The permanent campaign

On the 100-day anniversary of Canada’s new government, both Chantal Hebert and Andrew Coyne seem to agree: symbolism and marketing have quite overwhelmingly trumped substance.

Coyne, who is less sympathetic than Hebert, goes further:

Three months in, the governing style of Justin Trudeau’s government is coming into focus. It is one part not being Stephen Harper, one part symbolic gesture, one part wriggling out of campaign promises, and one part saying yes to everybody. You thought the Harper government was all about the permanent campaign? Get used to it.

If we ignore Coyne’s obviously conservative bent on some issues (the new government was right to get rid of income splitting and CPC laws targeting unions and First Nations, for God’s sake) the general thrust of his argument is correct: the Liberals are waging a kind of permanent campaign built around a series of carefully choreographed gestures – the real contours of their vision remain obscure, and it’s probably going to stay that way.

And that makes perfect sense, given how they fought the election.

The Liberal campaign was, after all, one which left concern-trolled the NDP by promising modest deficits while also attacking its $15/hour federal minimum wage proposal and saying proposed hikes to corporate taxes were anti-business; that trotted out arch-austerian Paul Martin to give lachrymose sermons about the dangers of austerity; that appropriated the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street to bait the right and neutralize the left, while simultaneously proposing to cut taxes for most of the top 10% of income earners; that criticized the CPC for attacking Canada’s social programs while opposing the NDP’s proposals to create any new ones; it was (*is) both for and against the building of oil pipelines, the mission in Iraq and Syria, substantively changing the electoral system, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, reform of the Senate, Bill C-51, universal social programs…the list goes on.

It was a sunny new approach to politics that involved repeatedly steamrolling local Liberal riding associations and their activists to protect the leadership’s preferred candidates; that happily recruited people like Conservative MP Eve Adams, Bill Blair, and a former Chair of one of the country’s leading right wing think tanks to the cause – not to mention longtime Harper apparatchik Dimitris Soudas.

The overriding theme here is branding: the Liberals propose to “do politics differently”, but their efforts to substantiate this [stated] goal are primarily aesthetic. Reform, where is has happened or will happen, has largely been restorative rather than transformative – Canada is modernizing its way back to circa 2007.

Watching Question Period the past two weeks it’s striking how little the tone of the debate between the government and the official opposition actually reflects any meaningful disagreement. The Tories may bleat about the Liberal plan (yet to be fulfilled) to withdraw Canada’s CF-18s from Syria or Justin Trudeau’s neutralist language around the Energy East pipeline, but the disagreements have more to do with rhetoric than they do with significant disagreement about major issues. Canada’s jets continue to be involved in air strikes (despite an unequivocal campaign promise there is as of yet no timetable for their withdrawal…it’s quite possible they will remain past the CPC’s original timetable or that the mission will simply continue in other forms), and the government proudly trumpets its desire to “get Canadian resources to market”. The disagreement, if you can even call it that, has to do with how openly partisan the government should be about particular issues (the CPC approach is more ideologically honest, though the Liberal one is probably more politically effective).

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Photo courtesy of Day Donaldson. Used under Creative Commons license.

Again, branding is the key here.

As a part of its Sunny Ways™, the government has displayed a visible fondness for the affirmation of process. It is “pro-trade” and appears to be pro-TPP, but it will “broadly consult”; it is pro-electoral reform but non-specific about what that reform will be (consultation first); it was elected around a very specific and widely trumpeted set of economic proposals, but it has yet to put these into a budget or even schedule one because it has to consult first.

This will become more difficult to sustain when major decisions actually have to be made, but the Liberals have already proven miraculously adept at political management. With so much energy invested beforehand in legitimizing the process of consultation itself, even unpopular moves can be deemed the product of sincere public outreach.

The political dexterity this approach affords the Liberals is staggering, as these past 100 days have already demonstrated. Justin Trudeau and his party espouse no ideology, and contend to embody the political preferences of all. It is an approach to politics which, to quote Peter C. Newman, promises “as little as possible but as much as necessary”.

