PALESTINIAN NON-VIOLENCE

NOVANEWS

I am done with Matt Taylor. we now return to normal operating hours

Enjoy? Or something?  Cross-posted from Mondoweiss. Here is Taylor flailing in response. It is sad.

At Mondoweiss and elsewhere, a discussion about “violence” versus “non-violence” has been taking place over the past month-or-so, since the massacre aboard the Mavi Marmara, revealingly joined recently by Nicholas Kristof. In the face of empirical and ethical deconstructions of the argument for “principled” non-violence for Palestinians and the total abnegation of force by solidarity activists, Matthew Taylor has offered a lengthy rejoinder re-stating his case for the moral, ethical, and pragmatic efficacy of Palestinian non-violence. Taylor begins by defining “violence,” goes on to re-assert the utility of Gandhi, accuses me of mis-understanding Gandhi, condemns Palestinian violence, and moves on to a How-To Guide for the Palestinian Resistance.

Here’s Taylor defining “non-violence”:

Nonviolence is a powerful method to harmonize relationships among people (and all living things) for the establishment of justice and the ultimate well-being of all parties. It draws its power from awareness of the profound truth to which the wisdom traditions of all cultures, science, and common experience bear witness: that all life is one.

If we can’t define “non-violence” and “violence,” we can’t discuss them. Is the above a definition or non-sensical babble? The latter. No definition, no discussion. Earlier, I suggested that it is not so simple to define “non-violence” and “violence,” a suggestion that the gobbledygook above inadvertently confirms. Try a very quick thought experiment. I am in a room with a man holding a gun to my head. I have a stick in my hand with a spike in it. There is another person in that room. If I refuse to use force against that man by hitting him—possibly lethally—with my stick, he will kill me, then kill the other person. If I kill him, I will save the other person and myself. What kind of “non-violence” causes excess violent deaths and redounds to violence? The theorist raises his hand, quavering: “There are exceptions!” Of course there are. Otherwise the tension between theory and ethics would simply rip the argumentative fabric apart. Academic non-violence theory provides for exceptions in the case of sudden and overwhelming force. More colloquially, self-defense, taking its cue from common sense and international law.

What “principled non-violence” mainly means in practice is the refusal to use bodily-harming force except when confronted with a deadly threat against which there is no other way to resist.

That exception makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is the principle—building an ethical and moral firewall between a permissible exception for self-defense in the face of immediate, corporeal danger and an exception for self-defense against the structural violence of colonialism, occupation, or capitalism. Especially, this does not make sense when the goal is the minimization of human suffering. The difference is essentially aesthetic—there’s no ready-to-hand alternative to violence in self-defense when the threat is manifest and present, despite the theorist’s aesthetic preference for militant non-violent practice, the inverse of fascist war-fetishizing. Despite the abstract grace of the theory, it needs an exception to shoehorn it into reality.

Faced with iterations of the situation above, only the most cloistered theorist could universally condemn the use of force. The problem is that asserting that there are ready-to-hand alternatives in nearly all situations, raising non-violence to principle, is an act of faith. It’s an atheist theology, fundamentalist to the core, its sacred texts Gandhi’s notebooks. And like most such belief systems, the believers are fiercely evangelical, desperate for converts. And they will say anything to get them, including mis-understanding the difference between resisting a politicidal ideology and intra-communal repression. When Kristof writes of how Palestinian protests with rock-throwers are “a far cry from the heroism of Gandhi’s followers, who refused even to raise their arms to ward off blows as they were clubbed,” one wonders what he knows about Israeli society. IDF soldiers make old Palestinian men kiss the asses of donkeys. This is not the Sepoys under the Raj. Genocide is always glimmering on the Zionist horizon, and it doesn’t do any good to claim that it is just a mirage.

Regarding the problems of defining violence, I offered a serious argument about how non-violence and violence aren’t a binary but compose a spectrum, and moreover one upon which it is quite difficult to place any particular conjuncture of resistance, so long as we are concerned with real-world effects, citing examples from Palestinian history—for example, the women pushing soldiers at Budrus. (That was violence, and it worked, at least a little.) High-technology rockets that can blow Merkavas to smithereens are embodied violence. Nuclear proliferation threatens world-killing violence. There hasn’t been an offensive nuclear detonation since 1945. Violence works in complicated ways. Violence can counter or deter greater violence and less people die or are occupied or raped or tortured and that is what we’re talking about, that’s the only reason this discussion can possibly matter. The response to that argument was silence.

