Masochism or emancipation? Pinkwashing, resistance and solidarity with Gaza

This week, our colleague Karl Kraus looks at the strange tendency of a considerable number of ultra-progressive, even revolutionary, activists to defend movements whose stated aim is to destroy them. Read about talking chickens, Queers for Palestine, lying and perfidious Jews, pinkwashing and the new concept of an old-fashioned avant-garde.


Alexander Rodchenko, extract from his poster Promotional poster for Rezinotrest, 1923, wikiart


An attentive reader of Roberto Bolaño’s monumental novel, 2666, will recall an episode towards the end where, in one of the dystopias that the book spins out, a young boy is abducted by aliens and dropped off in New York, where he meets a jazz musician. The musician tells him about “talking and probably thinking chickens” intelligent enough to rule the world. “The worst thing of all”, the musician told him, “is that the governments of the world know this very well, and that’s why there are so many chicken farms. The young boy objects that chickens are bred to be eaten. The musician replies that this is exactly what the chickens want. And he concludes by saying: Fucking masochistic chickens, they’ve got our leaders by the balls”.

Is the musician himself one of these chickens? A metonymy? Is he speaking on their behalf, expressing precisely the kind of omnipotence fantasy that drives the true masochist, the one who lives for being hurt while enjoying the idea that the person inflicting the pain would be nothing without the person experiencing it? Literary exegesis is of little importance here, the fact is that Bolaño, with the genius proper to great poets, captures in this little playlet the curious world of the masochist. It is true that suffering is being inflicted on him. But the fact that it is inflicted proves that it is the masochist who has got his torturer by the balls. The intense pleasure that the true masochist draws from his pain stems entirely from this conviction: the one who enjoys doing harm would be powerless without the one who suffers it and groans under the blows. So it’s the tormented one who actually holds all the power.

This feeling of power, which is part and parcel of the suffering being experienced, is the only somewhat rational explanation that can be found for the behaviour of certain factions of sexual minorities across the globe: Queers for Palestine, Gays for Gaza, Sexworkers support a free Palestine, Black Lesbians for Free Palestine – all slogans (and the list is far from complete) that leave anyone with the slightest knowledge of the real living conditions of non-heterosexual minorities in Gaza, but also in the West Bank, dumbfounded. Feminists, for their part, are not lacking in their support for the cause ( without saying a word either about the condition of women in Palestine or about the rape of Israeli women and girls by the valiant fighters of the “Palestinian resistance”.

Fortunately, there are a number of justifications for this astonishing solidarity with those who lock up, or even simply kill, members of sexual minorities, keep their own women under a heavy yoke, and rape, sometimes to death, those of the ‘Zionist enemy’, on the part of those who constantly defend these minorities and women in the West. The first is given by Judith Butler, the leading light of the radical feminist and queer movements. The argument is worth summarising: Hamas is a resistance movement; as such, it is merely reacting to the violence that originated in Israel 75 years ago. It is therefore hypocritical and politically harmful to say that the violence of Hamas is barbaric and that of Israel legitimate. This is all the more true because at the moment this violence by the “Zionists” – Butler insists on saying “Zionists” and never “Israelis” – is aimed at civilians. Since civilians are being targeted, we have to speak of genocide in Gaza.

Everything is factually wrong in this argument, which calls for the expulsion, to say the least, of the Israelis from Palestine. But let’s try to understand how it works, since Butler is a world-renowned intellectual whose influence is still growing. This first line of justification for solidarity with a political regime that would normally be pilloried by someone like Butler and her followers is a movement in support of a liberation struggle. Israel is an imperialist and colonial force – which is why the state of Israel is never named, but only referred to as ‘Zionists’ – that must be driven from the land of Palestine. This liberation struggle takes precedence over all other struggles. Marxism in the 1960s had a word for this position, which at the time was precisely supposed to silence the emancipatory demands of working-class women: “principal contradiction”. The theory was that class society alone was the basis of all inequalities, and that the condition of women (a secondary contradiction) would be resolved naturally after the revolution. So, please be patient…

Judith Butler, who has never been particularly interested in exploitation or the poor in her own country, precisely because she argues that the condition of women, homosexuals and queers is not secondary and must be thought of independently of the ‘social question’, seems to believe that when it comes to Palestine, on the other hand, we must temporarily sacrifice women, homosexuals and gender minorities, because everything will be better after Palestine is liberated anyway. Just as the Communist Party of the 1960s theorised the inferior condition of women, including in the workers’ movement, as a consequence of the capitalist system and thus made it a subject not to be dealt with here and now, Butler theorises the hatred of sexual minorities and the situation of Palestinian women as caused by the Zionist occupier. Logically, we should not deal with them here and now, but support the struggle for liberation at all costs. Let’s all cheer for the artist who, by drawing inspiration from a way of thinking that has been out of date for over fifty years, has created a new category of intellectual: that of the old-fashioned avant-garde.

