Why I am not Charlie

imagesThere is no “but” about what happened at Charlie Hebdo yesterday. Some people published some cartoons, and some other people killed them for it.  Words and pictures can be beautiful or vile, pleasing or enraging, inspiring or offensive; but they exist on a different plane from physical violence, whether you want to call that plane spirit or imagination or culture, and to meet them with violence is an offense against the spirit and imagination and culture that distinguish humans. Nothing mitigates this monstrosity. There will be time to analyze why the killers did it, time to parse their backgrounds, their ideologies, their beliefs, time for sociologists and psychologists to add to understanding. There will be explanations, and the explanations will be important, but explanations aren’t the same as excuses. Words don’t kill, they must not be met by killing, and they will not make the killers’ culpability go away.

To abhor what was done to the victims, though, is not the same as to become them. This is true on the simplest level: I cannot occupy someone else’s selfhood, share someone else’s death. This is also true on a moral level: I cannot appropriate the dangers they faced or the suffering they underwent, I cannot colonize their experience, and it is arrogant to make out that I can. It wouldn’t be necessary to say this, except the flood of hashtags and avatars and social-media posturing proclaiming #JeSuisCharlie overwhelms distinctions and elides the point. “We must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day,” the New Yorker pontificates. What the hell does that mean? In real life, solidarity takes many forms, almost all of them hard. This kind of low-cost, risk-free, E-Z solidarity is only possible in a social-media age, where you can strike a pose and somebody sees it on their timeline for 15 seconds and then they move on and it’s forgotten except for the feeling of accomplishment it gave you. Solidarity is hard because it isn’t about imaginary identifications, it’s about struggling across the canyon of not being someone else: it’s about recognizing, for instance, that somebody died because they were different from you, in what they did or believed or were or wore, not because they were the same. If people who are feeling concrete loss or abstract shock or indignation take comfort in proclaiming a oneness that seems to fill the void, then it serves an emotional end. But these Cartesian credos on Facebook and Twitter — I am Charlie, therefore I am — shouldn’t be mistaken for political acts.

Among the dead at Charlie Hebdo:  Deputy chief editor Bernard Maris and cartoonists Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (aka Cabu), Stephane Charbonnier, who was also editor-in-chief, and Bernard Verlhac (aka Tignous)

Among the dead at Charlie Hebdo: Deputy chief editor Bernard Maris and cartoonists Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (aka Cabu), Stephane Charbonnier, who was also editor-in-chief, and Bernard Verlhac (aka Tignous)

Erasing differences that actually exist seems to be the purpose here: and it’s perhaps appropriate to the Charlie cartoons, which drew their force from a considered contempt for people with the temerity to be different. For the last 36 hours, everybody’s been quoting Voltaire. The same line is all over my several timelines:

From the twitter feed of @thereaIbanksy, January 7

From the twitter feed of @thereaIbanksy, January 7

“Those 21 words circling the globe speak louder than gunfire and represent every pen being wielded by an outstretched arm,” an Australian news site says. (Never mind that Voltaire never wrote them; one of his biographers did.) But most people who mouth them don’t mean them. Instead, they’re subtly altering the Voltairean clarion cry: the message today is, I have to agree with what you say, in order to defend it. Why else the insistence that condemning the killings isn’t enough? No: we all have to endorse the cartoons, and not just that, but republish them ourselves. Thus Index on Censorship, a journal that used to oppose censorship but now is in the business of telling people what they can and cannot say, called for all newspapers to reprint the drawings: “We believe that only through solidarity – in showing that we truly defend all those who exercise their right to speak freely – can we defeat those who would use violence to silence free speech.” But is repeating you the same as defending you? And is it really “solidarity” when, instead of engaging across our differences, I just mindlessly parrot what you say?

But no, if you don’t copy the cartoons, you’re colluding with the killers, you’re a coward. Thus the right-wing Daily Caller posted a list of craven media minions of jihad who oppose free speech by not doing as they’re ordered. Punish these censors, till they say what we tell them to!

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.34.32 AMIf you don’t agree with what Charlie Hebdo said, the terrorists win.

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.22.15 AMYou’re not just kowtowing to terrorists with your silence. According to Tarek Fatah, a Canadian columnist with an evident fascist streak, silence is terrorism.

Screen shot 2015-01-08 at 11.46.59 PMOf course, any Muslim in the West would know that being called “our enemy” is a direct threat; you’ve drawn the go-to-GItmo card. But consider: This idiot thinks he is defending free speech. How? By telling people exactly what they have to say, and menacing the holdouts with treason. The Ministry of Truth has a new office in Toronto.

