Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008) should have been more appropriately entitled “the wrestler and the stripper.” There is more in the “friendship” between Randy (Mickey Rourke) and Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) than the usual setting of boy-meets-girl. One is a professional wrestler whose prime period has come to an end, and is painfully resuscitated through weekend shifts in the New Jersey clubs, while the other is a mid-aged professional stripper, whose “colleagues” tend to be younger women in their twenties, with the kind of “I shouldn’t be here in the first place” attitude. Both invest their lives very professionally in their respective jobs. However, at face value, nothing brings wrestling to stripping, one is mostly dominated by macho male figures, where the body is at the same time glorified, trashed, and subject to great physical kinky violence, while the other is mostly female, and where violence is symbolic in nature, even though it could turn nasty at times. Which is precisely what brings wrestling to stripping: the body. Both are physical performances, situated within closed spaces, and both need a great deal of motivation, discipline, and professionalism. And that’s precisely what we’re offered to see in the “Wrestler”: fairly accurate descriptions of both spaces, which do not connect per se as physical and professional spaces, but only though the “connection” that Randy makes in his van every once and a while to meet Cassidy in her working club. It is indeed those “rides” in the New Jersey area (that same area of the Sopranos, David Chase, and Philip Roth), portrayed as if they were rides in the middle-of-nowhere, in cities and suburban spaces where emotions of intimacy have vanished, which awkwardly connect the two disconnected milieus. Randy first approaches Cassidy very professionally, generously paying her for “private” lap dances mixed with “private” talks. In the wake of his heart attack and bypass surgery, and recovery in a hospital room and then in the loneliness of his shabby trailer, Randy feels that urge to get more “intimate” with Cassidy. It is indeed that longing for “intimacy,” which all of a sudden comes as an urge in the middle of the film that feels awkward, as both Randy and Cassidy have protected themselves all their lives within the professional spaces of wrestling and stripping from the vagaries of personal relationships and intimacy. When Randy wanted to tell Cassidy about his heart operation and the decision to drop wrestling for the rest of his life, he realized that he couldn’t do it in the stripping club—in the professional space where he had met her as performer. He insists that they meet outside, in his van parked in a nearby parking lot reserved for the club’s customers. They meet briefly in the van, and Cassidy is obviously not at ease dropping her mask of professional performer in order to transit to the confidante and lover role. We learn from this encounter and later that both have suffered from failures and dysfunctional lives—and who hasn’t?—Randy is portrayed, even by his own daughter, that he’s a failed father, who was always absent in the most crucial moments, while Cassidy has a nine-year old son from a failed relationship. When Randy manages to convince her for a “one-beer” deal in a bar (after shopping for a present for Randy’s daughter), Cassidy had to cut short on Randy’s kiss, and offer for another drink. “You still see me as a stripper,” was one of her takes on Randy, and “I can’t mix my professional life with that of my customers,” was her second one. Here’s the core of the film now fully developed: Cassidy’s blatant fear of “mixing” the two lives—the personal and the professional. The professional implies ritualistic encounters and distance: keeping those men at distance is a prime professional ritual. Then there’s the money, and in stripping it comes piecemeal, all based on bodily performance and nothing but performance. Same thing for Randy: the ring protects him from the audience-cum-mob through a professional relation of pure performance, which brings him the income he needs for survival (at the beginning, his landlord manager locks him out for one night for defaulting on his payments). When Randy realizes the pain of personal relationships and their futile nature, he returns, in a sudden shift, to what was obviously his last performance. He dies performing, throwing himself at an “audience” that looks more and more like a mob of bloggers, rather than a real “public” in the conventional nineteenth-century sense. That was the only time that Cassidy drove in the emptiness of the New Jersey suburban landscape to meet Randy in his professional milieu, as if she was indebted to him in a way she couldn’t figure out: to see him burn himself out to death on the ring with his cherished “audience.”
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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Between secularists and jihadists

