As someone who has spent much of his life writing and reading, and often writing directly or indirectly about politics, I’ve often had doubts about the role of writers and how relevant and useful we actually are, about the extent to which writing actually contrbutes to bringing about social and political change, and the extent to which writers are even relevant at all.
Obviously I don’t think we are irrelevant, or it would have been rather foolish and even masochistic to spend so much time on an activity that I considered either pointless or relevant only to myself.
That said, I like to hold onto my doubts, because I think doubt is a useful quality for writers. Doubting means that you constantly question yourself, and subjecting also the written word to constant scrutiny can help writers take a realistic view of what writing can actually achieve politically, and prevent us from exaggerating our own importance.
They can also prevent us from making stupid statements, such as those in the open letter to the Guardian today, expressing support for a new organization calling itself Culture for Coexistence, which opposes the cultural boycott of Israel.
No one will be surprised to find the likes of Niall Ferguson, Eric Pickles, Toby Young and Maureen Lipmann among the 150 signatories. But the list of names also includes a number of ‘star authors’ including Hilary Mantel, Fay Weldon, JK Rowling and Linda Grant, all of whom oppose attempts to ‘culturally boycott Israel’ on the grounds that:
‘While we may not all share the same views on the policies of the Israeli government, we all share a desire for peaceful coexistence. Cultural boycotts singling out Israel are divisive and discriminatory, and will not further peace. Open dialogue and interaction promote greater understanding and mutual acceptance, and it is through such understanding and acceptance that movement can be made towards a resolution of the confict.’
Where to begin with the utter fakeness of these uplifting sentiments? First of all, there is the usual suggestion that there is some kind of mutuality in the Israeli-Palestinian ‘conflict’ – a suggestion that completely ignores the fact that one side in the ‘conflict’ is engaging in an oppressive, brutal and illegal occupation, and has been appropriating even greater slices of Palestinian land even while ‘open dialogue’ as been ongoing under the cover of the fraudulent Oslo peace process.
Then there is the notion that the occupation itself is somehow due to a lack of ‘understanding and mutual acceptance’, when it is obvious that Israel understands very well what it is doing and that no amount of dialogue will change a balance of power which is not based on communication between equals, but between occupier and occupied.
And as for ‘discriminatory’, well that’s the point of boycotts: you discriminate against the oppressor in the hope that by doing so you can bring that oppression to an end. That’s why the anti-apartheid movement called for sanctions against South Africa, not South Africa and the ANC.
So far we are dealing with the kind of talk that we would expect to find by an organization that is filled with Israel-firsters and and members of Conservative Friends of Israel. But then the letter closes with this:
‘ Cultural engagement builds bridges, nurtures freedom and positive movement for change. We wholly endorse encouraging such a powerful tool for change rather than boycotting its use.’
Excuse me if I don’t sing kumbaya at this point, but reach for my metaphorical revolver instead. And it isn’t only because someone like Eric Pickles knows about as much about ‘cultural engagement’ as I know about astrophysics. I read a lot and go to the movies and the theatre (less frequently). I love music and art and all the other stuff that we call ‘culture’ and I couldn’t imagine life without any of these things.
But I totally reject the idea that ‘culture’ has some unique and universal ability to promote ‘change’ and that it should therefore require some special exemption from any boycott of Israel.
Of course many of the signatories to this letter don’t want any boycott at all, and are clearly using ‘culture’ as a pretext to undermine and counter the BDS movement, but I suspect that some of the ‘star authors’ who signed this letter really believe that their books – and books in general- have some special ability to promote ‘change’ and ‘dialogue’, because some writers are prone to this kind of egocentricity and cling onto the belief that culture can always reach the parts other human activities cannot reach and resolve political conflicts that require poltical action and political resolutions.
They are fools for believing this, and they are also useful fools, who have allowed themselves to be used by people who have no interest in change or dialogue or even coexistence, but wish only to perpetuate Israel’s domination of the Palestinians and oppose any international attempts to put serious pressure on a state that has taken its impunity for granted for far too long.