Category Archives: history

Dirty Wars (2013)

Jeremy Scahill gets out of the tank and walks with the locals 

Richard Rowley makes a good documentary – well shot, well narrated,  good storytelling – but there was something that kept nagging me throughout the showing. I finally put my finger on it near the end, when Jeremy Scahill was going over his revelations, his horror at how largely evil the world has become in the last 10 years. I remember being a bit of a smug huff at his crawling out of a tank in Afghanistan to explore the surroundings on his own, his anguish in facing a “boring” life back in Park Slope, all pretty normal for a documentary. Even the bloodied Somali corpses as props for Scahill to express appropriate disgust and horror is pretty par for course in an American documentary against an imperial backdrop. But what really had me was – really? What’s changed? Targeted assassinations,  kill lists, death squads, shadow proxy wars.. none of this is particularly new. Not even the part about extrajudically killing American citizens, either at home or abroad. I even asked the question to the panel at the end, maybe is the change something to do with the executive branch having more concentrated power? But this question was glazed over. Instead, we learn about how Scahill’s book (available for purchase by the concession stand) and this documentary were “piercing the veil” and how the New York Times calls it “riveting”. At one point, it was even compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was also credited with starting the Civil War, which is not only strange but a weird way of reading history.

But then, the scope was rather small. Even though the film describes 75 countries as suffering JSOC invasions and drone strikes, we are only presented with the theaters we understand a bit about already: Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. It was strange to me how Pakistan – being the main focus of these attacks – was somehow left out of the story. But either way, we are given “Islamic terrorism” and “drug cartels” as being the main reasons behind these attacks, with no broader scope as to the United State’s geopolitical and strategic capital interests. We get the feeling from the film that America needs to be doing something about these terrorist Muslims and drug lords, but perhaps it could be in a more humane way. After all, there is no dialectical relationship between the Taliban and the women and children slaughtered by Hellfire missiles. The link cannot exist because then we must see it also exists between Scahill, the Hellfire missiles being used to kill, and ourselves safe and sound in the IFC theater.

The finest part of the film is where a Somali general tells Scahill how Americans are the “masters of war” and “great teachers”. But the point is given in such a way where Americans watching have the chance to immediately settle back into the comfortable dichotomy of the Taliban vs. innocent Afghanis. Black and white, good guys and bad guys. No relationship, no history, just the sort of hogwash George Bush would hoot about on the radio. After all, we too must scramble to separate ourselves from responsibility. We too must be able, as Americans, to separate ourselves from our government – after all, we voted for Kerry in 2004 and did our part. In this film, there is no dialectical relationship between the people and power.  Surely there can be no connection between our relatively comfortable lives in the United States and children born without limbs in Fallujah – otherwise we really could do something about the violence done in our names.

It was a good documentary, as I said. It’s important that people know what’s going on, how the United States’s endless lust for war affects human beings all over the world. However it should not be understood as “groundbreaking” or something that will change the tide of politics forever in this country. Whipping out my checkbook or signing a petition is not going to stop America’s ravenous appetite for blood and gold. These sorts of things have always happened in American history, maybe not with so much executive power and technological gadgets, but the idea has remained the same for hundreds of years. The question elicited from the film shouldn’t be “what can I do?” but rather, “how does this happen?” Once we understand how the machine works, we can properly throw a wrench in the gears.

The other questions during the Q&A session were mainly concerned with calls to action, what is it that we can do? The questions sounded rather like the “we” meant a crowd of individuals as opposed to “we” the people. They brought up a journalist jailed in Yemen, petitions for his release as he was arrested while covering this story. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, as well-off citizens nestled on the island of Manhattan, is there nothing more you can do than sign a petition? On your own? I guess not. In the theater, many of those watching the horrific catalog of violence wrecked by the American government probably voted for Barack Obama, the man whose voice on the phone actually demanded the Yemeni journalist’s imprisonment, the man whose order slaughters thousands of unnamed innocents. The viewer does not trust their own ability because she is limited by their view of the world where all one can do is sign a petition and vote the lesser of two villainous warmongers.

it’s not crazy – it’s normal!

