Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Siding with the Philistines

Exhibit B and Index on Censorship's Julia Farrington

A promotional still for Brett Bailey's installation, Exhibit B.
On the 24 September, the UK saw the closure of yet another controversial artwork in response to the mobilisation of protests. The installation Exhibit B, conceived and directed by the South African artist and provocateur Brett Bailey, takes as its starting point the 19th century phenomenon of 'human zoos', and is described by Bailey as follows:
What interests me about human zoos is the way people were objectified. Once you objectify people, you can do the most terrible things to them. But what we are doing here is nothing like these shows, where black people were brought from all over Africa and displayed in villages. I’m interested in the way these zoos legitimised colonial policies.
Since 2012, Exhibit B has played in some 19 cities before arriving in London and received considerable acclaim. Lynn Gardner in the Guardian called it "both unbearable and essential", Allan Radcliffe in the Times called it "remarkable . . . powerful and upsetting", and Neil Cooper, reviewing the installation for the Edinburgh Festival (and perhaps putting his finger on the masochistic pleasure in which Bailey invites his Western audiences to marinate), revealed that "the guilt [Exhibit B] provokes is devastating".

Others, like Laura Barnett at the Telegraph were less sure. Acknowledging its merits, she nevertheless found Exhibit B to be "a highly problematic" and possibly exploitative piece of work. She did not, however, call for its closure. Nor, to my knowledge, did any other serious-minded writer, whatever their view of its worth. And, whether it succeeded or not, Bailey's work was generally agreed to have been at least intended as an indictment of Western colonialism.

But self-styled anti-racist activists were in no mood to be so tolerant or broad-minded, and they did not hesitate to accuse both artist and production of outright racism. In Berlin, Bailey's work was greeted with furious protests and, upon learning that Exhibit B would be performed at The Barbican in London, a Birmingham activist named Sara Myers started an online petition, demanding the immediate withdrawal of Bailey's "racist" work. "If Brett Bailey is trying to make a point about slavery" Myers instructed, "this is not the way to do it." This sentiment was rewarded with nearly 23,000 signatures.

Protests outside the venue followed, blockading the road, and on 24 September, the Barbican announced, with regret, that it was cancelling all shows:
Due to the extreme nature of the protest outside the Vaults, regrettably we have cancelled this evening's performance of Exhibit B as we could not guarantee the safety of performers, audiences and staff. We respect people's right to protest but are disappointed that this was not done in a peaceful way as had been previously promised by campaigners.
For those committed to the defence of free inquiry and artistic expression, this is not a complicated matter. And it would be only slightly more complicated if the work in question were indisputably racist. The right of artists to express themselves as they see fit must be inviolate, as must the right of audiences to make up their own minds about the merits of what they produce. It bears repeating that an axiom of free speech advocacy is the willingness to defend the expression of opinions with which one vehemently disagrees.

But in a dismal op-ed for the anti-censorship advocacy organisation Index on Censorship, its associate arts producer, Julia Farrington, found herself unable to do any such thing. Her article, it should be noted, appeared on the Index website on 22 September - that is, after the petition and protests had been launched but before Exhibit B's cancellation. By 25 September, Index had found it necessary to issue an unsigned clarification of their official position, stating:
Those who read [Julia Farrington's] article following the cancellation and our short comment on it have interpreted our stance as one that in some way excuses or condones the protesters and the cancellation of the piece. This was certainly not our intention . . . People have every right to object to art they find objectionable but no right whatsoever to have that work censored. Free expression, including work that others may find shocking or offensive, is a right that must be defended vigorously.
This must be news to Farrington, whose defence of Bailey's right to conceive and present his work is tepid in the extreme. Instead, her article takes the side - with minimal equivocation - of those noisily declaring themselves offended by it.

Although Sara Myers's petition explicitly demands the Barbican cancel its performances of Bailey's work - and although Farrington does mention this fact - she persistently misdescribes Myers's transparently censorious campaign against venue and artist as "a boycott". And it is the protestors to whom she awards credit, without irony, for "ensuring dialogue is happening".

