David Palumbo-Liu writes: As photographs and videoclips from Ferguson overwhelmed our mediascapes, they created a strange double-optic. They seemed overlaid upon representations of events that had previously dominated our public consciousness: Images of the massive and on-going destruction of Gaza by the Israeli military. This stereoscopic image immediately drew bloggers, pundits and op-ed writers to rush to draw parallels. Indeed, in graphic terms alone the image of tear gas canisters filling the air with toxic smoke and of protesters hurling them back defiantly seemed exactly the same. And when tweets offering advice to demonstrators in Ferguson emerged from Palestinians, and reports of Ferguson police having been trained by Israelis surfaced, all that only seemed to complete the equation: Ferguson is Gaza.
There are many parallels and resonances to be sure, and below I will get to some key ones. But I have delayed responding because, as a comparatist, and also as someone concerned about racism in the U.S. and the racist policies of Israel, it is important to weigh things in as dispassionate a way as possible, to do justice to both sides.
Many years ago, the eminent British Marxist historian Raymond Williams reflected on conversations he was having with Palestinian literary critic and activist Edward Said. Williams was particularly interested in seeing just how much of his work on British working class culture, history, and society could be understood as having to do in any way with Said’s concerns regarding Israel-Palestine, most especially with regard to what was going on then: the brutal Israeli bombing and invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Regarding that catastrophe, Hadas Thier writes, “During the course of Israel’s bombardment of the country, civilians and civilian infrastructure were systematically attacked, refugee camps and Lebanese towns were leveled, Beirut was battered for seventy-five days, and after all military objectives were met, the affair concluded with a grotesque massacre of women, children, and the elderly at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.” Williams’ conclusion is instructive:
The analysis of history is not a subject separate from history, but the representations are part of the history, contribute to the history, are active elements in the way that history continues; in the way forces are distributed; in the way people perceive situations, both from inside their own pressing realities and from outside them; if we are saying this is a real method, then the empirical test it’s being put to here is that comparable methods of analysis are being applied to situations which are very far apart in space, have many differences of texture, and have very different consequences in the contemporary world. There is an obvious distance from what is happening in the English countryside, or in the English inner cities, to the chaos in Lebanon. Yet nevertheless I think it is true that the method, the underlying method, found a congruity.
This discretion, this caution to pay attention to how history is represented and to get the historical record straight despite surface similarities, is found as well in the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel on Biafra, “Half of a Yellow Sun.” At one point she tells of a journalist’s hesitation at making comparisons between Biafra and other historical events: “After he writes this, he mentions the German women who fled Hamburg with the charred bodies of their children stuffed in suitcases, the Rwandan women who pocketed tiny parts of their mauled babies. But he is careful not to draw parallels.”
How then can we strike a balance between on the one hand reacting viscerally to the images from Ferguson, which point to the long and constantly replenished history of police assaults on black bodies, and the images of Israel’s murderous rampage in Gaza, an assault continuous with Israel’s history of oppression and persecution of an entire people, while on the other hand resisting drawing too quickly an immediate, provocative, but inexact parallel?
It is in the median space between declaring an equivalence and withdrawing into discreet silence that we should concentrate our energies. Comparisons may be “odious,” to quote Shakespeare, but they can also be instructive. They help us tease out the specifics while coming to understand basic and important similarities. To do this one needs to employ a “congruent” method.
Here are five ways we can see congruence in what is happening in Ferguson and in Gaza. [Continue reading…]