Friday, March 9, 2018

Black Panther

Slavoj Žižek, "Quasi Duo Fantasias: A Straussian Reading of 'Black Panther'"
WE WERE WAITING for a film like Black Panther, but Black Panther is not the film we were waiting for. [1] The first sign of ambiguity is the fact that the movie was enthusiastically received all across the political spectrum: from partisans of black emancipation who see in it the first big Hollywood assertion of black power, through liberals who sympathize with its reasonable solution — education and help, not struggle — up to some representatives of the alt-right, who recognize in the film’s “Wakanda forever” another version of Trump’s “America first” (incidentally, this is why Mugabe, before he lost power, also said some kind words about Trump). When all sides recognize themselves in the same product, we can be sure that the product in question is ideology at its purest — a kind of empty vessel containing antagonistic elements.

The plot begins many centuries ago, with five African tribes fighting over a meteorite that contains vibranium, a metal that can store apparently limitless energy. One of the warriors gains superhuman abilities by eating a “heart-shaped herb” that bears traces of the metal. He becomes the first “Black Panther,” uniting all but one tribe to form the nation of Wakanda. For centuries after, the Wakandans isolate themselves from the world, which believes them to be an undeveloped African country; in fact, they are highly developed, using vibranium to develop advanced technology. Already this starting point seems problematic: recent history teaches us that being blessed by some precious natural resource is rather a curse in disguise — think about today’s Congo, which is an inoperative “rogue state,” precisely because of its incredible wealth of natural resources (and the way they are ruthlessly exploited for it).

The scene then shifts to Oakland, which was one of the strongholds of the real Black Panthers, a radical black liberation movement from the 1960s, which was ruthlessly suppressed by the FBI. Following the path of the Black Panther comics, the movie — without ever directly mentioning the real Panthers — in a simple but no less masterful stroke of ideological manipulation efficiently kidnaps the name, so that its first association is now no longer the old radical militant organization but a superhero-king of a powerful African kingdom. More precisely, there are two Black Panthers in the film, the king T’Challa and his cousin, Erik Killmonger. Each of them stands for a different political vision. Erik spent his youth in Oakland and then as a US army black-ops soldier; his domain is poverty, gang violence, and military brutality, while T’Challa was raised in the secluded opulence of the Wakanda’s royal court. Erik advocates a militant global solidarity: Wakanda should put its wealth, knowledge, and power at the disposal of the oppressed all around the world so that they can overthrow the existing world order. Meanwhile T’Challa is slowly moving away from the traditional isolationism of “Wakanda first!” to a gradual and peaceful globalism that would act within the coordinates of the existing world order and its institutions, spreading education and technological help — and simultaneously maintaining the unique Wakandan culture and way of life. T’Challa’s political arc makes him a doubtful hero torn between different paths of action from the usual hyper-active superhero, while his opponent Killmonger is always ready to act and knows what to do.

No, Black Panther is not the film we were waiting for. One of the signs that something is wrong with this picture is the strange role of the two white characters, the “bad” South-African Klaue and the “good” CIA agent Ross. The “bad” Klaue doesn’t fit the role of the villain for which he is predestined — he is all too weak and comical. Ross is a much more enigmatic figure, in some sense the symptom of the film: he is a CIA agent, loyal to the US government, who participates in the Wakandan civil war with an ironic distance, strangely non-engaged, as if he is participating in a show. Why is he selected to shoot down Killmonger’s planes? Isn’t it that he holds the place of the existing global system in the film’s universe? And, at the same time, he holds the place of the majority of the film’s white viewers, as if telling us: “It’s okay to enjoy this fantasy of black supremacy, none of us is really threatened by this alternate universe!” With T’Challa and Ross at the helm, today’s rulers can continue to sleep in peace.

That T’Challa opens up to “good” globalization but is also supported by its repressive embodiment, the CIA, demonstrates that there is no real tension between the two: African aesthetics are made seamlessly compatible with global capitalism; tradition and ultra-modernity blend together. What the beautiful spectacle of Wakanda’s capitol obliterates is the insight followed by Malcolm X when he adopted X as his family name. He signaled that the slave traders who brought the enslaved Africans from their homeland brutally deprived them of their family and ethnic roots, of their entire cultural life-world. An inspiration for the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X’s mission was not to mobilize African Americans to fight for the return to some primordial African roots, but precisely to seize the opening provided by X — an unknown, new (lack of) identity engendered by the very process of slavery. This X, which deprives black Americans of their ethnic tradition, offers a unique chance to redefine (reinvent) themselves, to freely form a new identity much more universal than white people’s professed universality. (As is well known, Malcolm X found this new identity in the universalism of Islam.) This precious lesson of Malcolm X is forgotten by Black Panther: to attain true universality, a hero must go through the experience of losing his or her roots.

Things thus seem clear, confirming Fredric Jameson’s insistence on how difficult it is to imagine a really new world, a world which does not just reflect, invert, or supplement the existing one. However, the movie offers signs that disturb this simple and obvious reading — signs that leave Killmonger’s political vision radically open. Reading the film in the way Leo Strauss read Plato’s and Spinoza’s work, as well as Milton’s Paradise Lost, we can recover this apparently foreclosed potential.

A careful Straussian reading draws attention to signs that indicate that the obvious hierarchy of theoretical positions has to be inverted. For example, although Milton follows the church’s official party line and condemns Satan’s rebellion, his sympathies are clearly with Satan in Paradise Lost. (We should add that it doesn’t matter if this preference for the “bad side” is conscious or unconscious to the author of a text; the result is the same.) Does the same not hold for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, the final part of his Batman trilogy? Although Bane is the official villain, there are indications that he, much more than Batman himself, is the film’s authentic hero distorted as its villain: he is ready to sacrifice his life for his love, ready to risk everything for what he perceives as injustice, and this basic fact is occluded by superficial and rather ridiculous signs of destructive evil.