Like them, she had not seen the work for herself at the time of writing. Nevertheless, "what interests me here," she explains, "is the mindset of the institution presenting this piece of work and whether it considered, if at all, the possibility of a hostile response." Contrary to appearances, it is the Barbican which is unmasked as the real villain. They did, she concedes, commission a public debate on the matter, but their hand was forced by the protests which, she argues, were themselves a product of the venue's insensitivity and incompetence. Farrington justifies this conclusion by declaring her belief that:
The role of the arts institution . . . is to manage the space between the artist and the audience.
And with that she burdens the venue with responsibility for the row. Actually, the role of an arts institution - be it a cinema, theatre, or gallery - is neutral: to provide space for the exhibition of work and to promote said work as it sees fit. Those who elect to exhibit challenging material should be supported in their efforts, not presented with further obstacles.

To insist that venues and institutions "manage the space between the artist and the audience" as a precondition to exhibiting potentially controversial content will only help further deter the emergence of provocative art. ("We are thinking of exhibiting Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò at your local. Please read the attached synopsis and let us know your thoughts.")

Not only would such a process be time-consuming, cumbersome, and - I would imagine - expensive, but it would also present a number of practical problems. Who, for instance, decides what level of potential offence and provocation demands prior consultation with outraged community activists? And who decides which of the activists' subsequent demands are reasonable? And, most importantly, what exactly does this alleged obligation to "manage the space between the artist and the audience" actually require of the venue? 

To Farrington, I imagine the phrase seems collaborative and cuddly. But in this context "manage the space between the artist and audience" sounds a lot to me like a euphemism for "listen to community concerns and make the requested changes accordingly."

It is instructive to listen to Sara Myers debating one of the actresses in the work on Newsnight. Amid Myers's various complaints about offence and bad taste, and her demands for an apology and "holistic reparations", she averred that she would "not necessarily" seek to interfere with an artist's vision. All she wanted, she announced, was to be consulted. 

But then would she feel satisfied if, once her views had been heard and taken into account, the work in question remained unchanged? Interestingly, by way of an answer to this yes/no question from presenter Kirsty Wark, Myers turned her attention to the moral deficiencies she perceived in the production:
There's no whiteness in that exhibition. All there is is black people standing in various cages with chains...
A reductive piece of critical analysis, to be sure. To Wark's hypothetical that scenes involving the degradation of blacks required a "white representation," she nodded: "Yes, it needed to be balanced." I don't know what I dislike more; the presumption of the words in that sentence or the pedagogical tone in which they were uttered.

Myers never did get around to giving Wark a straightforward answer, but it was evident to me that she was not about to be appeased by any amount of consultation so long as the show went ahead unaltered. Had it done so, I imagine she would have denounced the consultation efforts as a cosmetic sham designed to shut her up and pressed for further direct action.

But Farrington was not satisfied that the protestors' concerns had been adequately dealt with either. She described the two hours alotted to the public debate commissioned by the Barbican as "woefully inadequate", and welcomed the activists' call for further "engagement and dialogue":
As anticipated the debate changed nothing in the short term, the work will open this evening as planned, but there was an urgent call for a longer, fuller discussion which hopefully Barbican will respond to as a matter of urgency.
Myers's petition is unambiguous in its demand for the censorship of Exhibit B. And the jubilation with which she and her supporters welcomed the news of the performance's closure, two days after Farrington's article appeared, speaks to their true motivations. These are not people interested in opening dialogue but in policing it and closing it down. 

How on earth did a free speech advocate find herself so far on the wrong side of an elementary free speech debate? The nature of the performance, its subject matter, and perhaps most importantly, the skin colour of the protesters, appear to have presented Farrington with a conflict. She is a free speech advocate. But she is also clearly sympathetic to the view that structural racism and institutionalised white privilege are the 'root cause' of everything. Certainly, as far as UK arts and culture goes, she accepts its alleged 'institutionalised racism', a priori. As she puts it:
Surely it cannot be possible for the Barbican to stand by a work that purports to confront “colonial atrocities committed in Africa, European notions of racial supremacy and the plight of immigrants today” and not see that it is holding up a mirror to itself.
Index on Censorship does not speak for the victims of 'structural racism'. There are other organisations which devote their time and resources to that. In her capacity as a writer for Index, Farrington ought to have shelved her reservations about such matters, and concentrated on the most immediate threat to free speech: the intimidation of artists and venue by a censorious campaign.