The campaign never ends.

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Nothing left

Thanks to the emerging debate (if you can call it that) among the American liberal punditry prompted by the Bernie Sanders surge, I’m reminded of this evergreen passage of Adolph Reed’s from his Harper’s cover story “Nothing Left” (written in 2014):

If the left is tied to a Democratic strategy that, at least since the Clinton Administration, tries to win elections by absorbing much of the right’s social vision and agenda, before long the notion of a political left will have no meaning. For all intents and purposes, that is what has occurred. If the right sets the terms of debate for the Democrats, and the Democrats set the terms of debate for the left, then what can it mean to be on the political left? The terms “left” and “progressive” — and in practical usage the latter is only a milquetoast version of the former — now signify a cultural sensibility rather than a reasoned critique of the existing social order. Because only the right proceeds from a clear, practical utopian vision, “left” has come to mean little more than “not right.

Watching the liberal commentariat (and the Clinton campaign) spin tales about how Sanders’ plans are “unrealistic” – while all the while claiming to fidelity to the ideals they represent – is like witnessing a re-run of the “third way” politics that dominated the 1990s and early 2000s.

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Politicians like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton didn’t oppose their own bases outright, because that would have been too obvious. Instead they claimed, in increasingly absurd terms, to be broadly supportive of social democratic goals while all the while chipping away at their institutional and ideological foundations. This was very often done on electoral grounds: i.e. “We have to triangulate to win, and winning is the only way to preserve the things we care about…”.

The result was predictable.

The “Overton Window” – which describes the frame inside which political debate is permitted to play out in mainstream discourse – shifted ever further to the right.

The Clinton camp’s latest line of attack is that pursuing a new healthcare goal- as Sanders wants to do – will be “divisive” and put the Affordable Care Act at risk because the Republicans will resist. The implication is that, even at an early stage in the primary season, the DNC and its base should dilute their aspirations to more or less whatever the right will permit in some unknowable political future. (It’s an especially ironic position, since defenders of the ACA’s inadequacies often claimed it would be a stepping stone to true universality, but I digress…)

If your actual goal is to make life qualitatively better for people – even gradually – conceding your opponents’ arguments before the fight has even begun is not a constructive position: it’s downright reactionary.

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Some good shit I read in 2015

We’re a couple days into the New Year, so technically I’m a bit late on this. (Wanna fight about it?).

I read a lot of great stuff on the Internet in 2015. This doesn’t contend to be a “best of” or have any particular kind of coherence – it’s just a few things that stuck with me at year’s end:

Thanks jointly to the refugee crisis and the emergence of ISIS, discussions of the “Islamic threat” were a major feature of political discourse in 2015. A recurrent theme among neocons, New Atheists, gunboat liberals, and fellow travellers has been the ostensibly barbaric nature of Islam itself: Islamic “ideology”, it is said, demands and supports ISIS and all of its depredations. Writing for the New Statesman in March, Mehdi Hassan offered the most nuanced take on ISIS I have yet encountered pointing out, among other things, that most ISIS recruits don’t seem particularly religious and that much of its logistical muscle is drawn from the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s (secular) regime.

A favourite theme of contemporary right wing paternalism is the notion that poverty is essentially an outgrowth of moral failing: Shifting our attention away from structural factors like unemployment or uneven patterns of property ownership, modern conservatives ask us to look instead to individual behaviour. Social problems like crime or drug abuse, or so the story goes, are the products of lax ethics and inferior morals among the constituencies in which they prevail. What the poor needs, in other words, is some good, ole’ fashioned discipline. One of the latest incarnations of this narrative comes from none other than David Brooks – the conservative many liberals seem to love. The New Republic’s Elizabeth Bruenig gave Brook’s argument a thrashing for the ages. Engaging with related themes, CUNY Professor Sanford Schram and University of Minnesota Professor Joe Soss wrote for Jacobin Magazine on the neoliberal effort to remake the American welfare state into an apparatus of paternalism in an article that was circulated to every Member of Congress by Rep. Keith Ellison.