Among all what has been said about Ghazza in the last few weeks, and all the ranting and raving about the savagery of Tsahal and its shelling of civilians, one article stands out: “How Israel helped to spawn Hamas,” by Andrew Higgins in The Wall Street Journal of January 24–25. Even though, as I’ll argue in a moment, Higgins’ main arguments are both historically and sociologically flawed, they at least question Israel’s historical links with the likes of Hamas and the PLO: did Israel’s paranoiac attitude towards Palestinians since 1948 help ferment the likes of the PLO, Hamas, and the Hezbollah? The argument goes principally along the lines of a division between so-called “secularists” and “religious activists” or “jihadists” in Palestinian politics, which grosso modo reflects a broader division in Arab societies on the eastern Mediterranean. The secularists among Palestinians were for the most part represented by the PLO under Yasser Arafat, while the religious activists are now mostly under Hamas rule in Ghazza. Higgins goes on to say that Israel inadvertently and very naively radicalized both groups. First, its relentless fears over “Palestinian nationalism” in the 1960s and 1970s pushed it at war with the PLO, which back then was a weak and insignificant organization, mostly rooted among the lumpenproletariat of the Palestinian camps in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. That eventually led to a radicalization of the PLO, and its institutionalization in one of the Arab summits in Fez (Morocco) as “the sole representative of the Palestinian people.” Eventually, Israel had to stage a costly war against the PLO in Lebanon in 1982, pull the organization out of its Lebanese conundrum, only to negotiate (through Norway) a peace treaty with its leaders from their Tunisian exile. But Oslo notwithstanding, Arafat, now in Jericho, would keep his defiant tone until the very end, that is, until he was eaten by disease and old age (and an alleged poisoned assassination). As to Hamas, an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, it was a direct upshot of the first intifada in 1987. Higgins makes the point that Israeli intelligence “welcomed” Hamas as a way to weaken a “secularist” and “nationalistic” PLO.

There are several problems with such a conceptualization of Palestinian politics. First, it divides Palestinian politics grosso modo among so-called “secularists” and “religious” zealots, as if such a division marked some kind of a coupure épistémologique, an epistemological break that would translate into different visions of society and politics among the two groups, or as if the likes of Arafat and Shaykh Yasin were totally two different brands of politicians in Palestinian society (not to mention their broad impact on the impoverished Arab masses). Of course, they were different, but in what way? Was it that one was more user–friendly with the “Zionist enemy” than the other? Or was it for their different views of politics and society? Let’s first observe that such a division has been around on the eastern Mediterranean for some time. In Egypt, where it probably all began, the Muslim Brothers under Hasan al-Banna created their movement in the 1920s when the country was still under British rule. The Brothers were rivals at the time to the Wafd Party, Egypt’s prime organization for the middle classes, and then in the 1950s and 1960s, to Nasser’s monochromatic dictatorial rule, which abolished multi-party politics, and nationalized major financial and economic resources. By the 1960s Nasser succeeded at a total cramp down of the Brothers, jailing their main ideologue Sayyid Qutub, and executing him in his prison cell. Upon Nasser’s death in 1970, Sadat was dissatisfied with Egypt’s sole reliance on “communist friends,” and the spread of “socialism” in society. He thought of the “Islamicist” groups as a counter–point to communism. Hence a revival of the Brothers since then, and a political resurgence that ultimately led to the public assassination of Sadat by a member of one of the Islamic groups close to the Brothers.

