Monthly Archives: January 2010

Why watch Gordon Ramsay?

For the past couple of months I have found myself unable to watch almost anything on my hundreds of worthless channels of cable television, including news and public affairs programming. The programs don’t engage and the advertisements feel like a physical assault. There are rare exceptions, such as an occasional academic panel or political event on C-SPAN, and one or two other anomalies, but otherwise it’s pretty unbearable. So I surprised myself a bit by making sure last Friday evening to watch the first episode of another series of the Fox “reality” program (“reality TV” being an obvious oxymoron) Kitchen Nightmares, a US version of the UK Channel 4 program, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. Both series are based on a simple premise: the foulmouthed restaurateur has five days to try to turn around the fortunes of a failing restaurant.

I’d be the first to agree with anyone who suggested that there’s too much of Gordon Ramsay in our popular culture. He’s appeared in an amazing number of television programs, and to say the least they are a mixed bag. Two five-part UK documentaries kicked off the entire Ramsay TV cottage industry: Boiling Point and Beyond Boiling Point, both of which chronicled Ramsay’s efforts to achieve that most highly elusive of culinary prizes, a third Michelin star. They were interesting, but not fascinating. The UK F-Word series (they insist it stands for food, don’t you know) struggled to find any kind of meaningful identity for its first four seasons and really wasn’t worth watching, but the recently completed fifth season, which focused on promoting local restaurants battling the challenge of the global recession, was really quite excellent. The even more recently concluded three-part UK documentary of Ramsay’s tour of India, Gordon’s Great Escape, was also very interesting and entertaining (ant and ant egg chutney in Chhatisgarh, etc.).

Both the US and UK versions of the cooking competition Hell’s Kitchen are fundamentally stupid and silly, and they make up the bulk of his television presence (there have, of course, been occasional moments of real delight, such as Ramsay’s pitch-perfect retort to an irate customer who was childishly demanding more pumpkin in his risotto, “You want more pumpkin? Right, I’m going to get a pumpkin and shove it up your ass. Would you like it whole or diced?”) Worst of all have been the absolutely dreadful UK Cookalong Live programs, recently experimented with in the United States by Fox to cringe-inducing effect, especially his completely unconvincing effort to seem friendly and sweet. Ramsay’s recent romantic scandal, combined with a limited public appetite for his limitless wrath and extraordinary penchant for cursing, have gotten his UK producers to insist on a toned-down Ramsay, which more or less works (he basically has to behave the way he would around children, swearing only occasionally), but Fox went for a warm and cuddly Gordon in their dreadful cookalong experiment and it was both revolting and actually more frightening than the chef in the midst of his most hysterical raging (one of my dearest friends once told me that the reason I like watching him is that he behaves in restaurants the way I would like to, and I think that’s about right).

But the real reason to have ever paid attention to Ramsey as a worthy and compelling presence on television were the UK Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares turnaround programs. These one-hour British mini-documentaries are the only “reality television,” if they actually really belong to that genre at all, that I have ever found compelling or interesting. The program won widespread critical acclaim and several awards, and when you watch them it’s easy to see why. The problems they tackle range from mismanagement, incompetence in the kitchen, and inexperience at various levels, to unworkable business models, and various forms of mania. Ramsay has real insights and a no-nonsense, tough-love approach, but the whole program really works only for one reason: in spite of his abusive character, willingness to humiliate people who deserve it, and incessant swearing, it’s obvious that he genuinely, passionately cares about these restaurants, their survival, and the quality of the food they serve. We’ve seen Ramsay trying to fake things many times in the past, and he’s not that good at it. The passion and commitment that he pumps into these turnaround efforts are plainly genuine, and it’s so draining that he’s made it clear that he doesn’t want to continue doing it much longer (although he seems to be such a shameless publicity hound that he will probably never voluntarily walk away from television).

The Fox version, Kitchen Nightmares, unfortunately isn’t really comparable to the British series. While it’s questionable whether the UK series even belongs to the reality TV genre, the Fox show most certainly and unfortunately does. Predictably enough, it’s a dumbed-down version with numerous serious flaws: it’s very repetitive; overly-dramatic and silly; focuses on wild swings in emotion from despair and anger to joy and reconciliation rather than the food, the management system or the business model; Ramsay’s compelling voiceover narrations from the UK series are replaced by a generic and extremely uncompelling narration from a nameless announcer, etc. In addition, the UK program focused on lots of different problems: frequently, of course, the problem was dreadful food and/or pathetic mismanagement, but sometimes there were other issues. One focused on a Scottish restaurant, La Riviera, manned by first-rate French chefs producing really excellent but somewhat pompous food that was striving unsuccessfully, not to stay open (it was being backed by a doting millionaire), but to win a Michelin star. Another restaurant, Rococo, was failing because it’s talented and formerly Michelin starred chef-owner had lost both his star and his former restaurant, and was undergoing a crisis of confidence. Thus far, all the Fox programs have focused on the same fundamental problem: complete incompetence in the kitchen and absolutely dreadful food, almost always because people simply don’t know what they’re doing.

What really sets the UK series apart from its Fox spinoff is not only the real prospect for, but the repeated realization of, failure for Ramsay and the restaurants he is attempting to save. Given the way the industry works, it’s not in the least surprising that a great many, if not most, of the restaurants involved in both series have ultimately failed or changed hands (of the 22 restaurants visited in the UK series, only eight are still operational under the same owners). Anything that happens months after he leaves cannot be placed at Ramsay’s feet. However, what the UK series allows for but the Fox series does not is the prospect of failure then and there, failure that is as much Ramsay’s responsibility as it is the owners who cannot or will not heed his advice. Some of the most memorable UK episodes involved a total meltdown of the turnaround process at precisely the point in the program at which each and every Fox episode hits its maudlin crescendo. One immediately thinks of Sue Ray, the hapless owner of Bonaparte’s who, in desperation, tried to sue Ramsay, absurdly claiming he had planted rotten food in her kitchen. Or Francesco Mattioli, the mule-headed new owner of a former Michelin-starred Italian restaurant in the Welsh countryside called the Walnut Tree Inn, who simply could not admit that anything was going wrong as his business crumbled around him. Or Rachel McNally, the infuriating, spoiled-brat Scottish owner of a vegetarian restaurant in Paris, Piccolo Teatro, who simply walked away and shut down in the middle of the turnaround project.

Fox obviously believes that American audiences simply can’t handle the prospect of failure — that the only emotions they can respond to are those involving ultimate triumph and success. Of course for any regular viewer, it kicks the heels out of the whole process because we know for certain, given the track record thus far, that the network has no intention of either allowing Ramsay to fail, or airing it if he did. Not content with the image of him as a brilliant turnaround artist, they seem intent on casting him as some sort of superhero of the restaurant industry. In a couple of UK episodes, Channel 4 did help out some of the restaurants with new equipment and other limited investments, but the Fox episodes bestow entirely new restaurants, lavishly remodeled and reequipped, on their subjects, which, along with the Ramsay buzz and free publicity, virtually ensures at least a temporary reprieve from Chapter 11. Both the US and UK versions have involved return visits by Ramsay, with UK re-visits frequently going very badly, but Fox ones being invariably and entirely positive, consisting mostly of gushing praise for Ramsay from grateful owners. The UK series makes it clear that restaurants not only can, they often or maybe even usually will, fail, with or without Ramsay’s help. The Fox series seems to suggest that it’s a foregone conclusion that when mighty mouse comes to save the day, all will be well (there were not only no revisits to the many closed restaurants, there was no indication to viewers that they had closed).

Friday evening’s episode about the Hot Potato Café reflected all of the worst qualities of the Fox version, and these are not only annoying, they do make the program ultimately difficult to swallow. However, if one can make it past all the ridiculous sentimentality, histrionic hype, dreadful production, overall cheesiness and, most annoyingly, the fact that Fox rigs the game and stacks the deck to ensure no immediate meltdown in the turnaround process so that there will always be a “happy ending” at the end of the five days, in my view there’s still a program worth watching here. The problems are interesting and some of the solutions ingenious, but the main aspect that makes it compelling, in spite of every effort by Fox, is that Ramsay’s genuine and inexplicable passion and commitment to actually turning these restaurants around manages to come through quite clearly. He’s a very powerful personality and is so committed to his craft and trade that he actually seems really to care whether or not some little restaurant is serving decent food and is going to survive. That came through again on Friday night, in spite of everything, and it salvaged an otherwise wretched mess (the program, and possibly even the restaurant as well).