I knew someone who was institutionalized as a child and went back years later to see her old psychiatrist. She told me he laughed and joked with her about how strange she was as a little girl of 8 or 9 – that she was up late wondering if people had souls or if suffering was normal. So many have lived her life and live as “normal” people now – but how much were they ever crazy to begin with? It got me thinking about some statistics I’d seen earlier about how 6.8 million American children were on ritalin, a 41% rise in the past decade. As the rhythms of our days and nights change, so too do our minds. Over half of “millennials”, those 18-33, are kept up at night due to stress.  The most tragic figure is that of women, who are disproportionately medicated against anxiety and depression to men, 2 to 1.

As I’ve always understood it, sanity was about your reality agreeing with everyone else’s. If you were convinced that the sky was red, and everyone else around you said it was blue, insanity would be doubting their perceptions over your own. Of course, as the pace of our minds increasingly change according to the markets, so does this minority of the “insane” steadily increase. Substance abuse or self-medication, as some would like to call it, is nothing new. However, solutions to being out of sync with reality are becoming more of a public service, less of a private affair and now more the realm of the market. A new pill is rolled out to cure what ails us. Curing cancer is important, sure, but more money is spent on researching pills to take once you have it than on prevention efforts and education. The wheels of commerce roll forward when you are buying something, not when you are eradicating illness. Over $35 billion worth of antipsychotics, stimulants and antidepressants are sold each year in the United States. Insanity is big business. Big business is insanity. It follows that we begin to crack under the strain.

If you look around and see problems with the world around us, and if that drives you to distraction, the practical and profitable thing to do in this modern world is to medicate yourself and seek out someone who can talk you out of your external symptoms of unhappiness.  Taking adderall can help you perform better at work, can help you work two jobs and go to school, etc. Faced with a disappointing middle age spent taking care of ailing parents and distraught children can drive one to antidepressants. Becoming overwhelmed and terrified by a world of distraction and suffering, we start taking anti-anxiety pills.

Anyway, what was so crazy about my friend when she was a little girl? Wondering if one has a soul, if the nature of the world is suffering – these are normal things. If someone is unhappy in a marriage, workplace, prison… this is normal. Instead of changing the world around us, we are ushered into padded rooms and handed pills in paper cups. Children who can’t sit still in class for 8 hours per day only to go home and sit in front of  a screen for the next 6 cannot be expected to have the ability to focus or learn effectively, much less grow into well-adjusted human beings. Adam Lanza was unable to leave his house at the end, medicating a condition rooted in something deeper than his own brain – if Adam Lanzas were normal in this species, we would see spree killing as a historical phenomenon – not something associated with the birth of neoliberal social and economic restructuring.

Of course it’s not sustainable! But many continue to assume that left untouched, we can ride out current era of madness and find something easier on the other side. There is no promise to this, nothing to lead us to believe that inaction would deliver a better world to us eventually. In addition, as history shows us, new patterns of social behavior that rise and fall with material conditions will eventually be integrated into commonplace occurrence, or perhaps the other way around. It’s all fluid and dependent on dominant economic and class mores at the time.  Seventy years ago, it would be strange to think that graphic violence could be celebrated as a part of pop culture through video games, and commonplace among children. So too homosexuality would be considered a mental illness seventy years ago, but perhaps because of this we should be doubly critical of seeing dissent or dissatisfaction with our current lives as symptoms of a disease to be treated with pills. Perhaps we should start to look deeper and wonder if, maybe sometimes, the sky really is red and it really is everyone else who is crazy.

Myth of the Cold Trail: All-American Terrorists

Less than 72 hours after two bombs went off in Boston, killing three and wounding hundreds, Human Events (a conservative newspaper) has already begun to lament the cold trail left behind by the perpetrators. President Obama briefly addressed the media and, at first, refrained from using the words “terror” or “terrorism”. Janet Napolitino has claimed there is no “broader plot” involved in these bombings. These three developments more than anything lead me personally to believe that these bombings were domestic in nature, probably spawned out of the same sort of nativist, racist movements that inspired Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolph.

Immediately after the bombings, the New York Post zeroed in on what it labelled a “suspect” – a Saudi man in a hospital who was caught running away from the  carnage. Once he was no longer a “person of interest”, the trail goes cold.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that the US Department of Homeland Security gutted its domestic terrorism office after a 2009 report on right-wing terror was leaked, causing political backlash.

