edge of the cliff. It looked down at the scene that had just taken place. It waited there for a minute, and then looked down at the mountain beneath him, and then out across the enormous valley sprawled out. One of its eyes was a bright rusty brown, with a large pupil, staring attentively and without blinking. The other was blind, covered over as a milky pearl. He stared at the couple for a few moments with its good eye, and then spread its wings again and flew away. “Come on,” the man said, “There’s nothing we’re supposed to do.”
“What do you mean,” she said. “Our phones are dead, but at least we can make an official complaint or something.”
“Yeah, I suppose. May as well.”
But he knew it wouldn’t matter. He knew, just as I know, and just as you know, that man will do everything he can to leave us nothing. He was probably going to be found eventually, but it didn’t matter. They’ll take everything they can, and then disappear at last.
On May 21st, 2020, just two months into the COVID-19 pandemic, with incredible economic devastation still to come, the Foreign Relations Committee passed a bill to give Israel a minimum of $38 billion over the next ten years, about $10 million per day, shuffled out of our coffers like piñata confetti. Most of us were still hiding behind drawn curtains, mixing antidepressants with wine, holding Lysol cans with both hands, ready to spray anything that came near us. It didn’t matter though, there was a conflict to fund. In the 1948 expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs — about half their population at the time — and the destruction of between 400 and 600 Palestinian villages, their Nakba (“disaster” or “catastrophe” in Arabaic) was solidified and ensured. So, when news came out that the Biden administration approved the sale of $735 million of precision-guided weapons to Israel, and Netanyahu has continued this bombing campaign that’s killed more than 200 Palestinians this current round, more than a quarter of which have been children, trying to take control of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, it was no wonder people lost their minds.
The broad conversation about the conflict has come a long way. Even the most recent major escalation, in 2014, didn’t garner nearly this much public support for the Palestinian people. People have taken to the streets, marching in solidarity, in numbers never before seen. A hundred thousand marched in London; twenty thousand marched in Chicago; ten thousand in D.C. They’re doing it all over the world, with obvious cultural parallels to the George Floyd protests, and it might just help nudge the tone and tenor of international diplomacy, perhaps even how much military aid the US is willing to give Israel in the future. But you can almost hear the stammering replies wherever you go. But what about the rockets? Are you willing to condemn Hamas? Doesn’t Israel have the right to defend itself? Some iterations of these have been repeated into the echoing eternity, with vast cauldrons of dead Palestinian children all stamped and numbered and categorized that they were killed in self-defense. Excusing an apartheid state in the shoal depths of disbelief. If you hear someone explain why it’s both sides that are fault, why both sides need to come to the table for peace, why both sides have attacked and killed innocent civilians, be wary of what they’re trying to accomplish. Of course we don’t support Hamas firing rockets indiscriminately at centers of large civilian populations. Of course we don’t support the deafening nescience of antisemitism that has materialized. Even having to say this is the fault of political speak, an obligatory platitude that produces squeamishness in all who are around to hear it. Of course both sides have committed unconscionable acts of horror, and dismantled families forever. But the clean and convenient determination of both sides, as if you can now dust your hands clean of the confrontation, and not have to pick a side, as if you were perfectly balancing horror on one of those antique brass balance scales, looked at it through your pince-nez glasses, and determined yes, yes, both sides are indeed at fault. It just isn’t that kind of scale.
As Jeremy Scahill notes in his piece in The Intercept, this is an “asymmetric campaign of terror waged by a nuclear power against a people who have no state, no army, no air force, no navy, and an almost nonexistent civilian infrastructure.” They live in what amounts to an open air prison, as Scahill notes, continuously bombarded and encroached upon, in an eight decade long Nabka. Stories have been published about families in Gaza coming together under the same roof, simply so they can die together. Ethno-nationalist mobs are storming through the streets of Israel, terrorizing and beating Arab civilians, organizing themselves in over a hundred WhatsApp groups. So, when Hamas fires rockets, it is a desperate ditch effort of bringing a stone to a gunfight. In addition, Hamas’ rockets are virtually ineffective. The Iron Dome air defense system intercepts almost all rocket attempts from Hamas. During the Operation Pillar of Defense, in November of 2012, Iron Dome determined two-thirds of the rockets fired were not a threat, and intercepted ninety percent of the remaining 300. Only three Israelis were killed in this attack, due to what was determined a malfunction in the Iron Dome system. So, this is not a balancing-act-of-blame when one side is backed by a blank check military apparatus from the United States, a policy that has long been the status quo by both Democrats and Republicans. From 1995 to 2005, for example, Israel and the United States developed the Nautilus laser defense system, spending $600 million, only to scrap it altogether, concluding it wasn’t feasible after all. This is what the people of Palestine are up against, trapped in their claustrophobic cage of death and sodden misery as a nuclear power is funded from the other end. So while Hamas is far from a gleaming, functioning democracy, it’s unfortunately the only armed resistance that’s willing to fight back. The shimmering horrors of desperation breeds madness, and madness breeds more desperation, like an entropic feedback loop that only produces more misery.
