The day Netanyahu came to pay a visit to Athens, I stood with one of my grandsons in front of the Syntagma, the Greek Parliament building, watching the guards in their traditional costume performing the ritual of ‘changing the guards’. It was a day in August, in the midst of a heat wave and scorching hot. There were security police and soldiers everywhere. Many of them fully armed, wearing a combat suit. Only a few tourists (we were part of them and unaware of this show of force) braved the burning sun in order to take pictures of two soldiers performing a strange kind of ballet, which ended with a stiff pose in front of a memorial for the ‘agnostos stratiotis’, the ‘unknown soldier’.
At some distance on Syntagma Square (a traditional meeting place of demonstrators) some 50 people had gathered. They carried a worn and torn banner on which was written in English: ‘Palestine, we support you’.
The winds that always come late in the afternoon during hot summer days made the banner waver, so that it was difficult to read the message. And anyway, the banner looked as if was going to fall to pieces at any moment.
Why all this military display? Why so many policemen?” my grandson asked. “Because the prime Minister of Israel is here today,” I answered. As there came no more questions from him, we went on, along the National Gardens to have a look at the Panathinaikon Stadion.
In the following days, while trying to have a closer look at the latest developments in Iran regarding the so-called nuclear program, I came upon an article in Le Monde about the planned expulsion from Israel of immigration workers’ children. Some 400 children face expulsion, although their parents are working in Israel with a legal status. The illegality is in having children, for it is forbidden for immigrant workers (many from the Philippines) to have children during their stay in Israel. I read that the wife of Benjamin Netanyahu, among others, such as Elie Wiesel, has protested against these measures. (Le Monde, 26 August, 2010, ‘Israel, polemique autor de l’expulsion programmée d’enfants de travailleurs immigrés’, Benjamin Barthe)
As for Iran, on the 22nd of August, it has shown its first ‘drone’ aircraft, which has been baptized ‘Karrar’ and is meant to counter aggressors. It took some time before I came to understand what a drone was. My first encounter with the existence of those unmanned weapons happened, some years ago while I was traveling from Beirut to Tripoli, along the coast. We were sitting in a van with a Palestinian refugee as the driver. It was a splendid day early in autumn with a perfect clear sky above the blue Mediterranean. Suddenly, our driver pointed to the sky, telling us nervously that he had to stop the car.
All I could see was a bright metallic spot, making its way with great speed.
“But this is an airplane!” I protested.
“An airplane? Do you hear an airplane? This one is an airplane without pilot!” and already the driver had hurried out of the car and went to hide under some pine trees, signaling us to do the same. But before we got there, the object had disappeared. Not at any moment had I realized what was going on. But the panic of the driver stayed in my memory.
Drones are operated by pilots, sometimes sitting thousands of miles away. Recent events in Pakistan and in Afghanistan have demonstrated how drones are not infallible when aiming at their target. According to Peter Sloterdijk, the 20th century started on the day when, for the first time, chlorine gas was dropped by the German army against the Franco – Canadian troops. This was on April 25 1915, near Ypres in Flanders (Belgium). (Peter Sloterdijk, ‘Terror from the air’ Semiotext (e). The enemy is no longer someone you come to stand face to face with, but he becomes ‘the other’, a mere object in the environment. This environment may also include other people, passersby, a school bus driving kids to school, workers on the field. By simply pressing a button you erase the other, even if you have to cause some damage to the environment. The built-in video of course never records the panic of people suddenly spotting a tiny bright object moving silently high in the sky!
When visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki last May, I learned that the Eneola Gay, the B-29 airplane named after the mother of the pilot who dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima, was accompanied by two other airplanes, with photographers on board. The pictures evidently could not show anything of what was happening beneath the mushroom cloud. One of the two airplanes was called ‘The Necessary Evil’ and the other ‘The Great Artist’.
I have often wondered where those and similar names originate from. Although they are often considered ‘code-names’, there is more to it. The most astonishing thing I found was that the two A bombs formed part of a triad. As such, the three A bombs were called the ‘Trinity’. In July 1945, the first of them had been successfully tested in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and consequently named the ‘Trinity Test’. The two other nuclear bombs followed respectively on the 6th and the 9th of August. Kenzaburo Oe, in his ‘Hiroshima Notes’, understands them as part of the ‘test’ in the same way as the first one was. Now, 65 years later, the testing still goes on.
