This morning I had a kind of activist epiphane. It happened when I found I’d skimmed a lead BBC News article, “Mahmoud Abbas to head interim Palestinian government” in about five seconds and discarded it to give serious attention to a sidebar item, “Ping-Pong Toddler is YouTube Hit”.
There he was, the podgy little guy, sitting on the ping-pong table, his dad popping balls at him and him popping them back. I suppose he was a better image for Abbas, heading up an “interim Palestinian government”, than the dour shot of Abbas himself actually posted on that other article. But I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just finding the kid far more interesting.
It’s been happening a lot lately. Not that I don’t care about the Middle East anymore, but there’s hardly any point reading most of this stuff. After one has pondered the wildly varying and unverifiable counts of the weekend’s civilian deaths in Syria (3500 or 55?), it only takes a few seconds to see that the IAEA has opened new talks in Iran (skip rest of article) or what new aircraft carrier group is threatening Iran outside the Straits of Hormuz (skip rest of article). Hillary Clinton’s latest outraged pronouncement about the Russian veto of a Security Council vote on Syria? The title suffices: flip to something more illuminating, like measuring ice melt in the Arctic. Latest desperate warnings that Israel is going to blow us all to smithereens by attacking Iran “by April”? Right, go two or thee lines down … no, flip to the latest review of “War Horse”.
I’m not alone. A lot of us are getting jaded, bored with reading, pasting, emailing, posting and otherwise giving dutiful dogged attention to the same rusty recycling of the latest empty gestures by the same decrepit and deplorable political figures. The outrage, the frantic moral crisis watching US and UK idiot foreign policies lead us all to ruin—it’s all still there. But it’s stalling in a kind of limbo of ineffectual action. One keeps watching, dully, as one watches a tatty old city parade of weary lodge members in sagging uniforms stumping along blasting cracked marching songs on tinny brass instruments, celebrating patriotic zeal. One feels obliged to do it, but it's such a relief to go back to anything else afterward. Contemplate the evening TV schedule, or pat the cat, moral uplift.
I know the problem, really. It's that the real issues go so much deeper that the bedazzling daily media froth that "news" just isn't registering the way it should. Not least, I’m bothered by the realization that, sometime over the past decade or so, my country disappeared. I used to have a country, by the way. It was full of flaws but it had a good constitution and you could fight for things you cared about. People were illegally detained, and beaten up in prison, but you could haul the cops before a court and at least put up a fight about it. People in foreign countries were assassinated, but at least the government denied doing it, because it was Wrong. Our phones were tapped and our mail peeked into, our credit cards observed, but there was something called a warrant, and if they didn’t get a proper one, you could complain. I was proud of all this, in that naïve way that nationalists are proud of things they have never created themselves. Even while I wrote scathing critiques of US foreign policy, I did it because I was loyal to the vision. I believed. I was a patriot.
Just this year, it dawned on me that I’m a stateless person. Not in the sense of a passport, thank goodness, but in the sense of having a country that I call my own. I don’t recognize the one I grew up in, it has turned into something else. I don’t know where the Constitution went. It’s in a locked drawer somewhere, or carted off quietly on a palette into an Indiana Jones military storage facility. The new country, the one that replaced mine, is a paranoid, self-righteous, anything-goes state, in which someone I used to think was my very own president feels free to say happily on a Google chatroom that drone technology is really far better in killing “suspects” in mountainous terrain; authorizes the arrest, trial and conviction of US citizens on secret state evidence -- or, hey, skip the trial; and orders that prisoners going mad in Guantanamo must stay there indefinitely because the authorities can’t face the international scandal of revealing that they should never have been imprisoned in the first place. And he gets away with it, because it's a new country now.
Come to think of it, my country has turned into Israel. It's all there - detention without trial, convictions on secret evidence, torture, assassinations, black-box prisons, drone strikes, warrantless monitoring of citizens ... But there are lots of reasons to think the similarity goes beyond appearances, and that it isn’t accidental, either. From those skimmed articles, info occasionally rises out of the muck confirming that the Mossad and US and British intelligence are operating "in lockstep" (Obama's phrase), reminding us that those daily top-secret White House morning intelligence briefings to President Obama must now be saturated with Israel’s versions of what is going on in the world. This is deeply scary. Not least, the White House seems to have absorbed Israel’s twisted worldview that the whole Middle East is fundamentally steered by ethnic passions, so the skill-set needed in these Times of Terror is how to play on those passions and whip them up in US/Israel’s favour. And of course, who has that skill-set? By golly, thank goodness we have the Israelis. They've been trying to help us get it right for years-- and look how well it's worked for them.
