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By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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A Snowpiercer Thinkpiece, Not to Be Taken Too Seriously, But For Very Serious Reasons

That Snowpiercer is an allegory for capitalism and revolution has been widely and well-discussed—for example, see Emma and Peter Frase—and I already knew it when I went to see the movie. So did Unemployed Negativity:

“I scrupulously avoided reading any reviews of Snowpiercer once I became intrigued by the basic premise. Despite this, and not reading anything after seeing it this afternoon, I was aware, in that way we become aware of things through an almost social media osmosis, that it was quickly being heralded as a new film about the 99% and the 1%, about social inequality, and, more importantly, about revolution.”

This reading is easy, and correct: the train is the capitalist economy, and while Curtis and company initially set out to seize the means of production (the engine), the revolution stops being reformist when Curtis makes a Big Discovery about how the train works, at the end, and decides to go large instead.

As an allegory, then, the movie is insistantly anti-reformist, in the terms by which “reform” and “revolution” are understood to be different and opposite things. Reform and revolution are shibboleths that distinguish liberals from radicals: while liberals want to reform capitalism, without fundamentally transforming it, radicals want to tear it up from the roots (the root word of “radical” is root!) and replace capitalism with something that isn’t capitalism. “Fundamental” is often a begged question, of course, and the dividing line between revolution and reform is rarely as clear as it can seem in polemic usage. But if you’re the kind of leftist who thinks that the means of production just need to be in better hands—Obama, for example, instead of George W. Bush, or Elizabeth Warren instead of Obama, or Bernie Sanders instead of Elizabeth Warren, and so on—then this movie buries a poison pill inside its protein bar: soylent green is people, you idiot, its kids, you’re eating kids, and you like the taste.

Such a system cannot be improved by reforming it. Since eating kids is about as close to a universal taboo as we’re likely to find, a system based on that form of consumption is impossible to justify; as Ed Harris notes, while frying up a nice piece of what I would like to assume is human baby—you have to be a little bit insane to live on this train. In such a context, “reform” is simply a matter of making it operate more efficiently. You can replace the engineer with a new engineer, but it won’t be different when “we” run the train; the engine remains, and its needs will always dictate what the train needs to function. You will still need to put babies in its belly.

Is a civilization that survives by auto-cannibalism sustainable? Is it worth sustaining? This is a question that the movie raises at several points, particularly when we learn why so many of the passengers lack arms and legs. At one point in the origin story of the tail-section, we are told, Gilliam and others cut off their own limbs to feed the others—a story I’m tempted to regard as more of a mythical primal scene than something that could actually happen—but the train, as a whole, replicates this structure, producing a humanity that eats itself to survive. And let’s not forget, they do it willingly. Just as Gilliam gave his arm willingly, the two children in the engine also seem to stay there by choice. What makes Wilford truly diabolical is that he can and does talk you into sharing his insanity, into choosing to join him.

This is the truly despair-inducing ending, then, Curtis’ realization that there is no alternative: when he finally meets the Wizard of Snowpiercer, he discovers that the thing he’s been fighting and bleeding for—to replace the bad leader with the good leader—is a mirage. Even the White Males who have symbolically castrated themselves and become mother figures instead—even Gilliam, who cuts off his arm and feeds it to the babies—turn out to be a part of capital’s mode of reproduction by auto-cannibalism. Gilliam and Wilford are Curtis’ parents—as he is traumatized to discover—and even the revolution is an integral part of the train. Only the engine is eternal.

This fact, however—as the ending reveals it to be a fact—is also what makes the movie anti-revolution. There is no alternative. Kill yourself. Or, instead of killing yourself, perhaps you should give your body to the others, so that they can live? That must have been Gilliam’s thought process, as well as the two children we see “working” in the engine. It’s a reasonable train of thought, and it leads to insanity. But what other choice is there?

* * *

Let’s back up a bit. For most of the movie, I was irritated by what seemed to be a hole in the plot: what are the tail-section people even for? They are so obviously extraneous to the operation of the train that they cannot stand for an exploited proletariat in the classical sense. They do not seem to provide anything with their labor, because they do not seem to labor. The front section passengers do not need them. So why haven’t they just let them die? It certainly doesn’t seem to be mercy.

A part of what they provide, it turns out, is psychological comfort. The rest of the train has everything it could want, because desire cannot survive without lack to give it meaning. If you have everything you want, you don’t have want at all. Conversely, to believe that you don’t want for anything, “nothing” needs to exist to make extraneous desire unthinkable. This is the first purpose of the tail section: to convince the rest of the train that they have everything they desire (and want nothing), the tail section passengers must exist so as to provide a zero-point from which pleasure and desire can be measured. In this way, by creating a space in which desire and frustration and hope and fear can actually still be exercised—because the first class passengers can never change or progress or grow or evolve—it becomes possible for the 1% to forget that they are standing still on a moving train.

In this way, even the “revolution” only keeps the system sustainable. Without occasional violence, there would be only pleasure, and pleasure fades when there is nothing but pleasure. At a certain point, you need blood; the revolution provides that blood, as does counter-revolutionary violence against the bare-life tail-section passengers.

Let’s not forget, after all, that while we see scores of lounging, decadent drug-addled first-class passengers dissipating themselves in pleasure, as our heroes navigate through the bowels of capitalism, we also see at least as many black-masked, hatchet-wielding thugs, first class passengers who are ready, willing, and able to kill on command, and who apparently live for that command. Even the party-raver passengers turn into a murderous mob when given the opportunity to do so. Even Tilda “Ayn Thatcher” Swinton pivots easily from punching down to punching up; given the opportunity, she’s as happy to live by killing Wilford as she is to live by killing passengers. They are one and the same thing; killing is what makes her alive.