What ultimately happened?
Napolitano eventually told Congress that DHS was going to remove the report from its websites. Some of the people in the media assumed they were recalling the report. That never happened. There is actually a formal process involved when you want to rescind a report. The only reason you do so is if there was something erroneous in the document.[…]

Is it off the DHS website today?
Yes. It was removed from various law enforcement computer systems, and classified systems too. […]

What happened to your DHS unit?
[…]Eventually, they ended up gutting my unit. All of this happened within six to nine months after the furor over the report. Analysts then began leaving DHS. One analyst went to ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement], another to the FBI, a third went to the U.S. Marshals, and so on. There is just one person there today who is still a “domestic terrorism” analyst.

Though terror from the domestic right in the United States has caused hundreds of deaths in the past twenty years, in recent times we have been quietly ushered away from such scenes of violence, politicians describing these as “lone wolves” who, for instance, fly planes into federal buildings for reasons of mental insanity. It echoes the response in Norway to the Anders Breivik trial, where a man who penned a thousand-word manifesto espousing fascist and nationalist ideals was simply labeled (and tried as!) “insane” for murdering 77 mostly young people.

The excuse in Breivik’s case and in other American cases was that it was important not to create a martyr. This is false. Martyrs are created everyday in the world wherever American bombs make contact. The true reason is to not push the idea that American supremacy – rooted in white supremacy – results in such violence.

To describe something as American, or All-American, is a bestowal of value.  Nothing negative is described as “All-American” – the enemies of our society do not look American, they do not act American, they are as far away from American as possible. Muslims and Arabs, after 9/11, stressed their “American-ness” in an effort to stem racist violence. The people in our prisons are mostly of color – certainly not considered “All-American” by any measurement of common mythology. Terrorists, likewise, are foreign to our body. In our collective mindset, as former Obama advisor David Axelrod says, “The word has taken on a different meaning since 9/11“. The mythological unity that was culturally and politically required for the total commitment to economic disaster and total war also required doing away with white terrorism.

The American myth is rooted in Wild West shoot-outs, covered wagons, individualism, self-reliance and a lot of guns. What is left unsaid but is certainly understood in this is also the total supremacy of the white man. If white men become terrorists in official parlance, then our national identity is shook to its core. The ideas of self-reliance, individualism, conquering “untamed” peoples and lands would be suddenly revealed as packed together with a racial myth that is still even used to challenge the legitimacy of the president, who is of color. Why has the trail gone cold in the Boston bombing? Why have white terrorists been labelled “insane” or “lone wolves”? It is because our society is still dependent on this myth of white supremacy to hold up a national identity that enables the continued subjugation of billions worldwide, including the American poor, seen in their laziness and lack of material success as unAmerican and generally portrayed as non-white.

The left, people of color and feminists understand too well that white supremacy exists at the expense of our safety and security. Occupy and other leftist movements are busted up with violence while the Klan gets a police detail when they march and the Tea Party is seen as a viable, legitimate political force in the United States – something that can find a home in the system of American/white supremacy.  When the media ignores this connection, when the government has no one to take care of tracking down these (white) terrorists, when we are told the “trail has gone cold”, then we are also given an implicit message: Watch your back! They are still out there! 

From the wayback machine, The End of Atomism: a brief critique of the neoliberal agenda – Occupy Times 2011

The following was originally published in the Occupy Times of London on 2 November, 2011:

When I was little, my grandfather took me on his knee and explained the market to me. In theory, it was a way for people to invest in businesses and commodities that they saw had a future in the economy. For a handful of bills, we could own a tiny slice of a business. However, in the last decade this simple act has exploded into complexity. Over-the-counter derivatives, futures contracts, currency speculation, tax credit default swaps… does anyone know what these things even are? And to think these nebulous concepts are being traded nearly at light speed, with incredible profits being made at the blink of an eye.

Market finance became the new Baal worship: What would the market think? What would the market say? Without even knowing why, the common person was suddenly exhorted to care very deeply about how the market “felt” about something. If the market is upset, something so unspeakably terrible would happen! Better to offer up our flesh and blood as sacrifice, cut social spending and our children’s futures short so that the market might be pleased. The high priests of power encourage us to trust them and to simply let them act in our best interest whether or not we understand what is going on.