So, back to Black Panther: which are the signs enabling us to recognize in Killmonger the film’s true hero? There are many; the first among them is the scene of his death, in which he prefers to die free than to be healed and survive in the false abundance of Wakanda. The strong ethical impact of Killmonger’s last words immediately ruin the idea that he is a simple villain. What then follows is a scene of extraordinary warmth: the dying Killmonger sits down at the edge of a mountain precipice observing the beautiful Wakanda sunset, and T’Challa, who has just defeated him, silently sits at his side. There is no hatred here, just two basically good men with a different political view sharing their last moments after the battle is over. It’s a scene unimaginable in a standard action movie that culminates in the vicious destruction of the enemy. These final moments alone cast doubt on the film’s obvious reading and solicit us to deeper reflection.

[1] In my reading, I rely on Duane Rousselle, Christopher Lebron, and on an email exchange with Todd McGowan.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Anti-Semitism and Anti-Other-isms

Back in the 1930s, Hitler offered anti-Semitism as a narrative explanation of the troubles experienced by ordinary Germans: unemployment, moral decay, social unrest—behind all this stands the Jew, i.e. the “Jewish plot” made everything clear by way of providing a simple “cognitive mapping.” Does today’s hatred of multi-culturalism and of the immigrant threat not function in a homologous way? Strange things are happening, financial meltdowns occur, which affect our daily lives, but are experienced as totally opaque. The rejection of multiculturalism introduces a false clarity into the situation: it is the foreign intruders who are disturbing our way of life. There is thus an interconnection between the rising anti-immigrant tide in Western countries (which reached a peak in Anders Behring Breivik’s killing spree) and the ongoing financial crisis. Clinging to ethnic identity serves as a protective shield against the traumatic fact of being caught in the whirlpool of non-transparent financial abstraction. The true “foreign body,” which cannot be assimilated, is ultimately the infernal self-propelling machine of the Capital itself.

There are good reasons to think of Breivik’s ideological self-justification as well as of reactions to his murderous act. The manifesto of this Christian “Marxist hunter” who killed more than 70 people in Oslo is precisely not a case of a madman’s rambling; it is simply a consequent exposition of “Europe’s crisis,” which serves as the (more or less) implicit foundation of the rising anti-immigrant populism, the very inconsistencies of which are symptomatic of the inner contradictions of this view. The first thing that cannot but strike the eye is how Breivik constructs his enemy out of the combination of three elements (Marxism, multiculturalism, Islamism), each of which belongs to a different political space (Marxist radical Left, multiculturalist liberalism, Islamic religious fundamentalism). The old fascist habit of attributing to the enemy mutually exclusive features (“Bolshevik-plutocratic Jewish plot” translates into the Bolshevik radical Left, plutocratic capitalism, and ethnic-religious identity) returns here in a new guise. Even more indicative is the way Breivik’s self-designation shuffles the cards of the radical right-wing ideology. Breivik advocates Christianity, but remains a secular agnostic. Christianity is for him merely a cultural construct to oppose Islam. He is anti-feminist and thinks women should be discouraged from pursuing higher education, but he favors a “secular” society, supports abortion, and declares himself pro-gay. Furthermore, Breivik combines Nazi features (also in part—for example, his sympathy for Saga, the Swedish pro-Nazi folk-singer) with the hatred for Hitler: one of his heroes is Max Manus, the leader of the Norwegian anti-Nazi resistance. Breivik is not so much racist as anti-Muslim: all his hatred is focused on the Muslim threat. And, last but not least, Breivik is anti-Semitic, but pro-Israel, since the State of Israel is the first defense line against the Muslim expansion. He even wants to see the Jerusalem Temple rebuilt. His view is that Jews are OK as long as there aren’t too many of them, or, as he wrote in his “Manifesto”:
There is no Jewish problem in Western Europe (with the exception of the UK and France) as we only have 1 million in Western Europe, whereas 800,000 out of these 1 million live in France and the UK. The US, on the other hand, with more than 6 million Jews (600% more than Europe) actually has a considerable Jewish problem.
His figure thus embodies the ultimate paradox of a Zionist Nazi. But how is this possible?

A key is provided by the reactions of the European Right to Breivik’s attack. Its mantra was that, in condemning his murderous act, we should not forget that he addressed “legitimate concerns about genuine problems” which mainstream politics is failing to address, such as the corrosion of Europe by Islamicization and multi- culturalism. Or, to quote The Jerusalem Post, we should use the Oslo tragedy “as an opportunity to seriously re-evaluate policies for immigrant integration in Norway and elsewhere.”1 (Incidentally, it would be nice to hear a similar appreciation of the Palestinian acts of terror, going along the lines of “these acts of terror should serve as an opportunity to re-evaluate the Israeli politics.”) A reference to Israel is, of course, implicit in this evaluation: a “multicultural” Israel has no chance to survive, and apartheid is the only realistic option. The price for this properly perverse Zionist- rightist pact is that, in order to justify the claim to Palestine, one has to acknowledge retroactively the line of argumentation, which was previously, in earlier European history, used against the Jews. The implicit deal is that “we are ready to acknowledge your intolerance towards other cultures in your midst if you acknowledge our right not to tolerate Palestinians in our midst.” The tragic irony of this implicit deal is that, in the European history of the last centuries, Jews themselves were the first “multicul- turalists”: their problem was how to survive with their culture intact in places where another culture was predominant. (Actually, one should note here that, in the 1930s, in direct response to Nazi anti-Semitism, Ernest Jones, the main agent of the conformist gentrification of psychoanalysis, engaged in weird reflections on the percentage of foreign population a national body can tolerate in its midst without putting in danger its own identity, and thereby accepting the Nazi problematic.) At the end of this road lies the extreme possibility which should in no way be discarded—that of a “historic compromise” between Zionists and Muslim fundamentalists.