Snowpiercer is a truly chilling dystopia, then, because its world is fully self-contained, and sufficient. But the most insane thing about it is that it makes sense. And it crystallizes something firghtening about the psychic geography of late capitalism, a technologically-enhanced state of affairs in which the function of the oppressed masses is less and less to work and be exploited than to be excluded and to suffer. The first world, the movie might seem to argue, works less to provide its citizens with pleasure than to shape their desire by constructing others through their pain, lack, and death. Instead of giving Texans a health care system, for example, late capitalism gives them the illegal immigrant, to hate, to fear, and to dis-identify with. Prisons do more and more of the system-maintaining work that was once done by schools and hospitals: instead of giving us something to want, they give us something to fear, hate, and kill. And so, we eat ourselves.

* * *

Does this make the movie a Marxist “allegory” for capitalism, as so many of its readers have claimed? In one sense, yes, and even the director has said so. By using a dystopian future to represent capitalism, it argues that capitalism is a dystopic machine, that it keeps us alive by allowing us to sustainably eat ourselves. The worst thing about capitalism, in other words, is that it does keep us alive: to stay alive, we must be capitalist, but the more we eat ourselves, the less we actually die. Accelerationists might take up the part of Marxism which suggests that capitalism is unsustainable, and will inevitably accelerate until the point it goes off the rails, and use that to argue that we should go ahead and speed up the train. But the truly horrifying possibility is that this is not what will happen, and that the faster we go, we only auto-cannibalize ourselves more efficiently as the system closes itself more tightly.

In a way, however, “allegory” is the wrong word. Allegories always flow out of the reality principle that makes a narrative subterfuge necessary; to unmask the fact that a story which seems to be about one thing is actually about another thing, is to demonstrate that there is something unspeakable that you can only suggest by misdirection and implication. As Anne Helen Peterson suggests, for example, Jaws is an allegory for capitalism because “hey, capitalism eats the young” was not something you could really say in the 1970’s, and Steven “Damn, I love kids” Spielberg certainly wasn’t trying to say it. But a movie like Jaws is compelling because it manages to say it, without actually saying it. It tells us something we know to be true, but we aren’t allowed to say. It is therefore a relief to see it on a screen.

What does Snowpiercer allow us to say? What relief does it provide? Does it tell us that the one percent are eating the babies of the poor? Yes, but we already knew that, and we can say so if we want. (Go ahead, say it; no one will stop you). Does it tell us that capitalism sucks and that we should smash the state? Yes, but the cold war is over and that kind of radical utopianism doesn’t have quite the aggressive subversiveness that it once might have had. When the Soviet Union existed, there was (or seemed to be) an alternative, so being anti-capitalist could mean being for something else. Does it, today? For an awful lot of people, it doesn’t, because there is no alternative. Be as anti-capitalist as you like, those people now say; read Thomas Picketty, if you want. You still have to shop at the company store.

Calling Snowpiercer an allegory for capitalism, then—and especially reading it as an argument for revolution—elides the things that make it scary. If a director can make a movie about how capitalism is auto-cannibalism, and say so, then it’s not an allegory for capitalism. How can the train be a metaphor for late capitalism when it literally is, in the movie, the form that capitalism takes after climate change? It is the latest possible kind of capitalism, a capitalism that no longer makes anything other than pain and suffering. The train is the capitalism that it has eaten up the entire world, and is now just living off its own stored reserves of fat.

Snowpiercer is not about the revolution we might have today, then; it’s about the time after revolution has ceased to be possible. As a dystopic future, it can even be recuperated into a call to save the present, precisely so we don’t get to the point where Snowpiercer has already gotten. It could be a call to revolution: what we need to do is change the system. In this way, however, it isn’t “about” contemporary capitalism at all. Or if it is, then it’s already too late; if children are the only food sources left, then our choice is no choice: we can kill ourselves or eat ourselves, each of which implies the other.

* * *

My favorite part of the movie is the moment when Curtis reveals the Big Secret about his dark past, and Nam’s response is to thank him for telling such an interesting story.

coolstoryCurtis thinks he’s just blown Nam’s mind, by revealing the dark truth at the basis of everything. But Nam already knew that Soylent Green was people. In a way, so did we. Cannibalism is such an omnipresent over-text of the movie that the story of the back-of-the-train’s primitive accumulation of protein is not such a stunning revelation. In the saw way, Curtis’ deep shock at discovering what the protein bars are made from—Bugs!—demonstrates the kind of naivete that makes him a plausible revolutionary leader, a romantic idealism that makes him exactly the kind of fool that Gilliam would pick to lead a sham revolution. What did he think they were eating? In some parts of the world—like Korea, to pick a totally random example—insects are recognized to be a perfectly healthy and nutritious source of protein. Would you rather eat children? What if your “clean” food was made in sweat shops? (Breaking: it is!)

When Curtis tells Nam his story, he thinks its shameful, as he had another choice. He still thinks that a benevolent leader could fix things, and make an equitable distribution of resources. But Nam knows what Curtis doesn’t; while Curtis was eating people and then trying to forget, Nam was in the front part of the train, watching it happen, planning, and building security doors. Nam has decided that there is no alternative, and never was. That’s why he has a different plan: to blow up the train and destroy humanity, forever.

That’s not revolution. That’s the end of the world. And let’s take a moment and remember what a relief that moment was, what a catharsis. Everybody in this movie needs to die, and they all do, thank God. That’s the real ending of the movie, and it’s pleasurable to watch, a relief. The movie fades to black before we see the polar bear eat those two kids, but let’s not fool ourselves: those two kids are not going to wander off into a new Eden and repopulate the earth (and not only because there are only two of them, though that lack of genetic diversity is one of humanity’s many death sentences here). Nature is about to eat the children that were just saved from being eaten by the train. A polar bear is not a sign of hope, because polar bears eat people, and, anyway, how is a pair of children who have never been off the train—have never even seen dirt—going to be able to live on what is basically Antarctica? Those kids are already dead, in days, if not hours, if not minutes.

