Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Lost honour of PEACE
(H/T: Sultan Knish)

I. I finally visited the blog "Sultan Knish" which the New Centrist holds in very high esteem. I can see why.

Here is an excerpt from a post. A more trenchant analysis I have not encountered of the chimera called "peace", a term degraded beyond belief once you consider what it has become:

If you believe the current regime of diplomats and pundits, peace is something that can be obtained for the right price. Where peace once meant the mutual cessation of war, peace has now become something that can now be bought and sold. Put the right amount on the table and peace can be yours, the pimps of peace cry on every corner. Behind them stand their gruesome wares, the terrorists and mass murderers who will have peace with you, perhaps for a night or two, if the right price is paid. The tricks may think that peace is a long term marriage, but they know it is only a one night stand. Hudna. Ceasefire. Time enough for them to rearm and kill again.

We live now in the era of the prostitution of peace. Love doesn't enter into it. Brotherhood doesn't enter into it. We no longer have peace because we are both tired of war and wish an end to it. No, peace has become something that the brute, the thug and the monster offers to the civilized world in exchange for weapons, power and international stature. And so we no longer have peace, instead the very idea of peace has become a lost hope, a compulsive gambler's winning streak, an alky's last beer, a forlorn cause in the darkened streets of civilization's modern diplomatic dystopia.


II. I've just been engaged in something of a debate at Bob from Brockly's. I took umbrage at his, in my opinion, knee-jerk designation of Israeli society as "racist".

Bob writes:

However, despite the racism of Israeli society, large numbers (perhaps a majority) of Israeli citizens clearly want their land to be more hospitable to African refugees, as these stories show:

It is an incoherent kind of logic, that calls an entire society "racist" and simultaneously providing a piece of information that seems to contradict the meaning of this term. Even though I sort of understood what Bob had meant, I saw fit to criticize his choice of words. He explained why he said what he said, and I took the opportunity to provide some calibration and context to his accusations.

At which point The New centrist joined the conversation, launching his comment with the following observation:

I’m so used to the word “racism” being tossed around these days that it is practically meaningless. At one time for someone to call me a racist would have really bothered me (am I, really?). Today, it doesn't phase me in the slightest.

"...ay, there's the rub;" I am still fazed (as in frightened) by such a linguistic sublimation of the solid-to-gas phase transitions. A solid phrase that used to have a stout meaning of some very egregious historical behaviours is now used gaseously, diffusely, to denote any sort of behaviour or attitude which is stimulated by the existance of difference* between people, without due consideration for particular situations and human tendency to protect itself against assault of any type by closing ranks with trusted kin and friends. Arabs (by and large, there are exceptions which I am all too eager to acknowledge) are not Israel's friends, they don't speak as Israel's friends, they don't behave in any manner even remotely friendly. It seems extraordinary that anyone should expect Israelis to think of them as friends.
III. “.. It is generally assumed", says George Orwell, in his famous article: “Politics and the English language” (1946) "that we cannot by conscious action do anything about [the decline of the English Language]. Our civilization is decadent, and our language---so the argument runs---must inevitably share in the general collapse… It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism... Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

... it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. … the English language.. becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible..."

Orwell was a most conscientious thinker and writer. His expostulations about the cheapening of language in the service of shrill and mostly meaningless polemics is just as relevant today, if not more so.
In her book of essays “Economy of the Unlost”, Anne Carson tries to locate the nexus of poetry (writing authentically) and power, by comparing two poets who lived 25 centuries apart, Simonides of Keos (5th century b.c.e) and Paul Celan (a Romanian Jew and a survivor of the Holocaust).

She chose Celan because of his unique biography and his calling. For Celan, the German language, into which he was born and upon which he grew up, was hijacked at a certain point for a national “deathbearing talk”. Once the Nazi regime was defeated, language remained, but badly mutilated and warped, terribly fragile. That’s when Celan decided to work with the German language, with great care and frugality, to preserve what remained meaningful and clean in it.

In choosing to focus on Celan's work, Carson seems to suggest that at times -- when parts of language and meanings of words have been appropriated and deformed, thereby lost -- it is the duty of the poet (a term in which I include authors, writers, thinkers, intellectuals, readers and speakers) to use what is left economically, sparingly, and accurately.

Paul Celan was extremely anxious about the erosion of meanings in language.

“ He sometimes saw language-death as a more universal problem: The tendency of meanings to “burn out” of language and to be covered by a “load of false and disfigured sincerity” is one that he here ascribes to ‘The whole sphere of human communicative means”

It’s this kind of anxiety that animates my concern over the inflationary usage of words, so that eventually these potent terms are drained of their moral import and relevance by being associated all too freely and cheaply with a-historical analogies. Intellectuals ought to adopt this pristine ethos of linguistic economy, to be particularly mindful not to squander the precious meanings of moral terms in the service of some short-term political thesis.

All of the above was triggered by Sultan Knish's correct diagnosis of the precious term "peace" as being degraded by cynical politicians, and morally-illiterate Human Rights activists and such, to the point when it no longer bears even a resemblance to what it meant when the UN was founded and the Universal Rights Declaration was signed and ratified.

I'd like to believe that the process of depletion of meaning from significant terms is reversible, as Orwell suggests. I act as if I believe it and try to be very circumspect in the way I choose my words, to come as closely as possible to what I really want to say.


