For a psycho-social analysis of the Trump election, see W. J. T. MItchell’s lecture, “American Psychosis,” delivered at the University of Geneva on January 18, 2017.
Category Archives: WJT Report
John Berger, one of the great critics and essayists of our time, passed away on 2 January 2017, at the age of ninety. Building on the legacy of Walter Benjamin, Berger’s work transcended disciplinary categories, ranging over politics, aesthetics, media, art history, and everyday life. A master of the plain style, Berger delighted in puncturing the illusions of high-toned modernist aesthetes and elitist art historians. He pioneered the broad approach to the visual arts and media now known to us as “visual culture” or “visual studies.” His most famous book, Ways of Seeing, which was also an award-winning BBC series, provides a glimpse of his acerbic, iconoclastic wit. His essay on Palestinian daily life, “Undefeated Despair,” graced the pages of Critical Inquiry’s Summer 2006 issue, with a cover photo showing the eighty-year-old Berger walking with his granddaughter in the shadow of Israel’s security wall. We post the essay here as a reminder of his legacy.
W. J. T. Mitchell
Can I just say that I am sick and tired of hearing liberals and leftists beating their breasts about how they failed to empathize sufficiently with the white working class in this country? How terrible that we failed to feel their pain, to go out into their dying towns and promise to bring their lives back along with their dead-end jobs mining coal. Shouldn’t Hillary have spent more time in the white suburbs of Milwaukee? Shouldn’t we all give up our city jobs and take up farming or automobile maintenance? Shouldn’t we have nominated a man who feels the pain of hunters and sportsmen deprived of their assault weapons? Why can’t we seem to empathize with evangelists whose flexible moral code includes a tolerance for pussy-grabbing, race-baiting bigotry and xenophobia (sorry for the big word), as long as it includes the sacred right to invade a woman’s body to save a potential American citizen? Could this be why we are so annoyed by pants suits?
Everyone who looks at the electoral map notes one striking pattern. This is about the country versus the city. How many cities (and the universities in them) are now declaring themselves “sanctuaries” for the ten million illegal immigrants who will, if Trump keeps his most fundamental promise, soon be rounded up by federal authorities, with the cooperation of local law enforcement? Sheriff Arpaio of Arizona, voted out of office in his home state, but soon to play a role in the Trump administration, has showed how local police can be used to enforce immigration laws with racial profiling and stop and frisk tactics. We have known about the danger of “driving while black” for some time. Soon we will find out what happens to those who are driving while Latino/a. And if cities like New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Chicago refuse to enlist their police forces in the immigrant roundup, Trump and his minions have threatened to cut off federal aid to cities. Suppose the cities defy this move, bite the bullet of a budget shortfall, and open up refugee camps for immigrants? What is Trump’s next move? As the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, he will find it perfectly logical to call in federal marshals or even the National Guard to enforce the law. At this point the wounded white folks out in the sticks will turn off their television sets so as not to witness the crowds of women and children, housemaids and students, teachers and carpenters, fruit pickers and restaurant workers being loaded onto busses. I presume the Trump team will have the good taste not to put them in cattle cars on trains heading for “temporary” detention camps. The imagery might not play well in rural sports bars when the NFL game is interrupted by an annoying news bulletin.
So please, all you liberals, leftists, hipsters, intellectuals, progressives, school teachers, and people who read something besides Twitter feeds, and watch something besides Fox News, stop apologizing for losing this election. Please remember that in fact Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. She was clearly over-qualified for the job and failed to bring her message down to the level that P. T. Barnum had in mind when he said that there’s a sucker born every minute. Before you assemble in a circular firing squad to put the blame on yourselves, take a moment to assign the blame where it belongs: on the idiots who voted for this man, and the hypocrites who are now kissing his ass and encouraging the rest of us to look in the mirror. Instead of the mirror, I recommend a panopticon of critical inquiry, led by a rebirth of vigilant investigative journalism, a mobilization of historical and cultural memory, and frequent reminders that the Constitution has other things in it besides the Second Amendment.