That silence speaks. Here’s what it says. Those calling for “principled” Palestinian non-violence, for the categorical rejection of force, cannot possibly care about consequences. They are idealists in the philosophical sense, unconcerned despite their protestations with the physical world. I do not know how else to explain the surreally anodyne argumentative style, free of the infinite lacerations of a six-decade occupation. The distant prose of Palestinian pacifism patters smoothly along, seldom punctuated by the reality of the occupation. Nothing about religious zealots dropping white phosphorus on children, about ghettoes erected by Jewish fundamentalists, about tree-burnings in the West Bank perpetrated by crypto-fascist Gush Emunim fanatics. No mention of decapitated mosques, or of the Samouni family, no talk of Cast Lead, a massacre carried out by armed forces headed by men promising to bring Shoah upon Palestinian heads.

The country that committed those crimes is in a state of advanced moral corruption, and no amount of citing mis-interpreted polling information will make that untrue. The question is how to arrest that moral corruption before it is too late.

It may take violence. In the real world, there are times when violence is necessary. Most historical resistance is not remotely violent, including—especially—Palestinian resistance. Some resistance is violent. Does it have to be? Did Lebanese resistance from 1996 to 2006 have to take place with weapons? The truth is that maybe it did not. Maybe Lebanese peasants, instead of offering social support to Hizbollah, could have marched in white robes and dove costumes south from the Litani and offered olive branches and tea with maramiya to the IDF thugs who were occupying their land, and passed along Hebrew-language peace-missives, translated from the Arabic in a collaboration between Salaam Fayyad, Khaled Abu Toameh, Amos Oz and David Grossmann, explaining the love in the Lebanese heart and their belief in the humanity of the occupier.

 Maybe that could have worked. Big maybe. Rockets definitely worked. Violence not only works, it may be the only thing that can work against a hysterical Sparta in the grip of collective nationalist fervor.

Taylor side-steps this line of argument by asserting that no one can prove that those rockets—or the violence accompanying any resistance movement—were necessary. This is true in the sense that we cannot re-run history as though it is a computer program, merely excising the one variable, “violence,” and replacing practitioners of violence with practitioners of non-violence. The notion that such a fantastical what-if offers support for a principled rejection of violent resistance doesn’t even rise to the level of absurdity. If Taylor wishes to re-play that history and can manage to hot-wire the time-machine, he will wait with the fellaheen as they weigh their options, apprised of academic non-violent theory, living under military occupation. They will no doubt look apprehensively at Taylor, smile at his translator, pat him on the head, look for a padded room, and cheer on Hizbollah. They are not so stupid.

Next. Taylor and others fundamentally mis-understand the point about principled versus tactical non-violence. No one is arguing that there are not those who practice what they insist is principled rejection of the direct, physical use of force or violence. The point is that a rejection of direct physical violence can accelerate the worsening of structural violence. It follows that the principle is a flimsy one. The corollary is that the principle is not precisely principled, and suggests that as a normative point non-violence should be deployed tactically.

Next. Academic and popular writers on non-violence cares quite a bit about Gandhi: what I say about Gandhi, what Thomas Nagler says about Gandhi, what CIA-funded Gene Sharp says about Gandhi, and what the Peace and Conflict Studies coven says about Gandhi. Taylor accuses me of mis-understanding Gandhi. Incorrectly, misunderstand that I was glossing the vernacular mis-reading of Gandhi, an odd mis-reading given how clearly I made that point. More importantly, Gandhi failed. Despite what Arnold Toynbee says, Gandhian non-violence did not break the colonial hold on India.

 Violence did, and no serious historian disputes this point. So do I care about Gandhi? No, not at all. Why should I? Gandhi is a dead Indian spiritual leader, and his stinky corpse is preventing any reasonable discussion from proceeding. We do not know what Gandhi would have said about Palestinian resistance, because he’s dead and his thought was rooted in the historical and anthropological realities of early-to-mid 20th century India. It’s just journalistic non-sense to carelessly extract and apply his thinking.  There are other problems with this séance. As Sayres Rudy points out, Gandhi-as-prophet-in-lieu-of-Gramsci-as-prophet “is a choice by certain people.  Why did they choose him?  Or Him, whatever.  Because they like him, they agree with him.  Why do they agree with him?  Because he (they think) agrees with them. Thus, as with God, what really matters, again, is arguments, not authority-figures.”

Have we seen an argument as to why Gandhi is relevant? Not a chance. Martin Buber asked Gandhi, after the latter delivered a speech extolling non-violence, “Do you think perhaps…that a Jew in Germany could pronounce in public one single sentence of a speech such as yours without being knocked down?” Have we seen any compelling argument that when faced with horrible violence Palestinians should on principle reject their right to resist violently? No. Are Palestinians different than Jews? Do different peoples have different rights?