We can discern that kind of duality—between the secularist and the religiously rooted movements—in many Arab and Islamic countries. Think of the Syrian Baath Party and its own Muslim Brothers as a prime example. When Iraq was liberated from the Baath in 2003 the spectrum of parties that emerged was no different from what other neighboring societies had already witnessed. But to think of the Syrian Baath as more “tolerant” or “secular” than its Muslim Brothers is like trying to choose between two different methods for putting an end to civil society (or what is left of it). To view them as a product of colonialism, imperialism, and Zionism, would be a gross mis-conceptualization, and an easy way to root the failures of Arab politics into alien forces imposing the nation-state from the outside. It would be more helpful to conceptualize the differences between the two in terms of a combination of class and ethnic identities and the violent competition over the monopoly of religious discourse. Religion today is not closeted anymore, as it used to be in Ottoman times, in the hands of the ulama class. As religion has become more fractured and specialized, with banks offering an “Islamic interest” on deposited capital, and with doctors offering “Islamic” medical service, it has opened up to all kinds of media-type political an social salvations. Thus, the likes of Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the late Shaykh Yasin of Hamas, in spite of their public attire, they both are not a product of the traditional ulama class, receiving all kinds of challenges from the latter. To covet his rule, Nasrallah has to maintain a two-tier ulama infrastructure, where the lower-tier is the most militant, hidden as it is under the veneer of the more prestigious first-tier of the likes of the fatwa-maker Fadlallah.

What is it then that distinguishes the two groups of so-called “secularists” and “religious” zealots? Certainly not a view of politics that would absorb the multiplicities of social formations that exist in their societies, as all of them tend to be intolerant towards social diversity and laissez-faire liberalism. In the Baath party’s slogan of “unity, freedom, socialism,” what is most disturbing is that claim for “unity,” which often concretely translates as a monolithic one-party system that would place all “classes” of society under the wise aegis of the Baathist state. Freedom and socialism, whatever meaning we ascribe to them, would only come at the price of a political unity, which, historically, often implies a one-party system. But between that kind of “unity” and the “oneness” of a “fair” “Islamic state” (whose model would be the dysfunctional rule of the first four caliphs, not to mention the prophet in person), and the secularism of the Baath, what’s the real difference? Isn’t it that in all their variations and diversities all such discourses share a destructive common ground, and an intolerant political sphere?
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Thursday, January 22, 2009

The illusion of the one-state solution

It does seem at face value that the Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddafi, was generous in his op-ed piece this morning in the New York Times when he proposed a one-state solution to the lingering Palestinian–Israeli problem. Personally I think it’s a mixture of ignorance and cynicism to make such a proposal, which de facto and de jure would mean the end of the Jewish state as we’ve known it since 1948. The ignorance part kicks in when the problem is reduced to its moral and legal aspects, namely that the Palestinians have been dispossessed since 1947–49, and therefore must be given their just rights all over again—let’s call it the restitution argument. What such an argument ignores, however, is the major disadvantage that the Palestinians have been facing ever since encountering the first set of Jewish settlers in the 1880s when the Ottomans were still there administrating the Arab provinces of what later became Palestine under the British. Palestinian “society” was structured back then on the administrative hegemony of its urban notables on one hand, and its impoverished peasantry on the other. As the peasants did the bulk of the labor, paying the “rent” to the urban notables on the top, they were the main source of wealth in society, and also its most dispossessed and impoverished part. The infrastructural weaknesses of Palestinian “society” under Ottoman rule have been well documented by historians, and there’s no need to go over them here. Suffice it to say that such structural weaknesses, which are shared by other societies in Greater Syria, and which have hardened in the last few decades, make it very hard to construct a modern political framework that would institute a leadership that would democratically coordinate its strategies with other groups in society. The current violence in Ghazza is less between Israelis and Palestinians and more internal wars among Palestinians, precisely an outcome of such structural weaknesses. Qaddafi himself is an outcome of such a dysfunctional political and social system which has reduced the modern middle east to a spectacle of moribund kingships and dictatorships, and republics where sons are inheriting their fathers. The one–state solution would not work precisely because the two–state solution would not work in the first place. When Qaddafi says that the two–state solution would create an insecure Israel, he seems to be thinking in terms of Palestinians constantly smuggling weapons into the would-be Palestine and shelling their Israeli neighbors. The real instability, however, comes from the inability of Palestinians to create a viable political framework that really works for them. Only then Israelis and Palestinians would be at peace. In the meantime the one- and two-state solutions seem both improbable. The only alternative for now seems a federation between the Ghazza strip and Egypt on the one, and another one between the West Bank and Jordan on the other. The Palestinians would free themselves from politics and begin to work to improve their society.