W. J. T. Mitchell
“History is a Nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” –James Joyce, Ulysses
“Insanity in individuals is somewhat rare. But in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.” –Nietzsche
“A single Athenian is a wily fox. A group of Athenians is a flock of sheep.” –Solon
“Every man, seen as an individual, is tolerably shrewd and sensible, see them in corpore, and you will instantly find a fool.” Schiller
“No one ever went broke underestimating the American public.” -P.T. Barnum
“You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” –Abraham Lincoln.
What Lincoln failed to add is, those are pretty good odds for the success of a determined and skilled con artist in the short run.
“We Palestinians love Trump because he is pure Americana. He shows the true face of the American character, and we feel it is important for the world to see that truth for what it is.”
–Conversations with Palestinians in the West Bank, May, 2016.
To which I replied: “That is easy for you to say in the safety of Palestine.”
The shocking election of Donald Trump reminds us that the real location of mental illness, whether it takes the form of anger or a melancholic sense of wounding and resentment, is primarily in the group, not the individual. We sometimes think that the paradigm of madness is to be found in the individual case. Nothing could be further from the truth. Paranoia is most effective when it is shared with others; nurtured in isolation, it shrivels up and dies. It is a long standing commonplace that human reason of the practical sort, the kind that involves the management of one’s own affairs generally prevails at the individual level. Even the famously psychotic Judge Schreber could perform complex feats of legal reasoning, and convince a court that he was capable of managing his own affairs. Reason also operates quite efficiently at the level of tactics and strategy, never more relentlessly than in warfare, the most dramatic form of collective madness known to our species. In politics, the supposedly peaceful sublimation of war, reason moves from the manipulation of weapons and destruction to the skillful manipulation of unreason; it deploys the ancient lessons of rhetoric as opposed to logic, of instrumental, egoistic reason as contrasted with wisdom or Kantian Enlightenment. Calculated appeals to emotion trump (you will forgive the pun) those of reason. The heart has reasons of its own, and it is the chief exercise of cynical, manipulative reason to understand the triggers that set off collective madness in the mass. See Kelly Ann Conway, Trump’s brilliant campaign manager, who showed us the power and “reasonableness” of wiliness, cunning, and clever rhetorical agility.
Trump’s campaign capitalized on all the dark forces in the electorate that lay below the threshold of opinion polls and their data bases, unreachable by rational arguments about policy solutions to shared problems, unembarrassed by transparent lies and demagoguery. Racism, misogyny, xenophobia, anxiety, resentment, paranoia, and a generalized hatred of elites, experts, and established institutions were all mobilized to produce a wave of collective passion seen in the crowds that chanted “lock her up,” and threatened violent revolution if the “rigged” election went against them.
Now that the election, and the frenzy that has swept the American public for the last 18 months, has passed over us, a strange, ambiguous calm will settle over the country. Everyone will urge us to “come together as a nation,” and to heal the wounds that have been opened. Even Trump will remind us that, at heart, he is just a negotiator who has no principles except “the art of the deal” that favors his perception of national interest. The madness, however, has simply gone underground, the wounds festering, leaving the American dream as always, only the blink of an eye removed from the nightmare of our history.
W. J. T. Mitchell
On 22 July 2016, I paid a visit to David Gilbert in Wende Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison not far from Buffalo, New York. The visit, arranged by one of David’s legal counselors, Cynthia Bowman, consisted of five hours of nonstop conversation on personal, political, and what can only be described as philosophical topics. From the moment we met, David impressed me with his marvelous sense of calm self-possession. He has a radiant smile, a resolute gaze, and an unbroken stream of humor, intelligence, ethical and political clarity without a trace of resentment. When he speaks, David has a habit of raising his hands above his head like an orator addressing an audience. But there is not a trace of pomposity in this gesture. It’s as if he is framing whatever he has to say (often modest and self-critical) in a moment of intense, deeply considered communication that is almost as arresting as his ideas and opinions.
David is serving a life sentence for “felony murder,” a uniquely American legal nicety that makes a person guilty of any murder committed during a felony (like robbery), regardless of whether one actually killed anyone, intended to hurt anyone, or was even carrying a weapon. David was involved in the famous robbery of a Brinks truck in Nyack, New York on 21 October 1981, an act of what he called “revolutionary expropriation” aimed at supplying financial support for the Black Revolutionary Army, a militant spin-off from the Black Panther Party. At his trial, David insisted on representing himself, refusing to recognize the authority of the court, and presenting himself as a political prisoner who should have been tried by an international court. As a result, he received the harshest possible sentence and (barring a pardon) is unlikely to leave prison in his lifetime.
