a column by Gal Katz
Two weeks ago, as the news about scores of dead Palestinians poured in, a Facebook status urged me to answer a question that my children will allegedly pose to me: “Where will you have been?” Palestine, I was told, is “the moral measure of our generation,” just as Apartheid, the civil rights movement, third-world independence and World War II were the measures of theirs.
I’m from Palestine myself, or as I like to call it, “a place usually designated as Israel.” Personally implicated by the events, I was baffled—even angered—by the contrast between the future perfect of the question and the present progressive of the news updates. I couldn’t fathom why I should worry about my retrospective image—and the views of the offspring I might not even bear—when very real people are being shot.
The status, alas, voiced a familiar progressive trope, especially in America: we can always count on history to be on our side. The future is cast as the ultimate moral tribunal, but one whose verdict we can conveniently take for granted: DEMOCRACY NOW has been right all along. Terror, Ravage, Usurpation, Misery or Poverty (or in short, TRUMP) are but stations along our collective via dolorosa, a sure albeit winding path to political redemption.
One, hardly the gravest, problem with this Whiggish image of history, is that it is either wrong or unverifiable. For every apartheid that ended, there are ten genocides that materialized. This appeal to history, however, is not quite a scientific claim; it is more of the order of religion, or of religion disguised as politics.
Immanuel Kant, a sophisticated kind of Whig, would probably agree. In his Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose, Kant speaks the familiar distress of the well-meaning liberal, watching the “malice and destructiveness” that make up “the great World-drama.” His distress, however, is quickly transformed into a pseudo-messianic, distinctly Christian, hope. “The history of the human race can be regarded as the realization of a hidden plan of nature,” Kant intimates, “aimed in a perfect civil union of mankind.”
To be sure, I’m no Richard Dawkins. I don’t think religious comforts, however scientifically unverifiable, are as such problematic. If a harmless piece of Whiggishness offers a motivating horizon of hope for political action, why be a killjoy? Yet, it is precisely this brand of hope that I’d like to question. What worries me about this image of history is not the noble lie it tells us about the future, but the truth it betrays about liberal politics here and now.
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When I told my boyfriend about my unease with the moral-measure-of-our-generation talk, he recalled his disappointment upon hearing that his baby-boomer parents had been insufficiently active during the civil rights movement. This bit of millennial experience was meant to give me pause: here was proof that the threat of the gazes of the future generation was real. But the experience, far from motivating me, only confirmed my suspicion. If politics is about marching with the oppressed since the picture stands to bolster white middle-class intergenerational bonding, the oppressed might be dropped if they threaten to tarnish the picture, say if they turn too loud or brutal, or if they break too many laws.
There are numerous motives for engaging in politics, and I dare say eschatological hope is not a necessary element. I may become political because I hate my oppressors, or, being oppressed, I abhor the oppression of others. Perhaps I love justice, or the comrades with whom I fight for justice (I like to march, hang out, even get arrested with them). Perhaps I’m political because I want fame, or because it’s more fun, even thrilling, than dealing with everyday bourgeois tedium. I may protest with the desire to perform myself in the face of a scandalized world (think of queer politics, at least before much of it turned into a consortium of well-funded NGOs) and/or even because certain demonstrations are a decent place to find a fuck (a point in need of reminder on the anniversary of May 1968). And yes, if someone places a boot on my head, or locks me up in a Gaza-style open-air prison, I may do something to remove it—including violently—and even if my prospects of success are dim, even if they are nonexistent. Despair can be no less motivating than hope.
I suspect that the question of how a given political struggle will promote the grand march of progress is more likely to occur to people who lack more concrete, pressing, even personal, motives to engage in it. Hegel has called such motives passions: “Nothing great has been accomplished in the world without passion.” Much as Hegel would be the first to argue that history moves towards universal freedom and equality, for him it is precisely because historical actors often do not consciously seek such lofty ideals. They seek their own freedom, bread or revenge, and are willing to use violence to get it. The point of view from which the idea of progress mostly matters is not that of actual historical actors but the speculative standpoint, that of the philosopher-spectator, watching the events, like the owl of Minerva, from a reflective and retrospective distance.