There’s a perfectly good reason not to republish the cartoons that has nothing to do with cowardice or caution. I refuse to post them because I think they’re racist and offensive. I can support your right to publish something, and still condemn what you publish. I can defend what you say, and still say it’s wrong — isn’t that the point of the quote (that wasn’t) from Voltaire? I can hold that governments shouldn’t imprison Holocaust deniers, but that doesn’t oblige me to deny the Holocaust myself.

It’s true, as Salman Rushdie says, that “Nobody has the right to not be offended.” You should not get to invoke the law to censor or shut down speech just because it insults you or strikes at your pet convictions. You certainly don’t get to kill because you heard something you don’t like. Yet, manhandled by these moments of mass outrage, this truism also morphs into a different kind of claim: That nobody has the right to be offended at all.

I am offended when those already oppressed in a society are deliberately insulted. I don’t want to participate. This crime in Paris does not suspend my political or ethical judgment, or persuade me that scatologically smearing a marginal minority’s identity and beliefs is a reasonable thing to do. Yet this means rejecting the only authorized reaction to the atrocity. Oddly, this peer pressure seems to gear up exclusively where Islam’s involved. When a racist bombed a chapter of a US civil rights organization this week, the media didn’t insist I give to the NAACP in solidarity. When a rabid Islamophobic rightist killed 77 Norwegians in 2011, most of them at a political party’s youth camp, I didn’t notice many #IAmNorway hashtags, or impassioned calls to join the Norwegian Labor Party. But Islam is there for us, it unites us against Islam. Only cowards or traitors turn down membership in the Charlie club.The demand to join, endorse, agree is all about crowding us into a herd where no one is permitted to cavil or condemn: an indifferent mob, where differing from one another is Thoughtcrime, while indifference to the pain of others beyond the pale is compulsory.

We’ve heard a lot about satire in the last couple of days. We’ve heard that satire shouldn’t cause offense because it’s a weapon of the weak: “Satire-writers always point out the foibles and fables of those higher up the food chain.” And we’ve heard that if the satire aims at everybody, those forays into racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism can be excused away. Charlie Hebdo “has been a continual celebration of the freedom to make fun of everyone and everything….it practiced a freewheeling, dyspeptic satire without clear ideological lines.” Of course, satire that attacks any and all targets is by definition not just targeting the top of the food chain. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges,” Anatole France wrote; satire that wounds both the powerful and the weak does so with different effect. Saying the President of the Republic is a randy satyr is not the same as accusing nameless Muslim immigrants of bestiality. What merely annoys the one may deepen the other’s systematic oppression. To defend satire because it’s indiscriminate is to admit that it discriminates against the defenseless.

Funny little man: Contemporary caricature of Kierkegaard

Funny little man: Contemporary Danish cartoon of Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard, the greatest satirist of his century, famously recounted his dream: “I was rapt into the Seventh Heaven. There sat all the gods assembled.” They granted him one wish: “Most honorable contemporaries, I choose one thing — that I may always have the laughter on my side.” Kierkegaard knew what he meant: Children used to laugh and throw stones at him on Copenhagen streets, for his gangling gait and monkey torso. His table-turning fantasy is the truth about satire. It’s an exercise in power. It claims superiority, it aspires to win, and hence it always looms over the weak, in judgment. If it attacks the powerful, that’s because there is appetite underneath its asperity: it wants what they have. As Adorno wrote: “He who has laughter on his side has no need of proof. Historically, therefore, satire has for thousands of years, up to Voltaire’s age, preferred to side with the stronger party which could be relied on: with authority.” Irony, he added, “never entirely divested itself of its authoritarian inheritance, its unrebellious malice.”

Satire allies with the self-evident, the Idées reçues, the armory of the strong. It puts itself on the team of the juggernaut future against the endangered past, the successful opinion over the superseded one. Satire has always fed on distaste for minorities, marginal peoples, traditional or fading ways of life. Adorno said: “All satire is blind to the forces liberated by decay.”

Funny little man: Voltaire writing

Funny little man: Voltaire writing

Charlie Hebdo, the New Yorker now claims, “followed in the tradition of Voltaire.” Voltaire stands as the god of satire; any godless Frenchman with a bon mot is measured against him. Everyone remembers his diatribes against the power of the Catholic Church: Écrasez l’InfâmeBut what’s often conveniently omitted amid the adulation of his wit is how Voltaire loathed a powerless religion, the outsiders of his own era, the “medieval,” “barbaric” immigrant minority that afflicted Europe: the Jews.