The best case scenario is that they don’t die yet. If they survive by eating the (conveniently refrigerated) human meat they find in the various trains around them—or in the frozen cities of the frozen world around them—there is nothing like a utopian vision to be found in this scenario, only another primal tragedy that either starts the whole damned thing moving again, or keeps it moving a couple more rounds. At best, they are still parasites on what’s left of industrial capitalism, the roaches that survived the nuclear holocaust. They are not, and will not be, Inuits or any other variation on the paleo-primitive savage; Nam’s dream that it is possible to survive outside the train, if you just remember to wear a coat, is totally totally unhinged, the sort of dream that a guy who’s been living in a drawer and doing drugs would dream. The fact that he has made some observations out the window of the train does not make him a reliable climatologist. His most compelling piece of evidence that life outside the train is possible—the fact that a crashed plane seems to be emerging from the snow—is only persuasive if you are already persuaded. That plane is on a hillside, with arctic winds blowing over it; maybe, just maybe, the entire planet isn’t unfreezing because, actually, some snow is just shifting around a little bit? Occam’s razor says it’s probably just some snow shifting around a little bit. To take that plane as evidence of global warming is about as rational and well-founded as taking a blizzard in May as evidence that climate change is nonsense.

At the same time, his insane choice is as close to sanity as you’re going to get on this train. We don’t know he’s wrong, just like we don’t actually see the polar bear come over and snack on the kids. His choice is the correct one within the logical box the film has constructed. A tiny, microscopic chance that things are getting better outside—a desperate and unfounded faith without reason—is actually a better bet than hoping that things will get better from within, because we know that is not going to happen. That train is fucked, as Yona observes; either there is salvation outside or humanity is better off not existing at all. We have no reason to believe it’s the former, but if it isn’t—if there really is nothing else—then we have lost precisely nothing by the discovery Humanity is a terminally ill 95-year old living in tremendous pain with extremely low quality of life. It’s time to pull the plug. Anything is better than this, and so is nothing.

beyondWhy do we like watching a movie that fantasizes about the end of all human life? Freud had to invent the “death drive” to explain what the pleasure principle couldn’t, the fact that people sometimes put themselves in danger on purpose, and seem to feel an attraction to death that cannot be explained in terms of a utilitarian economy of pleasure-maximization. Suicide is irrational, yet people do it, and people also seem to like to tantalize themselves with death. As Freud noted, then, there is a death drive: sometimes death is a mercy from unlivable life, and sometimes we take risks because it makes us feel alive.

This is not to say that we really want to die. Death is the ultimate outside to living experience, the absolute unknowable; we cannot want it, therefore, because we cannot know what it is. But “death” can be the fantasy that drives us: we may not really want to die (and who knows what we really want), but the idea that “I wish I was dead” can be a way to articulate the unbearable reality of a life we cannot bear, and yet for which we have no alternative. Death is the ultimate alternative, and an inevitable one. So when nothing in life suggests that another world is possible, the idea of death can serve as the alternative that is, in the end, not only possible, but inevitable.

This is why the movie ends with everything being blown up, and why it’s such a relief to see the entire train be destroyed. Nothing good can or will come from that train, and its total destruction is a relief. For the viewers, we get death without death: we don’t actually have to destroy the entirety of humanity to enjoy the fantasy of all the things we hate about ourselves, as a species, being obliterated. By making that train the crystallized encapsulation of everything that is awful about late capitalism, Snowpiercer lets us watch it burn. This is what movies do, let us enjoy the fantasy of something we can’t really want in reality, or something we want without wanting all of it.

In this way, Snowpiercer is less an allegory than it is an extended, narrative form of ruin-pornography. As critics like Fredric Jameson or Slavoj Žižek like to proclaim, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” but this bit of conventional wisdom is true without being quite as revelatory as it can sometimes seem. Of course we can imagine the end of the world; everywhere we look, we see death and decay and non-life. WWII gave us a truly vivid and comprehensive picture of what the end of the world looks like, and so does Gaza and Syria: syria pic WWII pic gaza picSnowpiercer is different mainly because it covers these ruined cities with snow. But look around you, anywhere in the everywhere of slow American rust and urban decay, and you’ll see the same story playing out before your eyes. The cities we thought we were building, at a time when trains were the very height of utopian ambition—the future of Ayn Rand and Lenin alike—are either sick, dying, or long dead. The 20th century had a future that won’t come.

In a way, that’s sad. But the dream of high modernism was always already also a nightmare. See how little you have to change the old Michigan Central Station to make it into the new one, the dead one:

old station detroit trainPeople can’t live in either of them, but one of them has color. Our cities have always been concrete sarcopoli, for as long as they’ve been what they are; without the countryside outside of them—feeding us with the living material of the earth and providing somewhere to dump our waste—they would become concrete tombs. And so, the dark dreams of industrial capitalism have always been the knowledge of the outside that is required to keep the radically un-closed system viable, the death camps, prisons, workhouses, and meat factories that “we” have always subjected “them” to. And we have always feared that we would become them.

White people began to say “Never again” after the holocaust, because for the first time, white people worldwide had to face the possibility that it could happen to them. It’s no coincidence, then, that only the white men in the movie want to build a utopian closed system, with themselves in charge. They believe in it, believe that it’s possible. Those who have been “othered” are much more cynical, and have much more modest goals: keeping their own kids alive.


