O glorious strength
Put to the labour of a Beast, debas’t
Lower then bondslave! Promise was that I
Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver;
Ask for this great Deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves,
Himself in bonds under Philistian yoke
John Milton, Samson Agonistes (1671)
July 29, Saturday, 4-5 p.m., a day before the Herod-like massacre of Israeli airstrike on a Qana village in south Lebanon that murdered 56 people, almost all of them women and children, we mill at the corner of Sylvania and Talmadge, a frequent antiwar demo site in Toledo, OH. Behind us is Franklin Park Mall, whose newly minted Border’s Bookstore had driven our only independent bookstore Thackery’s out of business last year (the municipal developers have recently bulldozed Westgate, the very shopping plaza where Thackery’s used to in order to make way for Costco whose demand for a living wage waiver the city council unhesitatingly sanctioned by overriding the mayor’s veto in April). Across the street is a BP station. The heat fumes from the pavement with a heat index of about 100 degrees.
Approximately a hundred people, mostly from the city’s Arab-American community, are lined up on the streets holding signs, circulating free bottles of water and soft drinks, and amiably conversing among each other. Almost nobody from the local peace group Northwest Ohio Coalition of Peace is present. NWOCP, a mixed group that includes liberal Zionist sympathizers, have not even issued a statement condemning US-backed Israeli acts of blatant state terrorism in Gaza and Lebanon.
Last Friday (July 21), after a downtown demo with an even bigger show of force, apparently the local TV media felt it necessary to kowtow to the pressure of local Jewish organization to offer them equal time to rebut the views of the demonstrators. As Israel called up 3000 reservists and its warning forced thousands of villagers in south Lebanon to become refugees, United Jewish Council of Greater Toledo chief executive officer Joel Beren raved like an impetuous advisor to the pre-Exodus Pharaoh facing the revolt of Mosaic slaves: “If they (the protesters) think that the world is fooled by their misrepresentation of facts, then they are the ones who are fooled.”
Similar pressures for “equal time” were exerted last year when Prof. Norman G. Finkelstein came to speak at the University of Toledo campus on Sept. 29 as part of the Engaged History lecture series. The UJCGT reps showed up with boxes crammed with free copies of Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel, demanding equal time to browbeat Finkelstein’s rigorous arguments concerning the institutionalized human rights abuses of Israeli colonialist policies against the Palestinians. Prof. Finkelstein rightly refused (“why should I give up my time when all the invited speakers on this lecture series are not required to do the same?”), offering to participate in a public debate with any speaker of UJCGT’s choosing even if the latter supplied him with nothing more than an airfare to travel to Toledo. To my knowledge, the UJCGT has not dared to take up this generous offer on Dr. Finkelstein’s part, perhaps fearing a severely irreparable public humiliation that would expose their position, at least on matters of Israeli colonialism, as fraudulent propaganda not worth the paper on which Dershowitz has printed his plagiarized, most likely ghostwritten lies.
I stand with a sign that says “stop the killing of children in Lebanon” (I didn’t write the sign; I just picked one that was readily available from those scattered on the ground), smoking and watching the overwhelmingly supportive thumbs-up and peace signs from passing cars, their friendly honking reciprocated with lighthearted hand-waves and cheering from our ranks.
Brian and Steve, two local anarchists, show up. Brian, his neck wrapped with keffiyeh, gives me a lowdown on the Friday demo, which I didn’t make it to.
“Some older, conservative members of the Middle Eastern community wanted Kelly to take down a ripped upside-down American flag with an anarchist circle-A scrawled on top of it, but she said, no, she had as much right to hold that up as those with more reformist signs at the demo. Yeah, and, actually, the younger, more militant Arab-American kids defended her and told the older objectioners to mind their business. It reminded me of what happened four years ago at a Palestine peace rally at Promenade Park when a Republican Clerk of Courts Maggie Thurber was on stage and doing her pre-Lucas-County-Commissioner election spiel to the demonstrators when some people made a man take down a detourned Israeli flag that had a swastika in place of a Star of David. And I remember how I found that a little disturbing, that they’d allow a Republican political hack to talk to us while curbing this man’s dissenting voice…”
Amjad, lifelong peace and justice activist, Media Decompression Collective member, and local impresario of independent music (his online Bebop Records is a treasure-trove of hard-to-find killer materials for the diehard popular music connoisseur), is listening.