Voltaire’s anti-Semitism was comprehensive. In its contempt for the putatively “primitive,” it anticipates much that is said about Muslims in Europe and the US today. “The Jews never were natural philosophers, nor geometricians, nor astronomers,” Voltaire declared. That would do head Islamophobe Richard Dawkins proud:

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 3.01.25 AM

The Jews, Voltaire wrote, are “only an ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched.” When some American right-wing yahoo calls Muslims “goatfuckers,” you might think he’s reciting old Appalachian invective. In fact, he’s repeating Voltaire’s jokes about the Jews. “You assert that your mothers had no commerce with he-goats, nor your fathers with she-goats,” Voltaire demanded of them. “But pray, gentlemen, why are you the only people upon earth whose laws have forbidden such commerce? Would any legislator ever have thought of promulgating this extraordinary law if the offence had not been common?”

You are an infamous impostor, Father, but at least you're circumcised: Voltaire lectures to a priest

You are an infamous impostor, Father, but at least you’re circumcised: Voltaire lectures to a priest

Nobody wishes Voltaire had been killed for his slanders. If some indignant Jew or Muslim (he didn’t care for the “Mohammedans” much either) had murdered him mid-career, the whole world would lament the abomination. In his most Judeophobic passages, I can take pleasure in his scalpel phrasing — though even 250 years after, some might find this hard. Still, liking the style doesn’t mean I swallow the message. #JeSuisPasVoltaire. Most of the man’s admirers avoid or veil his anti-Semitism. They know that while his contempt amuses when directed at the potent and impervious Pope, it turns dark and sour when defaming a weak and despised community. Satire can sometimes liberate us, but it is not immune from our prejudices or untainted by our hatreds. It shouldn’t douse our critical capacities; calling something “satire” doesn’t exempt it from judgment. The superiority the satirist claims over the helpless can be both smug and sinister. Last year a former Charlie Hebdo writer, accusing the editors of indulging racism, warned that “The conviction of being a superior being, empowered to look down on ordinary mortals from on high, is the surest way to sabotage your own intellectual defenses.”

Of course, Voltaire didn’t realize that his Jewish victims were weak or powerless. Already, in the 18th century, he saw them as tentacles of a financial conspiracy; his propensity for overspending and getting hopelessly in debt to Jewish moneylenders did a great deal to shape his anti-Semitism. In the same way, Charlie Hebdo and its like never treated Muslim immigrants as individuals, but as agents of some larger force. They weren’t strivers doing the best they could in an unfriendly country, but shorthand for mass religious ignorance, or tribal terrorist fanaticism, or obscene oil wealth. Satire subsumes the human person in an inhuman generalization. The Muslim isn’t just a Muslim, but a symbol of Islam.

Cartoon by Sudanese artist Khalid Albaih, from Aljazeera.com

Cartoon by Sudanese artist Khalid Albaih, from Aljazeera.com

This is where political Islamists and Islamophobes unite. They cling to agglutinative ideologies; they melt people into a mass; they erase individuals’ attributes and aspirations under a totalizing vision of what identity means. A Muslim is his religion. You can hold every Muslim responsible for what any Muslim does. (And one Danish cartoonist makes all Danes guilty.) So all Muslims have to post #JeSuisCharlie obsessively as penance, or apologize for what all the other billion are up to. Yesterday Aamer Rahman, an Australian comic and social critic, tweeted:

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.08.33 AM

A few hours later he had to add:

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.07.58 AM

This insistence on contagious responsibility, collective guilt, is the flip side of #JeSuisCharlie. It’s #VousÊtesISIS; #VousÊtesAlQaeda. Our solidarity, our ability to melt into a warm mindless oneness and feel we’re doing something, is contingent on your involuntary solidarity, your losing who you claim to be in a menacing mass. We can’t stand together here unless we imagine you together over there in enmity. The antagonists are fake but they’re entangled, inevitable. The language hardens. Geert Wilders, the racist right-wing leader in the Netherlands, said the shootings mean it’s time to “de-Islamize our country.” Nigel Farage, his counterpart in the UK, called Muslims a “fifth column, holding our passports, that hate us.” Juan Cole writes that the Charlie Hebdo attack was “a strategic strike, aiming at polarizing the French and European public” — at “sharpening the contradictions.” The knives are sharpening too, on both sides.

We lose our ability to imagine political solutions when we stop thinking critically, when we let emotional identifications sweep us into factitious substitutes for solidarity and action. We lose our ability to respond to atrocity when we start seeing people not as individuals, but as symbols. Changing avatars on social media is a pathetic distraction from changing realities in society. To combat violence you must look unflinchingly at the concrete inequities and practices that breed it. You won’t stop it with acts of self-styled courage on your computer screen that neither risk nor alter anything. To protect expression that’s endangered you have to engage with the substance of what was said, not deny it. That means attempting dialogue with those who peacefully condemn or disagree, not trying to shame them into silence. Nothing is quick, nothing is easy. No solidarity is secure. I support free speech. I oppose all censors. I abhor the killingsI mourn the dead. I am not Charlie.

