February 24, 2011

McEwan's lousy acceptance speech, and reasons to be be cautiously optimistic

Ian McEwan went to Jerusalem, shook the hands of apartheid officers, hobnobbed with war criminals, and gave a lousy acceptance speech, though I must admit not as lousy as the petulant and self-indulgent comic relief delivered last year by Margaret Atwood and Amitav Gosh after they collected their tainted million dollar. As you'll remember, Atwood and Gosh dedicated their acceptance speech to criticizing those who dared interfere with their sacred right to be given money, and compared their predicament to that of writers tortured and imprisoned for their writings. McEwan, while clearly unhappy about being so inconvenienced, calibrated his speech to appease the criticism and at least tried to prove he was not, as he was in fact, mollycoddling apartheid.

McEwan is an imperial liberal who believes passionately in the supremacy of European culture. Of course, perish the thought that he would define it that way. He would rather call it "secularism", or "rationalism", or whatever. But it is what it is. He is not therefore the first person one would turn to for supporting an anti-colonial struggle. Just listen to how he describes, in Jerusalem, the uprising in Egypt:

When Egyptians decide en masse to reform their society and think constructively, and take responsibility for their nation into their own hands, they will be less inclined to blame outsiders for all their misfortunes.

Because of course, Egyptian misfortunes have nothing to do with outsiders. Nobody poured billions of dollars into Egypt each year for forty years to maintain a brutal and tyrannical regime. Nobody feted and embraced Mubarak for the way he starved his people for the benefit of global neoliberal accumulation. It was all the fault of Egyptians who failed the test of maturity administered by the white man. They did not "take responsibility" for their fate. They were not "constructive." Maybe, of course that is exactly what McEwan implies in this formulation, they deserved tyranny.

There is only so much one can get from someone who thinks that way. But that is precisely the test of a campaign like BDS, which seeks to impose itself through public moral pressure. For a campaign like BDS, success is ultimately not measured by the supports of friends, but by the grudging compliance of people like McEwan. While he was able to resist the pressure to boycott, he was not able to ignore it. The speech he gave in Jerusalem was racist, white supremacist, misleading, confused, and Islamophobic, but it was also a rare across the board condemnation of Israel as a political entity from a purely liberal perspective. McEwan went where almost no imperial liberal had gone before, even condemning Israel's discriminatory Right of Return for Jews. It was evident from his own words that he didn't go there because he wanted to, but because he felt compelled by the pressure building up over his acceptance of the tainted prize. That's good.

Speaking about money, McEwan also donated the prize money to Combatant for Peace, which is emerging as an Israelo-Palestinian joint money-laundering services for celebrities with a dirty conscience. In a twist that is familiar from the history of other social movements, one the effect of the success of BDS is more money flowing to organizations that normalize the occupation, organizations such as "combatants for peace" which promote a false equivalence between the oppressor and the oppressed using the phony language of the "cycle of violence." Nevertheless, the fact that Israeli money associated with such prizes as the Jerusalem Prize is becoming too dirty for McEwan to take home should count as an achievement.

Now for the speech itself. McEwan checked all the check boxes of a good "political" literary speech about the "situation" in the Middle East. He mentioned (twice) the holocaust, alluded to the "clash of civilizations" theme, promoted his pet secularism, bashed Hamas with the canned bullet points for bashing Hamas, commended Israeli democratic culture (failing to note that it is for Jews only), and criticized the settlements and the massacre of Gaza. As a bonus, he even presented a history of the European novel that would have easily earned him a B in a not too demanding freshmen course. Impressive.

Nevertheless, it is worthwhile parsing some of the speech's contradictions and entanglements, because its political unconscious is rich with insight about the decrepit state of Western intellectual life. My rule for reading is that the treasure is always hidden beneath the weakest argument. I would like to focus on two points in the speech in which politics and literature intersect, the meaning of violence, and the power of literature.

