There’s been a great deal of analysis written about German writer Gunther Grass’ now-infamous new poem, “What Must Be Said” (in which Grass criticized Israel’s nuclear program as endangering an “already fragile world peace.”) For me, the most astute response by far comes from Mideast historian Mark LeVine, writing in Al-Jazeera.
LeVine skillfully parses the psychology and the politics behind the uproar – but it is his identification of the larger context of the issue that resonates most powerfully for me. Here’s a long excerpt from a much longer article. The entire piece is well worth reading:
Israel has always sought to portray itself as a “normal” country, yet goes out of its way to ensure no one “names it” – to use Grass’ words – as what it is, a colonial state that every day intensifies its occupation of another people’s land. And so Grass has taken it upon himself to “say what must be said”, to name Israel as what it is, a “nuclear power” that “endangers the already fragile world peace”. It’s worth noting he doesn’t even mention the occupation, which is the far greater threat to world peace.
I have no idea if Grass really believed himself to be “bound” to Israel; if he did, we can imagine the bond is broken today, at least by Israel, now that he’s banned from returning. But Grass’ feelings are not what’s interesting or important. What’s important is the larger context, all the other “facts” which refuse to be accepted as “pronounced truths”.
These facts are that Israel, however egregious its crimes – and anyone who denies them is either completely ignorant or a moral idiot – is but one cog in a much larger global machine, one that includes too many other cases of occupation, exploitation, and wanton violence to list comprehensively here (we can name a few – Syria, China, Russia, India, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bahrain, Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka, the Congo, and of course, NATO and the United States – whose oppression, exploitation, and murder of their own or other peoples is a far more concrete “fact” than the potential for mass destruction caused by Israel’s nuclear programme)…
The larger fact is that the global economy is addicted to war, to militarism, oil and the rape of the planet for the minerals and resources that fuel the now globalised culture of hyperconsumption that will doom our descendants to a fate we dare not contemplate. Israel’s gluttony for Palestinian territory, and its willingness to encourage a regional nuclear arms race to keep it, is ultimately no different than the the gluttony for the 60-inch TV, the iPhone/Pad, the cavernous homes and cars, the ability to live at levels of consumption that are only sustainable if most of the world lives in poverty that increasingly defines all our cultures.
Israel has gotten Palestine on the cheap, and it costs relatively little to continue the occupation. Far less than it would cost to end it. So why bother? Especially when everyone else is doing, more or less, the same thing and, it’s clear, no one really cares anymore. Germany, whose remarkable economic stability in the recent global financial crisis is in good measure due to its central role in this global economy of hyper-consumption (think of all the energy and resources that go into making and driving all those fancy German cars), is certainly playing its role all too well.
If Grass is right that we must talk about the threat to world peace posed by Israel’s nuclear programme – and far more by its ongoing occupation – then we must also talk about the threat to global peace posed by the sick global system of which Israel is merely one of the more easily identifiable symptoms. Unlike my parents, I’m happy that Germans finally feel secure enough publicly to speak critically about Israel. But if they want their words to have a chance of bringing about a change in its behaviour, they, and everyone else, needs to broaden the discourse to include their own role in enabling and profiting from the system that Israel’s actions so benefits, and the global scope of the victims it daily produces.
Of course, this discourse would require a much longer and more complex poem, written by an even better poet than Grass. If someone manages to write it, I hope it will get the same publicity as “What Must Be Said”.
Brilliant article. I hope many will read this.
Capitalism requires ever more consumption. Any and every business, large or small, wants more product out the door tomorrow than today. Nuclear waste is only a small part of the toxic materials that are being either held in storage, pumped deep underground or released to the atmosphere. Mining is no longer tunneling and taking just the ore, it’s razing mountaintops or carving out huge open pits…everything is taken and then the unwanted dumped.
Environmentalism asks the opposite – to conserve, to preserve, to avoid unnecessary consumption of anything, to buy only the minimum needed, to value need and discount desire, to think of what will be needed tomorrow today. It opposes the lifeblood of capitalism – demand for its own sake.
Who can doubt our course into the future with this lopsided balance between what drives our economy on one hand and a practice which is largely the activity of a motivated few? Look only at the collapse of renewable power projects when the price of fossil fuels goes down. The values of environmentalism evaporate when energy is cheap.
If only a powerful poem could change our thinking!
When I see Katy Perry and Kim Kardashian give up materialism (dooming their careers) I will admit there is change in the wind. When I see a loss of interest in commercial television because people don’t like being shown things they don’t need, the millennium will have arrived.
But more likely we will continue in the manner Goethe described: from desire I reach satisfaction, from satisfaction I leap to desire. We’ve perfected the materializing of infinite human desire, as we scramble for the next “must have” item taken from a finite world that has only so much to give. We so long for the new thing to assuage our anxiety even momentarily. This general inability to attain peace of mind looks to be our undoing, far more powerful than any reasoning that can prove we are at the limits of what we can grab.
Easy to tell other people to give up consumption. In Mexico, for the first time, the majority of the population is now middle class. In diverse places like India, China, Indochina, eastern Europe and Latin American, millions of people people are being lifted out of poverty. More people than ever are living longer and healthier lives. So what is this Marxist non-sense quoted in the article that says “the ability to live at levels of consumption that are only sustainable if most of the world lives in poverty that increasingly defines all our cultures.”?
That is nonsense. What is this “poverty that increasingly defines our cultures”? Things are getting better and this is due to CAPITALIST FREE MARKETS. China and Indochina and the former Soviet Bloc only started progressing after they threw off the corrupt, repressive, stagnating socialist system. Same with Israel whose economy is now booming and whose previous sick, suffocating socialist system I witnessed first hand.
Socialism is only good at spreading the poverty around.
So Mark Levine wants everyone to go back to a system of shortage. Somebody with a lot of power will decide for the rest of us who is going to get what…and such a system automaticallly means those who are friends or relatives of those with the power to decide will get most of the goodies (called “proteksia” in Israel). Have “Big Brother” in the government run our lives “for our own good”, but ultimately they will end up taking everything for themselves, also in the name of the “public good”.
Will the emerging new economic powers be told that they should hold their populations back from economic growth because a bunch of neo-Marxists like Mark living in the the US or Western Europe have decided that it is not good for humanity for the poor of the world to be given the chance to catch up with the richer countries? Will they accept such a diktat?
This article is typical of the cynical, pessmistic thought I keep seeing coming out of the Left/Liberal/Progressive camp. People around the world in developing countries want to hear about how they can take advantage of new opportunities to improve their lives by using their talents in the global economic system instead of being told that they have to accept their current poverty because some “expert” thinks wrongly that the Earth’s ecosystem can’t accomdate their legitimate aspirations.
Malthus thought that human society would come to an end sometime in the 18th or 19th century due to “overpopulation”. Well, we are still are and progressing better than ever. Time to find new ways to imrpove everyone’s lives instead of having pessimists whining about how they think we are all doomed.