Of course, what the Israelis didn’t mention is that inflicting these methods on scared civilian populations is exactly how the Israelis got to be so hated, and that by doing the same things, the US would be hated, which it now is. Instead, the entire US government and whole realms of the US electorate, lobotomized by corporate radio and Jesus stations, have swallowed the classic Zionist evasion--that eternal logic of the paranoid--that Arabs and Muslims don’t hate you for what you do but who you are. Hence the US has trotted along gladly, making Israel's methods ours: lying so often that people forget to check (e.g., that Iran is planning to “wipe Israel off the map”); convincing people that illegal measures are noble and extrajudicial actions heroic (e.g., shooting “suspects” from the air); and that, should any patriots take the slightest pause to wonder if this is what the country of their childhood is really all about, their whiney voices are heard as just more drivelling squeaks from the limp-dicked “left”.
Back in 1948, looking appalled at the Zionist triumphalist moment, Hannah Arendt deplored a worldview in which “only outmoded liberals believe in compromises, only philistines believe in justice, and only schlemiels prefer truth and negotiation to propaganda and machine guns.” Perhaps it’s because Arendt said it all in 1948, and others have said it all every year since, that saying it all in 2012 has waxed pale. One shouldn’t lose heart about this, I’ve always said. Mark Twain observed the same thing in the nineteenth century. Plato and Aristotle observed the same things in ancient Greece, for that matter. The struggle goes on. But we also know that Hannah Arendt had zippo impact then and that most of us are having zippo impact now, because the terrible truth is that the real work is not being done.
The real work is on a scale unimaginable to me, as a mere mortal. A national popular US referendum of political salvation, organized by the caring patriotic populace through the Internet, to ban all private funding of election campaigns and force all media to provide free and fair exposure to all candidates as a condition for their licenses. Another referendum to force restoration of discarded laws that limit how many radio and TV stations one corporation can own, to restore real diversity to the American media landscape. A class action suit to challenge illegal detention, extrajudicial assassinations and secret state evidence, brought to the Supreme Court. An international coalition to bring the illegality of US drone strikes before the International Criminal Court. Another international coalition to bring unilateral economic sanctions against Iran before the International Court of Justice for violating the United Nations Charter. And at the same time, a massive popular education and lobbying movement, on all levels and in all dimensions of what’s left of my former country, to drive Israel and AIPAC out of the US Congress and free the US political system to restore the Constitution and stop waging wars in the Middle East for Israel.
All this can imaginably happen. But it’s not likely to happen, because of all the flotsam. People are too busy trying to track the latest death counts in Syria; lobbying the UN for another resolution authorizing devastating western intervention; doing Kremlinology on military staff changes in Israel to see what they portend for a strike on Iran; and reading, beginning to end, articles about Palestinian “unity” talks on the weird notion that it’s worthwhile for the Palestinians to hold elections under occupation after Israel has shown it will arrest anyone who gets into office whom it doesn’t like. Cognitive dissonance, wilful blindness, naked Emperor … the critiques are as jaded as the problem.
Twenty years ago, I stood up in a UN forum and said that I thought all the human rights work of NGOs consulting with the Division on Palestine would make no difference because Israel’s basic policies to annex the West Bank would not be affected by it. Nobody liked it and they got sour on me. In 1991, I went to Congress with a large pile of documents showing that things were getting worse and the settlements would make hay of any negotiations. Biden started a sidebar conversation halfway through my five minutes of fame and that was that. In 1992, I went to the PLO with the same info. I was left in waiting rooms with the evidence in my lap, while Important People in newly bought expensive suits ran back and forth putting together the Oslo process, ignoring me -- for after all, the whole conflict would be over in five years. In 2003, I wrote in the London Review of Books that surely, now everyone saw beyond any controversy that the settlements had done their work and the two-state story was a cheat, we could start talking seriously about a one-state solution. Nearly a decade later, I’m still standing with cold feet on a grey sidewalk in a crowd of people, in a cold slow drizzle, watching the two-state brass band stump by in their saggy outfits blowing their even more cracked instruments. Yet another Middle East war looms, but even Abbas looks deadly bored.
Let’s give it up and go back inside to heat our feet with the last of our affordable fuel and do something more inspiring, like watching that round little kid pop those ping-pong balls back to his beaming dad.