He interrupts, “Well, Brian, I see what you’re saying but I can also see why some of the demonstrators would respond the way they did. They consider themselves upstanding members of the Toledo community and want to work through legal and official channels, you know, like through Marcy Kaptur’s office. Although I personally think that’s a waste of time, I also feel it’s important for us to create a broad base of opposition first before we start alienating people with intensely confrontational expressions of our particular views, so that we don’t end up just talking to a small choir of the same old people.”
I chime in, “But shouldn’t such discussions and arguments be there from the outset as we find ourselves in places like this? I mean, all of us know that these demos are going to have virtually no effect on ruling-class policy, including in Toledo. It always seemed to me that the whole point of these demos is instead to talk, discuss, and even argue, if needs be, with people you wouldn’t otherwise talk to. Last Thursday, I went to a small Ann Arbor demo near the corner of Fourth and Liberty, near the downtown post office — apparently they’ve been doing this every day for several months now — and Peter told me that going to these things is analogous to going to a generator and getting your political energy recharged, sparking heat and energy of shared ideas, thoughts, and … ”
A driver in a pickup truck waiting for the light to change turns to us, shouting inaudible epithets and giving us the finger with both of his hands.
I smile back, tempted to jump into the street and, doing my best Cassius Clay footwork and shadow-boxing, half-jokingly shout, “Hey, motherfucka!, I’ll take you down any time, any day! You might kick my goddamn ass but I’ll still give you the beating of a lifetime!” But, wanting to neither dump my lit cig nor look like a testosterone-frenzied schmuck, I think the better of it and keep my mouth shut, just smiling and exhaling smoke.
Carrying a homemade sign that declaims “Stop US Imperialist Aid to Israeli Terrorism”, Al, the non-AFL-CIO-affiliated leftwing UE organizer, has arrived and is telling us about his upcoming trip to Greece, mostly in its northern parts. I ask him about the ethnic composition of northern Greece and he tells me about the nationalist insecurity among some of the non-Greek minorities, the perilous lies of Greek nationalism that some of the latter feel pressured to accommodate.
“I mean, the origins of the city-state, for example, is not unique to ancient Greece and, even as some Greeks may vehemently deny it. Greek culture generally contains many hybrid elements not unique to itself, such as Turkish, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Egyptian”
“Yeah, black Athena!” I interject.
Brian: “Well, I’m against the whole of urban civilization. I think civilization, including industrialism, is the root of the problem and we should get rid of it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, look at these SUVs and cars guzzling up oil for blood and destroying the environment in the process. I don’t think they should even be making automobiles. We have to destroy the very industries that produce them..”
Steve: “Or what about MacDonald’s? What’s the point of running MacDonald’s on the basis of worker’s control? Mass-manufactured processed fast food that fucks up health and the environment I don’t think should be even allowed to exist.”
Al leans in, “Well, I agree with you that MacDonald’s food is awful and shouldn’t exist after the revolution but, if there are workers there who’re struggling to organize a union, you can bet your ass I’d unhesitatingly support them. That’s the basic ethic of class solidarity. Besides, what about the Paris Commune, which is a product of urban civilization, and Kronstadt Uprising, a product of seafaring civilization?”
Steve: “Sure, sure, I support workers’ rights too but all I’m saying is, that’s not enough. You have to bust the machine at its foundation, you have to blow up the factory. And I’m sure the Parisian Communards would’ve preferred getting rid of the city and the Kronstadt sailors the ship if they had the choice.”