However, there is a second line of justification for such solidarity. It is based on a much more complicated fantasy. Not that of Israel as the cause of every inhuman act the Palestinians can commit, but that of a perfidious Israel. Perfidia judaïca, as ever, but this time in a new guise. Here, it is argued that the absolute freedom and rights granted to sexual and gender minorities in Israel, as well as the total equality between men and women in Israeli civil society, are merely a devious strategy by the “Zionist entity” to divert the attention of global emancipation movements from what it is inflicting on the Palestinians. Just as other emancipatory movements accuse multinational corporates of “greenwashing” when they over-publicise their poor environmental protection measures, the vanguard – this time the least old-fashioned – of the emancipatory movements of sexual and gender minorities, in collaboration with a certain branch of feminism, declare that Israel’s policy in their favour is nothing more than “pinkwashing”.

The idea is that Israel paints itself pink to camouflage the bloodstains that cover its entire existence since 1948. In neon pink we presume, otherwise the colour would be particularly ill-chosen to cover such dark stains… Anyway, what they are saying is that if women and LGBT+ people enjoy full rights in Israel, it is certainly not because Israel is a democratic state under the rule of law. Not at all. If they are granted these rights, it is only to lure the international LGBT+ and feminist community into falling into the trap of Jewish perfidy and forgetting the fate of other victims of injustice. “You don’t hurt me, you must be a bastard” seems to be the hard (or twisted) thinking behind this form of denunciation of Israel.

Here is a line of the solidarity shown with Gaza and its political regime that really does come close to the structure of masochism – whereas Butler’s argument is more a case of the typical narcissism of the well-established and well-off American academic, convinced that it is her who decides what is true and what is not, whatever the cost in terms of coherence of thought. The ‘pinkwashing’ argument is more curious, and therefore interesting.

Its masochistic structure gives it a twist that allows for a renewal of the accusation of perfidy today. Superficially, one might think that this masochism can be summed up in a preference for the one who guarantees, in no uncertain terms, the mistreatment of sexual minorities and women, and not only Israeli women when its fighters manage to make them their prey, namely the political regime in Gaza. For a simple-minded masochist, this must be a reassuring option. But why accompany the expression of this perfectly legitimate personal preference with a ferocious hatred of the democratic rule of law? Why suspect him of double-dealing and perfidy in order to legitimise his preference for those who do harm? Quite simply because that’s precisely the point. Solidarity with Gaza, or even Palestine, is of no interest whatsoever to these emancipation movements. What really happens there is basically irrelevant to them. The passion that drives them is to uncover the perfidy, the double-dealing, the deception that, in truth, lies at the foundation of all democratic societies. This quest for truth cannot fail to focus on the greatest liars of all time: the Jews.

There is in fact a political pathology of our time. It’s as if some of these emancipation movements no longer know what to do once their fight for rights has been successful. Of course, for a time, one can and must continue to fight against a society that, in its inward-looking attitudes, continues to discriminate against sexual minorities, while the State, i.e. the legislation that has succeeded in respecting the freedom and equality of individuals, no longer does so. But what can be done when society itself has become tolerant, even welcoming, in this respect, as is the case in Israel? What can you do when nobody wants to hurt you anymore, and when suffering is no longer a sign of power, because nobody wants to make you suffer any more? Remember, the masochist does not enjoy his suffering, but the power that comes from being the object of a violence that the other absolutely wants to exercise. When the other no longer cares about causing pain, the suffering disappears, of course, but so does the feeling of power.

Isn’t this what part of the vanguard of emancipation movements yearns for? Of that place where the other absolutely wants to hurt, and where you get him “by the balls” because you are the object of his irrepressible violent impulse? Accusing Israel of “pinkwashing” is nothing more than objecting to this society that we don’t believe it, that we know its darkest instincts, and that, armed with this knowledge, we haven’t lost our omnipotence just because we have rights and are no longer discriminated? Unconditional solidarity with the Palestinian cause is an opportunity to find a practical way out. What else is there, in fact, than trying to put oneself once again in the place of that hated object without which the other cannot live, breathe or come to pleasure?

What is frightening about this solidarity is not that those who express it claim to be loyal to their real persecutors – at that level, we are dealing with nothing more than stupidity, and stupidity dismays, but does not frighten. It’s rather that certain advanced emancipation movements, the proclaimed vanguard, as soon as the groups for which they are fighting are equal before the law, are radically incapable of committing themselves to the progress of justice for the global society of which they are now a full part. They prefer to put all their energies into occupying the place of the mistreated object, wherever they are given the opportunity to do so; that they prefer, comfortably installed in their rich and democratic societies, from campuses whose admission fees far exceed the lifetime wage of a Palestinian from the territories, to identify themselves imaginatively with the latter, perceived exclusively as suffering objects, and above all never as real political subjects and actors. Enjoying the idea that they got the world ‘by the balls’ by resolutely siding with those who suffer at the hands of someone who cannot live without doing harm is what they prefer to thinking about a common world that might be fairer than it is – especially, undoubtedly, for the real Palestinians.

As for the question of what kind of conviction is behind the idea that the Jews, perfidious as they are, cannot live without making someone suffer, the astute reader will certainly be able to name it.

Karl Kraus

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