A Zionist Starbucks

The 1960s were a period of transitions whereby values that had been reshaped as an outcome of the Second World War had to be reformulated more visibly in public. Thus, values related to gender equality at home and at work, feminism, sexuality and homosexuality, the family, race, generational differences, manners, education, world peace, the end of third world colonialisms, and work ethics, all took shape and were formulated half a century ago. The 1980s were also another period of change, but in contrast to the sixties the changes were less visible, less dramatic, more mundane, as they translated for the most part in the deepening of that introvert selfish culture that the earlier period could barely conceal. In effect, even though the sixties supposedly promoted openness towards “society” and “the public sphere,” and peace with the newly liberated third world cultures from imperialism and colonialism, it failed to promote a genuine interest in anything called “the public good.” The 1980s–1990s saw the democratization of consumerism and the satisfaction that it entailed: anything from Prada to Starbucks, the Internet, the ipod, the iphone and blackberry, the laptops, all made life more interesting, but that didn’t make us more “social,” more political, or more engaged with others. The Iraq war was notoriously unpopular before it even began, but with a jargon that belonged to Vietnam and the culture wars of the sixties, not out of interest in what Iraq is at the moment, and what it could be. We therefore willy-nilly belong to the culture of indifference (narcissism) of the sixties, and we’re only interested in delimiting a “just cause,” without a real involvement in a culture—ours and all the others out there.

So when the two-week war broke out in Ghazza, which is still not over, people all over the world had their hearts for the suffering Palestinians. We’re all now into that discourse of the historical “rights” of the Palestinian people and the bi-national state. Israel is by contrast perceived, at least implicitly, as an imperialist and neocolonialist state with no legitimate rights of its own, having dispossessed the Palestinians of their legitimate territorial rights towards the end of the British mandate in 1947–49. When the Ghazza war broke out “we” were naturally as “leftists” on the side of the weak, the oppressed, and the dispossessed, or in toto, les damnés de la terre, as Franz Fanon famously labeled them. We were therefore, needless to say, on the side of the “Palestinian people.” Such euphemisms, however, prevent us from addressing what is presently urgent: namely, that it wasn’t the “Palestinian people” who was subject for two weeks to shelling and deprivation, but large fractions of the Palestinian lumpenproletariat under Hamas rule. On the other “conservative” “right” side of politics Hamas is unequivocally qualified as a “terrorist organization,” which is too soft a description and beside the point. The truth is that we need to be more articulate, look for details and concepts of value in order to begin thinking anti-state organizations of the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah as a radicalization of politics due precisely to the absence of politics in the Arab world. We’ll be unable to think along those lines as long that everything in politics is translated into cultural wars that belong in both spirit and essence to the sixties. That’s why a radical evaluation of Iraq and Afghanistan hasn’t even begun yet, because our concepts are muddled into obsolete cultural notions of imperialism and colonialism, or the rights of individuals and people to bring their own destinies with their own hands and minds.