Among retired political figures who continue to haunt public life with their garish ways, perhaps none is more irritating or unwelcome than Tony Blair. Sam Kriss’ blog post (“Tony Blair: Dread Creature of the Forbidden Swamp”) should be read and enjoyed by everyone who dislikes Blair as much as I do.

By far the best thing about my Atlantic subscription (it was a gift, ok?) was the opportunity to read Ta Nehisi Coates in print. Coming just a few months after the publication of his excellent book Between the World and Me, Coates’ “The Black Family and Mass Incarceration” offers a dark and eloquent history of a criminal justice system that continues to inflict structural violence against its black citizens, suppress their freedoms, and keep many of them in crushing poverty.

One of the most exciting political events of 2015 was the victory of the Greek left in the Greek national election…until the whole project came crashing down a few months later. Decades before Central European governments and their banking establishment compelled Syriza to reverse its program, the French socialist project lead by Francois Mitterand was forced into catastrophic retrenchment. Jonah Birch’s magisterial history of these events in Jacobin Magazine taught me a hell of a lot about French politics and made stark crucial questions about the left and state power.

A longstanding interest of mine is the relationship between psychology and political ideology. While political ideologies are essentially abstract systems for understanding how the world is and how it ought to be, they are invariably the products of human experience and have inescapable psychological dimensions attached to our hopes, fears, and desires. At times this is laid quite bare, particularly when it comes to those who seek a particular kind of experience from politics more than the realization of any actual objective or program. Writing for Salon CUNY Professor Corey Robin profiles America’s “perverse centrist patriots”: those who, in Robin’s words, “are always on the lookout for a certain kind of experience in politics. They don’t want power, they don’t seek justice, they’re not interested in interests. They want a feeling. A feeling of exaltation and elation, unmoored from any specific idea or principle save that of sacrifice, of giving oneself over to the nation and its cause.”

Now for some Canadian content. Besides the federal election of 2015, perhaps the major political event of the year was Alberta’s election of a social democratic government last Spring. The province’s right, not especially known for its temperance or sophistication, has been throwing quite the tantrum ever since. Politically represented by the earnest but at times comically inept Wildrose Party, the gaffes and blunders for Alberta’s conservative opposition have continued to mount. Writing in Vice, James Wilt has been profiling the ongoing meltdown with hilarious results.

 

 

 

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The 19th century lives

One of the things most striking about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which was ratified 67 years ago today – is how dramatically it differs from the rights discourse that prevails today.

Consider Article 22, which states:

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Or Article 23:

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

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The incorporation of economic and material provisions into a legal rights framework might be treated as somewhat archaic by the contemporary liberal constitutionalist. In the early postwar period, however, it was essentially the norm – at least aspirationally.

Consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s proposed Economic Bill of Rights – intended as a supplement to the existing Bill of Rights and encompassing employment, food, clothing, leisure, housing, freedom from monopolies, medical care, social security, and education. In a 1944 presidential address, Roosevelt said the following:

It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure. This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. 

They were our rights to life and liberty. As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.

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Second Bill of Rights, proposed by Franklin D. Roosevelt during his State of the Union Address on January 11, 1944.

Across the ocean in Britain the Labour Party, which had worked alongside Winston Churchill in his wartime coalition, made similar noises in its 1945 election campaign. After winning a surprise victory over the popular Conservative Prime Minister, Labour embraced the Beveridge Report – a foundational welfarist document which radically overturned the political logic of the 1930s. Beveridge made three principle recommendations:

  1. Proposals for the future should not be limited by sectional interests in learning from experience and that a “revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for “patching”.
  2. Social insurance is only one part of a comprehensive policy of social progress. The five social evils on the road to reconstruction were Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.
  3. Policies of social security must be achieved by co-operation between the State and the individual, with the state securing the service and contributions. The state “should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility; in establishing a national minimum, it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family.