Also on clear display was one of Ramsay’s best qualities: his compassion and affection for young, inexperienced but determined cooks. The cook (we cannot call her chef) at the Hot Potato Café is the 21-year-old niece of the owners, completely untrained, totally out of her depth, and not interested really in cooking at all but just helping out her family. Honing in on her grit and determination as the one thing in the restaurant he could actually work with, Ramsay built the turnaround around an effort to develop her skills and bring out her talent (looks like she definitely has some). He’s done this several times before, especially in the UK programs, mentoring a 17-year-old pot washer who suddenly found himself effectively running the vegetable station, and offering a job in one of his London restaurants to the talented young chef of Piccolo Teatro who suddenly found herself unemployed in Paris through no fault of her own.

There is no doubt that Ramsay is, as his reputation would suggest, fearsomely harsh, but his meritocracy doesn’t seem to involve any obvious biases (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. seem to mean nothing to him, and the only thing that counts is what’s on the plate) except for age: he clearly prefers young chefs and would-be chefs, possibly because they have fewer bad habits and can be more easily trained, but also possibly because they’re in less of a position to put up a fight. Whatever the reasons are, it’s an endearing and admirable quality, and in spite of the bathos of the despair before and exultation after the turnaround from the owners, Ramsay’s bonding with and mentoring of this young woman managed to be genuinely touching.

I’ve written a lot of negative things above about the Fox Kitchen Nightmares series, and in reality I’m probably being altogether too kind to the program, which may be even worse than I’ve suggested. But it’s still the only regularly scheduled series that can get me to turn on my almost superfluous television set. It probably qualifies as something of a “guilty pleasure,” as, unlike with the British series, I can see that this is basically nonsense, I’m being had at a certain level, and the producers are trying to manipulate me and my emotions as if I had the mental capacity of a five-year-old. But somehow it still manages to seem to me to be compelling enough to watch. There is a broader question raised by all of this, which is how do we account for our enjoyment of and, more importantly, intellectual engagement with cultural artifacts that we know very well are, at a fundamental and/or formal level, “bad.” This is especially problematic with bad art (no one would possibly think that reality television is any kind of art form) and it’s a question I intend to investigate in another posting in the near future.

Palestine must be a secular state

http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/guestvoices/2010/01/palestine_must_be_a_secular_state.html

As Palestinians press the international community to live up to its commitment to ensuring the establishment of an independent Palestine alongside Israel, conversation is intensifying about the character of this new state. In their own interests, Palestinians should buck the regional trend towards religious politics and ensure, from the outset, that it is firmly and irrevocably a secular state.

There is no question that the Palestinians are, in general, a relatively conservative and religious people, but this is all the more reason to embrace a secular form of government. Secular government does not mean official atheism, iconoclasm or hostility towards religious belief and practice. It means rather the strict neutrality of the state on religious matters and, therefore, the upholding of religious freedom for all citizens. It means the freedom of all religious communities from state interference, but also the freedom of the state from the dominance of any one religious authority.

Palestinian society is strikingly heterogeneous. A very significant percentage of Palestinians are Christians of numerous denominations, and they have played a major role in the national movement and in society generally. Any move to establish a government structure based on Muslim religious principles by definition would marginalize if not discriminate against or exclude Palestinian Christians.

Numerous Palestinian leaders have expressed the willingness to allow Jewish Israeli settlers who wish to remain in Palestine and abide by the laws of the new state to do so. This raises the prospect of a Jewish minority in Palestine as well. It is likely that Israel, rather than Palestine, would insist on a complete evacuation of settlements, because of the political difficulties arising for any Israeli government should Jews or Israelis remaining in the new Palestinian state encounter any significant difficulties. However, the willingness of Palestinian leaders to embrace a Jewish minority as equal citizens or residents under the law is an important principle that ought to be upheld.

Obviously, a secular government will be essential to affording Palestinian Christian and possibly also Jewish religious minorities equal treatment under the law and equal access to all the benefits of citizenship. Numerous Middle Eastern states, including Israel, serve as examples not to be emulated in the social treatment and political status of religious minorities, even when freedom of religion is officially afforded.

Even within the Palestinian Muslim community, there is significant heterogeneity. Palestinian Muslims range in orientation from the politically secular but religiously devout, to the Islamist (and even in some cases extreme Islamist), to the religiously disinclined. There are also significant constituencies of atheists and agnostics within both the Palestinian Muslim and Christian communities.

Historically, secular values have been a major feature of the Palestinian national movement, and the recent trend towards re-defining it in religious terms has been almost entirely counterproductive. Driven mainly by Islamists led by Hamas, but also engaged in by nationalists seeking not to be outbid on religious legitimacy, the intensification of religious rhetoric, accompanied by increasing levels of militarization and violence during the second intifada, had disastrous results for the Palestinian national movement.

This sanctification of the struggle on the Palestinian side has been matched by a less well-recognized but equally fanatical and dangerous rise in religious zealotry in Israeli society. The shift away from a conflict characterized by the competition for land and power by two ethno-national groups, as it has thus far largely been, and towards a holy war over the will of God and control of sacred spaces is profoundly threatening to both Israelis and Palestinians alike. Political conflicts are amenable to negotiated agreement. Holy wars are not.

My colleagues and I at the American Task Force on Palestine have long recommended that the Palestinian state be democratic, pluralistic, non-militarized and neutral in conflicts. Obviously, for a society to be genuinely pluralistic, it cannot be dominated by one religious opinion but must allow for the greatest possible expression of religious diversity.

All societies are heterogeneous on matters of faith, and Palestinian society is obviously so. This is one of the reasons why historically the Palestinian national movement has been politically secular in spite of the relatively devout nature of much of Palestinian society. This principle is being seriously threatened by the rise of religious politics, but it must be resolutely defended.

Any Palestinian state worth struggling for and establishing must represent all of its citizens equally. This requires the establishment of a Palestinian system in which the state is neutral on religious matters, in other words a secular government.

The relationship between “Twin Peaks” and “Fire Walk with Me”

An Ibishblog reader asks me, “Perhaps you would consider following up on your rather remarkable discourse on Hamlet with a defense of your (dubious) preference for David Lynch’s feature Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me over the television series Twin Peaks?” I’m delighted to.

As this reader is aware, I hold the films of David Lynch in very high esteem. I’m not sure there’s another living artist in any medium whose work produces such a profound effect on me. Obviously, this puts me in a fairly small minority as most people find most Lynch films impenetrable, boring, nasty, unpleasant or simply bizarre. There is no doubt his work is extremely challenging, and it’s also extremely dark and therefore on both scores certainly not for everybody. A great many people, probably most, don’t want to be deeply challenged by the movies. They want to be entertained for an hour and a half or so, laugh and cry, and not have to think too much about it. That’s completely reasonable, and there is a vast industry that caters to this taste. Moreover, the subset of people who take film seriously as an art form also by no means unanimously approves of Lynch’s work generally. Especially his later films have many well-informed and brilliant detractors who see them as self-indulgent, vapid and tiresomely banal.

Obviously, I passionately disagree. I’m extremely impressed with a number of qualities Lynch has brought to his later work: technical mastery; outstanding attention to detail, especially sound; an exceptionally refined and in some cases even revolutionary approach to narrative techniques; and above all a profound depth of humanity. I’m not only sympathetic to Film Comment’s recent selection of Mulholland Dr. as the best film of the past decade, I suspect it’s the best, at least American, film in several decades.

Lynch’s films are so emotionally demanding I think because they reflect the work of an artist who truly embraces his own emotions and those of his characters. If his films operate in a strange way, this is because life itself is extremely strange. We create straightforward narratives in order to cope with our realities, but those are of course largely fictional and entirely arbitrary, except insofar as they serve a specific purpose in helping us accomplish our goals. But it seems to me that Lynch’s alienated and nonlinear narratives centered around totally unstable identities and shifting personae, strange as they seem at first, come much closer to the way we actually experience our lives than standard, linear, naturalistic narratives do. What’s more, his films are about shattering, tragic events which are always going to be even more alienating and destabilizing than normal life is.

In his later films, what Lynch tends to do is take an extremely simple but deeply tragic narrative and build around it a vast network of representations, associations, narrations, iterations and interconnections. The process of reading a Lynch film involves pulling that web of signification apart, and seeing both the core narrative and the complex representational superstructure working together to create a wild proliferation of meaning. It’s frequently the case with late Lynch that a film takes on a different character and yields itself to a different set of deconstructions and reconstructions with almost every viewing. For those of us who like it, it’s incredibly thrilling. For a lot of other people it would be boring, tiresome and exhausting.