Which brings me to one of those “cultural” non-political events that attracted my attention on the web the other day. During the two-week Ghazza war, a group of young clueless (unemployed and underemployed) students staged small manifestations in support of the war, one of them in front of the main Starbucks in Hamra Street in Beirut, Lebanon. A sixties hangover: that’s probably the best way to describe the dozen or so of “leftists” who were there that night in front of the Hamra Starbucks to terrorize customers sipping their espressos, cappuccinos, and lattes. The young revolutionaries who were shouting slogans against globalization, Zionism, and Israeli and American imperialisms, came complete with wirelessly connected laptops, urging passersby and customers to join their revolutionary website. As they must have been upset at the sight of bourgeois customers with their Starbucks mugs, and as if indoctrination was not enough, they’ve aggressively begun drawing the Star of David on the tables, accusing Starbucks (and indirectly its customers) of “complicity” with the Israeli aggression in Ghazza. In my time as student—and that was a long time ago—the target used to be Pan Am, and that honor soon shifted to MacDonald in the 1980s, and now we’re into the Starbucks era. Obviously, progress is always somewhere around the corner.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Stripping Ghazza from its ideological extremes

The July–August 2006 war against the Hezbollah is widely perceived to have been a total failure: poorly prepared and improvised as a reaction to the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, the war has been subjected to lots of criticisms inside Israel, in addition to several internal army investigations, all of which made the now-exiting prime minister Ehud Olmert widely unpopular. Yet, since the end of that ill-fated war, and since beefing up the UN forces (known as UNIFIL) on the Lebanese–Israeli border, the border has been relatively quiet. Not only there hasn't been much “resistance” activity, but better still, the Hezbollah has been denying any “involvement” or wrongdoing whenever a rocket or two would hit the north of Israel. A sign perhaps that the 2006 war may not have been a futile failure after all. But the main question that lurks is the following: is the Hezbollah getting domesticated in internal Lebanese, regional, and international politics? The question is important for several reasons. First of all, since 1982 Israel has been fighting mini-wars without a clear win or lose situation. In 1982 Israel forced the PLO out of Lebanon, then had to go through two successive intifadas in its own occupied territories, and by the early 1990s, when the Lebanese civil war was technically over, the Hezbollah had by that time matured into a formidable foe, forcing the Israelis to withdraw humiliated in the early summer of 2000. In all such events Israel was far from the neat wars it fought with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria since its existence as an independent nation-state, subjecting Arab states and armies to clear defeats in 1948–49, 1956, 1967, and 1973. The so-called extremist groups and organizations à la Hamas and Hezbollah have lots of popular support at home and across the Muslim world, are financially backed by the Iranian mullahs, and benefit from the unpopularity of the Arab states and their dismal policies and economies. Can they be sucked into “war” situations and “defeated”? Or is their evolution purely “internal,” that is exclusively bound in the final analysis to their home constituencies? In the latter situation one has to expect a slow evolution of such groups to internally contain their violence, amid failures of the modern nation-state across the eastern Mediterranean (and elsewhere).

Such questions have resurfaced in the last two weeks amid the massive Israeli operation against Hamas in the Ghazza strip: could Hamas be defeated? Can such nonstate micro–jihadic groups be defeated?

All societies have to domesticate their own violence in order to survive. In many ways, politics is a process of violence distribution, which in the modern world implies empowering the state through its monopoly over violence. If violence has to be channelled through the agency of the state, then all groups and factions in society have to subdue to that kind of channelling, refraining from anything on their own. When, for instance, the Hezbollah decides unilaterally on its own to kidnap soldiers on the Israeli border, it broke that sacrosanct rule of violence channelled through the agency of the state. In effect, Israel’s problem is that it has to periodically endure that violence on its borders precisely because its neighbors are unable to control it internally.