The framework McEwan invokes to explain "the situation" in Jerusalem is an opposition between creativity, that is artistic, scientific and political ingenuity, and the nihilism of violence.

I'd like to say something about nihilism. Hamas whose founding charter incorporates the toxic fakery of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has embraced the nihilism of the suicide bomber, of rockets fired blindly into towns, and embraced the nihilism of an extinctionist policy towards Israel. But (to take just one example) it was also nihilism that fired a rocket at the undefended Gazan home of the Palestinian doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish, in 2008, killing his three daughters and his niece. It is nihilism to make a long term prison camp of the Gaza Strip. Nihilism has unleashed the tsunami of concrete across the occupied territories. ...

...Look to the editions in this book fair, the numbers translated in and out of Hebrew, or to the number of successful patent applications, (astonishing for a small country) or the numbers of scientific papers cited, the breakthroughs in solar energy technologies, the sell-out concerts around the world for the Jerusalem Quartet. The creative energy index is high and so is the capability. But where is Israel's political creativity? What do national politicians have to compete constructively with Israel's artists and scientists? Surely not the concrete mixer? Surely not the eviction order? We have all read the documents leaked to Al Jazeera. That was surely not the best Israeli politicians could do...In this context, the opposite of nihilism is creativity.

To describe political violence as nihilism is to deny it an interiority, to reject the possibility that it might form part of a distinctively human project, a form of action that is intelligible, that is rooted in positive goals, aspirations, plans, feelings, that is executed with creative force and ingenuity, that its failures and successes can be exhilarating, satisfying, crushing, disappointing. This is a strange statement coming from a novelist who, a paragraph later, can assure us that

There is no man, woman or child, Israeli or Palestinian, or from any other background, whose mind the novel cannot lovingly reconstruct.

Surely, then, after that declaration of the omniscience and infinite empathy, the novel and the novelist should be able to reconstruct lovingly the mind of a suicide bomber. Surely the novelist who holds that principle should be able to reconstruct lovingly even the mind of those who are now systematically ethnically cleansing East Jerusalem (and whose hand McEwan shook). If McEwan were to seriously apply his professional insight to the political situation he is facing in Jerusalem, he should have been able to reconstruct in his imagination a plausible series of choices and circumstances that ended with the Protocols being cited in the Hamas charter, and furthermore, do so "lovingly." Such an empathy guided attention to human existence in its particularity does not preclude a negative judgment, but it does preclude exactly the kind of rhetorical knee jerk that characterizes McEwan's canned bashing of Hamas. (And don't even bother asking why McEwan reserves his vitriol to Hamas rather than, for example, the venality and the torture chambers of the Abu Mazen bantustanat.)

If McEwan were to apply the tools of his trade to the political situation he is facing in Jerusalem, he would not have made a distinction between the nihilism of Israeli politicians and the ingenuity of Israeli scientists. The flechette bomblet, the corner shooting rifle, the smart fence, the DIME bomb, are all products of the ingenuity and creativity of Israeli scientists and at the same time essential elements of the crimes McEwan describes as "nihilism". And the scientists are hardly alone. The politicians who designed the "matrix of control" that dominates Palestinian lives, are they not creative? The peace process that never ends and never progresses, is it not an ingenious solution to the actual challenges that Israel's generals and statesmen faced within their own understanding of "the situation"? The legal system that makes the territories at once subject to Israeli power and outside Israeli law, is it not a brilliant solution to the position of Israel as a colonial settler state in a supposedly "post-colonial" world? The uniquely Israeli separation between citizenship and nationality, is it not an ingenious way to institutionalize racism against the native people while maintaining the appearance of a liberal democracy within the green line?

I don't think McEwan is incapable of these insights. After all, if the vain Ehud Barak, a death squad commander and mass murderer, was able to muster the empathy needed for imagining himself becoming a Palestinian terrorist, I have no doubt McEwan can as well. It is not his imagination that failed, but his will. It is a matter of intellectual cowardice.

