Monday, February 28, 2011


The action

In the midst of cries for freedom in the Middle East and Africa, Ian McEwan claimed the Jerusalem Prize for Literature, in a sumptuous convention center in a city officially described as the eternal and undivided capital of Israel.

In his acceptance speech he addressed president of Israel, the minister of culture, the mayor of Jerusalem, and the "Israeli and Palestinian citizens of this beautiful city", and thanked them for honoring him with a prize which "promotes the idea of the freedom of the individual in society." He then proceeded to schmooze with the literary celebrities and political and military enforcers that gather at such events.

His speech was gracefully written, a short lecture on the history and purpose of the novel as an exploration of the individual, along with some ruminations concerning the political "situation", and his acceptance of the prize. Haaretz headlined the speech as courageously "slamming" Israeli policies,, while Britain's First Post described him as "hitting out" at Israel's "great injustice.",people,news,ian-mcewan-hits-out-at-israels-great-injustice-

While I acknowledge McEwan's accurate listing of major Israeli crimes, and admire his courage in enumerating them to such an audience, I found the speech on the whole to be intellectually, and perhaps psychologically dishonest, calling up many frequent zionist tropes to mask and distort the reality on the ground -- and in the hearts and minds of many of his listeners.

The words

First, in spite of his claiming disinterest in "arguments of equivalence", he repeatedly denounces "both sides", as if they were equivalent players in the ongoing tragedy.

He speaks of Hamas' "nihilism", which "has embraced the suicide bomber" -- though such appalling practices began only after intolerable Israeli provocations, and lasted for only a few years. They are not a current tactic, though McEwan describes them as if they are. Meantime, the Israelis have killed more than 3,000 Palestinians, bombing them from the skies, and shooting them from guard towers -- without committing suicide.

He goes on to speak of the nihilism of "rockets fired blindly into towns". These home-made explosives, fired in the general direction of towns over the border, land mostly in empty fields without injury to person or place -- hardly equivalent to the high-tech weaponry targeted and used against the Palestinians.

He claims that Hamas has "embraced the nihilism of an extinctionist policy toward Israel" with no nod to its many-times offered long-term truce proposals, or the clear and oft-stated purposes of the Zionists to possess the land "between the river and the sea" by dispossessing its Palestinian inhabitants.

And while he fearlessly mentions Israeli killings in the occupied territories, evictions and demolitions, the "tsunami of concrete" poured in the West Bank, the "relentless purchases of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, and the right of return granted to Jews but not Arabs, I stand back from these "equivalent" listings of evil, and think they are not equivalent at all -- quantitatively or qualitatively, or with regard to their motivations. One side is the oppressor, one the oppressed. Would McEwan dispute which is which?

A second common trope for Israel apologists often surfaces in their descriptions of the Israeli project. McEwan contextualizes his evaluation in the rhetoric of the occasion:

"Everybody knows this simple fact: once you've instituted a prize for philosophers and creative writers, you have embraced freedom of thought and open discourse, and I take the continued existence of the Jerusalem Prize as a tribute to the precious tradition of a democracy of ideas in Israel."

(These words, by the way, uttered in the same week as the Knesset passed a bill which calls for heavy fines to be imposed on Israeli citizens who initiate or incite boycotts against Israeli individuals, companies, factories, and organizations.)

This is shoddy, dishonest thinking, considering the history and rhetoric of zionist thought. Even McEwan recognizes this, noting that while the Jerusalem prize "recognizes writing which promotes the idea of the freedom of the individual in society", that idea "sits so awkwardly" with the situation in Jerusalem. Part for the whole, perhaps, a writer's gambit, but it sits awkwardly in the West Bank and Gaza as well, the ganze geschichte. 

And again, a false equivalence: "A great and self-evident injustice hangs in the air, people have been and are being displaced. On the other hand, a valuable democracy is threatened by unfriendly neighbours, even to the point of extinction by a state that could soon possess a nuclear bomb."

Actual displacements and killings taking place as he speaks -- versus some theoretical threat "even to the point of extinction", by I suppose Iran. Does he know the real translation of Amadinejad's "threat"? Is he aware of any Iranian nuclear arms program? Would Iran use a nuclear weapon against Israel even if it had one?  These are all right-wing canards, embarrassing in the mouth of an informed, presumably progressive, person.

The final, show-stopping, conversation and thought-ending zionist trope in McEwan's speech is the invocation of the, THE, Holocaust, "that industrialised cruelty which will remain always the ultimate measure of human depravity, of how far we can fall." Are there not other holocausts afoot, a main one planned and executed by the people in that very room? Are the billions spent, and the technological plans made for ever greater use of joystick drone and space warfare not a competitor on the human depravity scale?

The place

Granted, the ability to speak truth to power rides on getting access to that power.  I don't know why the elite ever granted a ticket to Lewis Lapham to anything. And the politicos and their sycophant press were clearly blindsided by Stephen Colbert's still remarkable 2006 roast of George Bush at the Washington Press Club.
Once bitten, twice shy: anything like that will never happen again.

And so, by being "nice" and "balanced", Ian McEwan earned himself some reluctant ears to fleetingly assault with some nasty truths. But having been awarded the prize, would he not have had those same ears -- and more -- by turning the prize down? I understand his rationalization about art promoting freedom. But contrast his route to access, voice and freedom, with that of the people in the squares of North Africa. Is there not something more genuine about these which do not end in wine and cheese?

