A few days ago, Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood chose to accept a literary prize at Tel Aviv University, instead of observing the academic and cultural boycott urged by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, a position that was put to them, for example, here and here. This is disappointing. As Robin Yassin-Kassab and Claire Chambers point out,
“One of the ironies of postcolonialism is the way in which many of its practitioners recognize Edward Said’s crucial role in laying the foundation stones for its politico-intellectual project, only to pass over in silence the dispossession of the Palestinian people that animates the spirit of the examination of the sutures between “culture” and “imperialism.” (183)
Yassin-Kassab and Chambers’ whole piece is worth a read, as is this explanation of the academic boycott by a Tel Aviv University professor Tanya Reinhart. But I want to talk about the speech that Ghosh and Atwood gave to rationalize their decision.
What I found nauseating was not the decision, as such, to ignore the politics of their actions. I mean, if they want to be apolitical, fine. If they had simply said, “Look. It sucks to be Palestinian, but that’s not my problem” I wouldn’t particularly have respected them for it, but I wouldn’t have been enraged either. Or if they were simply of the belief that the things the state of Israel does in the occupied territories are somehow defensible; again, I would disagree, strongly, but at least I would understand the logic of the position. And to be fair, we shouldn‘t forget that it’s a difficult dilemma that they were put in; as Atwood put it, she felt like she was “caught in a propaganda war between two desperate sides in a tragic and unequal conflict,” in which “no matter what I do, some people are going to disagree with my decision and attack me for it,” and she was probably right.
But when they want to have it both ways, I lose patience. Ghosh and Atwood delivered an intellectually vapid speech posturing as if they were the real victims here, as if the mere fact of being a writer meant they were necessarily on the right side of history, and equated the mild criticisms they’ve received with being attacked:
Worldwide, novel-writing is under constant pressure, both from political groups who want to co-opt it, and from powerful governments who’d like to silence it. Around the world, novelists have been shot, imprisoned, and exiled for their failure to toe somebody else’s line. But they continue to write stories.
Is anyone threatening Ghosh and Atwood’s right to write whatever they want? No. Is anyone threatening to shoot them, imprison them, or exile them? Again, no. What is being said by the “political groups who want to co-opt” them is simply that being given a prize by the Israeli state they are allowing themselves to be co-opted by the Israeli state, that by choosing to accept a prize from the actual hands of a war criminal, they are choosing to do nothing about the war crimes. They were asked to take responsibility for the choice they were making in saying yes, a choice they were presented with when they were awarded a prize from a state that routinely flouts international law. They chose to accept the prize and declined to own the fact of doing so.
I find it quite telling, in fact, that they try to establish that the Dan David Prize is simply “a prize founded by a private individual, and administered by its own office located at Tel Aviv University. Despite what we have been told by its attackers, it is not one and the same as the State of Israel.” It is true only in the most literal sense; the prize is not literally one and the same thing as the State of Israel. But when Ghosh declined to allow his book The Glass Palace to stand for the Commonwealth Prize in 2001, on the grounds that “I feel that I would be betraying the spirit of my book if I were to allow it to be incorporated within that particular memorialization of Empire that passes under the rubric of “the Commonwealth,’” I didn’t get the sense that he thought the Commonwealth prize was actually the same thing as the British empire. And yet he took a symbolic stand on that issue (he explains his decision here).
Anyway, as this letter written to Ghosh by an impressive list of fifty academics points out, the distinction they draw between the prize and the state is completely untenable: “Apart from the complicity of Tel Aviv University in the occupation regime (which has been chronicled by the PACBI in their letter to you ), the Dan David prize is presided over by Shimon Peres, the President of Israel.” And the people behind the Dan David Prize itself seem to feel that the relationship between the prize and the state is quite close; read the press release from last year’s Dan David Prize, whose first sentence is “In the presence of The President of the State of Israel, Mr. Shimon Peres The 2009 Dan David Prize was awarded to…”
By claiming that they can accept it because the prize isn’t connected to politics, of course, they all but acknowledge that if it were, they would have to decline it, which leads them to an impossible position, since how can a prize handed to you by a country’s head of state have nothing to do with politics? But what makes it an truly craven position is that while they posture as embattled martyrs, the personal consequences of their actions will consist of nothing more dire than the fact that people in the world, like me for instance, will have a lower opinion of them, and will say so in print. Their reputations as radical postcolonial activists will suffer. Cry me a river.
Because this is the thing: writers don’t actually have a whole lot of power in this world, but these two writers did have a little bit, a choice of who to be co-opted by. No one forced them to make one choice or the other; they were capable of hearing arguments from both sides, and of doing as they pleased. But clothing themselves in the reflected glory of writers who actually have made real choices that have real consequences doesn’t change the fact that Atwood and Ghosh took, essentially, the easiest path. They chose to accept a prize from the head of a state with a history of dropping white phosphorous on children, rather than choosing not to accept it and thereby stand with those who want Israel to stop dropping white phosphorous on children. And instead of acknowledging that choice as a choice they freely made, they go on and on about how great the novel is, and how great novelists are:
Propaganda deals in absolutes: in Yes and No. But the novel is a creature of nuance: of perhaps, of maybe. It concerns itself, not with gods and demons, but with mortal people, with their flawed characters, their unsatisfactory bodies, their sufferings, their limited and often wrong choices; with the dubiousness of their own actions and the unfairness of their fates.
Writing a novel often requires you to see life through the eyes of those you may not agree with. It is a polyphonic form. It pleads for the complex humanity of all human beings.
The public territory the novelist defends is very small, even in a democracy. It’s the space of free invention, of possibility. It’s a space that allows the remembrance of what has been forgotten, the digging up of what has been buried.
Which is to say, apparently, whatever a novelist does is above politics, or at least, by definition, on the right side of it. After all: some novelists somewhere have been censored and attacked for their writings, and since Atwood and Ghosh are novelists, they are therefore being censored and attacked for their writings.
Yet how can you play the censored victim when the suffering you’ve endured has been respectful and peaceful criticism in print? And how can you play the virtuous activist when your activism consists of accepting a prize from a state that drops white phosphorous on children? After all, the only thing their “attackers” have done — and it really is telling that people who write them letters asking them to boycott the prize are described as “attackers” — is ask them to live up to their own self praise. They make such grand and self-aggrandizing claims for the novel, and because they so eloquently extol “the novelist” for standing on the side of the weak against the strong, who can blame people for taking them at their word. We’d like to believe them and we’d like to believe it’s true. Obviously, so would they. But if you want to be a martyr, can you shrink from making sacrifices? And if you also want to take the option that’s easiest and works out best for you, can you be surprised when people call you a hypocrite?
Update: In a follow up, here, you can see video of Ghosh courteously speaking to Israeli BDS people, but sort of good naturedly missing the entire point. By the way, I hadn’t realized it, but apparently the prize was for a half million each; no wonder they found ways to excuse their choices. But it’s just ugly to see them pretend it was principled, especially given how tired and cliched the rhetoric was.
Update#2: How it’s done.