Thursday, February 23, 2006


Gilad Atzmon - Re-Arranging the 20th Century: Allegro non Troppo

cartoon by Bendib Stopping Bush and Blair in Iraq, stopping those warmongers from proceeding to Iran and Syria is a must. If history shapes the future, we need to liberate our perspective of the past, rather than arresting revisionists, we simply need many more of them. We must let go; we must Re-arrange the 20th century. Gilad Atzmon

“There is a myth that we love freedom, others don’t: that our attachment to freedom is a product of culture; that freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law are American values, or Western values…Ours are not Western values, they are the universal values of the Human spirit”. Tony Blair, a speech given at a joint session of the United States Congress, summer 2003

Tony Blair may have gotten it right for a change, it is rather possible that freedom, democracy and human rights, are ‘universal values of the Human spirit’. Yet, they have very little to do with Anglo-American and Western governing philosophy and practices.

At Guantánamo Bay people are detained for over three years without being charged of any crime. If it were down to PM Blair and his infamous Anti-Terror bill, spending up to three months behind bars without being charged would be extended to the alleged enemies of the British people as well. If freedom is indeed a high ‘universal’ value of the human spirit, Blair and Bush must have very limited knowledge of such a spirit.

Anyhow, the following paper isn’t really about Blair or Bush; it is about the highly deceiving Western discourse. It is about people who claim to know what human spirit and universalism are all about. It is about a worldview that is engaged in silencing others, not to say killing in the name of ‘freedom’, ‘universalism’ and ‘humanism’. It is a search into the genealogy of the pompous emerging liberal ‘Judeo-Christian’ discourse. It is a deconstruction of Western political ideology and its deluded notion of the past.

The Personal is Political

Rather ostensibly, Anglo-American political argumentation is gradually taking the form of a pornographic appeal to one’s empathy. It is grounded on a distribution of sporadic stories of personal pain. Once Blair or Bush feel the urge to flatten an Arab country, all they have to do is to provide their supportive media outlets with some painful personal accounts of an exiled dissident voice who would willingly and enthusiastically share with us some horrendous graphic details of his troubles at home. In most cases, we are then instantly predisposed to military intervention and we stand behind our democratically elected governments, collectively providing them with the mandate to kill in the name of freedom and democracy.

As it happens, a given personal account, without even being verified or validated can easily become a legal indictment of a country, its leadership, a culture, a people and even an entire gender. Apparently, the phrase ‘the personal is political’ serves as an efficient political argumentative apparatus. While pre-WWII Western politicians tended to make us believe that politics must transcend beyond the personal and what may seem as contingent, within the post-WWII Western political discourse, as long as it serves the Western hegemony, the personal is nothing but political.

As we know, it was different American feminists’ networks that were the first to call a war on the Talibans, spreading the personal accounts of some abused Afghani women. Whether consciously or not, they were laying the groundwork for Clinton and Bush’s war against Islam. Similarly, it was the personal accounts of the gassed Kurds of Halabja that were preparing the ‘international community’ for the war against Saddam. It was the personal accounts of Jewish survivors told after WWII that retrospectively justified the outrageous Anglo-American carpet-bombing of German cities towards the end of that war.

In the past, I suggested a skeptical philosophical take of the notion of the personal narrative in the light of Heidegger’s Hermeneutic criticism of Husserl’s Phenomenology.[1] However, in the current paper I will engage myself with questions pertaining to the politics of the very shift from the personal to the political.

Currently, our political commitment is in large part determined by our reaction to personal narratives. Whether it is the personal story of the female rape victim or a detailed graphic account of an exiled Halabja resident, the Western subject is now properly trained in reacting politically and correctly to any given personal account. In metaphysical terms, the Western being has managed to rise above and resolve the old problem of induction; it is now adept at easily deducing a general political rule out of a very singular tale. This isn’t a big surprise, at the end of the day, human beings do tend to generalise. In metaphysical terms we have learned to avoid doubts having to do with our general tendencies.