BTW, the dude in the illustration flashing a "peace" sign is a good example of the corruption undergone by the term "peace". At some point someone mistook, or worse, re-interpreted, the "V" sign, which used to signify "Victory" as "peace". When Yasser Arafat flashed his "V" to adoring reporters (like Barbara Plett), they automatically reported it as flashing a "Peace" sign, something that would go down well with their expected audiences who wanted to believe he was a man of peace. I was always dumbfounded by such interpretations. It was a very visual illustration of his not so subtle "doublespeak". As when he spoke of "Jihad to Jerusalem", his apologists explained it as the aspiration for Jerusalem while what he actually meant was "Jihad", well-understood in its traditional sense, by those he was speaking to, to mean exactly the bloody campaign that he unleashed in 2000.


*In this example:

"Yup, some people do tend to fall for that Grossman-is-a-peacenik jive, not realising that Grossman is a bigot and a fanatic, fully committed to a violent Jewish supremacist state."

which I found here, you will note that David Grossman, for supporting the idea that Jews have a right to their own state, is thus denounced as "a bigot and a fanatic". And in case you are not sure whether this combination of violent epithets does not mean he is a racist, than the author goes on to explain that Grossman is committed to a "Jewish supremacist state". Why did he not untilize the term "racist"? Probably he must have felt that the term "racist" was mild for his purpose and overexcited disposition. Which sort of doubly makes my point. To describe Grossman as a "racist" would have been downright slanderous. To describe him as this author does is simply a character assassination. But , as George Orwell explains: "an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely."

So you see my problem with Bob's "Israeli society is racist" meme? "Israeli society is racist" means, in actuality, that Israel is a "Jewish supremacist state". In which case, David Grossman - the dovest of possible doves, a gentle and compassionate soul by any kind of test - why wouldn't it be justifiable and viable to label him "a bigot and a fanatic"? You start by labeling with an intense, hate-loaded term, and you have no where to go but into exponentially intensified extremeness of the label.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,


At 10:29 AM EDT, Blogger Sultan Knish said...

a typical symptom of a society's loss of identity and the inversion of its self-image is when language itself becomes inverted

At 1:20 PM EDT, Anonymous TNC said...

I may have put things a bit too stridently when I wrote:

"Today, it doesn't phase me in the slightest."

It really depends on who is saying or writing it. For my wife to call me a racist would be extremely disturbing. Someone calling me a racist at Indymedia does not bother me. When I read someone at Daily Kos or the Huffington Post describe something as "racist" there is a good chance it isn't racist at all.

I place a higher standard on academic and other professional writing than on vernacular usage.

The loose use of the term "fascism/fascist" is similar.

I can't tell you how many times I've heard people refer to President Bush or Mayor Giuliani as "fascist" in casual conversation. Of course I correct their usage of the term but it is a losing battle.

It is much more offensive when I read academic and other professional authors who know the meaning of the term use it in this loose manner, going on about the "fascist" police in NYC, the creeping fascism of the Bush administration or the "fascist" policies of the IDF in Gaza, Judea or Samaria.

My problem with the definition of racism as adopted by Bob is it is too broad. If all societies and polities are racist, how much explanatory power does the term have? Does that make sense?

Most leftists identify racism with relations of power than with attitude, opinion and behavior. I find this problematic as well. For those who take this perspective to its logical end-point, African-Americans and other minorities in the U.S. cannot be racist because they live in a society dominated by white folks.

In this analysis only majorities have the potential to be racist due to power relations. For minorities, racism is simply impossible.

Many rad-leftists don't see a problem with this sort of analysis, they simply take it as given.

Yes, SK's blog is great. Glad you had a chance to check it out. I've been an avid reader for a while.

At 6:10 AM EDT, Blogger bob said...

I am still thinking about whether or not I was right to use the term, and whether I am using it too loosely and contributing to its inflation. I take the issue of the inflationary use of language very seriously.

However, I may be using it in a broad way, but I don't think that I am using it in an imprecise or inflationary way.

The MacPherson enquiry into institutional racism in British policing came up with a definition that is incredibly diffuse. (See here). MacPherson builds on Scarman's "unwitting" and "unconscious" racism, and adds "unintentional". This is racism without racists, racism without racist agency, racism which permeates a structure or institution.

I am unconfortable with this definition, because it makes it easy for racists to claim their innocence ("it's not me, it's my institution").

Nonetheless, this is what lies behind Larry Summers' important "antisemitism in effect it not in intent" formulation. And it is what lies behind the legal objections made by Engage to academic boycotts, as ruled on by Lord Lester, one of the architects of equality legislation (and subsequently by Anthony Julius, building on the same case).

This is the first sort of racism I identify with Israeli society: the structural racism which systematically excludes Arab citizens from equal treatment, regardless of racist agency from Israelis themselves. I believe I am on strong grounds here, that there is lots of evidence for such systematic exclusion. (And, to repeat, to make this claim is not to make an exceptional case about Israel: many other states practise structural exclusions of one sort or another.)

I am on weaker ground when I talk about a second form of racism in Israeli society: the casual everyday racism of many Israelis towards racialised others both within the Jewish population and outside it. My evidence for this is purely anecdotal, and I would not want to strongly associate myself with such an argument without a lot more reading and/or experience on my part. And, again, this sort of racism is not exceptional to Israel: I am very aware of it in Britain and the US, societies I know much better. I am also aware that much worse racism towards Jews pervades Arab societies.

I do, however, feel it is correct to call such prejudice "racism". Here, the analysis by sociologists like Roger Hewitt, Philomena Essed and others makes a case for the existence of "micro" or "everyday" dimensions of racism which need not lead to violent practice or material disadvantage.

Nonetheless, if my usage is misread - as my perhaps throwaway usage in that post makes it likely to be - it can easily contribute to the inflation of the term, and to the demonization of Israel, which is a serious problem.

Sorry to take up so much space!


At 11:51 AM EDT, Blogger bob said...

A footnote in comments here


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