But what if we are entering a new era where this new reasoning will impose itself? What if Europe should accept the paradox that its democratic openness is based on exclusion, since there is “no freedom for the enemies of freedom,” as Robespierre put it long ago? In principle this is, of course, true, but it is here that one has to be very specific. In a way, Breivik was right in his choice of target: he didn’t attack the foreigners but those within his own community who were too tolerant towards the intruding foreigners. The problem is not the foreigners; it is our own (European) identity. Although the ongoing crisis of the European Union appears as a crisis of economy and finances, it is in its fundamental dimension an ideologico-political crisis. The failure of referendums about the EU constitution a couple of years ago gave a clear signal that voters perceived the EU as a “technocratic” economic union, lacking any vision which could mobilize people (until the recent protests, the only ideology able to mobilize people was the anti-immigrant defense of Europe).

Recent outbursts of homophobia in East European post-communist states should also give us a pause to think. In early 2011 there was a gay parade in Istanbul where thousands paraded in peace, with no violence or other disturbances. In gay parades that took place at the same time in Serbia and Croatia (Belgrade, Split), police were not able to protect the participants who were ferociously attacked by thousands of violent Christian fundamentalists. These fundamentalists, not Turkey, stand for the true threat to European legacy. So, when the EU basically blocked Turkey’s entry, we should have raised the obvious question: What about applying the same rules to Eastern Europe? (Not to mention the weird fact that the main force behind the anti-gay movement in Croatia is the Catholic Church, well known for numerous paedophiliac scandals.)

It is crucial to locate anti-Semitism in this series, as one of the elements alongside other forms of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. In order to ground its Zionist politics, the State of Israel is here making a catastrophic mistake: it decided to downplay, if not outright ignore, the so-called “old” (traditional European) anti-Semitism, focusing instead on the “new” and allegedly “progressive” anti-Semitism masked as the critique of the Zionist politics of the State of Israel. Along these lines, Bernard Henri-Levy (in his The Left in Dark Times) recently claimed that the anti-Semitism of the twenty-first century will be “progressive” or there will be none. Brought to its logical conclusion, this thesis compels us to turn around the old Marxist interpretation of anti-Semitism as a mystified/displaced anti-capitalism, where, instead of blaming the capitalist system, the rage is focused on a specific ethnic group accused of corrupting the system. For Henri-Levy and his partisans, today’s anti-capitalism is a disguised form of anti-Semitism.

This unspoken but no less efficient prohibition against attacking the “old” anti­Semitism is taking place at the very moment when the “old” anti-Semitism is returning all around Europe, especially in post-communist East European countries. We can observe a similar weird alliance in the US: how can the US Christian funda­mentalists, who are, as it were, by nature anti-Semitic, now passionately support the Zionist policy of the State of Israel? There is only one solution to this enigma. It is not that the US fundamentalists changed, it is that Zionism itself, in its hatred of the Jews who do not fully identify with the politics of the State of Israel, paradoxically became anti-Semitic, i.e., constructed the figure of the Jew who doubts the Zionist project along anti-Semitic lines. Israel is playing a dangerous game here: Fox News, the main US voice of the radical Right and a staunch supporter of Israeli expansionism, recently had to demote Glen Beck, its most popular host, whose comments were becoming openly anti-Semitic.2

The standard Zionist argument against the critics of the policies of the State of Israel is that, of course, like every other state, the State of Israel can and should be judged and eventually criticized, but that the critics of Israel misuse the justified critique of Israeli policy for anti-Semitic purposes. When the unconditional Christian fundamentalist supporters of the Israeli politics reject leftist critiques of Israeli policies, their implicit line of argumentation is best rendered by a wonderful cartoon published in July 2008 in the Viennese daily Die Presse. It shows two stocky Nazi-looking Austrians, one of them holding in his hands a newspaper and commenting to his friend: “Here you can see again how a totally justified anti-Semitism is being misused for a cheap critique of Israel!” These are today’s allies of the State of Israel. Jewish critics of the State of Israel are regularly dismissed as self-hating Jews; however, are the true self-hating Jews, those who secretly hate the true greatness of the Jewish nation, not precisely the Zionists making a pact with anti-Semites? How did we end up in such a weird situation?

The fantasmatic status of anti-Semitism is clearly designated by the statement attributed to Hitler: “We have to kill the Jew within us.” A. B. Yehoshua provided an adequate comment to this statement:
This devastating portrayal of the Jew as a kind of amorphous entity that can invade the identity of a non-Jew without his being able to detect or control it stems from the feeling that Jewish identity is extremely flexible, precisely because it is structured like a sort of atom whose core is surrounded by virtual electrons in a changing orbit.3
In this sense, Jews are effectively the objet petit a of the Gentiles. They are what is “in Gentiles more than Gentiles themselves”—not another subject that I encounter in front of me but an alien, a foreign intruder, within me, what Lacan called lamella, the amorphous intruder of infinite plasticity, an undead “alien” monster who can never be pinned down to a determinate form. In this sense, Hitler’s statement tells more than it wants to say: against its intention, it confirms that the Gentiles need the anti-Semitic figure of the “Jew” in order to maintain their identity.4 It is thus not only that “the Jew is within us”; what Hitler fatefully forgot to add is that he, the anti-Semite, his identity, is also in the Jew.5 What does this paradoxical entwinement mean for the destiny of anti-Semitism?

One of the supreme ironies of the history of anti-Semitism is that Jews can stand for both poles of an opposition: they are stigmatized as upper class (rich merchants) and low class (filthy), as too intellectual and too earthly (sexual predators), as lazy and workaholics. Sometimes they stand for the stubborn attachment to their particular life-form which prevents them from becoming full citizens of the state they live in; sometimes they stand for a “homeless” and uprooted universal cosmopolitanism, indifferent towards all particular ethnic form. The focus changes with different historical epochs. In the era of the French Revolution, the Jews were condemned as too particularist, as they continued to stick to their identity, rejecting the need to become abstract citizens like everyone else. In late nineteenth century, with the rise of imperialist patriotism, the accusation is turned around, and Jews become all too “cosmopolitan” lacking all roots.