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In Dream Park: A day without Adorno

Spill Water ride at Dream Park: This was really fun

Spill Water ride at Dream Park: This was really fun (self not in picture)

Yesterday, with four good friends, I went to Dream Park.

Doesn’t that sound like the beginning of Pilgrim’s Progress? If you never read Pilgrim’s Progress when you were a lonely kid, then perhaps you should; it’s one of the great English novels — the lone believer sets out on foot from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, plodding slowly through an allegorical landscape, through the Country of Coveting and the Slough of Despond, and of course Vanity Fair, which is probably near Dream Park. It entranced and frightened me as a child. The opening had the suddenness of pristine terror:

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back.

“What shall I do?” Christian cries, because the book tells him that everything around him will be burnt with a fire from heaven, and he, and his neighbors, and his wife and children are all doomed to annihilation. Isn’t that a good reason to leave home? Isn’t that why you go to Dream Park?

At Vanity Fair, be sure to ask about the student discounts: Map of Pilgrim's Progress, from City of Destruction to Celestial City

At Vanity Fair, be sure to ask about the student discounts: Map of Pilgrim’s Progress, from City of Destruction to Celestial City

My Egyptian friends invited me on condition that I promise not to open a book all day, because they thought that would be good for me, and you can see why. (Christian’s book tells him, “Flee From the Wrath to Come,” and mine aren’t much lighter.) Dream Park is Egypt’s biggest amusement park, kind of like the various Disney universes but minus the megalomaniacal style. It was a lovely day in the sun with lovely people, cracking jokes and doing the bumper cars and eating homemade kofta sandwiches. I only cheated once and cracked a book during  the Towboat Ride, when I was sitting in the back. Don’t tell.

Amusement parks always are a bit of an allegorical landscape for me. “Forget your cares,” they say, and of course if the day works out you do, but there’s no such thing as complete amnesia, and putting the present aside makes room for the past to overtake me. I spent my childhood summers in Noble County, Ohio, a poor and rural place. There were two big revels every season, the County Fair and the Fireman’s Festival (to raise money for the fire department), and for both, traveling carnival companies set up rides. My mother never liked the Fair much, and neither did I. It was mostly for farmers — there was a constant recruiting drive to get kids into 4-H, so intense in its ethical overtones (“Head, heart, hands, health!” “Make the best better!”) that I imagined a junior agricultural cult sacrificing virgins to the crops, although virgins were too rare to be killed lightly in Noble County, and weighing pigs and evaluating fertilizer were the more likely diversions. Also, the Fair rides sucked. Once I went in a “haunted house” which mainly consisted of rubbery things touching your cheeks in the dark. My mother threw a fit at what she almost saw as child abuse, complained to the sinister carnies who huddled in a tent behind, and got our admission back. She liked the Fireman’s Festival better, because your money went to a cause. The crowds were smaller, the steers and swine gone, the rides seemed cooler and the carnies less scary. Every time I go to an amusement park, though, I remember her anger at the ghost house, where I had been robbed of a promised good time. She frightened me sometimes with the intensity of her feeling; but I learned with age, long after her death, that love means going to battle even for others’ smallest joys.

Son, that is one fine prize steer: 4-H stand at Noble County Fair, Ohio

Son, that is one fine prize steer: 4-H stand at Noble County Fair, Ohio

There were things I really enjoyed at Dream Park; there was a boat going over a waterslide that was delightful. But there were things that were different — different, too, from the Disneyland my parents took me to when I was nine years old, where I loved It’s a Small World After All, and the Mad Tea Party. Those ride were intimate and individuated; you got in alone or with your “guardian,” and spun around in a way that left you feeling special — that your experience was your very own, so to speak. (All the more so if you puked in the whirling teacup, and so made your temporary mark.) There were a few like this at Dream Park: they had an imitation teacup ride, and something called Caesar’s Shaker which could have fit in back in Noble County. But all the emphasis was on mega-rides, where dozens of people get buckled into some giant, meat-grinder-like machine.

Is this a new fashion? I don’t remember these being around to envy when I was small. We all took the Top Spin, which looks like a cross between a combine and a trash compactor, except fifty feet high; it takes two rows of strapped-down victims, and hoists them and flips them upside down and throws them groundwards.


I forwent going on Discovery, which seems to be the biggest attraction in the park. Shackled in a circle on a huge gondola hung from metal beams, you sit and the thing spins while swinging back and forth like a bell’s tongue, higher and higher till it’s more than perpendicular to the earth. One of my friends dislocated his shoulder.


Peer pressure to show you can take this stuff pervades the air. Another friend really didn’t like these “violent” rides, he said, and felt so frustrated that he almost cried at his inability to enjoy what other people seemed to. But I knew where he was coming from. I liked the spinning teacups better, and I missed the singing dolls and tinkling cembalo music of It’s a Small World.