Brian: “See, I think class is important but there are other issues like gender and the environment that are equally as important. I mean, so what if workers organize into a union if that union turns into a bureaucratic appendage of corporations and only greases the wheel of business as usual? There are other ways of organizing life, like among the hunter-gatherer society and indigenous people. The problem is civilization.”
I start to pontificate, “Well, the discourse of ‘civilization’ is a fairly recent one, dating from the eighteenth century. It comes from the Lowland Scottish intellectuals like Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, John Millar, who established this modern association of civilization with commercial development and capitalist private property. Why? To enclose the lands of indigenous, including those of the clan-based communal land system of the Highlanders. Of course, expropriation and exploitation existed before that but their rationalization was not premised on the ideology of ‘civilization’ in the modern sense, they were justified on religious or tribal or ethnic or proto-nationalist grounds”
“But that’s just semantics, though, and I don’t care about that. I don’t care if you call indigenous culture ‘civilization’ alongside of industrialism. I’m not interested in such language-game”
“Dude, that’s not what I said! I didn’t say that we should simply redefine the term ‘civilization’ in a more multiculturally egalitarian fashion. That’s not my point at all. My point is that the idea of ‘civilization’ as the highest good, as better than the barbarism of the Highlanders or the savagery of the American Indians or African commoners or Palestinian peasants tending their olive gardens, is an idea that comes straight out of historical capitalism, its systemic need to expropriate the land and force the expropriated population into a new class of workers for capital or, if this isn’t possible, exterminate them. This is the logic of capitalism and that’s why the environment, gender, city life, everything that we do under this ‘civilization’ have everything to do with the class struggle, everything.”
“But what about the indigenous? How are they part of the class struggle when they’re living outside of capitalism?”
“Because they face the capitalist enclosers and developers, because, in order to preserve their traditional way of life, they have to struggle against capital. That’s nothing if not the class struggle. You can’t wish away consumerist, urban and industrial civilization any more than you can wish away the indigenous commons. Just as the indigenous commoners have their struggles to wage, we have our own struggles to wage in this goddamn civilization and non-hierarchically linking such struggles is what”
Amjad looks at his watch and announces to us that he is going to record James Longley’s 2002 documentary on Gaza off of Link TV and we’re welcome to come over and check it out. Amjad’s wife Afaf, visiting her family in Gaza, is now trapped in the besieged city and can’t come back because of the Israeli border shutdown. One of Afaf’s family members has an olive garden with fig trees and the IDF bulldozed it last week.
“There’s nothing to do but wait, it’s just a waiting game,” Amjad’s unvarnished tone is sobering.
I glance sideways and see a police car sidling up, an officer speaking into the scanner receiver. Steve seamlessly spins around to avoid being seen, an instinctive gesture of self-defense (he’s a professional mixed martial-arts fighter). A professor from the UT History Department approaches us, telling us how impressed he is with the turnout, and somebody informs him that the local news media underreported the few hundreds at last week’s demo as only dozens.
“Yeah and they’ll say today that there were only the six of us!”
As I’m about to leave, a minor fracas is about to develop: an older gentleman points to a man on the other end of the demo and angrily says he’s holding a pro-Zionist sign. We, the self-appointed mediators, go to confront him. The sign under contention actually says: “Wake up! Get out of bed with Israel!” O.K., none of us thinks this means a clarion call for the U.S. to jump out of bed and go on a romantic rendezvous with Israel but, rather, to leave the collusive bed in which it sleeps with, indeed supplies virtually all of the arms and political legitimacy to, its Middle Eastern watchdog concubine. Al goes to tell the irate man but he’s not persuaded. Bad grammar is already causing dissension among us. Beware of language-games!
I turn and, next to the guy with this controversially misinterpreted sexual-innuendo sign, I see another dude with a sign that declares: “God doesn’t bomb people!”
“Is that true?”
“That God doesn’t bomb people,” thinking of the jealously avenging Yahweh of the ancient Israelites who had a bizarrely ethnocentric taste for genocide.
“So far, yeah, so far.”
“Does God even exist?”
I walk away, not sure of either.
MANUEL YANG can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org