The key change in the history of Western anti-Semitism occurred with their political emancipation (the granting of civil rights), which followed the French Revolution. In the early modernity, the pressure on them was to convert to Christianity, and the problem was: Can one trust them? Did they really convert, or do they secretly continue to practice their rituals? However, in the later nineteenth century, a shift occurs which culminates in the Nazi anti-Semitism. Conversion is now out of the question, meaningless. Why? For the Nazis, the guilt of the Jews is directly rooted in their biological constitution. One does not have to prove that they are guilty, as they are guilty solely by being Jews. The question remains: Why?

The key is provided by the sudden rise, in the Western ideological imaginary, of the figure of the wandering eternal Jew in the age of Romanticism, i.e., precisely when, in real life, with the explosion of capitalism, features attributed to Jews expanded to the whole of society (since commodity exchange became hegemonic). It was thus at the very moment when Jews were deprived of their specific properties, which made it easy to distinguish them from the rest of the population, and when the “Jewish question” was “resolved” at the political level by the formal emancipation of the Jews (i.e. by granting to Jews the same rights as to all other “normal” Christian citizens) that their “curse” was inscribed into their very being. They were no longer ridiculous misers and usurers but demoniac heroes of eternal damnation, haunted by an unspecified and unspeakable guilt, condemned to wander around, and longing to find redemption in death. So it was precisely when the specific figure of the Jew disappeared that the absolute Jew emerged, and this transformation conditioned the shift of anti-Semitism from theology to race. Their damnation was their race; they were not guilty for what they did (exploit Christians, murder their children, rape their women, or, ultimately, betray and murder Christ), but for what they were. Is it necessary to add that this shift laid the foundations for the Holocaust, for the physical annihilation of the Jews as the only appropriate final solution of their “problem”? Insofar as Jews were identified by a series of their properties, the goal was to convert them, to turn them into Christians, but, from the moment that Jewishness concerns their very being, only annihilation can resolve the “Jewish question.”

The true mystery of anti-Semitism, however, is why it is such a constant. Why does it persist through all historical mutations? Perhaps this is somewhat similar to what Marx said about Homer: the true mystery to be explained is not its origins, its original form (how Homer’s poetry is rooted in early Greek society) but why it persists in its supreme artistic charm today, long after the social conditions that gave birth to it disappeared. It is easy to date the original moment of European anti-Semitism. It all started not in Ancient Rome but in eleventh- and twelfth-century Europe, which was awakening from the inertia of the “Dark Ages” and experiencing a fast growth in market exchange and the greater prominence of money. At that precise point, “the Jew” emerged as the enemy: the usurper, the parasitic intruder who disturbs the harmonious social edifice. Theologically, this moment is also the moment of what Jacques le Goff called the “birth of the Purgatorium,” the idea that the choice is not only between Heaven and Hell but that there has to be a third, mediating, place, where one can make a deal, pay for one’s sins (if they are not too great) with a determined amount of repentance—money again!

So where are we today? Asked about his anti-Semitism, the Croat nationalist rock- singer Marko Perkovic Thompson said in an interview: “I have nothing against them and I did nothing to them. I know that Jesus Christ also did nothing against them, but still they hanged him on the cross.” This is how anti-Semitism works today: it is not we who have anything against the Jews; rather, it is how the Jews themselves are. On top of it all, we are witnessing the final version of anti-Semitism, which reached the extreme point of self-relatedness. The privileged role of Jews in the establishment of the sphere of the “public use of reason” hinges on their subtraction from every state power. Theirs is the position of the “part of no-part” in every organic nation-state community, and it is this position, not the abstract-universal nature of their monotheism, that makes them the immediate embodiment of universality. No wonder, then, that, with the establishment of the Jewish nation-state, a new figure of the Jew emerged: a Jew resisting identification with the State of Israel, refusing to accept the State of Israel as his true home, a Jew who “subtracts” himself from this State, and who includes the State of Israel among the states towards which he insists on maintaining a distance, to live in their interstices. And it is this uncanny Jew who is the object of what one cannot but designate as “Zionist anti-Semitism,” the foreign excess disturbing the community of the nation-state. These Jews, the “Jews of the Jews themselves,” worthy successors of Spinoza, are today the only Jews who continue to insist on the “public use of reason,” refusing to submit their reasoning to the “private” domain of the nation-state.

This brings us to the political stakes and consequences of Zionist anti-Semitism. On August 2, 2009, after cordoning off a part of the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, Israeli police evicted two Palestinian families (more than 50 people) from their homes and allowed Jewish settlers to move immediately into the empty houses. Although Israeli police cited a ruling by the country’s Supreme Court, the evicted Arab families had been living there for more than 50 years. The event, which, rather exceptionally, did attract the attention of the world media, is part of a much larger and mostly ignored ongoing process. Five months earlier, on March 1, 2009, it was reported6 that the Israeli government had drafted plans to build more than 70,000 new housing units in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. If implemented, the plans could increase the number of settlers in the Palestinian territories by about 300,000—a move that would not only severely undermine the chances of a viable Palestinian state, but also hamper the everyday life of Palestinians. A government spokesman dismissed the report, arguing that the plans were of limited relevance: the actual construction of new homes in the settlements required the approval of the Defense Minister and the Prime Minister. However, 15,000 of the planned units have already been fully approved, with an additional 20,000 of the planned units lying in settlements that are far from the ”green line” that separates Israel from the West Bank, i.e., in the areas Israel cannot expect to retain in any future peace deal with the Palestinians. The conclusion is obvious: while paying lip-service to the two-state solution, Israel is busy creating the situation on the ground which will render a two-state solution de facto impossible. The dream that underlies this politics is best rendered by the wall that separates a settler’s town from the Palestinian town on a nearby hill somewhere in the West Bank. The Israeli side of the wall is painted with the image of the countryside beyond the wall, but without the Palestinian town, depicting just nature, grass, trees and so on. Is this not ethnic cleansing at its purest, imagining the outside beyond the wall as it should be, namely empty, virginal, waiting to be settled?