I would argue that, if for nothing else, Lynch deserves an enormous amount of credit for creating what I think amounts to an original style and even genre: American film surrealism. Except for his work, surrealism in the cinema has been almost entirely a European affair, defined by a number of extraordinary artists, most notably the great Don Luis Buñuel. However, European surrealism more or less peaked with the final, extraordinary films of the early and mid-70s that capped off Buñuel’s remarkable career such as Belle du jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (which may have the most complicated narrative I’ve ever seen in any film), and That Obscure Object of Desire. It seems to me that in recent decades not only has Lynch shifted the epicenter of Surrealism in cinema from Europe to the United States, he’s created a new and highly original version of it.

The reader asks specifically about the relationship between Lynch’s 1990-91 television series, Twin Peaks, and the much-maligned 1992 film “prequel,” Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Twin Peaks (which I will use exclusively to refer to the TV series) was justly celebrated at the time as a major achievement. It riveted the attention of a great deal of the United States around the question “who killed Laura Palmer?” More importantly, it was probably the first broadcast TV series to bring full-blown cinematic techniques to the small screen, and it’s still frequently cited as the most accomplished television program yet made. There is no question that it had an enormous impact on both television and popular culture generally.

As the program entered its second season, Lynch came under heavy pressure from the network and his co-author Mark Frost to reveal the secret of Laura Palmer’s killer. Lynch argued that there was no obligation to the audience to resolve the question, and that it should remain a mystery until the end of the series if not beyond. Unfortunately, fairly early into the second season, the network won out, as they do, and it was revealed that Laura had been murdered by her own father (though ostensibly possessed by a malevolent demon-spirit called Bob) following years of sexual abuse at home. Predictably enough, Lynch was right. The revelation removed the central theme around which the story had been constructed, and the series veered wildly off track. It was not renewed. The collapse of Twin Peaks also occurred because Lynch plainly lost interest in it after his idea of a completely open-ended series fell by the wayside. However, he did return to direct an extraordinary two-hour final episode.

Shortly after the end of the TV show, Lynch began working on a film, ostensibly a prequel to Twin Peaks, which would tell the story of the last week of Laura Palmer’s life. Fire Walk with Me premiered at Cannes, but was roundly criticized by both critics and audiences, and considered both a financial and artistic failure. So what the reader is asking is why I am much more enthusiastic about a film most people consider badly if not fatally flawed, than I am about a television series that is generally regarded as one of the best, if not the best, ever shown on a broadcast network. The main reason for my somewhat, but increasingly less, heretical position is that I think most critics and audiences have completely misunderstood the relationship between the film and the series, and therefore totally misread both what Lynch was doing in Fire Walk with Me and what he was able to accomplish.

Although Lynch was meticulously faithful to the mythos constructed in the TV series when he made the film, introducing impressively few contradictory facts and not altering the chronology in any meaningful sense, the differences between the two are simply enormous. Most strikingly, the film is almost entirely bereft of the humor of the TV series, which typically had the look and feel of a dark, menacing parody. This hand was played openly in many ways, not least by the recurring TV soap opera, “Invitation to Love,” to which the Twin Peaks residents are deeply addicted. Their own parodic behavior, which sends up TV dramas generally, is frequently mirrored in the program by the parody of a parody that is “Invitation to Love.”

Twin Peaks has plenty of bathos, fake sentimentality, and disturbing imagery, but it rarely if ever achieves pathos, emotional power and genuine horror. Fire Walk with Me, by contrast, does achieve pathos, packs a considerable emotional wallop, and is chock-a-block with genuine horror. It’s almost as if having been forced to abandon the Laura Palmer storyline by revealing the killer, Lynch not only lost interest in the rest of season two and, indeed, the entire program, but also felt that Laura as a character and her deep story had not received their due from the television program. Behind the parody, satire, mystery, red herrings, dead ends and relentless playfulness of Twin Peaks still lay a story of the self-destruction, torture, murder and mental and emotional collapse of a young woman, and it needed telling in a manner that communicated the depth of its tragedy.

Fire Walk with Me is better seen as an antithesis, a repudiation and a corrective to Twin Peaks, rather than as a prequel or the extension of the brand into an inappropriate medium, which are the two ways it was generally received upon release. There is almost no doubt that Lynch was left angry, dissatisfied and disappointed by the way Twin Peaks played itself out on the small screen, and was turning to his more familiar medium of the big screen to address the problem.

The film announces its intention in this regard at its very outset — the opening credits run across an indistinct blur that is extremely hard to identify until the final credit caption, Lynch himself as director, at which point the camera lurches back revealing that what we have been looking at is television “snow,” and the second we realize that we’ve been looking at a TV (too closely, almost inside the set), a baseball bat smashes the set to pieces (we subsequently discover that this is the murder of Teresa Banks we first heard about in the Twin Peaks pilot). I think this gesture of opening Fire Walk with Me by ritually smashing a TV set to pieces pretty much sums up its attitude towards the medium and, to some extent at least, Twin Peaks as a program, or at least what was done to it by the industry. It’s partly Lynch venting, of course, but it’s also the clearest possible signal to the audience that this is not television and it’s not a world that’s going to be friendly to television either.

The film has two distinct parts: Chester Desmond’s investigation into Teresa Banks’ murder and his subsequent disappearance, followed by the last week in the life of Laura Palmer narrated almost entirely from her own point of view. The first part of the film, which is much shorter, plays many important roles, among which is the systematic repudiation of the very essence of Twin Peaks which is the charm, wholesomeness and rustic appeal of the town and its residents. Deer Meadow, the nearby town in which Teresa is killed, is the antithesis of the town of Twin Peaks as depicted in the TV show: the local police are crooked and utterly callous as well as hostile to the FBI, people generally are unfriendly and unhelpful, neither the people nor the town itself are attractive or pleasant, the coffee and pie are apparently nothing to write home about at best, etc. Indeed, the only real humor in Fire Walk with Me is in this opening sequence of scenes in Deer Meadow, and mostly centers around the very crude contrasts between our Twin Peaks-driven expectations and the grim realities of Deer Meadow. We are being systematically told, and indeed forced, to abandon any sentimental attachment we had to these small-town folk as a residue of the TV show.

When we suddenly shift from Deer Meadow to Twin Peaks and Laura Palmer, we ought, by now, to have gotten the point that the characters and locations may look the same (all the actors except Lara Flynn Boyle reprised their original parts), but this Twin Peaks is fundamentally different from the one we have known and loved. And so it proves. At least from Laura’s point of view, and in light of her experiences, Twin Peaks starts to look increasingly more like Deer Meadow than the charming small town with all its eccentricities and dark secrets in the television series. While Twin Peaks has multiple perspectives, the dominant one for much of the series was that of Agent Cooper, with his childlike wonder and passionate love affair with the town and its residents (he talks about buying land, and more or less moves there). The gigantic transformation Lynch has effected in Fire Walk with Me involves a shift in tone, atmosphere, perspective and, I would argue, genre as well.

It’s almost as if he is saying to the audience, “well, we had a great time with the TV show and everything, but you need to remember that fundamentally this was a very simple and tragic story about a girl who was systematically abused and then tortured and murdered by her own father. It may have gotten lost in all the fun and games in Twin Peaks, but I need to bring you all back to that starkly and harshly.” In other words, when the story of Laura Palmer lost its function as the central narrative around which the TV show, with all of its intricate subplots, was built, there was a danger that the stark tragedy at the center of Twin Peaks had not been adequately represented. The injustice Lynch apparently felt at the treatment of his program at the hands of the network I think dovetailed with his own sense of having participated in a kind of injustice to the character Laura Palmer and the core narrative of her murder, and to the audience that may have received far too sugar-coated a version of this simple but profound tragedy. I see the film as an effort to correct this failure, and I think it works brilliantly at that level.

This film was badly received and I think is still largely misunderstood because its relationship with the television series isn’t adequately appreciated. It’s a matter of opinion and taste, but I find the film infinitely more engaging than the television series, albeit very dark, difficult and emotionally challenging. Moreover, Fire Walk with Me, unlike Twin Peaks, is a central, I might even argue the central, work bridging early and later Lynch films. Whereas Twin Peaks has much more in common with the “charming small town with dark secrets” style of Blue Velvet, Fire Walk with Me is much closer in style, substance and technique to his later masterpieces Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire. For one thing, the fierce feminism of Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire finds, I think, its first expression in the way Laura Palmer’s story is told largely from her own perspective in Fire Walk with Me. No doubt Lynch was stung by widespread accusations of misogyny following the release of Blue Velvet, but beginning with Fire Walk with Me his attention has tended to focus more on understanding and representing the “woman in trouble” from a sympathetic, indeed championing, perspective.