“Why,” we might ask, “is it so important to develop an understanding of the market and of neoliberal market theory?” There are two answers to this: first, it is not difficult to understand what is going on. There might be very confusing terms thrown about but it boils down to simple concepts. Secondly, because neoliberalism is the cause of this crisis and your reason for being here. This “Occupy ____” movement is, at its heart, a movement that is the sworn enemy of this system. Speaking about the bankers, the traders, the bail-outs, this is all well and good. Yet this is like going to the doctor and complaining of a sore throat, stuffy nose, and chills without simply saying you think you have a cold. We are living in a sick world, and the sickness is what we can safely identify as neoliberalism. In order to cure an illness, we must first diagnose it. Only then will we be able to formulate the proper medication needed to get better.

Neoliberalism is a term that can cause confusion while trying to pinpoint a standard definition. David Harvey defines it as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.” To put it simply: the market must be free, without government interference past enforcing private property laws. The confusion sets in when we remember that with all these bailouts, tax cuts, and slaps-on-the-wrist, the market isn’t really free at all! If anything, it is now intimately connected with the state. So, neoliberalism is something that is inherently contradictory to its stated ideology.

Yet if we understand neoliberalism as an ideology that at heart encourages the rich accumulate more and more at the expense of the poor by any means possible – a radical redistribution of social and economic power – then state involvement by way of bail-outs and austerity cuts suddenly seems more reasonable.

Neoliberalism assumes that the state has a new role in our lives. Instead of it being something that is elected by and for the people, it is now an institution that is the protector/enforcer of the market and its whims. In return, the state gains an incredible amount of power. Under the auspices of “protecting private property”, governments now have the legal ability to intrude on your life in ways never before imagined.

Neoliberalism started out by attacking the most vulnerable among us: those who live hand to mouth in the third world, the poor, the mentally ill, the cold, and the hungry. Yet just as capitalism demands more access to markets in order to expand, so too does it demand new populations to bring low.

The United States is a fantastic example. A reckoning for the sins of the father came upon the United States in the form of rotting houses in New Orleans, empty factories in Detroit and homeless veterans from our imperialist wars freezing to death in the streets of New York. The wealth gap grew, as wages started to fall, and as jobs grew scarce, we began to notice that our social safety net had been cut from under us: no health insurance, unemployment compensation at £120 per week, houses being foreclosed on and suddenly empty retirement accounts. As social security and education is hauled up on the chopping block, so too are our futures being consumed by the great monster the United States itself enabled.

Yet the most dangerous part of neoliberalism is that it assumes that society is simply made up of individuals and that these individuals are to participate in a democratic fashion by buying things. This individualization of humankind created not only a vacuous consumer culture, but also ended up isolating us to an astonishing degree. The true miracle of the Occupy movement has been a reclaiming of public space and mass solidarity. When was the last time you stood around and spoke to perfect strangers about how the world should be run? And it is this, this kernel of hope incubated in every human gathering of minds who recognize their sacred (non-monetary) value that terrifies the 1%. This is why skulls get cracked in New York, flash bangs and gas gets thrown in Oakland, and the police parade around with machine guns here in London.

It is the simple act of gathering that the 1% is most afraid of … if it is not around the television and not on Oxford Street, then it is unacceptable to them! If the people have found a way to excuse themselves from their bleak existence by gathering, feeding and caring for each other for free, then this does not fit into a system built on speculative profit.

Therein lies the real threat to the 1% – not health and safety or fire codes or losing tourist money – it is a people who are self-actualized without the help of bankers who know better and the endless cycle of consumption. And therein may lie the cure to the disease of neoliberalism.

Knowing the audience? Django Unchained

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Quentin Tarantino finally made a version of Inglorious Basterds for me. I thought it a mite peculiar, the minor obsession with the gore fest about smashing Nazis over the heads with baseball bats, but about halfway through Django Unchained, it all finally clicked for me. I was born and raised in the South, where the grotesque history of race relations there is still a deep source of shame for me personally, even if I never took part in slavery, lynchings, race riots or segregation. But I live in its wake and I benefit from it, even indirectly. The effects of such a painful chapter of human history were plain to see in my day to day life and effects such as incarceration rates, poverty, and drugs continue to be one of the most shameful aspects of contemporary American life. It’s a wound that people try to ignore, even if it still causes pain as it is picked fresh every day. That this country was built on the backs of enslaved human beings and that their descendants are still treated as second class citizens by the system that has so clearly profited from their misery continues to haunt any American of conscience.