This process is sometimes covered in the guise of cultural gentrification. On October 28, 2008, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the Simon Wiesenthal Center could build its long-planned Center for Human Dignity, the Museum of Tolerance, on a contested site in the middle of Jerusalem. (Who but) Frank Gehry will design the vast complex consisting of a general museum, a children’s museum, a theater, conference center, library, gallery and lecture halls, cafeterias, etc. The museum’s declared mission will be to promote civility and respect among different segments of the Jewish community and among people of all faiths—the only obstacle (overrun by the Supreme Court’s ruling) being that the museum site served as Jerusalem’s main Muslim cemetery until 1948 (the Muslim community appealed to the Supreme Court that museum construction would desecrate the cemetery, which allegedly contained the bones of Muslims killed during the Crusades of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries).7 This dark spot wonderfully enacts the hidden truth of this multi-confes­sional project: it is a place celebrating tolerance, open to all, but protected by the Israeli cupola, which ignores the subterranean victims of intolerance, as if one needs a little bit of intolerance to create the space for true tolerance.

And as if this were not enough, as if one should repeat a gesture to make its message clear, there is another, even vaster, similar project going on in Jerusalem. Israel is quietly carrying out a $100 million, multi-year development plan in the so-called “holy basin,” the place of some of the most significant religious and national heritage sites just outside the walled Old City, as part of an effort to strengthen the status of Jerusalem as its capital. “The plan, parts of which have been outsourced to a private group that is simultaneously buying up Palestinian property for Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, has drawn almost no public or international scrutiny.”8 As part of the plan, garbage dumps and wastelands are being cleared and turned into lush gardens and parks, now already accessible to visitors who can walk along new footpaths and take in the majestic views, along with new signs and displays that point out significant points of Jewish history. Conveniently, many of the “unauthorized” Palestinian houses had to be demolished to create the space for the redevelopment of the area.

The “holy basin” is an infinitely complicated landscape, dotted with shrines and still hidden treasures of the three major monotheistic religions, so the official argument is that its improvement is for everyone’s benefit—Jews, Muslims, and Christians—since it involves restoration that will draw more visitors to an area of exceptional global interest that has long suffered neglect. However, as Hagit Ofran of Peace Now noted, the plan aimed to create “an ideological tourist park that will determine Jewish dominance in the area.” Raphael Greenberg of Tel Aviv University put it even more bluntly: “The sanctity of the City of David is newly manufactured and is a crude amalgam of history, nationalism and quasi-religious pilgrimage … the past is used to disenfranchise and displace people in the present.” Another big religious venue, a “public” inter-faith space under the clear domination and protective cupola of Israel.

What does all this mean? To get at the true dimension of the news, it is sometimes enough to read two disparate news items together. Meaning emerges from their very link, like a spark, exploding from an electric short-circuit. On October 13, 2007, the Vatican’s press representative Federico Lombardi confirmed that the Vatican had suspended a priest occupying a high place in Vatican hierarchy who, in an interview for Italian TV, publicly admitted his homosexuality, insisting that he doesn’t feel in any sense guilty for practicing homosexuality. He was suspended because he broke the Church law. The obscenity of this message becomes clear the moment one juxtaposes it with the fact that hundreds of pedophiliac priests are not suspended, but a priest is suspended if he publicly admits his orientation. The message is unmistakable here: what matters is appearance, not reality.

On the very same day these reports hit the media (March 2), Hilary Clinton criticized the rocket fire from Gaza as “cynical,” claiming: “There is no doubt that any nation, including Israel, cannot stand idly by while its territory and people are subjected to rocket attacks.” But should the Palestinians stand idly by while land in the West Bank is taken from them day by day? When Israeli peace-loving liberals present their conflict with Palestinians in neutral “symmetrical” terms, admitting that there are extremists on both sides who reject peace, etc., one should ask a simple question: What goes on in the Middle East when nothing goes on there at the direct politico-military level (i.e. when there are no tensions, attacks, negotiations)? What goes on is the incessant slow work of taking the land from the Palestinians on the West Bank, the gradual strangling of the Palestinian economy, the parceling of their land, the building of new settlements, the pressure on Palestinian farmers to make them abandon their land (which goes from crop burning and religious desecration up to individual killings)—all this supported by a Kafkaesque network of legal regula­tions. Saree Makdisi, in Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation,9 described how, although the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank is ultimately enforced by the armed forces, it is an “occupation by bureaucracy”: its primary forms are application forms, title deeds, residency papers, and other permits. It is this micro-management of daily life that does the job of securing the slow but steadfast Israeli expansion. One has to ask for a permit in order to leave with one’s family, to farm one’s own land, to dig a well, to go to work, to school, to a hospital. One by one, Palestinians born in Jerusalem are thus stripped of the right to live there, prevented from earning a living, denied housing permits, etc.10 Palestinians often use the problematic cliche of the Gaza Strip as “the greatest concentration camp in the world”; however, in the past year, this designation has come dangerously close to truth. This is the fundamental reality which makes all abstract “prayers for peace” obscene and hypocritical. The State of Israel is clearly engaged in a slow process, invisible, ignored by the media, a kind of underground digging of the mole, so that, one day, the world will awaken and realize that there is no more Palestinian West Bank, that the land is Palestinian-frei, and that we can only accept that fact. The map of the Palestinian West Bank already resembles a fragmented archipelago.

In the last months of 2008, when the attacks by illegal West Bank settlers on Palestinian farmers became a regular daily occurrence, the State of Israel tried to contain these excesses (the Supreme Court ordered the evacuation of some settle­ments, etc.); but, as many observers noted, these measures cannot but appear half-hearted, counteracting a politics which, at a deeper level, is the long-term politics of the State of Israel which massively violates the international treaties signed by Israel itself. The reply of the illegal settlers to the Israeli authorities is basically: we are doing the same thing as you, just more openly, so what right do you have to condemn us? And the answer of the State is basically: be patient, don’t rush too much, we are doing what you want, just in a more moderate and acceptable way.