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Clement Atlee celebrates Labour’s election victory in 1945.

A key addendum to the third recommendation was that Beveridge opposed means-testing. Earlier conceptions of social security had regarded it as merely a “safety net” designed to catch individuals who “fell through the cracks”. In the new, socialist Britain social security was to be the birthright of every person – a basic collective minimum that effectively decommodified huge sections of the social and material economy. That five “social evils” were to be overcome was no mere rhetorical flourish. Rather, it reflected a new paradigm of thinking wherein social afflictions like poverty and unemployment were to be seen as forces endemic to prewar capitalism rather than as byproducts of individual human inadequacy. Freedom was no longer entirely to be concerned with license (put simply, freedom to) but would henceforth be synonymous with solidarity and equality (put simply, freedom from).

It would be an understatement to say that the contours of dominant rights thinking had shifted considerably several decades later. By the 1980s a thoroughly new discourse was prevailing – one that synthesized the individualist ethos of the 1960s with a resurgent bourgeois ethic that emphasized consumption and acquisitiveness as ends in themselves and sought to reconstruct the state more or less from top to bottom. Aspirations of universality gave way to means-testing when it came to social programs. Keynesianism gave way to monetarism. The “five social evils” Beveridge had identified were increasingly seen as synonymous with individual and cultural pathologies rather than market irrationality.

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Thatcher and Reagan.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher actively demonized welfare recipients and the subsequent Clinton and Blair administrations followed suit by transforming welfare programs into workfare (here in Ontario, Mike Harris’s hard right administration did the same).

Simultaneously – and proceeding hand in hand with the new epistemology of “individualism” – the unemployed and working poor were increasingly subjected to a new, Victorian-style social authoritarianism that represented their low class position as the product of inferior culture and ethics. Social conservatives, alongside many liberals who were not much less complicit, identified poverty as the result of moral, rather than market, failing: the disintegration of the “traditional marriage”, drug use, the lack of a sufficiently aspirational “ethic” came to be the new ontologies of poverty and social depravation.  (During the 1970s one of Margaret Thatcher’s senior ministers Keith Joseph blew his chances at becoming Conservative Leader by giving a speech that essentially identified excessive breeding among the British working class as the source of the country’s social ills. Had he run a decade later, he might have been more successful…)

The seductive rhetoric of emancipatory “self-sufficiency” supplied a populist garnish to an ideological program that dramatically increased poverty and inequality, while simultaneously ensuring that the fruits of progress and economic growth accrued disproportionately to an increasingly narrow cadre of economic and financial elites.

Even some more benign liberal efforts reflected this shift. In Canada, the administration of Pierre Elliot Trudeau adopted a new constitutional framework that guaranteed political and civil rights while substantively excluding economic rights. Again, the state was to ensure an ostensibly just framework for individual citizens to pursue their private goals (within reason) and little else.

In our present, post-2008 moment, we are arguably seeing a resurgence of something resembling the postwar economic rights discourse in the Atlantic liberal democracies – as evidenced by the nascent rises of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn in the United States and Great Britain – though the rhetorical and ideological strength of the neoliberal/neoclassical paradigm that has prevailed since the 1980s still feels basically impregnable.

What’s a stake is quite considerable: Are poverty and inequality essentially the result of individual moral inadequacy or does liberal capitalism contain fundamental contradictions which only the guarantee of economic and social rights by the state will remedy? By any measure, including its own, the neoliberal/neoclassical paradigm has failed to deliver inclusive material prosperity, let alone economic stability. While it never intended to, of course, its now transparent failure to even meet its own standards creates new opportunities to assert a superior paradigm for thinking about individual rights, freedom, and equality.

Whereas the New Right of the 1970s – which continues to rule even in death – mined from the conceptual repertoires of Hayek (neoclassical) and Adam Smith (classical liberal) to construct its New Jerusalem, its contemporary opponents should rediscover the language and thinking of postwar economic rights discourse to confront its corrosive legacy.

