Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Language, Death and Resistance

Like many cliches, the saying that the first victim of war is the truth contains a grain of accuracy and reality.  One of the most noticeable, yet apparently peripheral, effects of a crisis like the Gaza crisis is its effect on language.  Such effects get magnified in the echo chambers for influential political opinion that are the mainstream media.  Examples abound: the descriptions of 'terror tunnels' by Israeli officials (as if a tunnel could of itself be terrifying or could terrorise); the tropes of 'balance' and 'the two sides' which I've already discussed recently; the use of terms like 'war' or 'conflict' to refer to what is happening in Gaza, when it is really a matter of wholesale butchery of civilians; the use of certain terms in regard to the weaker party - 'the Islamic militant group Hamas' or 'the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas', as if the IDF and the Israeli state were not 'militant', or as if the Israeli right (and shockingly large swathes of the whole society) were not in thrall to a deeply conservative branch of Judaism or to a messianic yet secular ideology that sees Israel as (as the Israeli Embassy had it on its Facebook page a few days ago, alongside an image of Molly Malone swathed in a niqab) 'the last frontier of the free world'.

Thirty years ago, in the London Review of Books, Edward Said wrote a long and powerful review essay of a crop of books on the Lebanon War and the camp massacres, including books by Noam Chomsky and Jonathan Randal, and the report of the International Commission on Israel in Lebanon (which commission included Richard Falk and Kader Asmal) - 'Permission to Narrate' (still to be found on the LRB website, if you have access to it).   In this essay, he discusses the politico-rhetorical function of 'terrorism':

Terrorism is the vaguest and yet for that reason the most precise of concepts. This is not at all to say that terrorism does not exist, but rather to suggest that its existence has occasioned a whole new signifying system as well. Terrorism signifies first, in relation to ‘us’, the alien and gratuitously hostile force. It is destructive, systematic and controlled. It is a web, a network, a conspiracy run from Moscow, via Bulgaria, Beirut, Libya, Teheran and Cuba. It is capable of anything. 

Said was noting at this time the rise of the discourse on 'terrorism', which can be dated in American policy circles to the tenure of the Reagan Administration.  A whole think-tank industry had grown up around 'terrorism', apparently given to analyzing it, and advising the American government about it, while actually not really saying anything of true insight. Tellingly, Binyamin Netanyahu was himself part of this industry: he edited a volume entitled Terrorism: How the West Can Win in 1987.  But it was and still is heavily used in Israeli media and policy discussions.  Once it's established that Hamas is a 'terrorist' organisation (and it's agreed in Washington and Brussels that it is), then one does not need to bother thinking about it seriously, one certainly does not consider entering into talks with it, and one can treat anyone associated with it as one likes.  Most damagingly of all, perhaps, the term cloaks its referent in a de-historicizing, de-contextualizing cloud, creating a blindness entirely unrelated to insight:

The very indiscriminateness of terrorism, actual and described, its tautological and circular character, is anti-narrative. Sequence, the logic of cause and effect as between oppressors and victims, opposing pressures – all these vanish inside an enveloping cloud called ‘terrorism’. 

Again, once it can be lodged in public discussion that Hamas is a 'terrorist' organisation, no deeper or wider historical or political analysis is deemed necessary.  All we need to do is to stop the rockets, or destroy the tunnels - discussion of the occupation (in its 47th year), or the dispersion and dispossession of the Palestinians across the globe is both irrelevant and improper.

On the day-to-day scale of the present carnage, we must return to the proliferation of dead language, spawned by the Israeli government most of all, and generally repeated by all-too-frequently ignorant or pliant media.  'Terrorism', 'Israel's right to defend itself', 'Israel's moral army', and the whole panoply of 'humanitarian measures' the IDF takes when bombarding civilian areas - to cut through this verbiage with the right combination of mordancy and acuity requires a new George Orwell or a new Jonathan Swift.

Orwell wrote a famous essay in 1946, 'Politics and the English Language', which discusses, often brilliantly and hilariously, the dialectical relationship of unnecessary, often official, neologisms, on the one hand, and humane thought,  on the other.  Together, they move in a ever-murkier downward spiral into regions of disgrace and obscurity.  Orwell would have little sympathy for Hamas, I am sure, but he would recognize the dead hand of the Israeli government in its justifications for barbarism:

George Orwell: Politics and the English Language

I am not sure how David Lloyd might take to being placed in the company of Orwell, but the pairing is, if only in this instance, apposite.  Lloyd is maybe the most brilliant Irish critic of his generation.  Professor of English at the University of California at Riverside, and the author of many books on culture, Irish literature, literary pedagogy, aesthetics and colonial politics, Lloyd contributed to a revolution in Irish Studies in the 1980s and 1990s.  I can still remember the sheer excitement of finding his collection of essays Anomalous States in Fred Hanna's bookstore on Nassau Street in Dublin, in the summer of 1993.  I was a doctoral student in England, but home for the summer, and I knew very quickly that the book I was carrying would turn my sense of the politics of Irish culture upside-down.   More recently, Lloyd has been a central figure in promoting the academic boycott of Israeli university institutions, in the United States.   His intellectual energy and constructive anger are an example to us all.  Here is an essay on language and colonial conflict in Gaza which Lloyd published just today, on Mondoweiss:

Slaughter is not self-defense: The assault on Gaza and the corruption of language



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