This is a movie in which there is no alternative. Is there no alternative? If so, Margaret Thatcher was right. But to place that vision of reality onto Snowpiercer is to read it much too literally. This is a movie about how awful it would be if she is right, a world in which another world is not possible. More than that, it expresses the horror of utopian idealism gone wrong, the idea that all you have to do is kill the king and Democracy! Whisky! Sexy! will magically takes its place. It is not an argument for the status quo to observe that it can be pretty horrible when it doesn’t.

What would a revolution look like? What would an after capitalism actually be? It’s reasonable to be skeptical. None of us have ever seen earth, and in that way, we’re like Yona: our food comes from the supermarket, and when the shelves go bare, we will probably starve to death. That’s what the end of capitalism could look like, whether it’s brought on by climate change or some other energy crisis. And it will end. There is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine, and we’re running out of the carbon energy that industrial capitalism was built on. By the same token, Wilford thinks he’s built a truly closed ecology, but that dream is at least as crazy as Nam’s, just as much a fantasy. Everything stops, eventually, and that’s as true of capitalism as it is of our individual lifespans. Even the universe will eventually die of heat death.

We spend most of our time and energy acting as if it isn’t, and as if we have the power to stop it. We act as if we can live forever, and even our risk-taking might be, in part, an effort to forget the fact that we know we can’t: I choose to smoke because choosing to die reassures me that I have a choice, that I could also choose not to die. But we can’t live forever, and we won’t. That doesn’t stop us from living healthy, or whatever, but it does mean we’re only adding time to the clock.

We also tend to pretend that our current civilization can survive climate change. Can it? I don’t know how anyone can reasonably think that we’ve got more than a century or so before the train goes completely off the rails. Trains only look unstoppable, which is one of the great things about Snowpiercer’s metaphor: sure it can blast through obstacles, if they’re positioned just right, but it doesn’t take all that much lateral force to knock it off its tracks. And once that happens, it’s not going to right itself. Trains don’t go back onto the tracks, and climate change doesn’t reverse itself. It’s a runaway train, and once we hit the point of no return, we’re not going to return. When climate change really happens, that’s the end of everything we are and know. “We” won’t survive, and whatever survives—which is unlikely to be human—will not be “us.” Climate change is species death, probably, and civilizational death, definitely.

* * *

We shouldn’t necessarily let that get us down, though. I mean, did you think you were going to live forever? Did you think your kids were? If so, cool story! Death is the thing we always live with and no one gets out of here alive and so forth; you can evade it, for a while, but it’s the only thing more reliable than taxes, because even rich people die. Etcetera, after cliched etcetera.

The only real question is what to do with that fact. And the answer is: not much. You can’t. Death is the negation of doing, by definition. Even suicide is not death, but the prelude to it, the thing you do just before all doing stops. But that’s why utopian thinking threatens to become dangerously unhinged from reality if it believes in itself too much: imagining that you can live through death is a good way to turn life into death. A Thousand-Year Reich is built on death camps, pyramids are built with slave labor, the Soviet Union with gulags, and the neoliberal End of History was the beginning of the United States’ great explosion of prison-building and a global forever war on terror.

If nothing else, one pleasures of Snowpiercer is that it punctures the illusion that rich people can buy immortality, something we 99%ers enjoy because we know for damn sure that we can’t and won’t. The moment when Curtis attacks Tilda Swinton rather than trying to save his little brother Edgar, for example, is a moment of great pleasure for the audience, and that’s something the movie forces you to confront: you wanted her to die more than you wanted Edgar to live. That’s the reason she’s so awful, why the movie puts all those unendurable platitudes about order into her mouth: she believes, as does Ed Harris, that there is order in the universe, and we—like Curtis—want to smash that smug belief more than we want her to be right. We want to smash it because it’s the thing we wish we could believe in, but can’t. To want him to save Edgar, we would have to think that there was hope, and we don’t; enjoying Tilda Swinton’s death, on the other hand, is to feel justified in nihilistic despair. This is a movie about nihilistic despair, the nihilistic despair that is the only reasonable response to the fact that we’re all going to die and everything we love is going to disappear.

But why have a reasonable response to that fact? What has “reason” ever done for us, other than produce utilitarian arguments for the liquidation of human beings and the commodification of everything? Reason makes it possible to declare that the deaths of children are “worth” it, whatever the fuck “it” is supposed to be. Reason makes despair possible, the same way aspirations to immortality make death unbearably sad. Reason helps us get nowhere and never stop going there.

The problem with calling the movie an allegory is that allegory doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know, and it hides the thing you didn’t realize it was persuading you of. Allegories are closed ecologies. If Snowpiercer is a movie about capitalism, then we already know what it is, and says, because we already know what we know about capitalism. If you think a death-train of the damned in a post-apocalyptic hellscape is an allegory about capitalism, then it’s because you think capitalism is a death-train of the damned in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. But if everyone knows that the train is an allegory for industrial capitalism—and everybody certainly seems to—then it’s not a secret, and not the kind of allegory Jameson was talking about when he described anti-capitalism as our political unconscious. It’s anything but the kind of unspeakable, repressed truth that we all pretend not to know, even to ourselves; the fact that the train is capitalism is the thing we allow ourselves to talk about because we’re afraid to talk about the real thing it is, which is death, our fear of death, and our desire for the thing we fear. We’re all going to the same place, and we’re all going nowhere at the same time; there is nothing outside of life, nor is it enough. There isn’t a happy ending, just an ending. And so forth.