At one point I asked David if there was anything good about being incarcerated in a maximum-security prison. He was able to think of two things. First, “you meet a lot of interesting people in here that you would never meet on the outside.” Second, being a convicted felon means that you don’t have to participate in the joyless decision of voting for Hillary Clinton instead of the awful Donald Trump. A third thing, which he didn’t mention, is that a life sentence is a very effective way of finding out who your true friends are, who will stick by you and work hard to make your life bearable by visiting as often as possible and keeping your existence visible to the outside world. Certainly Gilbert is a very unusual “lifer,” sustained by a network of friends, centrally the former leaders of the Weather Underground, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, who have raised David’s son, Chesa Boudin, since he was a baby.
When I asked David how he has learned to cope with the miserable conditions of imprisonment without hope for parole, he made a point of emphasizing this environment of love, loyalty, and friendship that has sustained him now for thirty-three years of prison life. In this respect, he is certainly not typical of the prison population, many of whom feel abandoned to a living death. Is this just because he is such a remarkable individual? Or because he has an unusually energetic group of friends, which now includes young political activists from Black Lives Matter and other groups who come to seek his counsel. Most surely it is the interplay between his personality, his political principles, and his excellent choice of friends. Inside Wende prison, which is all too typical in having a black male population of about 90 percent, he relies on the long-standing network of racial solidarity engendered by his work with the Black Panthers in the 1960s and 70s and his subsequent work inside prison. These comrades protect him from what could otherwise be a very dangerous environment for a slender Jewish guy who is now becoming a somewhat frail senior citizen. In 33 years in maximum security, David has never experienced a physical assault.
Another factor in David’s remarkable endurance has been his self-definition as a political prisoner, an identity that gives incarceration itself a meaning quite different from the usual self-image of criminals as losers and/or victims. There is no trace of self-pity in his conversation. And right alongside his relentlessly thorough self-criticism and acknowledgment of the terrible results of the crime he was involved in, there is a quiet, reflective sense of mindfulness, both in his relation to present circumstances and the conditions of everyday life, as well as the long arc of history to which he feels connected.
Perhaps the most interesting moment in our five-hour conversation was at the moment of parting. As the loudspeaker rang out orders to leave, David took a moment to give me some advice. “As a first time visitor to a maximum security prison, you will probably feel a kind of melancholy as you depart. This is a common reaction, and you should be prepared for it.” This made me want to stay for another hour, because I was already starting to feel exactly the emotion he was describing, which only grew stronger as we made our way through the numerous gates out to the car. But what is this feeling really about? Could it be the sense of massive injustice that weighs down on this gentle, wise soul in every moment of his waking life, and must haunt his dreams? Is it a version of “survivors guilt” at the contrast between my own freedom and his probably endless imprisonment? Could it be my own sense that I could never endure the kind of conditions he has not merely suffered but also transformed into the setting for a meaningful life? Whenever I try to imagine what it would mean to be locked up for so long in this ludicrously misnamed “correctional facility,” my heart sinks into a certainty that I would never be able to stand the daily humiliations amid a system that seems designed only to induce despair and a breaking of the spirit. A kind of blackness opens up in my imagination that only seems deeper and darker when I contrast it to the wonderful life, freedom, and work that I have been so lucky to have, and appreciate even more having met David. Or maybe it was just the strangeness of feeling that David Gilbert, a man who maintains his moral equipoise, political vision, and modest cheerfulness amidst conditions whose thought utterly terrifies me, was taking out a moment to comfort me.
 Since Gilbert is in a state prison, he cannot be pardoned by President Obama, but must depend upon the mercy of Governor Andrew Cuomo, an unlikely possibility.