The same story seems to go on from 1948: while Israel accepts the peace condi­tions proposed by the international community, it bets that the peace plan will not work. The wild settlers sometimes sound like Brunhilde from the last act of Wagner’s Walkuere, reproaching Wotan that, by counteracting his explicit order and protecting Siegmund, she was only realizing Wotan’s own true desire which he was forced to renounce under external pressure, in the same way that the illegal settlers only realize the State’s true desire it was forced to renounce because of the pressure of the international community. While condemning the open violent excesses of “illegal” settlements, the State of Israel promotes new “legal” West Bank settlements, continues to strangle the Palestinian economy, etc. A look at the continuous changes of the map of East Jerusalem, where the Palestinians are gradually encircled and their space sliced, tells it all. The condemnation of extra-statist anti-Palestinian violence obfuscates the true problem of state violence; the condemnation of “illegal” settlements obfuscates the illegality of the “legal” ones. Therein resides the two-facedness of the much-praised non-biased “honesty” of the Israeli Supreme Court. By way of occasionally passing a judgment in favor of the dispossessed Palestinians, proclaiming their eviction illegal, it guarantees the legality of the remaining majority of cases.

Consequently, in the Israel-Palestinian conflict also, soyons realistes, demandons Vimpossible! If there is a lesson to be learned from the endlessly protracted negotia­tions, it is that the main obstacle to peace is precisely what is offered as a realistic solution, i.e. the two separate states. Although none of the two sides really wants it (Israel would probably prefer a little bit of West Bank that it is ready to cede to become a part of Jordan, and the Palestinians consider also the pre-1967 Israel as a part of their land), it is somehow accepted by both sides as the only feasible solution. What both sides exclude as an impossible dream is the simplest and most obvious solution—a bi-national secular state comprising all of Israel plus the occupied territories and Gaza. To those who dismiss the bi-national state as a utopian dream disqualified by the long history of hatred and violence, one should reply that, far from being utopian, the bi-national state already is a fact. The reality of today’s Israel and West Bank is that it is one state (i.e. the entire territory is de facto controlled by one sovereign power, the State of Israel), divided by internal borders, so that the task should rather be to abolish the apartheid and transform it into a secular democratic state.11

Furthermore, this entire topic is to be seen against the background of a long-term rearrangement of the political space in Western and Eastern Europe. Until recently, the political space of European countries was dominated by two main parties that addressed the entire electoral body: a Right-of-center party (Christian-Democrat, liberal-conservative, the people’s party) and a Left-of-center party (socialist, social- democratic), with smaller parties addressing a narrower electorate (ecologists, communists, and so on). The latest electoral results in the West as well as in the East signal the gradual emergence of a different polarity. There is one predominant centerist party which stands for global capitalism as such, usually with a liberal cultural agenda, including tolerance towards abortions, gay rights, and religious and ethnic minorities. Opposing this party is an increasingly stronger anti-immigrant populist party, which, on its fringes, is accompanied by directly racist neofascist groups. The exemplary case here is Poland: after the disappearance of the ex-communists, the main parties are the “anti-ideological” centerist liberal party of the Prime Minister Donald Dusk and the conservative Christian party of the Kaczynski brothers. Similar tendencies are discernible in the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Hungary. How did we come to this?

After decades of the (promise of) a welfare state, when financial cuts were limited to short periods and sustained by a promise that things would soon return to normal, we are entering a new epoch in which the crisis—or, rather, a kind of economic state of emergency—with the need for all sorts of austerity measures (cutting benefits, dimin­ishing free health and education services, making jobs more and more temporary, etc.) is permanent, turning into a constant, becoming simply a way of life. After the disintegration of the communist regimes in 1990, we entered a new era in which the predominant form of the exercise of state power became a depoliticized expert administration and coordination of interests. The only way to introduce passion into this field, to actively mobilize people, is through fear—fear of immigrants, fear of crime, fear of godless sexual depravity, fear of the excessive state (with its burden of high taxation and control), fear of ecological catastrophe, but also fear of harassment (political correctness is the exemplary liberal form of the politics of fear). Such a politics always relies on the manipulation of a paranoid ochlos, the frightening rallying of frightened men and women. This is why the big event of the first decade of the new millennium was that anti-immigration politics went mainstream and finally cut the umbilical cord that had connected them to far Right fringe parties. From France to Germany, from Austria to Holland, in the new spirit of pride at one’s cultural and historical identity, the main parties now found it acceptable to stress that immigrants are guests who have to accommodate themselves to the cultural values that define the host society: “it is our country, love it or leave it.”

Progressive liberals are, of course, horrified by such populist racism. But a closer look reveals how their multicultural tolerance and respect of (ethnic, religious, sexual) differences share with the anti-immigration advocates the need to keep others at a proper distance. The others are OK, I respect them, but they should not intrude too much into my own space. The moment they do it, they harass me with their smell, their dirty talk, their vulgar manners, their music, their cuisine, and so on. I fully support affirmative action for the blacks, but I am in no way ready to listen to loud rap music. What is increasingly emerging as the central human right in late capitalist societies is the right not to be harassed, which is the right to be kept at a safe distance from others. A terrorist whose deadly plans should be prevented and who belongs in Guantanamo, the empty zone exempted from the rule of law; a fundamentalist ideologist who should be silenced because he is spreading hatred; a parent, teacher, or priest who abuses and corrupts children—all these are toxic subjects who disturb my peace.

In today’s market we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol. And the list goes on: what about virtual sex as sex without sex, the Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course) and warfare without warfare, the contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration, or politics without politics, up to today’s tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of the Other deprived of its Otherness—the decaffeinated Other who dances fascinating dances and has an ecologically sound holistic approach to reality, while features like wife-beating remain out of sight?