This August France started a campaign against the Roma (Gypsies). Today, the 27th of August, again about 300 Roma were put on planes departing from Paris and Lyon in an action which is called ‘a voluntary repatriation’ scheme. Alexander Romanès, poet and owner of a small circus with the same name, speaks about the longest conflict in humanity: the conflict between the nomads and people who are sedentary (Le Monde, 27 August, 2010 Une Journée au Cirque Romanès).With his performances he represented France at the World Universal Exhibition at Shangai. Do nomads have the same rights as sedentary people? “Of course, criminal acts should be punished”, says Viviane Reding, European Commissioner for Human Rights. “But an expulsion for the sole reason that one is born a Roma?”
Today it is the 28th of August. On that day in 1963 Martin Luther King Jr., from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, delivered the speech which has become famous all over the world as ‘I have a dream’. In that 10 minute speech he called for racial equality and to put an end to discrimination. These ten minutes defined a momentum in history. According to the video releases, it was only at the end that the words ‘I have a dream’ were repeatedly pronounced, due to the cry of Mahalia Jackson: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” The dream has to do with the unconditional equality of all human beings, which is in itself a testimony, as King pointed to. But the dream is not about this equality. It is about the implementation of this testimony. When “ we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Today, 47 years later, several marches will take place to the Lincoln Memorial, among them as the most controversial, busloads of groups coming together under the umbrella of Tea Party activists. Many of them will bring along the ‘Don’t tread on me’ banner, which has become mainstay at Tea Party rallies.
Glenn Beck, the talk show host on Fox News will address them from the very place where Martin Luther King once stood. “Where Dr. King stood, Tea Party claims his Mantle”, Kate Zernike writes in the New York Times.
In a radio interview, Glenn Beck declared that he did not intentionally choose that day, but that it was divine providence that on this day the Tea Party rally called ‘Restoring Honor’ had been planned (New York Times, 28 Aug. 2010 Kate Zernike).
He insisted that he knew people were going to say: “It’s no Martin Luther King speech.” And added: “Of course it’s not Martin Luther King. You think I’m Martin Luther King?”
(Mary C. Curtis, Glenn Beck Rally in D.C. Saturday: Honoring MLK’s Legacy — or Hijacking It? Politics daily, http://www.readersupportednews.org/off-site-opinion-section/64-64/2811-)
However, the Lincoln Memorial is not ‘just a place’, it is a place loaded with history and with an unmistakably symbolic value. Of course no one can go there and ‘take this place’ as if it were their own. When Martin Luther King Jr stood there it was in the name of a value which he represented but was not his own. Many people are aware of this, yet the seed of confusion has been sown. The shining reality of such a place is dimmed and all too easily it becomes a platform for a spectacle where actors represent their own interests.
In 1967 Guy Debord published ‘La Société du Spectacle’ (The Society as Spectacle) in which he argues that directly experienced qualities of life are gradually replaced by their representation: “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation”. He describes this as a declining process of “being into having and of having into merely appearing.” What he calls ‘spectacle’ is a system in which the convergence of mass media and consumerism on the one hand and liberal economy on the other hand have supplanted the genuine relations between people in a society. There is an impoverishment of authentic life experiences, which has to be compensated by the passive ‘identification with the spectacle’. Needless to say that this diagnosis of Debord is more than ever the actuality. One does not have to consider his even more radical remedies to understand that our first condition in Western industrialized societies is this of being a spectator. And that this is not a phenomenon at random, but a publicly organized system in which interest groups of all sorts tightly work together. How we perceive what is happening in the world and thereby to the way in which we relate to other people has deteriorated and impoverished into a never ending spectacle and as a result, we are continually watching it. In doing so we are not in touch with reality, but only with a representation of reality, which we confound with reality. Whether we are aware of it or not, we have become spectators.