Remember the Palestinians? Those people in Khoza’a waking up to the rat-tat of remote-controlled machine gun turrets firing off rounds, the people in Jabaliya living in the darkness of blacked-out Gaza? They are the point, not point-scoring in an academic debate. We resist their oppression because it is the right thing to do, because we are culpable for it. We are culpable as citizens, as taxpayers, as human beings, as privileged dwellers of the global North, as capitalists, as cogs in this churning machine. The first task is to end our society’s violence. Having failed to do that, we have no standing to enter a purely academic debate about the relevance of Gandhi to the Palestinian fight against politicide. Why are we going on and on about non-violence when we are enabling violence? We pay taxes, quipping uncomfortably and ironically to one another about our war-taxes going to fund Israeli violence, and let Apache factories keep on constructing helicopters and let our railroads ship those war-engines to ports where ships take them to Israel to kill Palestinians. We do next-to-nothing, we take no risks to check the systemic barbarity, almost none of us do.

I laid out at saccharine, earnest length how theorist-practitioners of “principled” non-violence earned ethical standing to preach: by practicing first, both generally and because if you hope to be a tribune of non-violence, a social movement must be listening and you must be getting the crap kicked out of you while they are as well. Without practice, what they are saying is meaningless, just blubbery moralizing. Those who don’t dare to throw themselves on the machine that armors Zionism and fuels Merkavas can’t tell Palestinian peasants precisely how to do so. It’s the peak of racist thoughtlessness, reaching its misogynistic apotheosis when Kristof urges Palestinian women to allow “themselves to be tear-gassed, beaten and arrested without a single rock being thrown.” In what other instance would the man who whiles away his days saving whores from Thai brothels urge continued oppression to end oppression? Taylor and Kristof are free to ignore what I said and what I say. We are free to ignore them.

Being ignored can’t be the goal, though. We write because we think writing matters and it matters especially when people listen. Mazin Qumsiyeh, for example, is writing a book on Palestinian civil resistance to Zionist encroachment. Here’s a bit of Qumsiyeh: “It is rather useless for armchair theorists to lecture people thousands of miles away about tactics and strategies.” I don’t want to get personal but it is individuals being “armchair theorists,” not abstractions. Taylor’s words literally will have no positive effect on the Palestinian struggle, because Palestinians actively resisting in Palestine are generally (a) increasingly agreed on the utility of non-violence at the present moment (b) are not quite so eager to give up their right to self-defense and (c) probably not reading this exchange.

Still, that does not mean that Qumsiyeh is correct. That doesn’t mean the words of a Taylor or a Goremberg are “useless.” They could be very useful, just not to us, but to our enemies. They could convince people that condemning Palestinian violence, and issuing hypocritical demands for Palestinian non-violent resistance, is OK. That condemnation is unacceptable and intolerable. The primary task should be halting the violence issuing from our hands and our actions. Halting violence means not committing it, and not crafting the intellectual atmosphere that justifies that violence.

Power is eager to blithely rob brown folk of a weapon they may need in the future. The corollary of enshrining Israeli aggression rights is erasing Palestinian self-defense rights. To carry out that robbery without incurring condemnation, power needs scribes who will justify its crimes. Edward Bernays knew this very well: the machine needs ideologues to lubricate it, to quiet its roar. Without ideologues providing that verbal lubrication, we would hear the screams and we would know the truth of their provenance.

It is not a coincidence that Gershom Gorenberg wrote an essay dictating the routes of Palestinian resistance several years ago for one of the house-journals of Zionist racism. Un-nuanced, historically bleached calls for the Palestinian Gandhi are liberal Zionism’s newest hasbara product. The fading phenomenon of liberal Zionism is desperate to stabilize a rapidly-deteriorating settler-colony consumed by an ideology that has always contained genocidal possibilities. It’s a sort of meta-lubricant, intended to re-jigger the machine because the yells are becoming disturbingly loud, and those nearby—neighboring Arab populaces—need to be kept undisturbed.

Unconsidered and thoughtless advocacy of principled Palestinian non-violence is now a route to career success, or certainly a way of chiming in to the chat about Palestine without marking yourself off as a radical. It’s a way to maintain credibility. Juxtapose the considered erudition of non-violent theorists with coarse passionate idiots who oddly think that the people under occupation are capable of choosing the course of their resistance on their own, and that they may need the same sort of tools the Jewish people used in the Warsaw Ghetto—guns and firebombs.

Careerism and thoughtlessness were the words describing the traits that Arendt thought produced evil. I am sorry to have to say this but the debate about Palestinian violence versus non-violence is a scoundrels’ debate: tiring, cheap, empty. It feels disgusting. Should Taylor wish to continue this debate, that is his business. Machines need lubricants to work and it is Taylor’s right to choose to manufacture lubricant.

He could also elect to produce acid to dissolve the machine. It’s his call, it depends on what he thinks of the machine, it depends on whether he really wishes to destroy it or whether he has other ambitions. I don’t have high expectations. He has shown an overt willingness to mis-quote, mis-understand, manipulate, mis-read, and lie, and he’s done so in public. He can continue this discussion as he wishes. But I am done. Good-bye Matthew. There is work to do. Let’s get on it.

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