So as I was cheering on the bloody escapades of our hero in Django, I suddenly considered that this must be how my German friends, who are also so deeply ashamed of their past, must feel when they watch Nazis get blown up on the big screen too. And how good for Tarantino that he’s figured out a way to tap into this deep cultural shame, and offer us all something of a therapeutic catharsis. Finally! I get to see plantation owners eat lead for their crimes. Tarantino doesn’t back away from the gore: we see slavery in all its bloody and grotesque splendor – men being torn apart by dogs, rape, dismemberment, castration, constant humiliation, and, through the portrayal of the collaborator Stephen, even the sometimes-deeper infection of the minds and hearts of the enslaved themselves. And just as we all secretly desire, the plot shifts from a story in the last forty minutes or so to the bloodbath we’ve all been waiting for.  The killing spree that takes place for the latter quarter of the film was inevitable – the hand that has been reaching for the gun for the whole film is let free. It feels terrible, in a way, to enjoy watching anyone be killed, but this is part of the glory. Not being able to fully enjoy it, though wholeheartedly supporting it, is the white liberal’s prize in Django.

Likewise, the character of Dr. Shultz affords the white viewer an easy buy in- he is also white, also horrified by the gruesome reality of slavery, but also uneasy at the gore and depth of the violence. His desire to help save Django’s wife and leave without incident is proof of this itself. But Django wants blood – indeed, he deserves it. While Shultz is unable to fully stomach the part of “mandingo-dealer” in order to accomplish his goals, Django himself has no issue with making the sacrifices of moral pride necessary to accomplish his vengeance and save his wife. While Dr. Shultz turns green as a man is torn apart by dogs, Django says that he is used to it, having been around Americans longer than his partner has. Could I ever tap into this source of rage and vengeance? Could I ever cheer at the screen while the slaveowner’s sister – blissfully ignorant of her brother’s darker crimes, a mirror of many where I grew up – was blown away in cold blood?

But then, maybe this film was not for me. This could be a deeper catharsis for those in the audience who were still beat down by this history, not in the abstract and shameful way that I was, but in socio-economic reality. So then, why was Spike Lee famously boycotting the film? Maybe the answer is grounded in the fact that a white man made this movie – it can always be excused as just another Tarantino gore-fest. If Spike Lee had proposed making a film about a former slave riding through the South killing white people, he would have been laughed out of Hollywood. No one would finance that. The controversy would be enormous, never mind how many times the dreaded N-word would be thrown at the audience. It is mildly controversial when a white man makes the film, but would be unthinkable if a black man did it.

Maybe this is where we should situate this film politically – the vengeance of Django is acceptable under the watchful eyes of Tarantino, but the same film would be too much, too real if it was made by someone such as Spike Lee, a politically outspoken black man. As Tarantino makes it, the historical irreverencies can be chalked up to an attitude that the movie can be read as apolitical – Spike Lee’s main contention with the film. In which case, I’m inclined to agree with Lee: is it possible to make an apolitical film about slavery in the United States without being grossly offensive?

Overall, the film delivers on skill and acting. It’s not as blood-and-guts as some of Tarantino’s other work, though the violence is still staggering. A cheer went up from the audience as a white overseer was shot on horseback, his blood splattering the cotton plants. The resentment still exists, and the effects of slavery are still felt all over this country. Is Django Unchained a sign of broader race relations in the states, or is it simply a way for people to feel better about themselves for a while before stepping back into the cruel reality of American life?

left that way is a dead end: a case study in palestine

If history is the alchemy of theory, then communists turned gold into lead in Palestine. When I first arrived in 2009, I was one of those hand-wringing well-meaning comrades who shed tears over the absence of a progressive political left in Palestine. No doubt, there exists in Palestine some of the strongest and bravest leftists in the region, but their work is for naught and their books (printed with French, German, and Canadian money) get used to warm hovels in Askar refugee camp. They are at best tolerated and called in from time to time to answer questions on economy. When the Soviet money dried up, the network of civil supporters did as well, until all that was left were empty storefronts and the staff had moved on to NGOs and ideologies that would catch the foreign dollar, euro, or dinar.