The mechanism of such neutralization was best formulated back in 1938 by Robert Brasillach, the French fascist intellectual condemned and shot in 1945, who saw himself as a “moderate” anti-Semite and invented the formula of “reasonable anti-Semitism”:

We grant ourselves permission to applaud Charlie Chaplin, a half Jew, at the movies; to admire Proust, a half Jew; to applaud Yehudi Menuhin, a Jew; and the voice of Hitler is carried over radio waves named after the Jew Hertz. … We don’t want to kill anyone, we don’t want to organize any pogrom. But we also think that the best way to hinder the always unpredictable actions of instinctual anti­Semitism is to organize a reasonable anti-Semitism.12

Is this same attitude not at work in the way our governments are dealing with the “immigrant threat”? After righteously rejecting direct populist racism as “unrea­sonable” and unacceptable for our democratic standards, they endorse “reasonably” racist protective measures, or, as today’s Brasillachs, some of them even Social Democrats, are telling us:
We grant ourselves permission to applaud African and East European sportsmen, Asian doctors, Indian software programmers. We don’t want to kill anyone, we don’t want to organize any pogrom. But we also think that the best way to hinder the always unpredictable violent anti-immigrant defensive measures is to organize a reasonable anti-immigrant protection.
This vision of the detoxification of the Neighbor presents a clear passage from direct barbarism to barbarism with a human face. It practices the regression from the Christian love of the Neighbor back to the pagan privileging of our tribe (Greeks, Romans, etc.) versus the barbarian Other. Even if it is cloaked as a defense of Christian values, it is itself the greatest threat to Christian legacy.

1 Editorial on “Norway’s Challenge,” July 24, 2011.

2 Another figure in this series of anti-Semitic Zionists is John Hagee, the founder and National Chairman of the Christian-Zionist organization Christians United for Israel. At the top of the standard Christian conservative agenda (Hagee sees the Kyoto Protocol as a conspiracy aimed at manipulating the US economy; in his bestselling novel Jerusalem Countdown, the Antichrist is the head of the European Union), Hagee has been to Israel 22 times and has met with every prime minister since Begin. However, despite his professed “Christian Zionist” beliefs and public support for the State of Israel, Hagee has made statements that definitely sound anti-Semitic: he has blamed the Holocaust on the Jews themselves; he has stated that Hitler’s persecution was a “divine plan” to lead the Jews to form the modern state of Israel; he calls liberal Jews “poisoned” and “spiritually blind”; he admits that a pre-emptive nuclear attack on Iran that he favors will lead to the deaths of most Jews in Israel. (As a curiosity, he claims in Jerusalem Countdown that Hitler was born from “a lineage of accursed, genocidally murderous half-breed Jews.”)

3 A. B. Yehoshua, “An Attempt to Identify the Root Cause of Antisemitism,” Azure no. 32 (spring 2008), available online at [date accessed August 7, 2013].

4 A taboo question should be raised: what does the fixation of Arab countries and worldwide Muslim communities on the State of Israel mean? It cannot be accounted for in terms of the real threat to the Arab nation (after all, Israel occupies a tiny piece of land), so its role is obviously symptomatic. When regimes as different as the utterly corrupt Saudi monarchy and the anti-establishment populist movement focus on the same enemy, an external intruder, does this not bear witness to a strategy of avoiding the true internal antagonism?

5 I am here, of course, paraphrasing Lacan’s famous statement: “The picture is in my eye, but me, I am in the picture.”

6 See Tobias Duck, “Israel Drafts West Bank Expansion Plans,” Financial Times, March 2, 2009.

7 See Tom Tugend, “Israel’s Supreme Court OKs Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem Project,” Observer, October 29, 2008.

8 See Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner, “Parks Fortify Israel’s Claim to Jerusalem,” New York Times, May 9, 2009.

9 See Saree Makdisi, in Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation (New York: Norton, 2008).

10 We witnessed a similar oppression without (too much) open brutality in post-1968 Czechoslovakia. In his dissident classic Normalization, Milan Simecka described how, after 1968, the hardline communists enforced the “normalization” of the Czech population, their awakening from the dream of 1968 to crude socialist reality. There was little direct brutal pressure, since most of the job was done through the gentle art of low-level everyday corruption and blackmail, in the style of: “You want your children to go to university? Then just sign a statement which will not even be published, saying that you were seduced in participating in 1968 events and that you now see it was a mistake.” Is not something similar going on in our late capitalist liberal societies, where there is no open brutal pressure, just small everyday clear signals that it is better for your career not to overstep certain limits? There is nonetheless a key difference between late socialist corruption and our late capitalist corruption, a difference which concerns the status of appearance. What mattered in socialist regimes was maintaining the appearance—just recall the (deservedly) famous example of the vegetable store seller from Vaclav Havel’s “Power of the Powerless,” who obediently displays in the window of his store official propaganda slogans, although neither he nor his customers take them seriously. What matters is the gesture of obedience. In liberal capitalism, however, not only does nobody care (within certain limits, of course) what slogans one puts in the window, but also provocative ones are welcomed, if they help the sales. The market is the greatest ironizer. Recall how big companies sometimes use for publicity purposes ironic paraphrases of communist topics. One cannot imagine the authorities in state socialism doing the same with capitalist topics.

11 I owe this line of thought to Udi Aloni.

12 See Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (London and New York: Verso, 2009), 48.

Slavoj Žižek, ‘Anti-Semitism and its Transformations

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

On Fascism as Fetish

-Slavoj Zizek, "As Trump, Bannon, Assange & Oprah make headlines: The Empire Strikes Back"
The global elite will use any means necessary to prevent the economic radicalization of the left. So “MeToo” and smears distract while tax evasion has become legitimate.

Three widely reported recent events sum up our current sad predicament:
the open conflict between Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globe awards, and the prospect of Julian Assange’s release from the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Because, although they appear totally unconnected, they fit together as pieces in a puzzle.

The conflict between Trump and Bannon exploded in public following the publication of Michael Wolff’s book ‘Fire and Fury’. The ridiculous quarrels about who said what should not divert our attention from the crux of the matter.

Bannon is a kind of honest Rightist populist who takes anti-capitalism with a minimum of seriousness, demanding higher taxes for the rich, more public investment etc., and his rage exploded when, with the new tax law, it became clear that Trump is the president of the super-rich. An economic neoliberal who just superficially flirts with popular discontent.

The lesson for the Left is clear here: one should overcome the dismissal of people like Bannon as simple neo-Fascist racists. The demonized image of a Fascist threat clearly serves as a new political fetish, in the simple Freudian sense of a fascinating image whose function is to obfuscate the true antagonism.