W. J. T. Mitchell
One of the most notable developments at the 2016 Modern Language Association meeting in Austin, Texas could be glimpsed simply by looking at the program. There were no less than a dozen sessions devoted to the question of Palestine. Many of them were, of course, devoted to the movement known as BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction), which for the last ten years has been directed at Israel’s financial, agricultural, and military institutions and now includes academic and cultural institutions as well. Like the boycott of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, the BDS movement seems to be reaching a critical mass in its effect on professional organizations in the American academy. Already six associations, including the American Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the Association of Asian American Studies, and the Critical Ethnic Studies Association have endorsed the boycott, and it looks as if the American Anthropological Association and the National Women’s Studies Association may join the movement as well. This time next year the Modern Language Association will consider a resolution to endorse BDS.
This is a far cry from the days when Palestine was only a distant rumor at the MLA, with the voice of Edward Said crying in the wilderness. Today numerous scholars from many different disciplines are converging on the issue, using their considerable skills of research and analysis, not only to illuminate the oppressive conditions of Palestinian life in Israel, but also to bring Palestinian culture into a new prominence. The sessions at MLA ranged from discussions focused directly on BDS, to “Comparative State Racisms” and “Cross Racial Alliances,” to specific cases (the firing of Steven Salaita by University of Illinois) to discussions of Palestinian literature “beyond Darwish,” the famous national poet of Palestine. Particularly striking to me were the frank and open discussions of the complexities of joining a boycott that tries to distinguish between individuals and institutions, encouraging open dialogue and cooperation between scholars on all sides of the debate, while firmly condemning the complicity of Israel’s universities in the occupation and military subjugation of the Palestinians. It seemed clear to me that the discussion has now moved beyond a simple “for or against” rhetoric into a more nuanced debate over the internal struggles of BDS to refine its tactics and reach out to form a broader consensus. It was refreshing to hear detailed historical discussions of previous boycott movements, from the Civil Rights era to South Africa, and to give serious consideration to the precarious and often ambivalent moments that punctuate activist practices. One panelist critiqued what she called “teleopoetics,” the sense that the success of liberation movements is somehow guaranteed in advance, and that every choice of tactics is simple and straightforward.
As someone who has come late to BDS, after a long history of solidarity with progressive scholars and artists on both sides of the Green Line, it was reassuring to find that one can be critical of specific tactical decisions while remaining supportive of the fundamental goal of the boycott. It has struck me that the decision of BDS to boycott the West-East Divan, the musical organization founded by Said and Daniel Barenboim to foster exchanges between Palestinian and Israeli musicians, was a rather sad mistake. I understand the complaints that the Divan’s programmatic rationale contains familiar liberal clichés about “dialogue,” mutual understanding and the transcendent neutrality of the arts, but still, one wonders at what is to be gained by disrespecting an organization founded by Said and Barenboim to overcome the occupation and degradation of Palestinian lives. If there were ever a prime candidate for an exception, the West-East Divan would seem to qualify. (See the response to Mariam Said’s arguments in favor of the Divan in The Electronic Intifada.)
More generally, the ready-made distinction between individuals and institutions needs to be interrogated in more detail. If contemporary theory has taught us anything, it is that individual and collective identities are deeply interwoven by racial, national, gendered, professional, and political forms of belonging. Barenboim has been a Palestinian citizen for eight years (Haaretz, January 13, 2008). The fact that both Iran and Israel hate the idea of Barenboim conducting the Berlin Staatskappelle Orchestra in Tehran indicates to me that he is doing something right. When the militant mullahs, reactionaries, and racists start agreeing about who is not to be tolerated, I know where my instinctive sympathies belong.
So I have made my decision to join the BDS movement as a supportive critic who regards political movements, not as lock-step marches toward a single goal, but as internal and external struggles for moral and political clarity. As Said once put it, I want there to be a Palestinian state (or, as now seems to be inevitable, a pluri-national state called “Israel/Palestine” where everyone enjoys equal rights), so I can take up my proper role as a critic and attack it. Meanwhile, for those who are wavering about the rightness of the boycott, and want their questions answered in a straightforward fashion, I recommend the fact sheet focusing on the proposal for the MLA boycott.
I should mention, finally, that this is my personal decision and is not a matter of Critical Inquiry policy, which maintains its neutrality on the question of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
Further information on the Palestine sessions at the 2016 MLA may be found at: https://mlaboycott.wordpress.com/
The CI Blog welcomes other comments, information, and debates about the boycott.