Like most other ideas – democracy, liberal rights fantasies, Wahhabism, western civic models, and open markets – communism was thrown into the trash heap in Palestine because it was presented in an unrealistic and condescending way. Leftists crouched around telefaxes worrying “No, you’re doing it wrong! You need to… There needs to be… This theory is really…” while Israel continued to pummel their neighborhoods. Such disregard was given to the situation on the ground, to the realities of the society, that after the militant wing died down the people themselves shrugged off the theories and put all their efforts into courting money and robbing the donors blind. A handful remained to churn out honest work, but their romance with how “they” did it seemed to only further alienate their efforts.

After all, what does the left really have to offer Palestine save money and a few PFLP t-shirts? Obviously not their unwavering support. The condescending insistence on ideological purity puts leftist organizations in the same boat as USAID. There’s nothing wrong, I suppose, in offering money with ideological strings attached – a business transaction obviously! – but don’t for a second try and fool yourself into assuming you’re helping. Own up to the fact you’re settling the hearts and minds as much as Israelis are.

A prominent leftist organization recently cut funding to civil society NGOs, insisting that their strategy had changed from promoting a “culture of dependence” through NGOs to funding political parties directly, thereby cutting out the middle man (the citizen) I assume! It is, of course, much easier to inject a political program directly into a certain class of people rather than to everyone. And how late the left is to this game! After all, the cafes and imported cars already promote a kind of politik and the imams living the high life in Masyoon can promote yet another. Now, 10 years too late, is when the left decides to try and resuscitate the leftist parties – at least, the ones that are allowed to exist by the powers that be.

Indeed, the left has spent so much time cozying up to the powers that be that no one takes them seriously anymore. With the dissolution of the Soviet paycheck, those left in the cold were simply begging to be invited to summits and dinners and willing to throw just about anything away for inclusion.

So where does this mentality come from? Look no further than the left of today, whether it be Kadima and its JStreet front, the progressives left holding the bag after the election of Obama, or the ineffectual and laughable socialist/communist parties of Europe.

24. While communists have no truck with Zionism and condemn the colonial-settler origins of Israel, we recognise that over the last 50 or 60 years a definite Israeli Jewish nation has come into existence. To call for its abolition is unMarxist. Such a programme is either naive utopianism or genocidal. Both are reactionary. The Israeli Jewish nation is historically constituted. The Israeli Jews speak the same language, inhabit the same territory, have the same culture and sense of identity.

25. The Palestinian national movement has been sustained only because of the existence of and its relationship with the wider Arab nation. Solving the Israel-Palestine question requires a combined Arab and proletarian solution. Communism and nationalism are antithetical. Nevertheless we champion the right of all oppressed nations to self-determination. In the conditions of Israel/Palestine that means supporting the right of the Palestinians where they form a clear majority to form their own state. Such a state is only realistic with a working class-led Arab revolution.

from CPGB Theses on “The Arab Awakening and Israel-Palestine

What fiery words to galvanize the youth of Palestine into direct unified action!

27. The immediate call for a single Palestinian state, within which the Jewish Israeli nationality is given citizenship and religious, but not national rights, is in present circumstances to perpetuate division. Israeli Jews will not accept such a solution – the whole of the 20th century since 1933 militates against that. There is moreover the distinct danger that the poles of oppression would be reversed if such a programme were ever to be put into practice. In all likelihood it would have to involve military conquest. The call for a single-state solution is therefore impractical – Israel is the strong nation – and, more than that, reactionary, anti-working class and profoundly anti-socialist. Liberation and socialism must come from below. It cannot be imposed from the outside.

The thrust of this position is that only a unified working class revolution can solve the problems in the Middle East, and that until then the Palestinians will be left sitting in bulldozed houses. And God forbid they actually achieve a single state solution wherein their Jewish settler neighbors suddenly face a dearth of privilege, where they may in fact be tossed to the curb by the living, rightful inhabitants of the homes they have settled in!