Even more significantly, the nonlinear, fundamentally unstable narratives and characters typical of later Lynch I think are also introduced in Fire Walk with Me, at least in the way he has played them out in the three films cited above. One could argue that these elements actually are introduced in the red room scenes in Twin Peaks, including the extraordinary sequence in the Lynch-directed final episode. But I think that’s a bit of a stretch. Insofar as they represent manifestations of the Other Place — what for most of the 20th century we would have called the unconscious — there is clearly a connection. But I think the technique here is fundamentally different and the connection far more slight.

Probably the most telling sequence in Fire Walk with Me in setting up the concerns and narrative techniques of the later films is the brilliant, fascinating and bizarre scene in Gordon’s office at the FBI headquarters in Philadelphia, in which Cooper and Jeffries are represented very differently on the closed-circuit television network than they are in the direct action of the scene itself. I’m not going to try to unpack this dense, difficult scene here, suffice it to say that it introduces themes that will dominate Lynch’s later work: amnesia and aphasia; psychogenic fugue; radical alienation between different registers of perception; narrative nonlinearity and instability; and, above all, a privileging of representations of representations of other media (closed-circuit TV, broadcast TV, video, other films, digital video, 78 RPM records, camera obscura, etc.).

What I’m arguing, but not fully explicating because that would take a great deal of time, is that later Lynch is more interesting and important, although less popular, than early Lynch, and that while Twin Peaks is essentially representative of the style, techniques and concerns of early Lynch, Fire Walk with Me is the pivotal point in his career in which he shifts into a new project that is much more complex, difficult and rich. What Fire Walk with Me set in motion was still playing itself out in his last film, the self-indulgent, extravagant, maddeningly difficult and obscure, but breathtakingly brilliant and extremely exciting Inland Empire.

In these later tragedies, there is always redemption, especially for women. Perhaps one can question whether or not there is any redemption for Fred Madison in Lost Highway, but there plainly is for Diane Selwyn/Betty Elms/Rita (trust me, that’s another explanation that would take quite a bit of time) in Mulholland Dr., and especially for Nikki Grace in Inland Empire. The prototype for these uplifting sequences at the end of harrowing tragedies for heroines in later Lynch films is certainly the final sequence of Fire Walk with Me. After she is murdered by her father, her body wrapped in plastic and sent floating down the river, setting up the legendary opening sequence of Twin Peaks (“she’s dead — wrapped in plastic!”), Laura or some form of her appears sitting in a black evening gown in the Other Place (the Black Lodge/red room, or whatever it is). She is very elegantly made up and with a benevolent looking Agent Cooper standing behind her in a protective, reassuring pose. She seems dazed and confused, until startled by some flashing lights that are accompanied by the outstretched hand of what appears to be an angel (this resonates with the conversation she had earlier with Donna, and the ominous disappearance of a protecting angel overseeing a small group of children in a painting on her bedroom wall). The angel hovers above her, and she seems awed and fascinated, and increasingly engaged by the flashing lights that seem to emanate strangely from this hovering creature.

But is she really looking at a light-emanating angel? We look down on Laura from a slightly raised and slightly oblique angle as she rocks slowly back and forth, alternately laughing and weeping, with her mood steadily improving. Her eyes seemed transfixed on something ahead and slightly to the side of her, and the strangely flashing lights reflected in her face and in the background. The angel hovers in front of large red curtains typical of the red room, which immediately suggest theatricality.

I think most obvious reading of this scene is that what she’s looking at is not exactly an angel but in fact or also a television (there is a dynamic engagement in her affect that can’t really be responding to this static angel-figure) and what she’s watching is Twin Peaks, crying at her own tragedy and the grief of her friends and family, laughing at the absurdities and the eccentricities of her friends and neighbors, and probably validated by the impact that her murder had on her community. There isn’t just joy in her reactions, but great amusement and some raucous laughter. Whatever it is, it’s certainly the cream of the jest. I think it’s pretty clear that Fire Walk with Me ends where it began, with television. The closing credits scroll over a frozen close-up of Laura’s blissful face, as if the incoherent television snow of the opening credits is now filled up with her presence. The redemption here may not only be for Laura Palmer, but also for the Twin Peaks television series, and even for television itself.

Obviously Fire Walk with Me is an extremely dense and difficult film that, as I have argued, has been woefully misunderstood even by some extremely talented critics. It has to be read in the context of, and contrapuntally to, Twin Peaks, but the trap almost everyone fell into because the TV show was so good and so beloved was to completely miss Lynch’s really unsparing critique of his own work. So, as so often proves the case, I think conventional wisdom has it completely wrong: Twin Peaks is a great TV show, but it has significant limitations and defects, and is ultimately constrained by both its medium and its genre, whereas Fire Walk with Me is among the most painful, unpleasant and harrowing films I’ve ever seen, but also one of the best. Of course, to fully explain my appreciation for it would require a lengthy and detailed reading totally inappropriate for a blog posting. For those who are interested, it’s probably something I’m going to do one of these days. But for now at least I’ve done my best to answer the question the reader posed, and hopefully give people some reasons to either watch this film for the first time (although it’s certainly not for the squeamish), or reconsider it if they have failed to appreciate what it has to offer.

The perils of certainty

Among the most dangerous aspects of the political culture surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on both sides are glib assertions of inevitable victory and the uninterrogated assumptions that inevitably lie behind them. It’s an obvious point, but was brought home to me with some force yesterday when a friend pointed out the following passage from a particularly foolish Arab-American blog:

“I have been critical of Haykal’s monologues on Aljazeera but he made a good point the other day. He said that if you despair, you just need to look at the map. To see the size of Israel and the size of the Arab world. The map explains why Israel’s years are numbered.”

One expects this kind of gobbledygook from the blogger in question, and it’s not particularly surprising to hear it from Mohamed Hassanein Haykal, or Al-Jazeera for that matter, either. What’s important is that Haykal was repeating the single most commonplace and damaging collective delusion the Arabs have been laboring under for the past 70-80 years, at least: the idea that because Israel is relatively small in territory and population, and the Arab world large in both, the outcome of a historic conflict is predestined and inevitable. After more than 60 years of dealing with the Israeli state, it’s unfortunately still possible for commentators and almost anybody else to make this allegation in front of an Arab audience with a straight face and get applause and approbation rather than dismissal and mockery. The persistence of this irrational and almost theological certainty is an overdetermined symptom, reflecting trauma, wounded pride and dignity, hubris and undoubtedly many more causes. But I think it’s important not to let this kind of baseless claim go unchallenged. Among other extremely dangerous consequences of such an attitude are reckless errors in judgment based on groundless assertions and, even worse, a sense that little or nothing really needs to be done about the present crisis, the occupation, the conflict, etc. because the long-term outcome is preordained by an ineluctable logic deriving from unchallengeable geographic and demographic statistics.

First of all, let’s look at the historical record of what was always, from the outset, a dubious proposition at best — that demographics are destiny and that the size of the Arab population by definition guarantees the failure of Zionism. During the mandatory period, Palestinians and other Arabs were confident that the Israeli state could not be established because Palestinians constituted the overwhelming majority in Palestine. After the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948, most were confident the collective Arab intervention in the war would reverse the Palestinian defeat in the civil conflict that took place as the British mandate was falling apart. After the new Israeli state prevailed and expanded its territory in the 1948 war, the official Arab governmental and intellectual position was that Israel was a temporary aberration that would quickly be expunged. In particular in 1967 there was an absolutely irrational and deluded (I use the second term in order to emphasize the extent to which the Arab people have been lied to about this issue by leaders and opinion makers, including Nasser’s then-megaphone Haykal, not only at that time, but historically and to the present-day) certainty of victory, which made the trauma of the rapid, decisive and catastrophic defeat all the more deep and painful. I don’t think the Arab world or the Arab people have fully recovered from it even today. 1948, 1967, all the wars and all the ghastly eventualities that have taken place over many decades have, astonishingly, done little to undermine the faith that many people have in the idea that Arab territorial and demographic size spells doom for the Israeli national project.