I didn’t put words to my dissatisfaction till the day’s end, when we sat in the waning sun while Selim nursed his shoulder, and watched Discovery from a distance. It didn’t look frightening in the right way, it looked degrading: people packaged up and manhandled by a vast machine. It was frightening in the way that air travel is to the inflexibly phobic (including me): not just because of the heights and the speed, but because you’re processed and immobilized, strapped down in an anonymous collective, and everything that goes on abolishes not just your volition but your personhood. It seemed an exercise not so much in excitement as in complete submission, like S&M without any of the erotics, where your master is made of metal and is sixty feet tall. This didn’t strike me as fun. It reminded me of bang-up special effects, from Transformers or War of the Worlds.

(L): SpinSpider, version of the Discovery ride, in a Norwegian theme park; (R) Very bad thing ("I don't think they come from around here), from Spielberg's War of the Worlds

(L): SpinSpider, version of the Discovery ride, in a Norwegian theme park; (R) Very bad thing (“I don’t think they come from around here”), from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds

Probably it’s good that I didn’t have a book. But being bookless didn’t stop me from wondering what’s the fun in these rides that seem more helplessness than thrills, pure abnegation to technology. Today I remembered Adorno, my old guide and companion Adorno; and I looked up a few passages from Minima Moralia, the book he wrote in exile during the Second World War.

Some years ago, the report circulated in American newspapers about the discovery of a well­-preserved dinosaur in the state of Utah. It was emphasized that the specimen in question had outlived its species and was a million years younger than any hitherto known. Such reports, like the repulsively humorous craze for the Loch Ness monster and the King Kong film, are collective projections of the monstrous total state. One prepares for its horrors by getting used to giant images. In the absurd willingness to accept these, a humanity mired in powerlessness makes the desperate attempt to grasp the experience of what makes a mockery of every experience. …Two years before World War II the German public saw a film of the downfall of their zeppelin in Lakehurst. Calm, poised, the ship went on its way, only to suddenly plummet straight down. If there remains no way out, then the destructive drive becomes completely indifferent as to what it never firmly established: as to whether it is directed against others or against its own subject. 

This is really not a style of thinking conductive to having fun. (I have read that Adorno greatly enjoyed practical jokes, and that his friends wondered how someone so humorous could write “that way.”) Having quoted it, I wonder if my friends will invite me to Dream Park, or anywhere, ever again.

But he’s on to something, isn’t he? — in our era, where the special effects have gotten even more destructive, where movies are basically a succession of bigger and bigger things getting blown to bits. In such an age, every park is Jurassic. This feeling that being manhandled and anonymous before some humongous power, helpless in a humiliated mass, is fun: does it arise, not from some deep eternal masochism in the human soul, but from this moment in our history, where everybody’s strapped down to something, where powerlessness is so much the way you are that being even more powerless is the only thrill you can imagine?

Houses made of ticky-tacky: Middle-class apartment blocks in 6 October City

Houses made of ticky-tacky: Middle-class apartment blocks in 6 October City

You go to the many Dream Parks to get away from the city. But the history of amusement parks is one of counter-urbanism, creating faux utopian spaces that nonetheless reflect as well as refute the realities left behind them. Disneyland is vacation from and mirror to L.A., Dream Park is oasis and supplement to Cairo. (FORREC, the Canadian firm that built it, cites “forty years of experience in theme, urban, architectural and interior design” that give “a singular ability to merge design creativity with fiscal practicality.”) It’s fourteen years old, but it’s part of a larger urban project that began in the late Sadat years (when capitalism and speculation came to once-socialist Egypt): to create “new cities” on the edges of Cairo, safety valves for the megalopolis’s congestion. The rage of masses trapped in crowded poverty and powerlessness demanded an outlet: not for them, but for the middle classes who wanted to leave that menacing anger and the sump and stagnation behind.

Dream Park was uncrowded, comparatively empty on our visit, another victim of Cairo’s tensions and the curfew. (The latter only moved back from 9 to 11 PM yesterday.) People don’t like to travel these days. Earlier, another friend even warned me about the microbuses you have to take to get there — “terrorists” will stop them to take sojourners hostage, he told me. Those who had trekked there wanted, like us, to enjoy a day with the streets far off, the stories of murder silenced. But it’s not that simple. October 6 City, of which the park is a peripheral part, is an excrescence in the desert; it still looks as though only enchantment sustains its cement and lawns, as though a brief lapse of will would make the mirage vanish. When it wavers into sight on the straight horizon, it reminds you of the power of the corporate djinns who coaxed it from a lunar landscape of sand and rock. Speculating in land is almost the only growth sector in Egypt’s economy, but it takes enormous money and influence to make the desert even pretend to bloom. A Mubarak crony bribed his way to get the permits to build 6 October City. He eventually married his daughter off to the then President’s son: a fairy tale about a captive princess that might make a decent theme park ride. After the Revolution, a court tried him for corruption, along with the former Minister of Housing, who enabled his castles in the sand; he got a prison sentence in absentia. But he’s fled somewhere to safety, his class of hangers-on is back in power again after the coup, and few expect him to suffer much or long.