But in fact it is slightly deeper: the shift from the personal to the political allows the Western subject to regard himself as an integral part of a cosmic ‘universal’, ‘liberal’ and ‘humanist’ order: collectively he reacts ‘humanly’ in a ‘single voice’ manner. Indeed, the empathetic sensation we detect within ourselves once confronting a personal traumatic account is an effective manipulative tool used rather often by our democratically elected leaders.

Auschwitz the Message

At least historically, it was within post-WWII Jewish discourse, both Zionist and anti- Zionist, where a clear tendency to present the personal as political could be easily detected. As bizarre as it may sound, Jewish discourse both on the right and left equally substantiates its argument by politicising the personal story of Auschwitz.[2]

After all, this isn’t that surprising. Auschwitz is indeed a story of very many singular human beings who are exploited and reduced into mere livestock due to their sexual preferences, political beliefs and of course ethnic or racial origin. Yet, it was the personal accounts told by the liberated camp inmates that transformed WWII from the historical chapter and ideological insight that it was into a mere ‘political narrative’ not to say a solid political argument.

At least politically, it is ‘Auschwitz the message’ that provides the Israeli government with (false) legitimacy to drop bombs on crowded Palestinian urban areas. At the end of the day, after Auschwitz, the Jews are now “entitled to defend themselves.” It is Auschwitz the message as well that entitles Norman Finkelstein, a child of Holocaust survivor parents, to say what he has to say and receive commentary based on this fact. Rather often Finkelstein would use his very personal background as a core of legitimacy. But then, thinking about it, if Finkelstein is indeed an academic scholar, presenting a solid argument, which I am totally convinced he does, then we must be able to address his arguments without any reference to his family background. Academically, we should be able to address his ideas regardless of his unique autobiography. Similarly, the moral ground to kill innocents in the name of Auschwitz is rather suspicious. As we all know, it wasn’t the Palestinians who sent European Jews to concentration camps in Poland. Within the heavy smoke invoked by the personal trauma, not many suggest to the Jews to redeem themselves of the personal traumatic discourse of justification. Such a suggestion is sometimes regarded as a form of Holocaust denial with some grave legal implications.

But in fact, it isn’t Jews alone who are capitalising on ‘Auschwitz the message’. It is in the shadow of that very message that Americans allow themselves to kill millions of innocent civilians in the name of democracy and freedom. As we will see next, ‘Auschwitz the message’ is now deeply rooted within the core of the Anglo-American notion of democracy and liberal thinking.

On the face of it, it seems as if the liberal Western subject is trained to believe that it is the lesson of Auschwitz that entitles us all to ground the political in the personal. Thus, it isn’t really a coincidence that the official Holocaust narrative had become the entry card into the Anglo-American or even Western discourse. Accordingly, it isn’t really a coincidence that Holocaust shrines are now sprouting up like mushrooms in every major Western capital. In the UK for instance, a permanent Holocaust exhibition occupies a large part of the Empire War Museum. Clearly, the Jewish Holocaust has very little to do with the general perception of British Empire History. In fact, the Empire has many other non-Jewish Shoahs to account for. Yet, the absurdity is even greater, it is rather crucial to mention that it was the British Empire that was so reluctant to help European Jews escape their doomed fate. It was Lord Bevin’s 1939 White Paper that stopped Jews from immigrating to Palestine when danger for their lives was immanent. It was the RAF that repeatedly dismissed the necessity of bombing Auschwitz. We have a very good reason to assume that the British decision to capitalise on Auschwitz and the Jewish Holocaust narrative is rather a highly calculated political move.

A Holocaust memorial opened its gates in Washington a few years ago, yet it is very hard to cover the clear fact that Roosevelt did very little to help European Jews during the war. The American administration didn’t change its immigration laws between 1933-45 in order to prevent mass immigration of European Jews into the USA. Again, we have a very good reason to assume that the American decision to capitalise on Auschwitz and the Jewish Holocaust narrative is there to serve a very specific cause. Let me say it, this cause is not history per se, in fact it is there to undermine historical thinking and to cover up some crucial historical facts.