This movie takes for granted that there is no alternative, and that’s the thing we shouldn’t take seriously. It’s just a movie, a movie built on the ability of a writer to imagine a scenario precisely in the way he chooses. In Snowpiercer, there is nothing outside of the train: life is just measuring time until death. There is something outside of Snowpiercer, though: us. As Ed Harris points out, near the end, “Curtis’ Revolution” is not a revolution, it’s a movie about a revolution, and as such, it displaces and suppresses real disorder (Nam and his daughter are the real free radicals, for him, because they are willing to blow up the train and take their chances with the bears.) But a movie about Curtis’ revolution is also not a revolution, and that’s what we’ve just watched: going to see Snowpiercer is escapist fantasy. It is the fantasy of escape we enjoy, but it might convince us that escape is an impossible fantasy if we make the mistake of taking the movie too seriously. But it’s a movie.

I see no better place


“I see no other better place, even temporarily, to receive detainees in Manaus,” Marques, president of the watchdog group tasked with monitoring the prison system in the Amazon region, told reporters. He also suggested prisoners be processed at a venue used to celebrate the annual carnival. “Until the state can solve the problem by building new prisons then these two empty spaces should be used,” he said, in remarks confirmed by court officials.”


“[Arena da Amazônia] can seat around 41,000 spectators and features a restaurant, luxury suites, underground parking spaces and accessibility for people with special needs. It also includes an on-site rain water recycling system and sewage treatment facilities to reduce its water usage and is designed to make use of natural ventilation to reduce its consumption of energy. In addition, more than 95% of the material from the demolition of the old stadium was recycled.”


“The three were sentenced by FIFA’s courts within 24 hours and the two Zimbabweans began a fifteen-year jail sentence the following day. The Nigerian man was handed a four-year sentence. Doubts were raised over whether it’s possible to mount a fair trail in 24 hours.”


“The prisoners had been taken to the soccer stadium, marched past Revolution Square into the heart of the city, and ordered to sing of their loyalty to Guddu and and the Derg. Their fervent cries of revolution and Communism were soon eclipsed by sudden and continual rounds of shooting.”


Mr. Makhubu had not used force or threats when stealing the phone, but he could not have timed his theft any worse. He was the 25th person brought before the so-called instant justice courts set up under the National Prosecution Authority last week. Others included foreign nationals from Brazil, Germany, India, Peru, Slovenia, Uganda, the United States and Zimbabwe. Their misdemeanors ranged from petty theft to armed robbery. In the case of two young women, their mistake was wearing orange dresses that FIFA deemed to be part of an “ambush marketing” campaign promoting a Dutch beer — rather than Budweiser, which pays FIFA handsomely to be its official and exclusive World Cup brew.”


“Its pitch, they said, was so bloodsoaked that grass would not grow. For years, the only spectacles on offer at the Ghazi Stadium in the Afghan capital were executions, stonings and mutilations by the Taliban, rulers of the country from 1996 to 2001.”


““The people in the image below are climbing the walls of Afghanistan’s only soccer stadium in the capital, Kabul, to get a glimpse of the first public soccer game after the fall of the Taliban.


“Those detained for involvement in terrorism against the United States have received a new soccer field while taxpayers tighten their belts and do without,” Reed observed. “School districts and municipalities go without money for new fields. Yet the government finds a way to build them for those who would destroy us?”


“The Pentagon has said it is restoring the glorious game to Gitmo with a new 28,000-square-foot “super-rec” space that includes a field surrounded by a gravel track with shaded areas in the corners. Detainees will reach the field by walking through covered walkways that the military is calling “habitat trails” — rather like the tunnel to the pitch at, say, Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium, but without the crowds.”


“The U.S. admiral in charge of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp is defending the decision to build a $744,000 soccer field for well-behaved prisoners, and said critics misunderstood the facility’s purpose and logistics.”


“A few weeks after the coup, Chile’s national soccer team faced a play-off game in Santiago against the Soviet Union. The winner would go to the 1974 World Cup, in Germany. The loser would stay home. The match was to be held in Chile’s National Stadium in Santiago, but there was a problem: in the weeks since the coup, the Chilean military had transformed the stadium into a detention camp. Seven thousand political prisoners were being held there.”


“The next day, the blood stains were washed away with hoses”


“And it was at nearby Chile Stadium where the great Victor Jara — the Bob Dylan of Chile and a political activist (or was Dylan the Victor Jara of the U.S.?) — was murdered by the Pinochet regime. Jara’s fingers were mutilated in front of thousands of other prisoners. He attempted to sing songs of resistance, his hands bloody stumps, only to be gunned down as people in the stands tried to join him in chorus. I didn’t want to be near these places any more than I would want to watch a baseball game at Auschwitz.”


“Over 11,000 Jews were arrested on the same day, and confined to the Winter Stadium, or Velodrome d’Hiver, known as the Vel’ d’Hiv, in Paris. The detainees were kept in extremely crowded conditions, almost without water, food and sanitary facilities. Within a week the number of Jews held in the Vel’ d’Hiv had reached 13,000, among them more than 4,000 children.”


“In Wonsan, eight people were tied to a stakes at a local stadium, had their heads covered with white sacks and were shot with a machine gun, according to the source.According to witnesses of the execution, the source said, Wonsan authorities gathered some 10,000 people, including children, at Shinpoong Stadium, which has a capacity of 30,000 people, and forced them to watch.“I heard from the residents that they watched in terror as the corpses were riddled by machine-gun fire that they were hard to identify afterwards.”


“For more than a year, Sylvio Cator Stadium served as the home to some 2,600 refugees living in a tent camp. Now, it’s the lightning rod for an eviction standoff as Haiti struggles to move forward with its efforts to rebuild. On Tuesday morning, policemen arrived at the stadium and tussled with refugees after an argument broke out with stadium officials. The owners have cut off the water supply for those there in an effort to make them leave. “We’re trying to isolate the refugees,” said the stadium’s director Rolny Saint Louis.”