The whole desert development is artificial, an enormous strain on the environment that seems to be cracking at the seams. The grass is desiccated, the sand can’t be kept out of doors. In Dream Park, the aquatic rides take an immense amount of water — more than anybody could justify allotting to the place when 18 million people are living in the vicinity; so they keep reusing it, and it stagnates, and in corners it smells, and bloated dragonflies circle hungrily above the guests.

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Christian and Hopeful encounter terrorists and bad transportation infrastructure on the way to the Celestial City

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Christian and Hopeful encounter terrorists and bad transportation infrastructure on the way to the Celestial City

I’m not a good person for amusement, I suppose. Yet I really enjoyed Dream Park; I loved being with my friends; I loved the innocence despite everything, and I loved — even as I swayed under — the unleashed flood of memories of childhood. Tonight I’m remembering still, and for some reason I’m thinking of Pilgrim’s Progress. I read it in my great-grandparents’ farmhouse in Noble County, on languid summer days when the bluebottle flies buzzed in the prisoning windowpanes. It stood in the dark bookcase with many other old books, but it was the most impressive; they had a stately edition from the Henry Altemus Company, ample with engravings, one that must have sat in the parlor of many a pious family at the last century’s turn. I remember looking at Christian casting off his burden, Christian tempted by Vanity Fair, Christian crossing the river at last to the Celestial City.

Atheist on the edge: A lesson for Richard Dawkins

Atheist on the edge: Watch out, Richard Dawkins

I remember also the book’s ending, which brought back the pure terror of the beginning, here at the resolution where it was least expected. Christian and Hopeful enter Heaven after fording the treacherous RIver of Something. But Ignorance — a bumbling character who’s been the earnest hero’s comic foil — sails over by boat, which is cheating, and then tries to charm his way in without his ticket of salvation. The sentinels turn stonefaced, the story darkens. “When they asked him for his certificate, so he fumbled in his bosom for one, and found none. Then said they, Have you none? but the man answered never a word.”

The King of Heaven is intolerant of intruders. He orders his servants, “the two shining ones,” to act: “to go out and take Ignorance, and bind him hand and foot, and have him away.” I never forgot these lines:

Then they took him up, and carried him through the air to the door that I saw in the side of the hill, and put him in there. Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gate of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction. So I awoke, and behold it was a dream.

PProg_60_p146_ThenTheyTookHim

Aluta continua: On loving Mandela

This is just part of an extremely neat infographic on Mandela's life, created for his birthday; the full thing is available at http://www.bestmswprograms.com/nelson-mandela/

This is just part of an extremely neat infographic on Mandela’s life, created for his ninety-fifth birthday; the full chart is available at http://www.bestmswprograms.com/nelson-mandela/

Back in 1990, Nelson Mandela, newly freed, came to Boston on a US visit to raise awareness (and money) for the continuing liberation struggle. Massachusetts was, of course, one of the heartlands of liberal support for South African freedom, even through the darkest and most racist days of Reagan. (I remember sitting in a Harvard Square cafe some years before, as a very nice white lady next to me tried to manage an ill-behaved two-year-old boy. “Bish! Bish!” she kept saying, but I didn’t know what this imprecation meant till the end of her patience arrived: she warned sternly, “You keep your hands out of that butter, Bishop Tutu McNally.”)  He spoke on Boston Common, and the turnout was enormous, reinforcing the rock-star quality of the tour. I went down to hear him. I don’t remember anything he said, and I doubt anyone else there did either. Although Mandela obviously could be extremely eloquent, his US reputation even at that point was caught in an antinomy like the old divines’ dispute over Jesus: Did his teachings matter more, or his miracles?

With Mandela, the words-versus-works controversy was already settled in the miracles’ favor. The image of the man, wonder-working in his saintliness, transcended any particular message he might try to convey. What remains of the event is the picture of a small Madiba doll on stage, whose mere presence promised absolution for a myriad local sins and omissions to the worshipping, overwhelmingly white throng.