Haykal’s commonplace but highly questionable assertion is based on an enormous set of underlying assumptions that are, it seems to me, extremely dubious. First, it assumes that in the long run, smaller powers cannot survive in the presence of ones that are larger in territory and population. I think both the sweep of human history and present Middle East and indeed global realities do not support any such idea. Second, it assumes that the Arab world was, is and/or will be united in placing the goal of eliminating Israel on the top of their national agendas. Again, both history and present reality suggest this is a dangerous assumption to make. It’s certainly true that the Arab world has been and remains strongly supportive of Palestine and quite hostile to Israel, but it’s also true that most Arab governments and much of the Arab populace have lost their taste for endless wars with Israel. There was a concerted effort to reverse the catastrophe of 1948 for a couple of decades after it occurred, but even by the 1973 war, the focus for countries like Egypt and Syria was the reconquest of their own lost territory and not a broader ambition to do with Palestine.

Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel signaled what certainly appears for the foreseeable future to be an irrevocable end to a concerted and united Arab effort to do away with the Israeli state. Since then, Jordan has signed a similar treaty, Syria and Lebanon have made it clear that they are willing to do so given the right terms as well, and the entire Arab world has endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative which embraces the formula of land for peace that would result in the recognition of Israel and normalization of relations. Whereas Israel was once surrounded by Arab states committed to its elimination, it is now surrounded by Arab states pursuing a reasonable peace agreement that would ensure Israel’s long-term survival.

Of course one could always argue, as I’m sure many people would, that this strategic shift reflects only the parochial, unprincipled and unrepresentative behavior of corrupt, self-serving ruling elites that serve at the pleasure of imperial masters, and reflects only American and Israeli interests, not the interests of the various Arab states and societies. It’s hard to argue against that kind of categorical assertion that cannot be tested or disproven — it’s based on a set of allegations about the collective attitudes of ordinary Arab people from Morocco to Iraq, and a set of extrapolations based on those allegations about what different kinds of governments (democratic, revolutionary, Islamist, or whatever people have in mind) would do differently when it comes to Israel. However, there is no basis for thinking that Arab regimes in general are about to be replaced by some radically different governments anytime in the near future and no way of anticipating what those governments would look like or what they would do if they did suddenly or even gradually emerge.

Another of the dubious assumptions behind Haykal’s glib assertion is that Arab states don’t have their own specific national interests that can or will take priority over matters regarding Israel; or that Israel will be at the top of the national security priorities for all Arab states with any governments other than the ones that currently exist; or even more fancifully that the present Arab state system will be replaced by either a pan-Arab or pan-Islamic political entity that will then focus all of its energies on a long-term project to eliminate Israel. What we have witnessed over the past few decades is logical, predictable and often unrecognized in the kind of silly pseudo-analysis of the Haykal variety: Arab states and societies have many interests and priorities, and even though Israel is extremely unpopular with most ordinary Arabs and Palestinian suffering heavily identified with, both governments and societies have increasingly focused their main energies on other problems. Indeed, for better or worse, the question of Palestine is not the main national security or national agenda priority for most Arab states and societies at the present time.

North Africa, from Morocco to Libya, has always been and remains practically and politically distant from the conflict, and all those states have other priorities. Egypt is certainly focused on Palestine as a national security issue, but not with an eye to eliminating Israel but rather containing the threat to its stability and security concentrated on the Gaza border and preventing itself from being sucked into responsibility for Gaza again as the Israeli right frequently fantasizes it can be. Jordan has similar concerns to Egypt and also views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict mainly through the lens of its own internal security. Iraq is wracked by civil conflict, occupation, rebuilding, power struggles and sectarian tensions. Like North Africa and Sudan, Yemen has always been distant from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it is now the site of two separate insurrections and a major infiltration from international terrorists taking advantage of the chaos. The Gulf states are increasingly focused on the rise of Iran as a regional hegemon that is attempting to project its power throughout the Middle East, and especially in the Persian Gulf, and which has repeatedly announced its full territorial claim on Bahrain and hinted at broader territorial ambitions as well. Indeed, much of the Arab world eyes Iran with considerable suspicion, and great anxiety about its possible rise as a nuclear as well as a hegemonic power.

This means that the only Arab societies that place Israel at the forefront of their national security concerns are, at most, the Palestinians, Lebanon and Syria. But Lebanon and Syria have made it clear that they’re willing to sign a peace treaty with Israel as long as the price is right. Moreover, for all its bluster about “resistance,” the Syrian regime has maintained the quietest border with Israel of any of its neighbors, including the ones who actually have signed treaties. Indeed, it’s one of the quietest borders in the world. Iran, Syria and others are happy to use proxies in south Lebanon and Gaza to bedevil Israel, but the idea that Syria remains committed to the eventual elimination of Israel flies in the face of both its conduct and its stated positions. Lebanon’s concerns have to do with its own vulnerability to Israeli attack and to additional possible future wars involving Hezbollah. And, while none of this means that Syria, Lebanon or the Palestinians as societies remain committed to the elimination of Israel, it is worth keeping in mind that these are the three Arab societies with territories still under Israeli occupation, which is undoubtedly the main source of tension, anger and conflict.

Certainly in the Arab world Islamists and the extreme left continue to talk in terms of the need to destroy Israel, but these comments have to be taken in the context of a quest for domestic political power in which strident populist and nationalist rhetoric is deployed in order to gain credibility and do not reflect the exigencies of actually running a country and being responsible for its foreign policy and national security. None of these groups seem to be in a position to come to power, and if they did it’s very questionable if their governing policies would reflect these attitudes.

Beyond the Arab world, Iranian leaders speak in terms of the “inevitable” downfall of the Israeli state, but again, this is calculated political rhetoric designed to appeal not only to a domestic constituency but an Arab one that otherwise might have severe doubts about the intentions of a Persian and Shiite power. In other words, outbidding everybody else on Israel is one of the best ways an Iranian leader can get otherwise skeptical Sunni Arabs to regard their hegemonic agenda in the region and nuclear ambitions sympathetically. More importantly, it’s obviously not reflected in any practical Iranian policies. Iranian financial and other support for Hamas, which is well documented, not doubted by any serious person and openly admitted by the Gaza leadership the other day, certainly qualifies as an effort to spread its influence, destabilize its rivals and take advantage of chaotic situations. But I don’t think it qualifies as part of a policy that ultimately seeks the elimination of Israel, as this would be extremely difficult and dangerous and yet not advance any obvious Iranian national interest.

My point here is that Haykal’s remarks may have seemed insightful or reasonable at first glance to people like this frankly idiotic blogger, his hosts at Al Jazeera and much of the audience, but they are based on a set of assumptions that aren’t reflected by history or the present reality, and on an imaginary future that is really quite implausible. I think it’s definitely true that Israel faces a grim future if it does not come to terms with the Palestinians, and may in the end find itself confronting forces beyond its control or comprehension. But the outcome of such a confrontation is not clear at all, especially given the fact that the Israelis have an extensive stockpile of high-tech weaponry including many scores of nuclear warheads and probably a submarine-based second strike capability as well.

Of course the same kind of foolishness is readily be found on the Israeli right as well: racist assertions of Jewish and Western superiority over the Arabs; baseless confidence that Israel’s undoubted successes in the 20th century can be indefinitely extended; a delusional, self-destructive dismissal of the Palestinians as a society and national movement that can be “defeated;” and in some extreme cases borderline-psychotic balderdash about chosen peoples, covenants with God and redemption of holy lands. Many Israelis look at their past military victories, weapons stockpile, high-technology and special relationship with the United States and much of the West, and draw the reckless and indefensible conclusion that their position in the long-run is secure and that they have no need of a reasonable, viable peace agreement with the Palestinians. There is a sense, and it’s unfortunately reflected in parts of the present Israeli Cabinet, that a reliance on brute force and a certainty that realities will remain more or less as they are now relieve Israel from any need to end the occupation or otherwise accommodate the Palestinian national project. Frankly, it’s a suicidal attitude, and there’s no other way of putting it forthrightly.

But, as I’ve tried to show above, Arabs like Haykal — who look at the map and note the geographical size and the burgeoning population of the Arab world, and thereby conclude that in the long run “victory” and the elimination of the Israeli state are “inevitable,” or who are glib about the extraordinary carnage and cataclysm for both sides that would be involved in any such eventuality — are at least as misguided. As long as the conflict and the occupation continue, and there are enough Israelis who will not reconcile themselves to a Palestinian state and enough Arabs who will not reconcile themselves to a Jewish state, both Arabs and Israelis are in a very vulnerable and exposed situation. Even though I spent a great deal of space above interrogating the dubious assumptions underlying Haykal’s facile remarks, none of it should give any comfort to supporters of the occupation, or any friends of Israel for that matter.