Auschwitz is indeed a horrible story of a total abuse of human rights by a sovereign State. It is certainly a disastrous account of the violation of human liberty. Auschwitz is the ultimate story of violation of the most fundamental rights, Auschwitz is certainly a story of State terrorism and considering the fact that the Anglo-Americans present themselves as the guardians of human liberty, it is not surprising that Auschwitz settled comfortably within the core of English speaking cultural and political thought. This may as well explain why rather than being a historical event, Auschwitz has become a political argument grounded on a collection of graphic personal and biographical accounts. In some European countries Auschwitz has now become a legally sealed list of prohibitions and laws that are set to prevent any possible historical scrutiny. Unfortunately, the Holocaust and WWII are now covered with a heavy cloud of quasi moral smoke that blocks any serious treatment of the event, either scholarly or artistically.

Auschwitz and the Holocaust are now realised mainly in political terms. Auschwitz is shaping the Western vision of history as well as the vision of any possible future. Moreover, ‘Auschwitz the message’ stands as a perceptual mediator and a gatekeeper of any possible Western political ideology. Unless you acknowledge and approve the way Auschwitz is considered, you are not allowed in. In case you do not know what I’m talking about, you may ask the Iranian president, surely he can tell you more about the subject.

Needless to say, the vision of Auschwitz ‘the historical event’ is totally shaped by ‘Auschwitz the message’. In other words, any scholarly access into the Judeocide aspects of World War II is now totally denied. Furthermore, unless one approves and repeats the official Holocaust narrative, one may find oneself locked behind bars. This happened lately to three rightwing history revisionists who dared to suspect the official Auschwitz narrative. Regardless of what they have to say, whether one accepts their views or not, the idea of locking people up just for trying to shape our vision of the past is rather alarming. In fact, it means that we have totally failed in internalising the most crucial lesson of the war against Nazism. To employ thought police is exactly what totalitarianism is all about. To lock a historical revisionist up is to become a Nazi and the reason is simple: if Auschwitz is indeed a story of total personal abuse then denying freedom of speech is nothing but surrendering to the Nazi methods of personal abuse.[3]

Admittedly, Auschwitz has now become the very essence of the liberal democratic argument. It is a timeless event, a crude and banal glimpse into evilness. It often takes new shapes and new faces. Yet, some parameters always remain the same. Within the Auschwitz ideological apparatus there is always clear binary opposition at stake. Auschwitz suggests a clear dichotomy between the ‘good’ and the ‘evil’, between the ‘open society’ and its ‘enemies’, between ‘West’ and ‘the rest’, between the ‘democratic man’ and the ‘savage’, between Israel and Iran, between the ‘Judeo-Christian’ and ‘Islam’ and most importantly between the ‘universal humanist liberator’ and the ‘dark oppressor’[4]

Somehow, it is always the West that awards itself and itself alone with the legal capacity of enforcing the moral of Auschwitz. Somehow, most Western people still fail to see that within the emerging so called ‘cultural clash’, it is the Palestinians who are locked in a concentration camp named Gaza, they are obviously surrounded by the Israeli Wehrmacht and blitzed by American-made bombers dropped by American planes piloted by Israeli Luftwaffe top guns. Most Westerners fail to grasp that it is the West that is fighting an energetic Lebensraum expansionist war in the deserts of the Middle East. Why do we fail to see it? Because we are submerged within a dubious moral jargon that is there to impose some severe intellectual blindness upon us. Rather than thinking ethically and in categorical terms, we are giving in to the flood of shallow personal narrative rhetoric a la Blair and Bush. When those two were left with no forensic evidence to justify their illegal war in Iraq, they simply shifted their reasoning rhetoric to the Hitler-like Saddam Hussein. The invasion of the Iraqi oil reserves was retroactively justified by the necessity of removing the murderous tyrant. As strange as it may be, no one actually provided us with any real solid forensic evidence to back that very allegation of colossal breeches of human rights. Indeed, occasionally we saw some devastating mass graves exposed in the desert, but then a few days later, we would learn from an expert that those graves were actually a legacy of the bloody Iran-Iraq war. Worryingly, we have never asked for real evidence for Saddam’s crimes. We happened to be satisfied enough with some sporadic televised personal accounts. Apparently, we love to watch televised images of pain. As I mentioned before, we are enthusiastic about reacting collectively to a moral call.

