Richard Pithouse, The Con
Words are the raw materials for building a house. Words are a country.
- Mahmoud Darwish, Absent Presence
In The Jerusalem Post, articles on Gaza report that Israeli “soldiers” have engaged Palestinian “terrorists” in battle. In our colonial historiography, “soldiers” were often reported to have fought “warriors”. In the 1980s, “soldiers” were reported, much like in Israel today, to have been deployed against “terrorists”. Today, as state murder is increasingly normalised as an acceptable tool of social control in our deeply compromised democracy, the police are, we are often told, at war with “criminals”.
“Warriors” were, so the colonial story often went, in thrall to the passions, archaic and brutish, of the “tribe” and its malevolent “chief”. “Terrorists” were imagined to have been duped by an evil ideology and under the operational control of white authority that had, inexplicably, crossed over to the dark side. When today’s “criminals”, shot down during a strike or on a road blockade, are granted some access to the political sphere, it is often only as the pawns of agency imagined to be external, white and foreign.
In these narratives, the “soldiers” and the “police” are not groups of armed men tasked with enforcing particular interests. They are assumed to incarnate order, reason and virtue as a material force acting in the general interest in an otherwise ungovernable, incomprehensible and dangerous world. There is a consistent denial that any attempt to oppose material force marshalled from among the oppressed against the material force organised by the forces of oppression can be rational and organised, let alone conceivably understood as potentially virtuous, in the interests of the oppressed or on the right side of history.
Colonial propaganda has often sought to present resistance as isolated from broader society and as pathological rather than political. But when it comes to a material confrontation with resistance organised as a material force, it has frequently had to be admitted, at least in practice, that the enemy is not an extraneous evil, parasitic on a simple and cowed people. Colonial wars, from Algeria to Kenya and Vietnam, were, precisely, wars against a people. The field of battle could not be distinguished from the home or the village or the farm because the enemy, ultimately, was an oppressed society as a whole. In the settler colony, like apartheid South Africa or contemporary Israel, it’s convenient to imagine that battle is waged to hold a border, a protective edge, between civilization and barbarism, order and chaos, virtue and evil. But the truth is that colonial states use violence to ensure one group of people can dominate another. The easiest way around the contradiction between propaganda and practice is to reduce the people to the armed force that can most easily be delegitimised. In Israel, as Columbia University’s Hamid Dabashi has noted, “what the Israeli propaganda machinery does is to reduce the entirety of Palestine, the rich and diversified tapestry of Palestinian resistance, to Hamas, then demonise Hamas. The strategy works, especially aided and abetted by major state-sponsored or corporate media like BBC, ABC or CNN.”
For Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, the Jerusalem Post and much of the media in the United States, it is Hamas that is responsible for the violence and destruction that the Israeli state is raining down on the people of Gaza and the people of Gaza who are responsible for Hamas. This is an old tactic of domination. The violence of oppressors has often claimed to be in response to provocation – a short skirt, a steady gaze, a refusal to obey or to know one’s place.
There is, to be sure, crude and dehumanising propaganda emanating from both sides of the anguish in Gaza, and from the supporters of both sides, including here in South Africa. Unconscionable actions have been undertaken from both sides. But while this must be taken seriously, it in no way produces an equivalence in terms of who is being maimed, killed and terrorised; who has been and who is still being dispossessed; whose humanity is taken for granted by the most influential organisations in the international media and whose is not; who runs a well-equipped army with the support of the most powerful imperial force on the planet and who, like the dispossessed the world over, sometimes has to make do with stones and burning tyres.
Mahmoud Darwish, the great Palestinian poet, died on our Women’s Day six years ago. At seven years old he was driven from the home and the village in which he was born, imprisoned for the first time at 16 and exiled at 29. Darwish made his life against oppression. He never allowed it to make his life. He insisted that “all beautiful poetry is an act of resistance”. He wrote odes to his love for a Jewish woman. He opposed Hamas. He looked forward to the time when the flow of ordinary life would proceed without interruption – “a girl will walk to her love”; “a boy will play with a kite / of four colours”; and the poet could offer his full attention to “the doves of two strangers sharing their last / cooing, on the edge of the chasm” or the “aroma of coffee” in
the morning silence, early and unhurried, the only silence in which you can be at peace with self and things, creative, standing alone with some water that you reach for in lazy solitude and pour into a small copper pot with a mysterious shine.
For Darwish the affirmation of the full and equal humanity of oppressed people, a humanity as fragile, contradictory and delightful as any other, is a profound act of resistance. But effective resistance also requires the defeat, the material defeat, of the organised inhumanity of oppression:
The Palestinian cannot just be defined as terrorist or freedom fighter. Any trite, routine image ends up reducing and usurping the humanity of the Palestinian and renders him unable to be seen as merely human. He becomes either the hero or the victim – not just a human being. Therefore I very seriously advocate our right to be frivolous. I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous. The sad truth is that in order to reach that stage of being frivolous we would have to achieve victory over the impediments that stand in the way of our enjoying such a right.