The point is that no one can anticipate the future, and neither side should have the least confidence in its ability to secure a maximal “victory” that consists of the permanent elimination of either the Jewish or Palestinian states respectively. It is precisely this ambition that places both societies in grave danger, because they both have, especially in the long run, the ability to do incalculable damage to each other. Almost any scenario that does not involve the realization of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and an end to the occupation instead promises the likelihood of a lose-lose outcome with no winners and horrifying consequences for all parties.

There are lessons to be drawn from both recent and deep history, but grand historical analogies are, as I have argued many times before, dangerous because they are, at some level necessarily, arbitrary. They usually illustrate more about the political orientation and ideology of those proposing them than they do about any future developments. Haykal and others seem to think Israel faces the fate of the medieval crusader state in Palestine. Others imagine that the recent South African experience is the best guide to what not only can, but will, happen between Israel and the Palestinians. Right-wing Israelis and all those opposed to the end of the occupation obviously think that the Palestinians will experience the same fate shared by the indigenous peoples of the New World. It’s remotely possible that some version of one of these scenarios might play out, but infinitely more likely that what the future holds in the Middle East is not foreseeable, predictable or analogous to any of these models. It’s also possible that the grim future I imagine in the absence of a peace agreement will be avoided as well, by some means which I cannot anticipate. But I do think the most plausible scenarios are really quite chilling, which is why, in spite of the extraordinary difficulties, I am convinced we need to press on in trying to achieve a two-state peace agreement that ends the occupation and the conflict.

The one thing I think all Israelis and their friends and all Arabs and their friends need to recognize, in contrast to the glib and frankly stupid certainties offered by people like Haykal or supporters of the occupation, is that it is entirely possible for either Israel or the Palestinians or, quite conceivably, both to lose everything.

Enduring mysteries in Hamlet

I took advantage of this recent MLK Day long weekend to reread Hamlet in light of the fascinating conversation I had with Seth Duerr, Director of the York Shakespeare Company, in New York City a few weeks ago. Among the many things we agreed on was that our opinion of Hamlet was fairly unenthusiastic, at least in comparison to some of the rest of the Shakespeare canon and in comparison to the play’s iconic cultural status. My rereading confirmed many of my reservations, but also rekindled interest in the play itself, its somewhat puzzling role in popular culture and some of the core mysteries about it that I think the lie at the heart of the fascination it continues to hold.

There’s no doubt that overall and over time Hamlet has proven to be Shakespeare’s most influential and popular play, but it has certainly endured mixed fortunes across the centuries. It was apparently very popular in its own day, with numerous references to it in several contexts, but in the 17th and early 18 centuries, critical reception was often unenthusiastic. The generic and plot-oriented formalist criticism of the Restoration period felt that Hamlet indefensibly mixed elements of comedy and tragedy, debased royalty and aristocracy, and otherwise failed to adhere to the strict rules of classical drama. It was thereby adjudged at best flawed, and at worst a failure. Nonetheless, it remained a popular performance piece with theater-going audiences. Increasingly during the 18th century, critics found Hamlet a compelling heroic figure. As modern literary criticism emerged towards the end of the century, Romantic commentators such as Coleridge, Goethe and Schlegel shifted attention from genre and plot to character and psychology, and thereby lighted on Hamlet, a play about the tension between contemplation and action and an exercise in representing interior thought in a medium that had theretofore invariably emphasized action rather than mentation, as not only Shakespeare’s greatest achievement, but perhaps all of literature’s.

Its reputation grew to almost preposterous proportions in the 19th century, which saw the rise of a fanatical cult of bardolatry with Hamlet as the jewel in the crown of the king of high culture. The 20th century saw a slow but steady decline in the fixation on Hamlet, at least among academics and critics, with modernists like T.S. Eliot drawn more to the dazzling heights of the poetry in Antony and Cleopatra, myth-oriented critics like Wilson Knight and others including many “new critics” increasingly drawn to the formal perfection of King Lear (now probably the leading candidate for “greatest Shakespeare tragedy,” whatever that means), post-colonialists to the social commentary and raw power of Othello, and new historicists to directly topical plays like The Tempest and Coriolanus (with obvious overlaps — The Tempest, for example, is also staple of postcolonial criticism, etc.) In the process, Hamlet has faded somewhat as an object of obsessive preoccupation in the Shakespeare canon among critics and academics. However, the play remains an enormously powerful force in popular culture — more than any of these late-coming rivals for the top spot — in part due to its uncanny ability to appeal to a wide audience in spite of its enormous length and extreme complexities, and in part due also to its iconic cultural status acquired during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Kline, Ethan Hawke and (sigh) Mel Gibson are among the actors and movie stars to have undertaken the role on film in recent years, and one has the impression that the Adam Sandler Hamlet cannot be all that far behind. Still, it could be worse — Richard Burton’s 1964 performance, preserved on a kind of early video, has all the quality of shock and awe, insofar as it’s shockingly awful. He seems to have confused acting with shouting, and the louder the better. If you can get past the first 20 minutes, you have more of a resistance to headaches than I do (although to be fair, Hume Cronyn did make a splendid Polonius). Branagh’s 1996 four-hour, 70 mm “uncut” epic strikes me as so self-indulgent, self-important and thoroughly over-the-top that it can only be described as obnoxious. As he delivers the third soliloquy in front of a mirror, it’s not only Hamlet addressing Hamlet, but also Branagh exulting in the glory that is Branagh. However, because its drawbacks, however breathtaking, are offset by some fine performances and imaginative production, it has to be classified as one of the least bad Hamlets on celluloid. The best one can get at home, I think, is the 1980 BBC production with Derek Jacobi doing a superb starring turn (as it happens, I saw Jacobi playing Hamlet at the Old Vic in 1978, and this TV performance is pretty close to what we got on stage), with lots of secondary performances that are at least as good, especially Patrick Stewart’s flawless, definitive Claudius. One of the most interesting things about Branagh’s 1996 version is watching an older Jacobi shift from Hamlet to Claudius, and contrasting not only Branagh’s Hamlet with Jacobi’s, but Jacobi’s Claudius with Stewart’s (I think both earlier performances win hands-down).

The point is that while the play’s stature is somewhat diminished among academics and critics, with theatergoers and in popular culture it is not and that’s reflected in the large number of (mostly bad) versions on film. There are a great many reasons why Lear, Othello and the other pretenders with their passionate academic champions remain secondary in the popular consciousness and culture, and I wouldn’t begin to try to identify, let alone explain, all of them. Obviously, as I noted above, almost 200 years of relentless drumbeat pressing its iconic status as the height of English language and even global theatrical (and possibly even literary) achievement, is the single most important element. Another is the simple fact that this is, in both its longest and second-longest versions (more on this later), the most sustained play in the Shakespeare canon and therefore the most detailed and richly drawn. Obviously, it’s always going be possible to get people to pay close attention to any compelling meditation on the mysteries of life and death that obsess the drama and its central character. And it is this very quality of mystery that I think is one of the factors that has given the play not only its iconic status, but also its enduring popularity. There are an extraordinary number of riddles and irresolvable puzzles in and surrounding Hamlet.

Some of the most well-known conundrums leave me fairly cold, insofar as I don’t think they’re that resistant to a semi-satisfactory answer.

Is Hamlet ever really crazy? I think he plainly is, and certainly when it comes to his three private and semi-private encounters with Ophelia, as he says “it hath made me mad,” in which I read a heavy and surprised emphasis on the “hath.” I think you can add to this the wrenching and incredibly powerful scene in which he berates his mother in the most obscene terms (only thinly-veiled, at most) after he has killed Polonius. In those four instances, there is almost no doubt that the character has absolutely lost self-possession, and the common theme is women and sexuality. At the simplest level, he has completely lost faith in the two women he loves, seeing his mother as at best betraying his father’s memory and at worst being an accomplice in his death, and Ophelia as being, through her father’s commands, another instrument of Claudius against him. The chronology of events suggests that it is Ophelia’s rejection of him at precisely the time when he is confronted with the ghost of his father and the monstrosity of the situation that sends him over the edge. Both women are transformed in his mind into “whores,” leading to a horror of sexuality and an obsession with sexual corruption, corporeal revulsion and syphilitic infection (the play is permeated with imagery of venereal disease). Unlike the political intrigue in the court, in which his “antic disposition” is an obvious and badly performed affectation, Hamlet’s sexual hysteria is, I think plainly, genuine and it indeed hath made him mad.