New old trends

Indeed, Fascism itself is immanently fetishist, in how it needs a figure like that of a Jew, elevated into the external cause of our troubles – such a figure enables us to obfuscate immanent antagonisms which cut across our societies. My claim is that exactly the same holds for the figure of “Fascist” in today’s liberal imagination.

The fear not to make any compromises with the alt-right can well fuddle the degree to which we are already compromised by it. So one should greet every sign of this self-critical reflection which is gradually emerging and which, while remaining thoroughly anti-Fascist, casts also a critical glance on the weaknesses of the liberal Left – see, for example, the extraordinary intervention of Susan Sarandon.

Her claim is not that the MeToo-style political correctness goes too far but that it is pseudo-radical, and that its radicalism is a pose. The task is not to build a coalition between the radical Left and the Fascist Right, but to cut off the working class oxygen supply to the alt-right by addressing their voters, and the way to achieve this is to move more to the Left with a more radical critical message, i.e., to do exactly what Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK were doing and what was the root of their relative success.

Why is (what remains of) the Left so slow in learning this lesson?

Star power

And this brings us to our second example, Oprah Winfrey’s triumphant speech at the Golden Globe awards which enthralled the public so much that it brought her into the orbit as a potential Democratic presidential candidate against Trump in the 2020 elections. But her speech is a model of doing the right thing for the wrong reason in politics.

The right thing was her demand to shift the focus from privileged actresses complaining about sexual harassment to millions of ordinary women who are exposed to much more vicious daily violence. Remember how many of the celebrities accused of sexual harassment, beginning with Harvey Weinstein, reacted by publicly proclaiming that they will seek help in therapy – a disgusting gesture if there ever was one!

Because their acts were not cases of private pathology, they were expressions of the predominant masculine ideology and power structures, and it is the latter that should be changed.

The wrong reason is that Oprah as a liberal ignores the link between this great awakening of women and our ongoing political and economic struggles. At approximately the same time as the Weinstein scandals began to roll, the Paradise Papers were published, and one cannot but wonder why nobody demanded that people should stop listening to the songs of U2 and Bono (the great humanitarian, always ready to help the poor in Africa) or of Shakira because of the way they avoided paying taxes and thus cheated the public authorities in Ireland and Spain of large sums of money.

Or that the British royal family should get less public money because they parked part of their wealth in tax havens, while the fact that Louis C.K. showed his penis to some ladies instantly ruined his career. Isn’t this a new version of Brecht’s old motto, “What is robbing a bank compared to founding a bank?” Cheating with big money is tolerable while showing your penis to a couple of people makes you an instant outcast?

Selective punishment

One has to fear how this awakening could turn into just another case where political legitimization is based on the subject’s victimhood status. Is the basic characteristic of today's subjectivity not the weird combination of the free subject who experienced himself as ultimately responsible for his fate and the subject who grounds the authority of his speech on his status of a victim of circumstances beyond his control?

Where every contact with another human being is experienced as a potential threat – if the other smokes, if he casts a covetous glance at me, he already hurts me; this logic of victimization is today universalized, reaching well beyond the standard cases of sexual or racist harassment – recall the growing financial industry of paying damage claims, from the tobacco industry deal in the USA and the financial claims of the holocaust victims and forced laborers of Nazi Germany, up to the idea that the USA should pay African-Americans hundreds of billions of dollars for all they were deprived of due to their past slavery.

This notion of the subject as an irresponsible victim involves the extreme narcissistic perspective from which every encounter with the Other appears as a potential threat to the subject's precarious imaginary balance; as such, it is not the opposite, but, rather, the inherent replacement of the liberal free subject: in today's predominant form of individuality, the self-centered assertion of the psychological subject paradoxically overlaps with the perception of oneself as a victim of circumstances.

Here, the lesson for the Left is therefore the same as the one of our first example: the establishment will do anything possible to prevent economic radicalization of the liberal Left and to protect from scrutiny the true ledgers of power, so no wonder that our big media leads a systematic campaign against those who are doing exactly this.

Pungent smears

This brings us to our third example: the campaign of slander against Julian Assange reached the lowest level imaginable with the latest unverified rumors according to which Ecuadorians want to get rid of him because of his bad smell and dirty clothes.

In the first stage of attacks on him, the claim was that WikiLeaks began well but then it got bogged down with Assange’s political bias (his anti-Hillary obsession and his ‘suspicious ties’ with Russia…). This was followed by attempts at character assassination: he is paranoid and arrogant, and obsessed by power and control.

Now we have reached the direct bodily level of smells and stains.

The lesson for the Left is not to be distracted by such ridiculous details and to focus on the essential, what Assange really stands for – the disclosure of the link between the great corporations and government agencies. And the figure of Elon Musk is emblematic here – he belongs to the same caste as Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, etc., all “socially conscious” billionaires.

They stand for the global capital at its most seductive and “progressive,” in short, at its most dangerous. Musk likes to warn about the threats new technologies pose to human dignity and freedom – which, of course, doesn't prevent him from investing in a brain-computer interface venture called Neuralink, a company which is centered on creating devices that can be implanted in the human brain, with the eventual purpose of helping human beings merge with software and keep pace with advancements in artificial intelligence.

These enhancements could improve memory or allow for more direct interfacing with computing devices: and over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence.

Every technological innovation is always first presented like this, emphasizing its health or humanitarian benefits, which should blind us to more ominous implications and consequences: can we even imagine what new forms of control this so-called “neural lace” contains?

This is why it is absolutely imperative to keep it out of the control of private capital and state power, i.e., to render it totally accessible to the public domain. Assange was right in his strangely ignored key book on Google in realizing how our lives are regulated today, and how this regulation is experienced as our freedom. To understand this, we have to focus on the shadowy relation between private corporations which control our commons and secret state agencies.

And the overall lesson is that incidents as different as Oprah’s speech and attacks on Assange are parts of the same global struggle.