Both the Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capitol. Israel took control of the eastern end of the city in 1967, after the Six Day War, formally annexing it in the 80’s. In the Old City of Jerusalem is the Temple Mount, a holy site to both Muslims and Jews. Known to Muslims as Haram ash-Sharif, it’s one of three of the holiest sites, the third holiest amongst Sunni Muslims, as the place where Muhammed ascended to heaven. According to Jewish theology, the third and final Temple will be built when the Messiah comes. The first was built by King Solomon in 957 BCE, and destroyed by the Neo-Babylonian Empire nearly four hundred years later. Zerubbabel, governor of the Achaemenid Empire’s province Yehud Medinata, built the second, which was then destroyed by the Roman Empire in 70 CE. And so they’re waiting around for the Messiah to come and build the final one. So, if it’s the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf who controls it, the Israeli police or military, or some combination of the two, banning one another access or open prayer at the site, the clashing will continue into its disarray. The Israeli settlements are about ensuring dominance in the area, and therefore exclusivity to their holy site.
In one sense, the absurdity of these ancient cartoon horrors seem like just another footnote in our never-ending lineage of tribal and religious wars. Different broods of antiquated beliefs throwing war-bloated tantrums over who control the shiny dome. There’s an impulse to scoff the whole thing away, the way Christopher Hitchens did in his later years, and say if religions want to bomb each other for having such stupid beliefs, let them do what they want. But Hitchens became insipid and callous in his later years. It’s too important and heart-wrenching to follow that impulse, to lose our empathy across nations, to lose that a priori understanding of ourselves as a product of one another. Too many innocent people are dying and losing their homes, and everything they know. I grew up religious, in a pious and reserved Christian Science family. I went to a Christian Science liberal arts college, and read enough Nietzsche and Baudrillard, Foucault and Derrida, Dawkins and Sagan, to quickly turn me into a predictably pompous, intellectually-entitled atheist. I don’t know what I am now, but I do know there is a danger in monocultures of vast secularism — it breeds religious ignorance, and therefore historical ignorance. And civilizations that don’t know their history are doomed. There’s probably never going to be a happy medium, never going to be a common plateau of scientific literacy that just replaces the void where the stories of religion once dominated. I sense that Dawkins and other famous atheists believed it would. But we do what we can, to be tolerable of the truths that tend to waver.
Or, maybe Hobbes was correct, in that this is the hell we’ve created for ourselves by realizing the truth all too late. The oppressed become the oppressors. All too often this is the cyclical pattern of our bilious hellscape. Torch and torture the Other, corral them into bitter opprobriums, tighten the paddocks of rubble and chewed rebar, see how pathetic and barbarous they’ll become, what profanities they’ll stoop to. Why do we do this? Are we not less brutes than when we crawled from the muck of sulphuric pits? Has our wealth and modernity only succeeded in distancing ourselves from the scorched perdition we send elsewhere? Years ago, I would just quote something by Schopenhauer or someone, who said religions are like fireflies because they need darkness to shine. But it’s not satisfying to blame religion anymore. If you blame the banners of strange belief, you again dust your hands clean of anything further; you say, it’s tribal warfare way over there, and you move on. Chomsky has spent the better part of his life criticizing American foreign policy not because it’s a voguish contrarian thing to do; but because we are, in effect, partly responsible for it, and have the obligation to try to change it in whatever infinitesimally small way we can. So you stand on the streets with others, in solidarity protests, you donate to the causes you see fit, because it’s adding in some way to the collective psyche that our legacy of death and colonization needs to end.
And things are changing in some ways. It’s daunting to imagine a collective response from our ill-equipped peasantry against a $38 billion siphon into a rightwing colonial apartheid state, and then an additional $735 million military bonus like is was a casual gift basket; but mass movements operate like an immune system within our defective species, pushing like pleading armies for things to autocorrect. Will things get worse before they get better? Almost certainly. But I feel like people have been saying that for centuries. I do believe we’re caught in a cyclone of self-made entropy, our ejaculatory ennui smearing the whole world with an unraveling foment like it was a slug trail of despair, most of our wealth going to more advanced ways of killing ourselves and the planet. But we still try to nudge our quaint and adorable hopes forward. Because maybe, against all odds, we’ll win once or twice. And those will start to add up.