But she prefers to resolve her ideological dilemma with a rhetorical sleight of hand. She concludes her article:
I defend Brett Bailey’s right to present these horrendous atrocities from the past – anything else is censorship . . . But the more potent issue here, is the perpetuation of institutionalised mono-cultural bias preventing the Barbican, and the vast majority of British arts institutions, from fostering and delivering a truly relevant cultural programme. This untenable form of censorship must be addressed and continue to be addressed long after Exhibit B has been and gone.
So it turns out that Farrington has been anti-censorship all along. Not the common-or-garden type right in front of her eyes, of course, but something more profound and subtle; the censorship of minority voices by stealth. 

In support of her accusation, Farrington relies on two rather dubious expert witnesses. She quotes Mark Sealy, artistic director at Autograph Black Photographers, who demands that public funding be withdrawn from those who don't fall into line by employing the right people or producing the right kind of content. The basis for this draconian recommendation is a highly implausible (and unsubstantiated) claim that "since 1980s it is progress zero". Part of what is needed, we may infer, is the involvement of more people like Sara Myers who will arbitrate on what kind of material is and is not acceptable to their respective communities.

Then we meet Jenny Williams, described as an "independent arts consultant". Williams appears to think what's needed is a thoroughgoing policy of Multiculturalism in the arts and a stricter balkanisation of funding allocated to minority communities:
The Arts Council funding of arts infrastructure is not fairly representing the 14% black and minority communities. 14% of ACE’s overall three-year investment of £2.4bn would equate to £336m – that’s £112m per year. The black and minority ethnic community contribute around £62m per year into the overall arts budget. Yet, the current yearly figure currently invested in black and minority ethnic-led work is £4.8m.
The outrage of this apparently monstrous pie-dividing injustice, by the way, appears to rest on an assumption that black and minority ethnic audiences won't look at or listen to anything not made by their own ethnic or racial group. But by enlightened roads such as these will we journey to a land where all art and culture is politically acceptable and socially responsible. 

As Farrington must surely be aware, the fanatical pursuit of this conformist dystopia is not restricted to the arts. A recent article in Spiked by Frank Furedi entitled "Academic Freedom Is a Big Deal" looks at troubling examples of this kind of doctrinaire thinking on campus:
Intolerance towards the academic freedom of other colleagues is invariably represented as not what it really is – the silencing of unconventional or objectionable views – but rather as an enlightened defence of those who would be offended by unconventional or objectionable views. From this perspective, the advocacy of a genuinely open intellectual culture, where scholars are encouraged to take risks and question everything, is an abomination.
Academic freedom and artistic freedom - both of which, in different ways, are dedicated to the pursuit of truth - are extraordinarily precious components of open societies. And both are in danger of being compromised, not just by moral puritans of the right, but also by moral puritans of the left - those for whom the enforcement of their own idea of 'social justice' and the immediate redress of grievance trump all scholarly and aesthetic concerns.

It is fantastically unwise for an organisation like Index on Censorship to indulge such people. Anti-censorship advocates, whatever their views about related issues, owe it to themselves to defend art and scholarship from the manoeuvres of activists like Sara Myers, and to do so without equivocation. Farrington's article subordinates that responsibility to ideological views concerning the nature of racism, social justice activism, and identity politics, which are wildly beyond her brief. In a confused attempt to position herself as the friend of the weak, Julia Farrington has misidentified both villain and victim and sided with censorious philistinism. The people power embodied by Myers and her fellow malcontents, of which Farrington writes with such admiration, was a sinister and coercive force from the start.