In one shockingly tweeted photo, a group was shown en masse in a cage, prompting a commentator to ask “Gorme xoloo noqoney?” – When did we become livestock?


“Police on Tuesday, declared the Safaricom Kasarani Stadium a no-go zone for humanitarian organizations”


“At a soccer stadium in a nearby town, human feces, blood, and other evidence indicated large numbers of persons were confined, and perhaps shot.UN officials estimate that 4,000 to 6,000 Muslim men are still missing in the wake of the Srebrenica and Zepa assaults. So far there is little indication that these men are being held prisoner. Dozens of local Bosnian Serb civilians and soldiers, most of them unaware they were speaking to a foreign journalist’s translator, said they had heard nothing about a large group of captives from the former enclaves.According to Bosnian Serb troops, all Muslims captured in the area are being summarily executed. One soldier, reporting to his commanding officers in Nova Kasaba, said a group of more than 300 Muslims who were armed with only 50 guns are still hiding in the hills around the village of Cerska, near Zepa.”


“More than 400 people have been arrested in Banias since Saturday, Abdul-Rahman said, adding that authorities had converted the Mediterranean city’s soccer stadium into a prison to house them.In the southern city of Daraa, the hub of Syria’s six-week uprising, another human rights organization observed a similar situation.”In Daraa, there have been so many arbitrary arrests in recent days that the army and security forces are using schools and the city’s soccer stadium as makeshift prison facilities,” said Ammar Qurabi, chairman of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria.” super1

“Oh God, fresh air, it’s so wonderful. It’s the first time I’ve wanted to breath all day,” said Robin Smith, 33. “When you think what we could’ve gone through, it’s not too bad in there. But it’s certainly not as wonderful as this.” National Guardsmen began letting people take a walk on the large walkway surrounding the dome Monday night. They made sure they didn’t leave, though.”


“Under an agreement between the Brazilian government and local authorities in the 12 cities hosting 2014 World Cup games, at least five percent of the workers building or renovating the stadiums must be prisoners. “My life has changed direction,” said sun-beaten Thiago Ferreira, a 26-year-old convicted drug trafficker who is helping renovate the Belo Horizonte soccer stadium, which will host a number of World Cup games. The inmates are selected after a rigorous evaluation process by a group of social workers, lawyers and psychologists. For three days of work, each inmate earns one day off his sentence.”


hasb1I’ve been thinking about collective punishment lately. The idea that collective punishment is illegitimate, illegal, beyond the pale is international law and international common sense, something you can take for granted. It’s wrong. You can punish individuals for the acts they are individually responsible for; you cannot punish categories of people for the actions of individual members. Obviously. We all know this (or at least most of the collective first-persons that I belong to).

Meanwhile, Israel routinely bulldozes the homes of people suspected of terrorism forces us to do this,, to say nothing of individual Palestinian youths being lynched is important ,(it is important to say nothing of the air-strikes that somehow magically spare the pure of hea.rt))Because collective punishment is integral to the Israeli state what it is..

After all, if the Israeli occupation of Palestine is justified in any way, it is justified on the basis of collective punishment: because of what Hamas has done, the occupation continues to be necessary. Why must Palestinians suffer the daily abuses and humiliations of what anyone with a sense of history would regard as too similar to Apartheid to deny the resemblance? Well, rockets were fired at Israel, or were promised. Palestinians die because Israelis have died or to prevent them from dying in the future, always a clash between past and future. There even exists, in certain Zionist quarters, the somewhat strained argument that the creation of Israel, itself, represents a kind of collective punishment for the Holocaust: since “the Arabs” were/have been/are anti-semites—and in some cases, there was active collaboration between Arab nationalists and the Axis powers—the Israeli state has been can therefore be was justified in creating itself out of the land once inhabited by Arabs. Palestinians, today, have no country, because of Hitler. Or something along those lines (it’s an argument too stupid to make explicitly, mostly, but it’s so often latent that it’s worth making manifest).

One response to this kind of argument would be to demand consistency of Israel, to demand an end to the occupation and that Israel comply with international law and begin to make reparations for the many decades of violence and dispossession. Collective punishment is illegitimate, we might say, and should therefore be ended, and reparations made. I’m fine with that response. Israel is in continuous violation of a whole raft of international laws and norms, and if we’re serious about those laws and norms—if we think, for example, that it should be illegal for a state to seize territory by military force, expel the people that live there, and settle different people on that land—then the state of Israel has a lot of work to do to make things right. If we think air-strikes on civilian populations are wrong, then Israel has to stop doing it. If we think perpetual colonial rule is about as defensible as slavery, then we should demand that Israeli colonial rule end. They should get on that.

Meanwhile—with the exception of what the BDS movement has managed to accomplish—Israel’s illegality just does not actually quite seem to make it particularly illegitimate, any more than the invasion of Iraq made the US culpable for what has happened since. Rockets falling on Israel must be harshly and uniformly condemned (and are), while air-strikes that have now killed over a hundred people get euphemistically justified as “Israel’s tough response,” by no less than Ban Ki-Fucking-Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations. Sometimes infractions of international law carry grave consequences; here, they do not seem to.

What do we do with this double standard? One thing we can do is ask the question of whether we really think that collective punishment is illegal. We often say so; it’s written down in various places. But as a great Jewish philosopher once put it, by their fruits ye shall know them. Legality is not simply a function of what the law says; it’s also a function of what the law does. And “international law”—to the extent such a thing is more than a mythological creature—does not actually seem to regard Israel’s occupation as illegal. Why would we pretend that it is?