Crowd listening to Nelson Mandela, Boston, June 23, 1990: © Paul W. Locke on Flickr

Crowd listening to Nelson Mandela, Boston, June 23, 1990: © Paul W. Locke on Flickr

Walking back across the Common and feeling unaccountably melancholy as the crowd disbanded, I ran into a black man, dishevelled and a little drunk or stoned, who started beleaguering me. “What the fuck, do you think you own this place, asshole? That guy” — gesturing back toward the defunct convocation — “is gonna teach you a lesson. He’s gonna show the white man who rules. White people ain’t gonna rule no more, motherfucker. You think you can do what you want? Just wait.” This was in the days of ignorance, long before George Zimmerman came to earth to bring us enlightenment: I didn’t realize that I could just shoot him. Instead I got into an conversation, starting with the predictable premises: a) I am not oppressing anybody right now; b) I am here to support Mandela, because I am on the right side. I don’t recall the outcome of the discussion (though it does strike me that in those days of jahiliyya, fewer white people carried guns), but I don’t think it was productive. Even in my racially and politically rather callow state back then, however, it did occur to me that the guy had a point. Not so much in the substance of what he said, as in rather bluntly reminding me Mandela didn’t mean the same thing to everybody. Despite all the white people who insisted he stood for forgiveness — mainly, their forgiveness — there were others to whom he signified aluta continua, the struggle goes on, we are still militant while oppression still stalks the streets and parks. His person– and this was true in South Africa, too, because he could never have kept the faith of the masses without it — could channel not only love but anger. For some, he came to bring not peace but a sword.

In Minima Moralia, Adorno wrote:

Before the eighty-fifth birthday of an in all respects well cared-for man, I dreamed that I asked myself the question, what could I give him which would make him truly happy? I immediately received the answer: a guide through the realm of the dead.

As Mandela turns ninety-five, I am struck by the demands, from South Africa and elsewhere, that he refrain from dying. I too wish he could be eternal, but not like Tithonus, settling into a decay unmitigated by the consolation of mortality. The man has done everything he was put on earth to do; nothing more can be asked of him. He is sick. He needs rest.

Obviously, however, he’s more than frail flesh now, even at the end point of his frailty. He is, as he’s been for fifty years, a symbol. The insistence on his survival is also a desperate supplication that the things he came to symbolize — the possibility of dialogue, the promise of forgiveness, the example of how a civil state can be built despite a deep foundation of violence, and, of course, the state he built, South Africa — can all survive.

If they mean anything, of course, they’ll survive without him. But they’re so fragile; some of them (forgiveness, for instance) are always fragile. Bloemfontein to Boston, none of us are so at ease with facing the desolation of reality that we don’t cling to a veil of symbols to keep ourselves standing.

Both man and symbol of the Black Atlantic: Statue of Toussaint L'Ouverture, Allada, Benin

Both man and symbol of the Black Atlantic: Statue of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Allada, Benin

Yet there’s a great deal to be learned from, and about, Mandela beneath the symbol. Maybe those lessons will become more teachable (as Obama might say) once the man-as-symbol is gone. One remarkable thing is that he’s one of the twentieth century’s very few revolutionaries who also succeeded in building a democratic state. In fact, he’s almost the only one. It’s as if the talents and lives of Gandhi and Nehru cohabited in one person. Except, of course, he was never a simple Gandhian; he paid his obeisance to non-violence as an ideal, but when he saw the extent of the apartheid state’s violence, he believed in fighting back. One would have to add Subhas Chandra Bose to the mix, then, and probably plenty of others from different strands of history: from Toussaint L’Ouverture to Che, from Sandino to Lumumba. The image of Mandela we have is like one of those Baroque effigies of saints constructed to contain and conceal a jumble and diversity of relics — for he was diverse and self-contradictory, like anybody. There is no particular contradiction between his latter-day embrace of forgiveness and his long pursuit of the struggle, though. Peace was only possible when the apartheid regime abandoned power. There was no possibility it would do so peacefully. Reconciliation would only come as a consequence of resistance.

Everybody has their own Mandela. The magnificent figure of the opening statement at the Rivonia trial is a canonical one. His peroration, as he prepared to face the life sentence of which he would serve twenty-seven years, is now inscribed on the wall of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, a kind of Fiat Lux for the country as it is now:

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.


Audio of Mandela’s closing speech at the Rivonia treason trial, April 20, 1964

There are other objects in the reliquary, though. There is the speech he gave to the Pan-African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa (PAFMECA) in Addis in 1962, a great summation of Third-Worldism adduced as “evidence” in his trials later. An internationalist all his life, he nonetheless held that people had to shoulder responsibility for their own freedom — although he knew all too clearly what ruthless violence they would face.