The Whiggish appeal to history reflects a confusion of politics with spectatorship, acting with rooting for an actor. From there, the route is short to occasional disappointments with one’s actors of choice once they don’t measure up to our image of progress. I remember the enthusiasm about the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, fueled by viral clips featuring internet-savvy hipsters scheming in fashionable Cairo locations. But the enthusiasm dwindled once the revolution brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Those brown Muslim men failed to reflect the average liberal’s projected narcissistic semblance; they didn’t quite look the way a revolution ought to: French.
Consider, more recently, a typical reaction to the events in Gaza. An immediate liberal empathy for the Palestinian plight was diminished to the extent the plight was muddied with violence. Some Palestinians were flying flaming kites, hoping the lush fields of the Israeli kibbutzim across the fence would catch fire. On Twitter, a senior editor at the Forward was dismayed to discover that some of the kites had swastikas drawn on them. A Palestinian activist told NPR that “the Jews get crazy when you mention Hitler.” When the interviewer pointed out that such gestures didn’t serve the Palestinian cause, the activist insisted that it’s not about media strategy: “It’s what we mean. We want them burned” (the Jews, that is, not only their fields).
What does this interview prove (except that Jewish editors indeed go nuts when you mention Hitler)? It proves, say, that many Palestinians hate Jews, some really hate Jews. They even want to kill Jews. Fair enough. We can say the same about Jews hating and killing Palestinians. Like many political conflicts, it is a gruesome, often miserable and desperate, war. Both sides are imperfect so picking a side cannot take the form of a beauty pageant for the gaze of the Western liberal.
I guess it is clear which side I am on—and not because I think the Palestinians are perfect. I didn’t come to support this side by projecting my beautiful soul on the Middle Eastern pond, but through sustained, long-term engagement with the mud. But partial as I am, there is one key sense in which I try to remain unbiased: my mistrust in people who support the Palestinians because they’re innocent, “beautiful” victims, is as strong as my suspicion of pro-Israel activists who cannot stop talking about Jewish victimhood (Holocaust included). Over time I’ve found that I can have more productive conversations with Israel supporters who acknowledge the reality of Israel’s constitutive violence; we disagree, at least, about reality, less about rival fantasies.
While I’m not going to defend violence, and definitely not anti-Semitic Palestinian utterances, I do want to critique the exaggerated focus on them as testifying to a familiar pattern, call it the three-step liberal cycle: 1) Find yourself an oppressed hero—preferably a minority; 2) Glorify their struggle and/or sacrifice: make a donation, post on Twitter (the possibilities are endless!); 3) Feel a piercing disappointment at the inevitable discovery that your hero didn’t measure up to your liberal credo: maybe she/he/they are not sufficiently feminist, marginally anti-Semitic, much too religious, and/or, God forbid, violent. After all, the good guys are never as good as we want them to be, they can be painfully bad at times.
My suspicion is that the Whiggish question I opened with— “Where will you have been?”—much as it urged me to take sides, is only step one in the three-step liberal cycle. It can promptly lead to step three—disclaiming the side taken, back to the comfortable standpoint of the righteous observer.
Let me conclude with an ironic antidote to that Whiggish question. As the events in Gaza were still unfolding, Facebook showed me sponsored content from the New York Times: “A Massacre Frozen in Time.” Dozens of skeletons were excavated in the Swedish island of Öland, uncovering a fifth-century “local power struggle in the aftermath of the fall of the Western Roman Empire.” A scientist called the event a “terrorist attack” though he warned from fashionably siding with the victims. “It’s easy to feel sorry for the deceased and the killed people, but we have no idea what they have been doing.” Perhaps the massacre was avenging a prior atrocity.
Indeed, it could very well be the case that the archeologists of the future, again unsure whom to side with, will call the Gaza massacre a “local power struggle during the fall of the American Empire.” But whether Israel/Palestine turns out to be a negligible comment in history, or a reason for pride (or shame) for those of us who choose to be parents, it does nothing to change the present. Those who are personally and collectively implicated cannot but take sides; others, who have the privilege of spectatorship, will keep watching.
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If you liked this column, you’ll love
reading The Point in print.
You might especially be interested
in Ursula Lindsey’s “Innocence Abroad”
and Gal Katz’s “Blame the Victim,”
both of which appear in our new issue.