More to the point, what do we do with the fact that the pretense is impossible? I’m so far from having an answer to that question, that all I can do is ask it. But that’s part of what “Israel” does to us when it flouts what we like to think is international law, or what we do to ourselves when we watch it happen. We like to think that we are a nation of laws, as the old presidential proverb has it; we like to imagine that international criminality is an exception to the rule, that we can tremble for our country when we reflect that the international community is just, because its justice cannot sleep forever. But that’s such bullshit, isn’t it? The kind of bullshit most of us don’t even really believe, but which we all habitually pretend to believe, all the more so when we act outraged or surprised at the scandal of something so glaringly illegal as the Israeli occupation or biannual re-invasion of Gaza. These are habits that are very easy to fall into.

Another word for “collective punishment” might be reparations, with a key difference: reparations build something. When Germany paid reparations to Israel—a historical episode which Ta-Nehisi Coates recently used as part of his case for reparations to African-Americans—it was a kind of collective punishment, legitimized by the fact that so many Germans were so very deeply complicit in the Holocaust. I wonder if the only times reparations ever happen are when they can also be understood as punishment for the guilty, collective responsibility for what was collectively done. I suspect so.

My point, then, is that when we think of collective punishment as illegitimate, illegal, beyond the pale—when you can punish individuals for the acts they are individually responsible for and you cannot punish categories of people for the actions of individual members—what we really also can’t help but mean is this: it is wrong for the collectively guilty to repair the damage that has been done in their name by individuals. Isn’t it this that makes us tremble? Isn’t this what we are reassuring ourselves can never happen?

hasb8We might say that collective punishment is illegal, after all, and we might wish that it was. But that’s not the real norm. In a world where impunity for the powerful is the real norm, the practical consequence of such statements is to object to the possibility that flagrant violations of international law by the powerful—the invasion of Iraq, say, or the occupation of Palestine—might in some way redound upon us, in whose names these things are being done. These are the only kinds of collective punishments that are ever actually rejected, after all, the only moments when individuals are actually shielded from collective responsibility. When we habitually think—a habit we like to fall into—that we are not responsible, or that we can so simply declare “Not in my name” and have it be true, what we are also asserting is our own irresponsibility, our own pale beyondness from the guilt of what is being done. But in a world where anyone in Gaza can pay in blood for the fact that someone in Gaza fired a rocket at Israel, what makes this immunity anything but a inherited privilege? At the very least—and it is the very least—we should acknowledge that it has nothing to do with anything that might be called “justice.”

Found Poetry

A Tough Response at the Fun Time Beach cafe
Controversial but fabulous, Israel does a good job
It will be hard, complicated, and costly,
And we will have to take over Gaza temporarily,
forever Israel, unlike Hamas, will be hard
Israel, unlike Hamas, isn’t trying to kill civilians.
Missile at Beachside Gaza Cafe Finds Patrons Poised
It’s taking pains to spare them
It will be hard, complicated, and costly, controversial but
To spare them isn’t trying to kill civilians poised.
It’s taking A Tough Response at the Fun Time Beach cafe to find them


#NotAllPublic, Heartburn, Twitter

FB post twitter“a gentle reminder of a fact: Twitter is public.” —Hamilton Nolan

“I first learned that people don’t realize Twitter is public during Boston marathon.” —Dave Weigel

“Public tweets are public. This is a fact, not a value judgment.” —Elizabeth Nolan Brown

“Yes, Twitter is public. But” —Amanda Hess

“Am I doing harm by amplifying this content?” —Jillian York

To say “twitter is public” is to beg the question that “public” means something. It’s not even wrong to say this sort of thing: the fact that it’s true, that tweets are public, is so obviously true that you can forget to notice that it’s irrelevant, which is the point. Legally, tweets are public. And if “the legal” is what describes and circumscribes your sense of the ethical, you can stop there.

But do you want to? Maybe “not illegal” is not the best way to think about the range of things it is acceptable to do. It is legal to be a cruel, malicious asshole, for example; it is legal to be hurtful and exploitative to strangers, to callously use people without worrying about the effects of your actions. It is legal to make money doing things which hurt other people, as long that thing is not illegal.

Maybe legality, then, is of limited usefulness in figuring out how to be a person.

As Helen Nissenbaum points out, we often often understand

“a right to privacy in terms of dichotomies—sensitive and non-sensitive, private and public, government and private…That which falls within any one of the appropriate halves warrants privacy consideration; for all the rest, anything goes.”

The clarity of binary dichotomy, however, is deceptive. It promises (and aims for) a neat resolution that it can only provide by abstracting out of existence the actual social situation in which the actual event occurred. “Anything goes” might describe a useful legal principle, but it’s a very poor way of describing how most people actually behave. As Nissenbaum goes on to point out,

“there are no arenas of life not governed by norms of information flow, no information or spheres of life for which ‘anything goes.’ Almost everything—things that we do, events that occur, transactions that take place—happens in a context not only of place but of politics, convention, and cultural expectation…Observing the texture of people’s lives, we find them not only crossing dichotomies, but moving about, into, and out of a plurality of distinct realms. They are at home with families, they go to work, they seek medical care, visit friends, consult with psychiatrists, talk with lawyers, go to the bank, attend religious services, vote, shop, and more. Each of these spheres, realms, or contexts involves, indeed may even be defined by, a distinct set of norms, which governs its various aspects such as roles, expectations, actions, and practices. For certain contexts, such as the highly ritualized settings of many church services, these norms are explicit and quite specific. For others, the norms may be implicit, variable, and incomplete (or partial).”

What Nissenbaum is describing is the lived texture of a social world for which the necessarily dichotomous structures of the law is totally and painfully inadequate. Law must pretend that something is either legal or not, and that courts have the power to say which is which, and make it true; being an ethical person in the world, however, must recognize that calling anything “fair game” is inevitably a first step towards normalizing some form of predatory behavior.