The view has been expressed in some quarters outside South Africa that, in the special situation obtaining in our country, our people will never win freedom through their own efforts. Those who hold this view point to the formidable apparatus of force and coercion in the hands of the government, to the size of its armies, the fierce suppression of civil liberties, and the persecution of political opponents of the regime. Consequently, in these quarters, we are urged to look for our salvation beyond our borders. Nothing could be further from the truth. …

South Africa is now a land ruled by the gun. The government is increasing the size of its army, of the navy, of its air force, and the police. Pill-boxes and road blocks are being built up all over the country. Armament factories are being set up in Johannesburg and other cities. Officers of the South African army have visited Algeria and Angola where they were briefed exclusively on methods of suppressing popular struggles. All opportunities for peaceful agitation and struggle have been closed. Africans no longer have the freedom even to stay peacefully in their houses in protest against the oppressive policies of the government. During the strike in May last year the police went from house to house, beating up Africans and driving them to work. …

But we believe it would be fatal to create the illusion that external pressures render it unnecessary for us to tackle the enemy from within. The centre and cornerstone of the struggle for freedom and democracy in South Africa lies inside South Africa itself. Apart from those required for essential work outside the country, freedom fighters are in great demand for work inside the country. We owe it as a duty to ourselves and to the freedom-loving peoples of the world to build and maintain in South Africa itself a powerful, solid movement, capable of surviving any attack by the government and sufficiently militant to fight back with a determination that comes from the knowledge and conviction that it is first and foremost by our own struggle and sacrifice inside South Africa itself that victory over White domination and apartheid can be won.

Myself, I turn to his less-famous statements when put on trial by the South African regime (for inciting resistance and for leaving the country illegally), in 1962:

I challenge the right of this court to hear my case on two grounds. Firstly, I challenge it because I fear that I will not be given a fair and proper trial. Secondly, I consider myself neither legally nor morally bound to obey laws made by a parliament in which I have no representation.

Police outside the Pretoria Palace of Justice as the Rivonia treason trial opens, 1963: Bailey African History Archives

Police outside the Pretoria Palace of Justice as the Rivonia treason trial opens, 1963: Bailey African History Archives

Mandela said the state and its whole apparatus of injustice was illegitimate, and he claimed the right to resist it by means corresponding to its own. The historic resonance of what he said perhaps obscures the fact that it’s not a strategic thing for a lawyer to assert in a courtroom, when the lawyer is on trial for (several years of) his own life. It effectively convicted him in advance of the treason he’d be charged with a year later. He was ready for that. He laid out the principle of resistance to immoral authority in terms even clearer than Thoreau’s:

Government violence can do only one thing, and that is to breed counter violence. We have warned repeatedly that the government, by resorting continually to violence, will breed in this country counter-violence amongst the people, till ultimately, if there is no dawning of sanity on the part of the government – ultimately, the dispute between the government and my people will finish up by being settled in violence and by force. Already there are indications in this country that people, my people, Africans, are turning to deliberate acts of violence and of force against the government, in order to persuade the government, in the only language which this government shows by its own behaviour that it understands.

Elsewhere in the world, a court would say to me, ‘You should have made representations to the government.’ This court, I am confident, will not say so. Representations have been made, by people who have gone before me, time and time again. Representations were made in this case by me; I do not want again to repeat the experience of those representations. The court cannot expect a respect for the processes of representation and negotiation to grow amongst the African people, when the government shows every day, by its conduct, that it despises such processes and frowns upon them and will not indulge in them. Nor will the court, I believe, say that, under the circumstances, my people are condemned forever to say nothing and to do nothing. If this court says that, or believes it, I think it is mistaken and deceiving itself. Men are not capable of doing nothing, of saying nothing, of not reacting to injustice, of not protesting against oppression, of not striving for the good of society and the good life in the ways they see it. Nor will they do so in this country.

The Mandela of resistance is the one I am remembering as he turns ninety-five. It’s not that I don’t value the legacy of comity and reconciliation — I do. But the world I choose to live in is a secular one, where forgiveness is not a transcendent obligation but a political choice.

What would happiness be that was not measured by the immeasurable grief at what is? For the world is deeply ailing.” There is much still to resist. If that means there’s much to forgive, then resisting it comes first. In South Africa, the state Mandela built massacred 34 striking miners in Marikana last year. The state is still democratic, still open, still lawful; but it is also increasingly under the rigid hegemony of neoliberalism, looking more and more like a reserve run for the rich by the purchasable. The malls in Sandton where the white bourgeoisie used to go to get away from blacks are now where a black bourgeoisie goes, for the same reason. Nor does this make South Africa worse than or different to many other formally free polities, policed and segregated against the demanding poor. Freedom increasingly doesn’t guarantee the right to move about, the right to demonstrate, the right to vote among meaningful alternatives, even — in some primitive places that have regressed especially far, like Pennsylvania — the right to vote in the first place. Pass laws have given way to gated communities; the ethic of Sandton is the one George Zimmerman killed for. Would Mandela resist this world? Think.


Miriam Makeba, Aluta Continua