The product of decades of popular organization and mobilization, it still offers the decisive alternative to the barbarism and depravation thrown up by the 19th century – and unfortunately still embraced more than a decade into the 21st.

 

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Bread and roses

The labour movement has always been about winning gains for workers at the bargaining table and on the picket lines. But it’s also about securing for working people the kind of freedom presently enjoyed by only a tiny minority – the freedom to realize their own self-directed ends and to live life to its fullest and richest.

As Chris Maisano writes:

The one-sided focus of most Marxists and socialists on distributional questions has obscured the fact that the animating principle of the Left is not so much equality, but rather freedom—freedom from alienating work and freedom to use our time and creativity for our own self-directed ends. Socialism does not equal the roughly equal distribution of stuff; the martyrs of the labour movement didn’t give up their lives so that everyone could have the right to buy an iPhone or a plasma screen TV, or to waste their lives working at crap jobs.

So, yes, we fight for bread. But we fight for roses too.

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An anniversary

It feels like a very long time ago that I started this blog, though it’s only been a year. Now that I have it, it’s hard to believe I went for so long without one.

Launched in the dog days of summer following the 2014 Ontario general election (in which I was a campaign staffer and, later, a parliamentary candidate) I was looking for a way to refocus after an exhausting campaign and a year in the intellectual wilderness following the completion of my Masters degree.

To commemorate the one year anniversary of this blog, I’ve compiled a few of my favourite posts. Here they are, in order of publication, with short summaries attached:

Liberalism and the Politics of Equality, Part I – Mania: The inaugural post was intended to be the first in a three part series about political liberalism in Canada. Though I haven’t (yet!) finished to other two parts, the first one certainly does much of the work. An historically-minded look at the much celebrated phenomenon of “Trudeaumania” – and its fundamentally conservative nature.

Scotland’s Democratic Horizons: As a Canadian with UK heritage and family connections, it was hard to know what to think of the union’s near death experience. Ambivalent but sympathetic to the sentiments underlying the Yes side, I wrote after the referendum’s conclusion that it had more or less been a vote on the UK establishment as a whole. The subsequent UK general election and developments in the Labour leadership race seem to have affirmed that assessment somewhat. Also published in Jacobin Magazine.

The Morning After and the Three Torontos: Rob Ford was no longer the mayor of Toronto, so why weren’t we celebrating? Despite the chaotic and destructive reign of Canada’s most infamous Chief Magistrate, he did render bare something fundamental and oft overlooked: our city and its politics are deeply divided along class lines and many of our elites aren’t interested in doing anything about it, preferring to astroturf the problem with the empty rhetoric of “consensus”. This, too, I argue, is connected to class.

Social Conservatism and Public DaycareWhen opposing universal social programs, conservatives often invoke the rhetoric of “choice”. That was certainly true of the Conservative Party response to the NDP’s proposed universal daycare scheme. But is “fiscal conservatism” really the source of this opposition?

Caricatures and ContradictionsThe right invokes two basic caricatures about the left, and they directly contradict one another.

Nationalism on the Frontiers: The late Christopher Hitchens used to say that nationalism is strongest at the periphery. The final decade or so of the socialist Brit-turned American nationalist affirmed this very point.

Has Stephen Harper Made Canada More Conservative?: Psychological explanations of Stephen Harper’s Canada and its authoritarian politics are all too common. Here I offer something of a contrary view. What if Canadian conservatism’s attachment to populist democracy during the 1990s was tactical rather than philosophical?

John Baird and His LegacyWhen Canada’s Foreign Minister suddenly resigned, the political class couldn’t clamour fast enough to celebrate one of their own and extol his virtues and decency. The only problem is that Canada’s (now ex-) Foreign Minister was also one of the most destructive political figures of modern times.

TAs, Public Goods, and What We Talk About When We Talk About Public Sector Strikes: Teaching assistants at my alma matter went on strike over a pay package that kept them below the poverty line, denigrated their work, and treated them as commodities to be managed by backroom administers focused on a soulless bottom line. The official response from the university revealed a lot about what’s really at stake during a strike at a public institution.