I take no pleasure in criticising Index on Censorship. They do valuable work and are, by some accounts, a rather embattled organisation at present. But in their handling of this controversy, they abdicated their responsibility to defend those in whose interests they speak. When their associate arts producer marvelled at the 22,500 signatures the petition to close Bailey's work had by then accrued, she should have stopped to consider this: it is precisely at times like these that artists and performers engaged in challenging work most need the support of people like her.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Euphemism, Dysphemism, and Masochism

On the Quarrel Over Lydda

Lydda (now Ben Gurion) airport, captured by the IDF in 1948. 
At Mosaic magazine, a fascinating dispute recently concluded over an incident that took place during Israel's 1948 War of Independence. The cause of the trouble, at least in the first instance, was a chapter in Ha'aretz journalist Ari Shavit's bestselling book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, which deals with the conquest of the Arab city of Lydda. More specifically at issue was Shavit's description of what occurred there as a massacre, for which he held Zionism explicitly responsible.

For those unfamiliar with the story, a quick précis:

On 14 May 1948, as the last of the British forces withdrew, bringing the curtain down on Mandatory Palestine, Israel declared its independence. The next day, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, refusing to recognise the new state, declared war and invaded from the south, east, and north, respectively. Only 3 years after the Holocaust had ended, a state created as a refuge for a persecuted nation found itself faced with an eliminationist - and possibly genocidal - war on three fronts.

On 11 July, as the war turned in Israel's favour, Israeli forces approached the city of Lydda. The operational order of 26 June, codenamed Larlar, described their mission as follows:
To attack in order to destroy the enemy forces in the area of the bases Lydda-Ramla-Latrun-Ramallah, to capture these bases and by so doing to free the city of Jerusalem and the road to it from enemy pressure.
The battle for Lydda began with a charge of armoured vehicles during the course of which dozens of Arabs and nine Israeli soldiers were shot dead. The Arab irregulars stationed in Lydda, stunned by the ferocity of the raid, watched as Israeli forces took up positions in the town. The inhabitants were rounded up and ordered to report to the Great Mosque and the Church of St George where they were temporarily confined. It was assumed that Lydda had been taken and pacified.

The next day at noon, two Jordanian armoured cars entered the city, surprising the IDF. A firefight broke out and pandemonium erupted. Armed Arab irregulars, perhaps believing the Jordanian cars heralded further reinforcement, began to fire at Israeli soldiers, who were also reporting that grenades had been thrown from in or around a building known as the Small Mosque (distinct from the Great Mosque, where unarmed detainees were being held).

In response to the uprising, Israeli troops returned fire wildly, threw grenades into houses, and fired an anti-tank missile at the Small Mosque killing a large number of those inside. It was all over in 30 minutes. The IDF lost just four soldiers. The exact number of Arab casualties is disputed, but the losses are generally thought to be in three figures. Over the next 24 hours or so, the detainees were released and those Arab inhabitants of Lydda not already fleeing the city were expelled into the West Bank.

Part of the problem posed by Shavit's handling of these events is that he's dealing with history but approaching it as a journalist; this is a personal, emotional work, not a scholarly one. And because he's therefore concerned with the demands and possibilities of narrative and style, complexities inevitably get collapsed into big symbols and themes.

Shavit has structured his book so that each chapter represents a particular historical event, movement, or development. Thus, the chapter on Lydda represents the 1948 war - the triumph of Zionism and the tragedy of Palestinian defeat and expulsion, encapsulating his book's subtitle rather too neatly. It is partly for this reason, I suspect, that it was the chapter selected in advance of the book's publication to appear in abridged form in the New Yorker. When the article appeared on 21 October 2013, it generated a great deal of attention and comment. So did the book when it was published a month later.

Shavit conceives of what happened at Lydda in grandiloquent, quasi-Biblical terms: 'Zionism' - the Jewish quest for self-determination in their historic homeland - is here personalised as a vengeful deity descending on Lydda, massacring its people, and smiting the city. But it is on the ashes of these crimes, Shavit insists, that Israel has built a democracy worth defending. His story of Zionism and Lydda, then, is one of sin and redemption; an experience in expiation.