The effect

As McEwan traced the tradition of the novel, imagine a bulldozer audibly demolishing the building next door, the cries of the inhabitants leaking through the convention center windows. Oh, but that's on the other side of town.

This great writer admits that "whatever I believed about literature, its nobility and reach, I couldn't escape the politics of my decision. Reluctantly, sadly, I must concede that this is the case." Why reluctantly, and above all, why sadly? Is not the polis of politics a collection of those individuals he writes so sensitively about? Does collecting a prize concerned with "the freedom of the individual in society" annul its social aspects?

If there were any doubt, McEwan had only to listen to Mayor Nir Barkat's speech, asserting that while Jerusalem "has conflict, big-time," he could nevertheless boast of the city's "pluralism" and "openness," and of his conviction that the "renaissance of arts" taking place in the capital is acting to "mediate tensions."

Tell it to the Palestinians.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


I hope you had a fine day celebrating your sweetie with non-fattening, non-aspartamic sweets, and fair-trade flowers, in honor of fourteen or so martyred saints of ancient Rome.

A legend about one of them has him restoring the sight of his jailer's daughter, and then writing her a note on the eve of his execution and signing it "From your Valentine." Hmmm.  But I suppose "Be my Valentine" might be just as bad, in mytho-historical perspective.

Touching as this is, it is not as heart-warming as the message we and our British friends sent to our allies, the Russians, on February 14, 1945 -- via the thousand bomber firebombing and destruction of Dresden. Around 40,000 innocent civilians lost their lives delivering this message, and example of "killing the messenger".

I'm sure many of you have read Kurt Vonnegut's masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five. If not, grab a copy right away. You won't forget it. It's a riot.

But even Kurt -- who was there at Dresden -- didn't really understand why all those people were getting burned and suffocated to death. He hadn't had available this excellent article backgrounding the affair:

It seems by February, 1945 there was no military necessity for this enormous operation. Rather, the barbarous wiping out of the population was directed at our Cyrillic allies to warn them not to get too uppity with their post-war victor claims. The Russkis needed to witness this kind of air-strike by the US and Britain -- one which could just as easily be turned on them.

Seven months later, the US alone would put on a similar show at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The cover story would be the same -- we need to do this to end the war. But the real story (victims aside) was to intimidate our Soviet friends with our love-power and solidarity.

Speaking of February and ancient Rome, I'll bet not many of you know where this month gets its name. After finding out, you may not want to know, but by then it will be too late. In the really old days, there was a major Roman festival called Lupercalia. That's right: lupus = wolf. It was a party in honor of the wolf who mothered Romulus and Remus, the brothers who founded the eternal city.

At the high point of the festivities, two boys were chosen to go to the cave where R&R had been nursed. There, they were anointed with the blood of sacrificed goats, and would spend the rest of the day running through the streets whipping people with strips of goatskin. These strips were called februa, from the Latin februum, a religious purification. There was also a lot of drinking.

Hearts and flowers, hearts and minds. May our beloveds beware.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Acronyms, I think, bring out the worst in people. For example, the
USAPATRIOT act is not an act for American Patriots as it would appear,
but rather the U.S.A.P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act — Uniting and Strengthening
America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and
Obstruct Terrorists. Act. Imagine the wordsmithing over that one.
Imagine how many taxpayer dollars went into the choice of those
acronymic wonders. And the marvellous mendacities therein — “uniting”,
“strengthening”, “appropriate”, “required” — all hidden behind the mask.
Truly a work of the devil. There are masks that hide, like that one, and
masks that reveal. It’s important to distinguish them.

Acromegaly is a disease resulting from a pituitary tumor overproducing growth hormone. In children it produces giants, and in adults, overgrown jaws, thick skulls and thick skin. You can see an acromegalic giant in action in Kurosawa's great film, Yojimbo. He wields a mean sledge hammer against his enemies.

Big jaw, thick skull, thick skin. Could this syndrome describe the US approach to the world?

Our president is about to pull a Joshua (10:8-14), to try to stop the sun from setting. During one campaign in an early Operation Cast Lead, while the children of Israel were smiting the Amorites, man, woman, and child, Joshua, in a fit of chutzpah, bade the sun stand still so smiting time might be longer and smiting more complete.

And behold,
the sun stood still,
and the moon  stayed,
until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies.
The sun stood still in the midst of heaven,
and hasted not to go down about a whole day.
And there was no day that like that before it or after it,
that the LORD hearkened unto the voice of a man:
for the LORD fought for Israel.

The 342-page USA PATRIOT ACT -- clearly already prepared and lying in wait -- was passed by Congress (357-66 in the House, and 98-1 in the Senate), and signed by George W. Bush on October 26, 2001. Many legislators admitted to not having read it through before voting. Most of the bill's provisions were due to sunset after December 31, 2005, four years after passage, and safely after the 2004 election. But by March 2006, Congress had voted to reauthorize the bill so as not to tie the president's hands in his Global War on Terror.

Sunset now 6 years late.

Though having campaigned for greater oversight, the White House is now out-republicing the Republicans by asking to further delay its sunset until  December, 2013, giving the new Republican majority, and perhaps a new Republican president plenty of time to authorize permanent status.

The Children of Israel no doubt approve.

And it's not as if the abuses of the bill have disappeared as GWOT has aged and mellowed.

Rather, the jawbone and skin continue to thicken, and the skull grows ever more dense as we Patriots resist and punish those on the side of freedom.