In the liberal democratic world, the elected leader is doomed to justify his wars, to back them with solid or at least convincing moral arguments. As it happened, Tony Blair had to stand in front of the Parliament and justify his latest illegal war. At the time of its occurrence, the British government had to justify the erasure of Dresden. Similarly, the American administration had to provide sound reasoning for the outrageous use of atomic bombs against civilians.

Indeed, Western governments are inclined to providing us with some shallow ad hoc political and moral arguments that have the tendency of maturing into historic narratives. Yet, we do not have to accept those accounts. We are more than entitled to revise those ‘official arguments’ and historic narratives. To understand the contemporary political rhetoric is to be able to study and criticise it. But then, to revise the present is to re-visit the past. At least categorically, there is not much difference between the erasure of Dresden, Hiroshima, Caen, Fallujah or Najaf.

May I add at this point that I am totally convinced that denying Auschwitz should never have become a legal issue. The question of whether there was a mass homicide with gas or ‘just’ a mass death toll due to total abuse in horrendous conditions is no doubt a crucial historical question. The fact that such a major historical chapter less than seven decades ago is scholarly inaccessible undermines the entire historical endeavour. If we cannot talk about our grandparents’ generation, how dare we ever say something about Napoleon or even the Romans? Personally speaking, I may admit that I am not that interested in the question above. I am not an historian, I am not qualified as one. Being trained as a philosopher, I rather ask ‘what is history all about?’ ‘What can we say about the past?’

For me, the entire issue is purely ethical: challenging the dubious morality of the Western concern with Auschwitz is essential for the task of challenging those who kill daily in the name of ‘Auschwitz the message’. I am obviously referring here to Israel, America and Britain. Ostensibly, there is far more pain inflicted by those who maintain ‘Auschwitz the message’ than by those who dare challenging the historical validity of its official narrative.

Next Week, the second half will be printed on peacepalestine, but for those who want to read it all now: THE ENTIRE ARTICLE APPEARS HERE:

[1] (Zionism and other Marginal Thoughts Counterpunch article). Husserl suggests that one can refer to ‘Evidenz’, which is a form of unmediated awareness. Accordingly, it is possible to experience a pure awareness of oneself. Husserl stresses that an individual’s self-awareness can convey an authentic form of knowledge.

Martin Heidegger refused to go along with Husserl’s perception; he indeed exposed a major flaw in Husserl’s thought. According to Heidegger, unmediated awareness is actually hard to conceive. Human beings, he rightly said, do operate within language. Language is out there before one comes into the world. Once one enters the realm of language, a separating wall made of symbolic lingual bricks and cultural mortar thwarts one’s access to any possible ‘unmediated awareness’. Can we think without applying language? Can we experience at all without the mediation of language? As soon as we name or rather say - once within language - we can never be authentic anymore. It would seem that a comprehensive authentic awareness is impossible. Consequently, personal narrative, though plausible, can never convey an ‘authentic reality’, it is always shaped by a predated language and even cultural conditions.

[2] The leftist may say, ‘being a son of a survivor, I am more than entitled to criticise the State of Israel, Zionism or even the exploitation of the Holocaust by Jewish organisations. On the contrary, the Jewish hawk would maintain that it is precisely the tale of Auschwitz told by his parents that gives meaning to the Zionist project, set there to prevent Auschwitz from repeating itself.