Shavit loves his country but feels he must atone for 1948. He invites the reader - or rather, the Zionist reader - to join him in a display penitence for events which occurred nine years before his birth. The sins for which Shavit and his liberal Zionist audience want absolution are also of a Biblical nature - they are the sins inherited from previous generations and passed down from parent to child like a curse. Lydda, Shavit warns portentously, symbolises "our black box", inside of which "lies the dark secret of Zionism". As an Arab town at the very heart of Israel, he writes...
Zionism could not bear Lydda. From the very beginning, there was a substantial contradiction between Zionism and Lydda. If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be.
The ugly truth, Shavit tells us, is that it was "Zionism" which "carrie[d] out a massacre in the city of Lydda". Then, as tens of thousands of Arabs stream out of the city and into the Jordanian West Bank, he states: "Zionism obliterates Lydda". Shavit's use of the term "obliterates" is obviously figurative. But is his use of the term "massacre" intended to be figurative or literal? The casual mixture of the literal and the figurative makes it hard to tell. There were, however, no shortage of people happy to take him at his word without inquiring further. I was one of them.

But when Ari Shavit's claim of a massacre at Lydda caught Israeli historian Martin Kramer's sceptical eye, he decided to look into it. In July of this year, Mosaic magazine published the results of his investigations: a 9000 word essay, entitled What Happened at Lydda, in which Kramer methodically analysed Shavit's version of events and found it wanting.

Unlike Shavit, Kramer's first responsibility as a practising historian is not to good storytelling but to establishing what most probably happened. Kramer contends that what happened at Lydda was not a massacre but a battle, albeit a chaotic one with highly disproportionate losses to the Palestinian side. Damagingly, he unearths further testimony given by Shavit's own interviewees that either contradicts or significantly complicates his version of events.

And, as Kramer invites us to notice, it turns out that Shavit's omissions and elisions all point in the same direction and support the same narrative demands. This happy coincidence is unlikely to result from sloppy scholarship. Shavit is just doing what storytellers have always done: fashioning a story in his own way, so as to emphasise the themes he wishes to explore. But in so doing, Kramer argues, he had helped to further defame an already slandered state.

Ari Shavit, regrettably, declined to respond. So in the interests of furthering the discussion, Mosaic invited the historian Benny Morris to weigh in.

Morris is well-placed to comment. As a member of those Israeli scholars who became known as the 'New Historians', he has emerged as one of Israel's leading authorities on the 1948 war, writing four books on the subject between 1988 and 2008, and editing a fifth.

The New Historians emerged following the declassification of large parts of the Israeli archives in 1978. This development prompted a surge of revisionist scholarship devoted, not just to updating the record, but to critically re-examining some of Israel's most sensitive foundational myths. Some of what they wrote has since been rejected or updated; much of it has become a part of accepted consensus; other areas - like this one, apparently - remain fiercely disputed.

Furthermore, it is on Morris's work that Shavit reveals he has relied for Lydda's casualty figures and his description of what occurred there as "a massacre". In his 2008 book, 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War, Morris summarised what happened at Lydda like this:
A firefight ensued, and the locals joined in, sniping from windows and rooftops. The jittery Palmahniks [Israeli soldiers] responded by firing at anything that moved, throwing grenades into houses and massacring detainees in a mosque compound; altogether, "about 250" townspeople died and many were injured, according to IDF records. [pp. 289-90]
Morris, however, declared himself unimpressed by Shavit's account which, he wrote, "distorts in the grand manner". And he rejected Shavit's central contention that Zionism needed to be indicted. Lydda was not and is not Zionism's black box.

But then, nor was Morris all that persuaded by Martin Kramer's contribution, which he accused of trying to whitewash the Israeli crimes of massacre and expulsion. And he agreed with Shavit's claim (derived, as it was, from Morris's own writing) that "Lydda was the biggest massacre of the 1948 war".

Thereafter, the debate sets Ari Shavit's book aside and refocusses on trying to establish what actually occurred over 30 minutes in Lydda on July 12, 1948. From what I can tell the gaps between Kramer and Morris about the events themselves are fairly narrow. But the debate about numbers and testimony is complicated by mutual suspicion of a perceived agenda relating to how these events ought to be described.

Benny Morris is the sworn foe of euphemism. As a Zionist, he insists that Israel must be defended for what it is, not what we would like it to be, and that this requires historians to catalogue its crimes and mistakes with unsparing frankness.