For if McEwan were to actually think about the politics he entered by being awarded the prize, if he thought through the violence of both sides, not as the equivalent abstract failure of creativity but as two distinctive, concrete, and morally worlds apart, human projects, he would have had to make choices. The one choice that he would have had to deny himself is the course of action he actually took, of believing that he can do good by pretending that everybody is on the same side, that the conflict can be solved simply by re-framing it, and by lecturing everyone to get good and "creative". At least, he he would have had to deny himself the comfort of not knowing that his lecture and even his wagging finger against the settlements did nothing more than armed the apartheid regime with a continuing sense of normalcy and legitimacy.

McEwan addressed his remarks to "Israeli and Palestinian [citizens]". He mentioned a long list of mostly British, but also a few non-British, writers. The living writers from the area he mentioned however, are three Israeli authors, to be precise, David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua, and Amos Oz, whom he calls "the conscience of the country." There are, significantly, no Palestinians among the authors. Palestinian authors do not inspire McEwan. For someone given a prize for his contribution to freedom, for someone who eulogizes literature for celebrating the downtrodden, that seems at least eyebrow raising. He knew he was going to the contested city of Jerusalem. He knew there are Jews and Palestinians there, and that the downtrodden there, that's mostly Palestinians. He could have faked it, googling the name of a Palestinian writer. He could have actually read something by a Palestinian writer. He could have at least apologized that he hasn't read anything by a Palestinian. But he chose neither. There may be two people in Jerusalem, but there is only one culture worthy of attention for McEwan in Jerusalem, an Israeli-Jewish one.

The three authors he mentions are not just any authors, but pillars of the Israeli establishment and globe trotting celebrities like McEwan, writers whose every shopping list, let alone literary work, has been translated into most European languages. We can safely conclude that McEwan's access to the literary cultures of the region is strictly filtered through the glitzy side of European culture industry and its politics. The content of that politics is reflected in what he presents as a European history of the novel.

The English tradition is just one among many, but it is intimately connected with all others. We speak of a Jewish tradition in the novel -- a vast, complex tradition, but still bound by common themes: a sometimes ironical attitude to a god; acceptance of an underlying metaphysical comedy and above all, in a world of suffering and oppression, deep sympathy for the individual as victim; finally, determination to grant to the downtrodden the respect that fiction can confer when it illuminates the inner life. We find the strands in the existential allegories of Kafka's In the Penal Colony and The Trial; in the sadness and beauty of Bruno Schulz, in the work of Primo Levi as he gave individual voice in the nightmare of the Shoah, that industrialised cruelty which will remain always the ultimate measure of human depravity, of how far we can fall; in IB Singer's fiction, which conferred dignity on the cramped lives of immigrants; in different terms we find a parallel theme in Saul Bellow, whose agonised intellectual heroes struggle ineffectually to flourish in a raucous, materialist culture. Always, the victim, the stranger, the enemy and the outcast, the face in the crowd, becomes a fully realised being by the grace of fiction's magic dust -- a dust
whose recipe is an open secret -- full attention to detail, empathy, respect.

This tradition is vigorously upheld in Israel's literary culture -- and right from the beginning of the founding of the state. A recent discovery for me has been S Yizhar's Khirbet Khizeh, published in 1949 -- the luminous account of the clearing of an Arab village during the '48 war -- and of a protest that never quite leaves the throat of its narrator as the houses are demolished and the villagers driven from their land.

There is a British novel. There is an Israeli novel. And there is a Jewish novel, whose focus on the holocaust and the victim ties together Israeliness and Europeanness. The common thread of all is, allegedly, the focus of the outcast individual, a focus which is "vigorously upheld in Israel's literary culture." This literary history builds a facile continuity between the major literature of Europe, embodied by Jane Austen, the minor literature of Jewish European authors (such as Kafka, already a stretch, what two authors could be further away as these two), and the literature of Israeli Jews. The history of the novel that McEwan offers thus affirms the two major points of Zionist ideology, that Israel fulfills Jewish history and that Israeli culture is European in essence.