Other familiar problems have become overdetermined and stale, most notably: why does Hamlet delay?

The whole play is basically a meditation on that theme, but following Coleridge, Jones, Eliot, Wilson Knight, Lacan, Bloom, Greenblatt and everybody else, this problem has become as overworked, one might almost say scarred, as the clichéd-to-death third soliloquy (to go over this yet again, or not to go over this yet again, that is the question). It obviously needs to be continuously re-asked and answered, but must be approached obliquely to get around all that scar tissue left by hundreds of years of hacking away at the nub. And, it should not be forgotten (as it usually now is), that one of the most obvious answers is that the endless delays are a necessary plot device to keep the play going, since if revenge were taken immediately as ordered by the ghost, the drama would never make it past Act I.

In this context it is important to recall that Hamlet is firmly part of a well-established genre, the Senecan Revenge Tragedy, and that it is a distinctive feature of the Elizabethan version of the genre that the avengers hesitate, vacillate or delay for one reason or another. They also usually feign madness and consider suicide (all of this applies to the first of many English Renaissance characters of this type, Hieronimo in Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, which, like Hamlet, also includes a play-within-the-play). Vacillation or delay, for whatever reason, is an essential plot device in these narratives, but it also reflects the key hesitations in the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus in which Christ, Pilate and other key figures hesitate before taking their final, cosmically momentous decisions. In all three of these instances — hesitation, feigned madness and suicide — Shakespeare takes elements of the generic form and builds upon them in a manner that creates something new, remarkable and unique. (Horror of feminine sexuality and male hysteria about female chastity and sexual agency are also marked features of this genre, traits Hamlet shares with many other protagonists of English Renaissance revenge tragedies.)

Hesitation is an almost universal characteristic in the world of Hamlet as well, although not everyone hesitates or vacillates as much as the title character. However, Laertes certainly hesitates when he returns to Elsinore seeking revenge, and again hesitates before deliberately poisoning Hamlet during the duel. Claudius hesitates before his attempted and failed repentance. And, most tellingly of all, in the speech recited by the First Player at Hamlet’s request, Pyrrhus, shocked by a giant crashing sound, hesitates before the gruesome slaughter of Priam. I take this to be the most telling echo of the broader play of Hamlet within the First Player’s speech — not the avenging son killing the guilty father-murderer, but rather the telling moment of hesitation. The only avenging son who does not, as far as we can tell, hesitate (although he is restrained by Old Norway) is Fortinbras, who, perhaps not coincidentally, ends the play not only revenged, but on the throne of at least two countries, and with almost no effort on his part.

A corollary question, not quite so overdetermined as the first, might provide an oblique entry point: does Hamlet ever really decide to take his revenge? Has he at any point in the narrative actually resolved the contradiction between contemplation and action and decided to avenge his father proactively, or is vengeance forced on him by his enemies’ botched plot against his own life? The contradiction only really applies to the specific task of killing Claudius — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are callously dispatched and he takes bold, indeed rash, action in the killing of Polonius. It seems impossible that he would really have thought that it was the King behind the arras since he had only just gone to his mother’s chamber having left Claudius in mid-prayer unharmed. Indeed, his question upon the killing — “Is it the king?” — I think demonstrates that he is pretty sure that it isn’t. Moreover, Hamlet is an extremely cruel character with a strong sadistic streak and takes many actions to torment those he is angry with. It’s this one specific task that causes so much difficulty.

Many efforts have been made to explain this anomaly, and Hamlet struggles with it throughout the entire play. Certainly the question of his mother is at the heart of the problem. The ghost, after all, has set him what appears to be a contradictory task: take revenge on Claudius but do no harm to Gertrude. Insofar as she remains in love with her husband, it’s an impossible task. Moreover, killing the King is an act of high treason. Hamlet wishes to be king, and bitterly complains that his mother’s “o’er hasty marriage” was needed in order to ensure that Claudius rather than Hamlet acceded to the throne (this is what most strongly makes her an accomplice to the crime — her decision to quickly re-marry ensured the killer achieved what he calls “those effects for which I did the murder, my crown, mine own ambition and my queen.”). There is enough of the medieval, divine right of kings, monarchism, just enough of Richard II, in Hamlet’s worldview to make regicide, no matter how justified, an especially difficult task. But I do think that the explanation suggested by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams and later elaborated by Jones remains the most powerful reading of the problem: Hamlet’s greatest difficulty is that he is implicated in Claudius’ desires, if not his actions. The killing of Claudius becomes metaphorically and at the level of liminal and subliminal desire an act of self-accusation and self-destruction, and so it literally proves in action.

In many productions much is made of the fourth soliloquy, in which it is often said Hamlet decides to become a man of action rather than of contemplation and to do the deed at last. In Branagh’s film, it’s centrality as a turning point is unmistakable as it is staged as an outrageous set piece with the camera pulling back onto a gigantic mountainous landscape as it reaches a thoroughly overblown crescendo, coming very close to unintended parody. However, this is hardly the first time that Hamlet has resolved to kill Claudius, and, when he returns to Denmark, he does no such thing. It’s true that there doesn’t appear to be a lot of time for him to act, but circumstances are driven forward not by anything he does, but by the Claudius-Laertes plot. Hamlet accepts the challenge delivered by Osric but asserts first that he will “win at the odds,” and then in his beautiful “there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” passage he stoically accepts the prospect of his own death. But at no time does he explain how he’s going to use the occasion to fulfill his revenge, or indicate that he believes that Claudius and/or Laertes can be killed in the duel. Hamlet’s hand is forced, and there’s nothing in the plot or the action to suggest that he ever actually decides to take his revenge, at least until the point where both he and his mother are dying and there is nothing left to lose at all. Jones argues that the death of Gertrude frees Hamlet from his Oedipal conundrum and he can now kill Claudius, but I think it’s important to remember that Laertes has told him that he’s been poisoned and he himself is going to also soon die. So, whatever the causes for Hamlet’s indecision and inaction — he lists numerous reasons himself, and critics have advanced countless explanations — to me it seems to be a state that he never really overcomes, and I think understanding it requires recognizing this.

Another important question, and one that that I think is not considered carefully enough, is how we should read Hamlet’s instructions to the players on how to perform The Mousetrap. Traditionally, and even today, the advice is generally regarded as Shakespeare’s own opinion of how acting should and should not be done on stage. But I think the passage is quite different and far more complicated. There is no doubt much of it is sound advice, and at first glance it seems to make a lot of sense. However, much the same can be said of Polonius’ advice to Laertes, which is usually regarded as a mockery and as again demonstrating the old courtier’s tedious pomposity. The quality of the advice in both cases, it seems to me, is quite beside the point, and these pronouncements are not intended to be taken by the audience as either a guide for living or for acting, but rather are designed to illuminate aspects of the personalities of both characters. Polonius’ advice reveals him to be anxious, cautious, Machiavellian and self-interested. It reflects the attitude of a man who is very concerned about getting what he needs and deeply frightened about the ability of other people to take that away. His famous parting comment, “to thine own self be true,” is not about honest, introspective self-criticism, it’s about looking after numero uno. It’s certainly what Polonius does, and he’s urging his son to adopt the same cautious, politic and self-serving attitude.

Similarly, Hamlet’s advice to the players reveals a lot more about his own character than it does about the craft of acting. It shows him to be an elitist with a strong sense of propriety and a marked distaste for the popular and the entertaining. He is especially concerned that excessive clowning might attenuate the pointed message aimed at Claudius, and has very harsh words about clowns generally, and especially clowns who extemporize and ham it up. In contrast, Shakespeare adores clowns, uses them in every single play, and often attributes to them the sharpest insights. This was no aristocratic elitist, like Hamlet. Shakespeare was a money-making, populist playwright, and was much criticized for this by the university wits and others in his own time.

