Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Notes on the NEJAR interview with Peter Schumann

As noted earlier, Greg Cook interviewed both Peter Schumann and myself regarding Bread and Puppet's recent show at the Boston Center for the Arts and the controversies surrounding his recent work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In his email interview of me, excerpts of which appear both on this site and on the New England Journal of Aesthetic Research, Cook asked me to respond to some of Schumann's statements.

There were also a series of questions that Cook posed during a face to face conversation on February 1st, which while not transcribed, were thought-provoking and I will attempt to explore these issues as I comment on some of Schumann's other statements. Boldface italics represent Cook's questions; plain italics represent Schumann's responses. The first quotes come from part two of the NEJAR interview:

Well, it’s something that we can’t talk about because it’s so electric. It’s very difficult to even begin a discussion. It seems like you’re consciously going there because of that.

Yeah, I think it’s unfairly so. I think it’s awful that the Western community does not interfere with what Israel’s doing as an occupation force. The Western community does not do anything about it. They don’t even speak up against it. They don’t do anything. They basically serve as the Israeli propaganda for the events there. They give us what the embedded reporters give us from Iraq, which is the picture of the perpetrators.

I'm not certain as to which "Western community" Schumann refers. Given such incidents as the British Broadcasting Corporation's 2002 reports of a "Jenin Massacre" in which hundreds of non-combatants were allegedly slaughtered, was later dispelled as propaganda, it would seem that the largest news agency in the world has for some time been serving as anti-Israeli propaganda. In addition, we can look at the failed attempt to sponsor a boycott of Israel by the National Union of Journalists (a union that serves journalists in both the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland.) Neither conform to the picture Schumann presents. Indeed, if we examine the media of most other Western nations, it is quite probable that we will see quite the opposite of a pro-Israeli bias (I haven't done such a study, and clearly, neither has Schumann-- however the Anti-Defamation League has done a study of European attitudes.) Indeed, this claim that "The Western community [...] serve[s] as [...] Israeli propaganda" seems very similar to the old canard of Jewish or Zionist control of the media.

[Your critics]seem to say your work doesn’t represent that the Israelis are doing this to fight terrorism from the Palestinians. And so that by not representing the Israelis’ problems you’re being unfair.

I don’t know. It’s like when you go to any war naturally the guerillas who rise up against occupation forces are to be blamed for atrocities they commit, but that’s not on the same page with the atrocity of the occupation. Take an extreme case like the Nazis in Poland. Naturally what the Polish and the Russian guerillas probably did against the Nazi soldiers was probably pretty horrible, dismembering them or burning them or putting them into cement walls, or whatever they could to, probably, to punish them. Is that on the same page as the very fact of the invasion?

Leaving aside that Schumann is again comparing Israelis with Germans (which he claims not to be doing) he is conflating the distinction between guerilla warfare and terrorism. Guerilla warfare is generally understood to be the tactics used by small mobile armed groups against larger, less mobile military organizations. Terrorism, on the other hand, is violence against civilians in order to pursue ideological or political objectives, often by irregular forces. While both are acts of violence, it is terrorism, not guerrilla warfare, that the Israeli government considers an obstacle to peace with an entity representing Palestine.

However, this conflation of guerilla warfare with terrorism, is just one conflation among many-- such as the likening of the West Bank Wall with the Warsaw Ghetto Wall, that is, the likening of a non-lethal anti-terrorist strategy with a tool of genocide, that first inspired my parting company with Bread and Puppet, criticism from Rabbi Joshua Chasan, criticism by arts writer, Ric Kasini Kadour, and ultimately a breakdown in civility at last year's ArtHop in Burlington, Vermont.

The other disturbing element of this answer is the repeated word "probably" in the phrase, "what the Polish and the Russian guerillas probably did against the Nazi soldiers was probably pretty horrible, dismembering them or burning them or putting them into cement walls." [My emphasis.] No doubt such behavior would be against the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war, but rather than state such atrocities did occur, or that there were contemporary reports of such actions, he stated that such acts of sadism probably happened.

There is no ethical excuse for any of this violent dealings and revenging and so on. There isn’t. Ethically this is wrong. But a state always takes exemptions from these ethics. So as the U.S. does. And so does Israel. It’s a fascist democracy just like the U.S. is. And these fascist democracies that are not real democracies, but fake democracies, they do as they wish. They build their ethics with the help of ethics professors as they go. They just have to find the right ethics professors, and they do all the time. They pay enough and so they find another ethics professor. That’s the sad story.

This is an interesting quote because it forces us to ask several questions of Schumann: If there is no ethical excuse for revenge, then why the opposition to the West Bank Wall, which barring a working peace settlement, is the only non-lethal means of short circuiting any perceived cycle of revenge currently on the table? What are the criteria by which the U.S. and Israel are fascist, not real democracies? If that is the case, are the forces against which Israel is defending itself democratic and anti-fascist? What is the model for "real democracy?" How is this fable of "searching for the right ethics professor" different than Schumann's own pronouncements on truth and ethics?

The sad thing is that "Fascism" has become little more than an epithet and that is precisely how Schumann uses the word-- instead of as an analytical tool to describe ideologies or systems of governance. (Umberto Eco has an excellent essay that attempts to restore some meaning to the term.) However, this an on-going problem with Schumann's rhetoric, as evidenced in this quote from the first part of the interview on NEJAR:

[...]as the show shows [...] Guantanamo is the logical result of the prevailing consumerism and capitalism in its shape as it is right now. It’s not illogical, it’s not an aberration, it’s a totally logical result of that. So I’m saying the School of the Americas or Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo are not ‘rotten apples,’ as Bush called them, but are directly philosophically correct, pin-pointable climaxes of the system.

While I would certainly agree with Schumann that the torture and rendition programs are not aberrations to an otherwise functioning system, as they have been, time and time again, demonstrated to be the direct result of government policy, it is absurd to say that the institutions of torture, "secret" prisons, and detention without due process are products of either capitalism or consumerism. Feudal, communist, fascist and tribal societies have all tortured and held prisoners without due process. The phenomenon is unchecked power over human bodies, and as shown by philosophers from Friedrich Nietzsche to Michel Foucault, there is neither a singular rationale nor a singular meaning. Societies always include elements of the societies that precede them. If capitalism uses torture as a tool, it is because it follows and interacts with societies that have used torture as a tool.

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