Now, to put it mildly, McEwan, who doesn't read Hebrew, speaks in ignorance and is merely shuffling stereotypes. His crowning example, S. Izhar's Khirbet Hize'a, is an exception, almost a freak accident, not merely in Hebrew literature, but even in its author's own career, whose major work was an epic paean to the "conquest" of the Negev. Unlike the works of the three superstars, Khirbet Hize'a was kept carefully hidden from the world, only translated to English for the first time in 2008, when there was no longer any danger that it would inform Europeans about the events narrated, and thus could be repackaged as another example of superior Israeli sensitivity. And Khirbet Hize'a doesn't focus on the "inner life of the downtrodden." How could it? It is a tale told by a soldier of an ethnic cleansing army and from his point of view, illuminating, and in a rather flattering way, the inner conflicts of the colonizers. Reading Khirbet Khize'a as proving the Israel's high moral sensitivity is like reading "Heart of Darkness" as proof of the higher morality of Europe. (which, by the way, is probably McEwan's point.) Comparing Izhar to Kafka, if McEwan had wanted to actually do that, would only have highlighted the sharp discontinuity between Israeli and Jewish diasporic literary forms and sensibilities.

The paragons of that Euro-Judeo-Israeli continuum (which perforce must erase Palestinian literature, as the latter can only spoil the argument) do not quite fit the enlightened role that McEwan makes for them. Apart from the fact that A.B. Yehoshua's literature and public pronouncements are both hostile to the Jewish diaspora, and apart for the fact that this died in the wool racist described Arab writers writing in Hebrew as a threat to Israeli culture, Yehoshua not only endorsed the mass murder in Gaza (which McEwan called nihilist), but anticipated it, advocated for it, and defended it after the fact. It is true Yehoshua opposes the settlements. But McEwan should have taken the time to ask why. Already in 2004, Yehoshua explained his support for removing the settlers from Gaza on the assumption that it would facilitate genocidal war crimes:

After we remove the [isolated] settlements and after we stop being an occupation army, all the rules of war will be different. We will exercise our full force. We will not have to run around looking for this terrorist or that instigator -- we will make use of force against an entire population. We will use total force. Because from the minute we withdraw I don't want to know their names. I don't want any personal relations with them. I am no longer in a situation of occupation and policing and B'Tselem [the Israeli human rights organization]. Instead, I will be standing opposite them in a position of nation versus nation. State versus state. (J. Cook, 2006)

David Grossman was not as precocious, but he too made himself available for the defense of the slaughter of civilians in Gaza in 2009. a few days into the massacre, in a disgusting New York Times op-ed that reads like a strategy brief from a consigliere to his mafia don, Grossman endorsed the slaughter of by then over 400 people, mostly civilians, and wounding of thousands, as made necessary by Hamas's (imaginary) refusal to compromise. Amos Oz was not far behind. On the same day he joined his friend Yehoshua in op-eds in Italian newspapers, dutifully repeating the line of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, that "Hamas was responsible for the violence".

If these three are the "conscience of a country", that country would be better off without one. You probably couldn't find anywhere finer examples of the employment of literary skill and notoriety for the purpose of, not the "determination to grant to the downtrodden the respect that fiction can confer when it illuminates the inner life", but rather the determination to provide the political and military establishment with rhetorical cover as they go on killing the latter with impunity.

How could McEwan get Israeli culture so wrong? The simplest answer I believe would be the right one, "class and race." McEwan knows about Israel what he reads in the Guardian, and what he is told by his glitzy Israeli celebrity friends, friends who share his class prejudices and his white supremacist beliefs about Western culture. If you're looking for insight, look elsewhere. But if you are looking for evidence that Israel is becoming so unpalatable that even the McEwans of the world cannot afford to remain silent, there is your evidence.

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