Really, arguing this kind of thing is tedious and only engages those arguing, while those who are left in prison and at checkpoints tap their feet. When the people’s revolution fails to materialize, the leftists snap: “Weren’t you listening? Weren’t you reading your Marx?” Those gross intellectuals abroad typing up policy papers and party positions were the vanguard, why weren’t you jumping to attention? Where are the actual homegrown progressives? Well, if it doesn’t smell like a communist or walk like a communist, I’m not gonna call it a communist!

Beware to those who moan about the rise of “Islamic fundamentalism” in such places! When your books and papers and groups can’t provide the soup, childcare, medical attention, and social services that those caught up in the “barbarity” of Islam can provide, you have a problem. Is there no one to work with, no one to attend your meetings? A Western leftist (centrist! rightist!) is not going to find the “partner” he wants in Palestine – the partner that looks, acts, and talks like he does – unless he molds a group to his pleasure. Rather than work within the parameters offered, rather than ask the Palestinians what they need, or worse – ask them how they think liberation should be achieved, the Westerner wants to dress up a few students and put money in their hands. They perch on a party and gain privilege over the party’s constituents by pumping money into party leaders.

I spoke with aid workers who lamented the state of things – how they had to pay for supporters, offer food or transportation to people in return for participation in their programs. Why would no one take initiative and make sacrifices? A somber walk through the old city of Nablus looking at martyr posters shows such people exist.. or at least once did. They did not die for foreign money, not for the pleasure of foreign political parties, not for a unified Arab proletariat and not for Karl Marx. They died for the people, their land, their memories, and their pride. Forcing people into contortions to fit your mold of “leftist progressive worth supporting” insults this.

I’m not Palestinian nor am I personally affected by this conflict past my experiences, but I have some suggestions for Western leftists who want to call themselves supporters of Palestine:

1. Stay close to the core truths of the conflict. There already is a one-state entity in Palestine and Israel and it is called al-Ihtilel (the occupation). It is racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, imperialist, and reactionary. Do not deviate from this core truth and do not delude yourselves. Visit if you can, and if you cannot, take it from someone who’s been there or who is from there.

2. Support the people. Do leftists really need this lecture? Support the people. Support the people. If the people pray, support them. If the people throw rocks, support them. If the people oppress one another due to colonialism, do not think it is out of “barbarity” or inherent fault with the people and their traditions. It is more possible to fix the ills of social society by supporting the society rather than by shoving your morals down their throats with a spoonful of money to help it go down easier.

3. They do not trust you. You are not their comrade unless you are taking orders from the people. They are not your partners and you will never be on equal footing with them. You do not know the situation. You do not know Arabic. You do not have the right to pretend you know anything more more than the faces on the martyr posters. They are the ones to make the sacrifices, so let them decide what is worth making sacrifices for.

If leftists passionate about the Palestinian cause were as passionate about their own situations in their home countries, there might be change faster than you think. The I/P conflict does not exist in a bubble, it is the result of policies and attitudes worldwide that have nothing to do with the Palestinians… and if you call yourself a leftist this should be clear as day. Accepting that you have little to nothing to do with the Palestinian solution to the occupation (and it is coming) will give you leave to address the attitudes and policies in your own society that contribute to the occupation of Palestine and elsewhere. Involving yourself with what Arabs or Palestinians or Israelis “should do” is a misdirection of your efforts and borderline chauvinistic.

Just as the Palestinians are the winners and inheritors of their own liberation, so too are we responsible for what happens in our own communities. Your position should be to support the liberation and self-determination of oppressed people worldwide, but you should start with what you know best and among people you are affiliated with. Stop planning and criticizing action or positions abroad when you first need to take the log out of your own eye to see anything clearly.