Beginning this year, a small group of people have been selected to participate in an exclusive Reality Show on a French TV program. Many of them had invested time and money in order to get through the selection, driven by the wish to be in a position where they could ‘represent’ themselves, play their own role, ‘appear’. When they finally had to sign the contract, one of the stipulations was that they would eventually be asked to physically hurt another person. By signing the contract, they agreed to this. Of course, when it came to this point, the whole scene was set up and there was no real inflicting pain on someone else, only a simulated one. But this, the participants could neither know nor verify; only the ‘spectators’ of the TV program knew. A few participants withdrew, but most of them went on, as they were not willing to quit the show, now that they had got there. The case was brought before the courts and the show was put to an end. The worst, some of the participants said, was the disgust they felt on behalf of themselves, realizing that in given circumstances they were able to hurt another person, if the show asked this of them. Others had no problem with this and thought it was worth it. Many had not even carefully read what would be asked of them. Some said they had read it but could not believe that it would ever come to that point. For all of them, the chance to play their own role as a ‘spectacle’ – to become for one moment an actor and no longer to be a spectator – had been the major motivation to sign up for the program.
The 33 miners trapped 700m underground since the 5th of August in the collapsed San Jose gold and copper mine in Copiapo, Chili, certainly did not ask to become part of a reality show. They have to await their rescue in a 50m2 shelter and there is the prospect that this could take weeks if not months. A video film was made for their relatives. Some of the miners refused to participate but others did. Soon enough, those recordings, which are meant to establish vital contact with their families, were sent around the world and could be viewed on several sites as a ‘Top Story’. Their precarious and dreadful conditions became part of the global Reality Show while their personal ordeal has been reduced to a spectacle, offered to millions of spectators. (This whole piece may now need to be updated, since they have now been rescued.)
Meanwhile, the ‘Apocalypse Industry’ is booming. Robert Vicino, the founder of Vivos, a firm building a ‘survival network’ of up market underground bunkers across the United States, is due to travel to London at the end of August. His motto: ‘Now is the time to prepare, if you value your life!’, Guy Adams (‘How to survive the End Times for a mere Null 32.000, The Independent, 29 August) quotes his announcement of the opening of his firm’s first nuclear-bomb-and-asteroid- proof property in Europe as follows: ‘London is of course on the radar of terrorism, and nuclear attacks,” Mr Vicino said. “You’re closer to the Middle East than we are here in California.”
As long as the time-events can be looked upon as reality shows in the global spectacle program, this means as ‘representations of reality’ not as the reality itself, one can comfortably remain in his spectators’ chair and protected in their comfort-zone, watching it all. But if the ‘real’ breaks in : a nuclear attack, a flood, an asteroid, then it is time to take care of one’s own precious life and move on to the next ‘comfort–zone’ where one can go on to hide from the real and where the show can go on. Jean Baudrillard was the first to understand 9/11 as a moment where the ‘real’ broke in, even if it was ‘represented’ with all the features of a spectacle. Aside from the human suffering caused by the 9/11 attacks, at the very heart of the shock wave they produced, was the sudden eruption of the ‘real’. Breaking news and the breaking in of reality for once became one and the same.
In his address on the 28th of August to the huge crowd (some organizers claim that 500.000 attended the event) at the Lincoln Memorial, Mr. Beck said: “My role is to wake America up to the backsliding of principles and values and most of all of God” (New York Times, 29 August 2010) is no exception. We did not even mention the diluvial flooding in Pakistan; the international judiciary tribunal which is going to be set up for the genocide in Congo, perpetrated 10 years ago; the continuous terrorist attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan; the woman facing a death sentence by stoning in Iran and the Indian woman tortured by her Saudi ‘family’ who pierced her with 22 nails; the mass contamination by arsenic in Bangladesh (the greatest in history) and so on……
Where to meet ‘the real’? And when meeting it, how to cope with it?
How to leave the spectatorship and the many comfort-zones attached to it?
All these facts and events, do they concern me? Or is it wiser for me that I bar all that from my vision and to withdraw to some comfort zone, seeking to protect my own life and that of those dear to me from the worst? What else can one do? What can I do that will change the course of world events?
This writing addresses these sort of questions, which also are questions about the meaning of ‘contemporaneous’. The simple fact of being born in a specific year does not turn you into a contemporary. Being a contemporary is something that you can become. This calls for ‘insight’, which on its turn calls for ‘doing’ something.
Acting out of insight could well be one of the characteristics of freedom. Also, it would be offering the possibility to become a contemporary. Being a contemporary and freedom are related, were it only because both belong to the order of development.
How do you become a contemporary? You become one by starting the journey. The first question you will encounter is the question about this time, the time we are living in.
What is it that I will become associated with, if I want to become a companion of the time we live in, a companion in the plain meaning of the word of one who breaks bread with another?
Translation : Otto and Dirkje Koene
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