To understand such a phenomenon, simply go through some of the statements of the Hezbollah leadership and some of their Palestinian and Iranian friends in the last week. In his speech celebrating the martyrdom of Ashura, the Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah claimed that “all possibilities remain open.” Now that the Hezbollah has been—at least temporarily, if not permanently—disabled as a war machine on the Israeli border, in spite of successfully recovering from the 2006 war, it has to keep up the ante through speech and immaculate conception. Thus, we’re told in that same speech by Nasrallah that among the “possibilities” is to “never let the armed struggle of the resistance die down.” In case you’ve wondered why the Hezbollah has been rich in discourse in the last two weeks, but inactive militarily, here is an encouraging answer: “We still do not know the size of the project and its prospects, as well as the size of those involved in it.” The “project” in question must be the assault on Ghazza: is it only a facade to something much “deeper,” like an imperialistic plan for the region as a whole? The Hezbollah while procrastinating on such an ontological issue is keeping its options open. Addressing himself directly to Olmert, Nasrallah said that “the July 2006 war would look like a promenade compared to what we’ve been preparing for the Israelis in the near future.” Which should de facto imply that such a “new war,” assuming it ever concretizes, would be even more destructive and costlier than the previous ones, for both Israelis and Lebanese, one has to assume. But do the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah think in terms of economic costs at all? Is there an economic rationale that would reason in terms of the economic prosperity of their “base”? One thing about such extremist groups is that they tend to operate through a double “base”: one that is internal, for instance, the majority of the Shia in Lebanon, or the Palestinians of the Ghazza strip, while the other is universal and cosmopolitan. In the end, it’s the internal one that matters, even as the two do resonate in tandem most of the time. The other aspect is that of religious ideology: “Faced with all such provocations, we need to receive our inspiration from the spirit of Hussein...and his love for martyrdom. We’re ready to give ourselves and our spirits...and our our brothers, sons, and our beloved ones the martyrs for the sake of what we believe in.” And Nasrallah added in that same martyrdom speech: “We’re not afraid of your planes and threats…We’re ready for all possibilities and ready for every attack.” Now that it’s all about rhetoric, and rhetoric is by definition cheap, Nasrallah is “amazed” that among Lebanese officials there wasn’t much that matched his own rhetoric: “I would have liked among all the voices from Lebanon which served to appease the Israelis, or the intermediaries with Israel, regarding the borders with Israel, to have heard one single voice responding to Israeli threats against Lebanon and the Hezbollah.” Notice how Lebanon and the Hezbollah are two separate entities, the former protected by its national army, while the latter by its own militia. But the question that begs itself here is why did the Hezbollah, in the last two weeks, opt for rhetoric—and only rhetoric? Why that kind of rhetorical language when, as Nasrallah himself stated in that very same speech that “the Zionists are slaughtering our people (ahl) in Ghazza and threatening our people in Lebanon”? Why not go into action, since Nasrallah is so much adamant about the fate of his “people”? Notice how people is used as a generic term for “ahl,” rather than society or culture. But since we’re into rhetoric let’s go even further. We’re now into a full critique of “the Arab governments,” understood as separate entities from their “people,” due to a lack of cohesiveness between “people” and “leadership” (both Hamas and the Hezbollah provide counter-examples to the Arab anomalies), and to “the ruler of Egypt” in particular for remaining idle all that time, and for sewing relationships and normalizing relations with the Zionist state. All that must be stopped, shouts Nasrallah to the crowd of the martyrdom of Hussein.

Similar revolutionary calls for “liberation” came from other sources all over the Arab and Islamic worlds. The Palestinian Ahmad Jibril, known for his radical stance within “the popular front for the liberation of Palestine—general command,” urged for “the opening of all fronts, beginning with the Golan Heights.” When questioned on the missiles that were fired from Lebanon, with fingers pointing at the “general command” (with a Hezbollah benediction?), Jibril retorted that “we, Iran, and Syria are all in the same trench.” The ex-leader of the Iranian “revolutionary guards” urged Syria to mass its troops on the Golan to force Israel withdraw its forces from Ghazza, speculating at the same time that “if Hamas manages to take as hostage 20 Israeli soldiers victory would be on its side.” Others spoke of “cloning” the Lebanese 2006 experience into Ghazza right now.

Where does this language of perpetual never-ending trenches, martyrdom, hostages, provocation, and revolution to victory come from? That would need a long détour, for which I’m not yet prepared. What we know for sure is revolutionaries and their semantics of affection for the “people” have still a long way to go.