yad vashem

I never liked being tickled as a child. Someone was eliciting a response from me that was not 100% genuine and was completely beyond my control. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized this happened all the time. When you walk out of a movie crying, you’re feeling something completely manufactured and often cheap. I didn’t like horror movies because it seemed so manipulative. I enjoy film and music that makes me feel something, but I prefer to have control over my emotion. A song might make me feel happy and think of a loved one, or a film might fill me with a kind of dread that I can reflect on in my own life. I hated Passion of the Christ because it took a story so integral to the Western experience – the story of Jesus of Nazareth being crucified – and turned it into a cheap kind of horror film. Without exploring the messages behind Jesus’s life or feeling the impact of the sacrifice (according to Christianity) we were simply disgusted and horrified by CGI chunks of flesh flying off the Roman’s cat-o-nine tails and the seemingly endless rivers of blood pouring down the face of Jesus. It’s like pornography, I thought. I’m just supposed to be feeling something… not for any reason, not to change my mind about something, but just to feel something. I felt like using Jesus as the vehicle for this kind of elicitation was cheap. After all, the Christian story of Jesus is so deep, so laden in mystery and humanity, that to boil it down to weeping audience members, vomiting children… it all seemed so besides the point.

Likewise, when I visited Yad Vashem yesterday I felt that since the presentation of the Holocaust was so manipulated, I should be as critical as possible to do honor to the subject. Nevermind the fact I was aware of the political situation outside of the walls and had just come from a checkpoint with automatic weapons, barbed wire, and endless swaths of concrete. Nothing can compare to the horrifying nature of the Holocaust, as man’s technology finally advanced to the point where we could make killing factories and machines, an entire mechanized industry out of eradicating human life mirroring some sort of industrialized assembly line. Yet what am I supposed to feel when I am walking through Yad Vashem?

The building itself is remarkable – poured concrete and little light – and the exhibits are created so one is forced to step back and look up. Your first introduction to the story is antisemitism. Christianity is blamed for its spiritual creation – complete with quotes from St. Augustine – and its biological and racial roots are traced to the 19th century. We are then told in brief and in passing that Nazi antisemitism was somewhat of an economic thing, that the Europeans were jealous of the Jewish people’s accumulated wealth in a time of poverty. This is the end of explanation and by the time you exit the first room of the museum there is no more explanation necessary and you are instead launched into an orgy of emotion.

When we look at locks of a little girl’s hair, of toothbrushes, family heirlooms, tefillin, and shoes in the floor, what is it we are supposed to feel? Miniature pewter models of death camps Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek… plaster models of the gas chambers at Auschwitz complete with writhing bodies suffocating in agony. Here: stand next to a bunk or walk on cobblestones from the Warsaw ghetto. How does this make you feel? Is it not enough? Perhaps photographs of naked women huddled before a pit of bodies, a wide eyed man sitting on the edge of a pit with a gun to his head. The video display of an old woman describing in broken Hebrew her experience clawing through dead bodies after the bullet missed her. The culmination is a red-cheeked fat American woman sitting down and shouting to her companions that she is going to be sick.

So you’ve elicited the response, now what? Besides the lack of the word “Palestine” anywhere in the Museum, the only outwardly Zionist gesture comes at the end, when you are standing before the placid hills of West Jerusalem, the sun setting behind them in a wonderful way. Perhaps the motive is in the glorification of Jewish resistance fighters near the end, the rehabilitation of the “sheep to the slaughter” image you might have cultivated until this point. Who knows what it is? I walked through taking notes as photography was not allowed, but even I had to put away my notebook eventually as the bile rose in my throat and my cheeks burned pink.

Yet I felt silly. After all, little of this had anything to do with me. That American woman feeling faint and needing to sit down – chances are it had little to nothing to do with her either. Guides took through their American charges, whispering in low tones, “You know, I heard this one story about a man in America who realized he was living next to a Nazi.. did you know Europe and America took in Nazis?”

No one can deny the scale. No one can deny the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Yet the stated cause behind it – the racial motivations of the Nazi party as opposed to capital, war, etc… the thinking part is shelved and the emotional part is coaxed out instead. If the goal is to “never forget” – well, who would be in Israel and forget the Holocaust? If it is a memorial to the victims and their humanity, why the photographs of naked children in medical experiments? So then why Yad Vashem, why in Jerusalem, why such a presentation and display? It was a strange museum to human evil and yet offered little in the way of solutions or even reconciliation. The only real emotions to be felt there were anger and burning shame.

The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways. It serves as a spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world. Best of all, mass death’s a stimulus to just ordinary folks, little fellows, to try ‘n’ grab a piece of that Pie while they’re still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets.

– Thomas Pynchon