This is why “legal” and “ethical” are not, and should not be, synonyms. If something is legally fair game, only someone who has outsourced their ethics to the state would assert a categoric and overriding right to use and possess it.

If your sense of ethics extends beyond merely “not illegal,” on the other hand, the decision about whether or not to treat someone’s twitter feed as fair game is more complicated, something that cannot so easily be incorporated into self-righteous assertions of “fact.” It is generally legal to take pictures of people in public spaces, in places where they have no expectations of privacy. Is it ethical to do so? The “creepshots” problem illustrates one of the most glaring flaws in this reasoning, as do the various surveillance state interpretations of what is and is not public: for people who have utterly amoral, exploitative, and an essentially predatory interest in acquiring recordings of people and things—your creeps and your NSAs, but I repeat myself—the legal limitations on the acquisition of publicly available data is so inadequate as to be almost nonexistent. In such a context, “not illegal” means that almost nothing is off-limits: “not illegal” gives you permission to let your ethics be dictated by the state, which is to say, not really to have them.

It is also worth saying that to use “not illegal” to assert the “fact” that twitter is public—and to treat that assertion as something so self-evident that only “people” (in their notorious ignorance) could think otherwise—is willfully stupid. For one thing, it betrays a nostalgia for the easy objectivity of an ethic-less legal order. Ethics are complicated and ambiguous, an ever-evolving and contingent problem that you never really solve. Beware anyone who thinks they’ve done so. Resorting to a faith in legality as the deciding factor—the fact that the law governing intellectual property declares twitter to be public—is a comfortable simplification. It allows you to pretend that if something is not illegal to do, then the fact that it’s legal to do so is also the fact that it’s okay to do so. The first can be a fact; the second can only be an assertion.

I’m generally agnostic on the actual laws which declare some forms of utterance to be public and some to be private. I was not consulted in the writing of this law, and since the force of such law rests on force, on the state’s ability to punish those who break its dictates, it seems to me that the legality of quoting tweets is something entirely separate from the question of whether it’s good to do so. I feel no compunction in quoting and linking to people who assert that twitter is public, then; not because I agree with them (I don’t), but because they agree with my decision to do so. They have pre-emptively consented. By the same token, however—but the other side of the coin—the act of linking or quoting someone who does not regard their twitter as public is only ethically fine if we regard the law as trumping the ethics of consent. It’s not always easy to tell which is which, especially when people want to have it both ways, when some of their speech is off limits and some of it is not. But would respecting people’s right to define their own autonomy include respecting their desire to have it both ways? I suspect that people who are outraged when someone wants to have their cake and eat it too are actually, themselves, interested in eating cake.

All of which is to say that I don’t know how you can be a leftist and also claim that quoting someone’s words—in ways they feel is improper or violent, and to which they have not consented—is ever okay, especially when you use the “fact” of its legality as a reason to ignore their wishes. This seems like a very libertarian position to hold, or a neoliberal, or perhaps just capitalist; freedom and rights, from such a perspective, always turn out to favor those who use and exploit, over those who are used and exploited. Production is everything, and the externalities disappear.

It’s therefore not surprising that you find a Libertarian magazine using the utterly discredited “tragedy of the commons” trope to assert that everything is the private property of whoever manages to grab it. When someone from that perspective reads, approvingly, the words “I assume that if someone is saying something on Twitter, they want it to be known,” in an article whose title trumpets the right to ignore consent, it should be clear that we are talking about assuming people’s desires even when the people, themselves, say the exact opposite. You may think you had an expectation of privacy; we will tell that you were wrong, that your expectation was unreasonable.

In contrast, if you quote someone and circulate their words in ways they turn out to object to, it seems to me that you have an ethical responsibility to listen to them and learn from their objections. All things being equal, you should probably do whatever they want you to do; the fact that it’s your business doesn’t mean it’s not their’s too. But to pretend that this is a simple problem—that there is an easy one-size-fits-all solution to the question of when and how you can use other people’s words—is utter fantasy, and often—I think—a willful disinclination to engage honestly with the consequences of your own actions. Legal actions still have consequences, always. And while you can predict, in advance, whether an action will have legal consequences (at least sometimes), you’re never going to know, in advance, how your actions will affect others. That’s why you have an ethical responsibility to find out, to listen to and respect them, and do what you can to make recourse for the fuck-ups that inevitably result. Good people fuck up, constantly; good people hurt other people, constantly, without not being “good” people because of it. The only interesting question is whether you try to help with the problems you create, or if you hunker down and insist that everything’s fine and other people should fuck off.

There’s a backdrop to this post, one which—if you’ve read this far—I suspect you are aware of. I’m not going to describe it. That’s because I can’t, because I won’t try, and not only because it hurts. With the exception of people who have given explicit permission for the world to use their words as it sees fit, most of the people involved in this imbroglio (and I have a dubious place of honor at the bottom of the heap) are simultaneously angry about how some people’s words are being used and also angrily using other people’s words to show that those people are using words wrong. There are a lot of angry double standards whirling around out there, and people are losing fingers, left and left. As a result, a big part of the little corner of twitter that I occupy has, over the course of the last few days, collapsed into a whirling cycle of mutually reinforcing clusterhatefuckery, and every rail feels like the third one, and I feel something for which “trauma” is not the right word, but for which it’s the closest word. I don’t know what the right word is. In any case, I’m stepping back for a while. I have heartburn, and could barely sleep last night, and I have deadlines to meet, and I still have heartburn, now. I want that to stop; I want to stop burping up air. It will stop, if I stop eating spicy foods for a while and let my stomach recover.