Social Media and the End of NuanceIn this post I synergized all the major innovations of social media and perfectly summed up what none of the haters can understand. I also wrote about how internet language is dumbing down and depoliticizing our discourse in two, paradoxically, countervailing ways.

How to Win at TwitterTwitter is a war, and your enemy’s city must be reduced to a cinder by your onslaught.

The Myth of the Muslim TideIn November of 2014 I published one of my most successful pieces of writing to date (provided success can be measured by mentions from influencers and a large volume of hate mail, both of which “New Atheism, Old Empire” engendered). While the piece dealt with the ultimately right wing nature of the “New Atheist” phenomenon and its relationship to geopolitics, a major component of this was its treatment of Muslims and Islam in general. Journalist Doug Saunders’ book proved to be a veritable arsenal of facts when it came to responding to the racist bile of many New Atheists and Islamophobes. Ultimately, those who seek to portray Muslims as a reactionary minority at odds with something called “Western values” are not only insidious and illiberal – they’re overlooking history, demographics, facts and, well, pretty much everything.

Why Our Politics is Brechtian: How social media and the 24-hour news cycle have broken the fourth wall of politics – and rendered elections largely an empty performance explicitly unmoored from the substance of issues.

COMING SOON: The sixth and final part of my blog series about the political history of modern Quebec and the politics of identity, Fragments of a Revolution. Parts I-V, which cover the British conquest, prewar Quebec, the Quiet Revolution, Pierre Trudeau, and Rene Levesque, can be read here (scroll to the bottom of the post).

Here’s to another year of blogging fun. Thanks for reading!

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Short story in d minor

One morning when Luke Savage awoke from fevered dreams, he had a great idea for a tweet. This tweet would be simultaneously unassuming and profound, bringing with it a torrent of traffic from influencers and putting a smile on the face of all who saw it.

He began to write, certain that new worlds of untold happiness and copious notifications were but 140 characters away. But, as his cursor made the perilous journey from left to right, dropping abruptly with the line break, his brow furrowed. Only 30 characters remained, and the tweet was yet to reach its climax, let alone its critical denouement.

Undaunted, his fingers continued to type even as the rain and sleet battered his face and hair. He had gone where few had dared venture before: beyond the character limit – a risky frontier to which, his courage failing, he hastily tried to retreat. What could be done to salvage the sublime object that was to have been a tweet?

Hark, oh turbulent priest! Hark, oh wretched night! From whence cometh the tortured suffering of man!

The austere revisions began slowly, first by the conversion of “ands” into “&s”. “That actually looks better!”, he lied to himself, as all men do when they are studied by evil.

Still over the character limit, far beyond the precipice of the world, he retreated further. “People” became “ppl”. “Because” was mutilated into “b/c”. Numbers that could be dropped in as shorthand to salvage precious characters were conscripted to do so, and a foul chorus of 2s and 4s took their places amidst the once glistening prose on either side. And yet, against the character limit he still transgressed. His soul tearing itself to pieces he started to excise the punctuation, throwing his once-beloved commas and colons overboard with a demonic zeal in his eye.

The tweet’s steady rhythm was no more, supplanted by a frenzied staccato such as afflicts the jaundiced brain of a mad man. Where once the voices of angels had met in a single, awesome harmony, he now heard only the dissonant shrieks of damned souls – as if a thousand discordant grand pianos had been hit by a meteor sent from the icy beyond.

Then, suddenly, his soul returned to confront him, rising like a phoenix from the ashes. This tweet was a failure, not even fit for the purgatory of the “drafts” folder. His Promethean ambition thwarted by the Janus-faced temptress of fate and the 140 character limit, he hastily eradicated all evidence of its existence.

He then closed his laptop, having crept a few minutes closer to the autumn of his life in this world.

The universe’s manichaean ballet wore on.

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