Martin Kramer agrees that Israel should be defended for what it is. But what worries him is an overcorrection into dysphemism. Euphemism distorts reality by sanitising it and reducing argument to apologetics. Dysphemism - the substitution of a neutral term with a pejorative or inflammatory one - does the reverse; it distorts reality by poisoning it and reducing argument to invective.

And so, once the available facts had been disputed and discussed, the debate's conclusion turned on a question of language. About half-way through their final exchange at Mosaic, entitled The Meaning of Massacre, almost as an aside, Benny Morris suddenly appears to concede the point:
Perhaps part of the problem stems from the meaning of the word “massacre.” Of course, all would agree that if you line up 100 civilians or unarmed POWs against a wall and shoot them, you have a massacre. But what occurred in Lydda was more complicated.
A firefight with two Jordanian armored cars and sniping by armed townspeople provoked mass killing by a small IDF contingent that felt vulnerable and panicky: 300 to 400 men in the center of a town that they thought had surrendered (it hadn’t) and that contained tens of thousands of locals and refugees. And the Arabs were the ones who had started the war.
Here Morris defines "massacre" as I would understand it in this context: the deliberate mass killing of unarmed civilians or detainees. Since Morris acknowledges that this is not what happened in Lydda, that would appear to settle the matter. But he then stubbornly defends his use of the term anyway, only in a metaphorical sense - to covey recklessness and vastly disproportionate losses:
But whatever the extenuating circumstances, had IDF troops acted in such a manner today, given current legal and moral norms, they would most likely have been put on trial—by Israel. One can argue that one shouldn’t “judge” soldiers’ behavior in the past by today’s standards. Agreed. But this doesn’t change the fact that they committed a massacre.
This is a slippery defence, and its potential to mislead is large. When Morris writes in 1948 that Lydda witnessed "the massacring of detainees in a mosque compound", it evokes lurid images of helpless men, women, and children being arbitrarily dragged from their houses and having their throats slit by rampaging soldiers. Morris's use of the term "slaughter" during his debate with Kramer only reinforces this impression.

This obscure semantic dispute is important precisely because the rhetoric deployed against Israel has become so thick with abuse, that causal dysphemism is now central to the way the entire conflict is debated, reported, and discussed. In the most recent Gaza war, Israel was widely and routinely accused of committing "massacres", the term often meant to reflect the disproportionate casualty figures, but understood by many to mean the deliberate mass murder of civilians. Thus is the picture created in the mind of the uninformed or hitherto neutral observer of a state which pitilessly liquidates innocents.

But to misapply the term to the War of Independence, as Kramer argues Shavit and Morris have done, is to concede something of even greater value to those who would delegitimise the very existence of the Israeli state: the notion that it was created in sin. Such people are not interested in Zionism's redemption or liberal Zionists' tormented confessions.

For Israel's enemies, the only acceptable act of contrition would be the disestablishment of the whole rotten state. And to that end, if Israel's sin is indeed original, it may legitimately be denied credit for any achievement and condemned twice over for every crime. This accusation is made explicit by a Zionist in Ari Shavit's book: Zionism committed a massacre in Lydda, and it was a massacre without which Israel would not and could not have been created.

Massacres were sometimes committed during the 1948 war, of course. But in trying to ascertain how many, it is no more useful to re-describe a battle as a massacre than it is to whitewash a massacre as a battle. To do either creates not just a category confusion but also a moral one. And yet this confusion persists, in part, because it satisfies a peculiar need.

I find it interesting to note that, by Kramer's account, those most effusive in their praise for Shavit's book, and for the Lydda extract in particular, have not circulated his rebuttal. There are many possible reasons for this, but one of them, I suspect, is that Kramer's analysis did not offer them the same easy but perverse satisfaction as Shavit's account: the satisfaction of feeling good about feeling bad.

The entire discussion can be found collected into a single 36 page .pdf document here. It includes a contribution from historian Efraim Karsh, unmentioned above, which appeared in Mosaic after Kramer's essay but before Morris's first reply. I encourage those who have enjoyed this post to read the whole exchange. Aside from the issues at hand, seeing history debated this way is its own reward.