[3] On a first glance it was very encouraging to learn that Deborah Lipstadt, the leading warrior in the war against Holocaust denial, was actually calling upon the Austrian authorities to let the Historical Revisionist David Irving free. "Let the guy go home. He has spent enough time in prison," she said. It didn’t take long to realize that what may sound like tolerance and forgiveness is in fact a cold instrumental maintenance of the official Auschwitz narrative. “I am uncomfortable with imprisoning people for speech,” says Lipstadt and stresses on, “Let him go and let him fade from everyone's radar screens." We are entitled to assume that Lipstadt's concerns with Irving’s re-appearance have something to do with Irving's willingness as well as capacity to challenge the official Holocaust narrative. Seemingly, the American Rabbinical academics enthusiastically endorse ‘freedom of speech’ just in order to silence her foe.

Apparently, Lipstadt isn’t alone. “If Austria wants to prove itself a modern democracy,” argues Christian Fleck, a sociologist at the University of Graz, “you use argument, not the law against Holocaust deniers.” BBC article . This indeed sounds like a proper argument you could expect to hear from a European scholar. Yet the Austrian sociologist doesn’t stop there; unwittingly, he presents what he regards as a correct academic argument: “Irving is a fool - and the best way of dealing with fools is to ignore them… Are we really afraid of someone whose views on the past are palpable nonsense, at a time when every schoolchild knows of the horrors of the Holocaust? Are we saying his ideas are so powerful we can't argue with him?" (ibid). Seemingly, Fleck is not fully familiar with basic logical formulation. To ‘use an argument’ isn’t to present a conclusion as a premise. Fleck’s academic duty is to prove beyond doubt that Irving is indeed a fool. This would mean something slightly more substantial than the ‘common knowledge of a schoolboy’. Again, without addressing Irving’s accountability, without referring to the validity of his arguments, we find ourselves learning about the current dubious notion of Western tolerance. I would argue that Fleck and Lipstadt alike are interested merely in an image of tolerance. Something that looks like freedom but in fact maintains hegemony.

[4] It is rather important to mention at this point that that it is within the above very dichotomy where the Iranian president is singled out and left with no other option but endorsing what is seen by some as a Holocaust denial narrative. It is crucial to mention that the Iranian president is not alone, many Muslims and Arabs feel the same. Once Auschwitz becomes the symbol of reconciliation between Jews and Christians, Islam in general and Arabs in particular are left to be seen as a universal global threat. They are practically evicted from the Western discourse. If this isn’t enough, they are dispossessed of elementary human dignity. To a certain extent, the only way around it for them may be to dismiss the Holocaust altogether.

“If you care so much about the Jews,” asks Ahmadinejad the Iranian president, “why don’t you take them back?” Although such a suggestion may sound bizarre at first, it indeed conveys logical and consistent deconstruction of the Auschwitz ideological apparatus at least from the point of view of today’s oppressed. At the end of the day, the Holocaust is a Western affair. Neither the Arabs nor the Muslims have anything to do with it. The Judeocide took place in the heart of Europe. If Europeans and especially Germans indeed feel unease with their collective past, they may have to consider providing the Jewish Israeli citizens with German passports rather than supplying the Israeli Navy with three brand new submarines furnished with nuclear facilities. Somehow, Germany prefers the latter option. I’ll let the reader guess why.

It is rather crucial to mention as well that the Palestinians are ‘Hitler’s last victims’. No one can doubt the clear fact that it was indeed the Holocaust that transformed Zionism from being a marginal aspiration ideology into the motor and justification of a racist nationalist State. Thus, again, if the Germans feel uncomfortable with their past, it is the Palestinians whom they must look after. Let’s not stop there: if the Palestinians are indeed the last victims of Hitler, why aren’t they entitled to develop their own Shoah narrative?

If I am correct here, then the unique left solidarity movement, which suggests accommodating a pro-Palestinian stand together with Auschwitz religious worshiping is doomed to failure (Al Ahram Weekly guest commentary). The two are conflicting not to say in contradiction. As long as Auschwitz fails to become a categorical ethical insight as well as an historic chapter, it is Auschwitz itself that stands in the core of the Zionist led oppression of the Arab people and Palestinians in particular.



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