Moreover, Hamlet’s attack on clowns is strikingly ironic because he himself is the main clown in his own drama. Particularly when he is affecting his antic disposition in the court, his main symptoms are punning riddles, clever paradoxes, practical jokes, mockery and other attributes of a Shakespearian clown. Even more ironically, his performance as a clown is a complete failure in the sense that if it’s designed to provide him cover to develop his revenge plot, it absolutely backfires, calling a great deal more attention and suspicion to him that if he had simply and quietly gone along with things until suddenly striking, and it increasingly alarms Claudius. The other clown in the play, the gravedigger, gets the better of Hamlet every time in their comical exchanges — he’s the only person in the drama capable of not only keeping up with Hamlet’s wit, but bettering it at every stage (more evidence, I think, of Shakespeare’s profound affection for his clowns). So Hamlet’s advice to the players not only shows him to be a cerebral, overly-serious elitist (we knew that already, but it’s underlined), it also suggests a powerful blind spot about his own role and behavior. Of course, one could note that after ripping Polonius to shreds with mockery, he tells the First Player, “Follow that lord; and look you mock him not,” which might indicate that he’s consciously giving himself license to perform clowning that he disapproves of in everybody else. But it seems more reasonable and consistent to read the extemporizing and over-the-top clown Hamlet’s attack on extemporizing and over-the-top clowns and clowning as indicative of a certain blindness and self-deception in his own personality.

There are scores, and perhaps hundreds, of other enduring mysteries surrounding Hamlet, some of them not particularly fascinating, that continue to engage scholars, critics, readers and audiences. But at least one strikes me as exceptionally rich (though ultimately undecidable): what is the relationship between the three distinct versions of the play?

The earliest known published text, the 1603 First Quarto (Q1), is much shorter than the other two, and contains different and in many cases much less compelling language (“To be, or not to be, aye there’s the point, To die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all: No, to sleep, to dream, aye marry there it goes…”). When it was discovered in the early 19th century, and for many decades after, it was generally assumed that this was a first draft or a rough draft of the final product, but this view is now generally rejected for a variety of complicated reasons. Q1 is one of the quintessential “bad quartos” that have historically been regarded as garbled versions of the real thing. It’s still not highly regarded, although it is heavily studied, in academic circles, but many actors have expressed appreciation for the pacing of this much shorter version of the play, and there have been numerous performances of Q1 in the past hundred years or so (John Gielgud called it “Hamlet with the brakes off.”)

The 1604 Second Quarto (Q2) is more than twice as long as Q1, contains much more familiar and obviously superior poetry, and because of its length is often considered to be definitive. The 1623 First Folio (F1) is much closer to Q2 than Q1, but is missing a good deal of Q2 material and introduces or restores some very important passages — most notably the extended conversation about the children’s acting companies that seems to reflect the theatrical rivalries in London at the start of the 17th century, precisely when Hamlet is generally held to have been written. F1 is also given primacy in many cases because F1′s texts appear to have been much more carefully prepared and presented than any of the quarto editions of the plays, and they come with stamps of approval from Shakespeare’s acting fellows John Heminges and Henry Condell, and from Ben Jonson.

It’s not really possible to hold to an obvious chronology of composition that coincides with the order of publication leading from Q1 to Q2 to F1. But the current theory en vogue which holds that composition actually went from Q2 to F1 to Q1 makes very little sense to me because of the obvious deficiencies in the language of Q1 — I mean, radical cuts for staging are obviously needed (Branagh’s four-hour plus “uncut” version combines all of Q2 and F1 with pretty dire consequences for the audience), but why on earth would anyone deliberately jettison the often profoundly superior passages in Q2/F1 for the comparatively awful stuff sometimes found in Q1 (as in the opening of the third soliloquy cited above)? And then, of course, there is the additional complication of the relationship of Shakespeare’s “foul papers” (his discarded and long-lost working manuscripts) to these three very different versions of the play. Like so much else regarding Hamlet, the mystery of the nature of the relationship between the different versions of the text and the really strange conundrum of the chronology of its composition is both fascinating and ultimately irresolvable.

The importance of truth

The Arab-American community is routinely subjected to political nonsense on the Internet and in many other media and forums. The most damaging form of nonsense is not bad analysis or angry idiocy, damaging though that certainly is, but factual inaccuracy and blatant falsehoods that are all too common and create serious confusion and misapprehension. If we don’t have our facts right, there is no hope of coming to an accurate analysis. Without an accurate analysis, there is no hope of coming up with a workable strategy to deal with a situation. Extraordinary and extravagant nonsense is to be readily found, but at some point someone has to draw the line.

When I was communications director of ADC, there were numerous occasions in which we had to intervene with public statements to clarify misapprehensions, rumors and false information that were circulating through the Internet and causing harm in the Arab-American community. When the second intifada began, a rash of forged advertisements purporting to show the enthusiasm of various corporations like Coke and McDonald’s for Israel circulated online and were believed in by very large numbers of people. It took a great deal of our effort to convince many people that these were crude forgeries. The same thing applied to ridiculous rumors about various corporations supposedly donating percentages of their profits to the Israeli military.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a rumor spread like wildfire online that a nonexistent Argentinian professor in a nonexistent University who maintained a nonexistent database of news footage had demonstrated that images of a tiny handful of Palestinians celebrating the attacks was actually footage from the time of the first Gulf War in 1990-91. This was, unfortunately, completely false. But it quickly gained so much currency, and was so demonstrably false, that we felt compelled to issue a statement refuting it and confirming that the footage was, most regrettably, genuine, although it certainly didn’t reflect the generalized Palestinian sentiment.

These are only two examples among many of the instances in which when I was at ADC we took it as part of our mission to not only make sure that what we were saying was accurate but also to advise people when wild inaccuracies were coming from other quarters. These days, it seems there isn’t anybody prominent in the Arab-American community who is playing the role of proactively and authoritatively putting the brakes on falsehoods, rumors and nonsense, and that’s extremely unfortunate.

The most recent case in point was a press release issued yesterday (somewhat ironically) by my former employers and colleagues at ADC that announced, with some fanfare, that the IRS had pledged to investigate tax-exempt funding for Israeli settlement activities in the occupied territories. Obviously, the subject line which contained this “information” was exciting and I immediately read the e-mail in hopes of learning about the IRS’s pledge to get tough on settlement funding by tax exempt US organizations. I was utterly dismayed to find that there is, in fact, no truth to this at all.

Here’s the truth: IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman appeared on a local Washington DC public radio call-in program and was asked by a caller about the problem of settlement funding by tax exempt US organizations and what the IRS would do about it, if anything. This is an excellent question, and I think there’s no doubt that the IRS should be pressed to take such action. It would be wonderful if they really pledged to do so and even better if they actually did. Unfortunately, Mr. Shulman, rather than giving any kind of pledge to investigate settlement funding as advertised, merely gave the following generic answer: “I really don’t know the specifics of the case that they brought up. But if I wasn’t clear, if a charity is breaking the tax law, is engaged in activities that they are not supposed to be engaged in, we certainly will go after them. Every year we pull 501(c)(3) charity status from a number of charities. We’ve got thousands of audits going on regarding charities, and so we don’t hesitate to administer the tax laws and make sure that people are following the rules.”

I’m sorry, and I wish this were not the case, but this is NOT a pledge to investigate settlement funding by tax-exempt organizations, and even though he was asked directly by the show’s guest host, Susan Page, if settlement activity funding was illegal or violated 501(c)(3) tax status, Mr. Shulman did not express any opinion on the question. He simply said he was going to enforce the tax law in all cases. What else is he going to say? It’s an obvious and standard dodge to a question that is either unanticipated, uncomfortable, or difficult to answer for an official to give a generic pledge to uphold the law or fulfill the mission which they have been appointed to perform. I immediately had to ask myself if ADC thinks it’s being clever by spinning this answer in this frankly ridiculous way in order to try to create a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, and that if we all say the IRS has pledged to investigate settlement funding enough, even if they haven’t, then perhaps they actually would. Or, perhaps they genuinely fail to appreciate the actual meaning of the Commissioner’s remarks. I’m not sure which it is, and I’m not sure which is worse.

Having been excited and then disappointed by this indefensible bait-and-switch of falsehood and truth, I decided to try to find out more about the matter. This proved even more depressing. ADC’s press release is simply a warmed over version of a statement issued on January 11 by some outfit called the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy (no, I’ve never heard of them either), whose director was the individual who asked Mr. Shulman the question on the call-in show to which he gave that generic reply. The organization then issued a statement claiming that, “Commissioner Douglas Shulman today publicly committed the Internal Revenue Service to fighting US charities that launder tax exempt US donations into illegal Israeli West Bank settlement activities.”

So that’s the genesis of this particular tidbit of hogwash: a staffer at a small and virtually unknown organization asked an official a very good and politically sensitive question, got a generic reply, and then decided to spin it wildly and grossly inaccurately for not very mysterious reasons. Why, on the other hand, ADC decided to parrot this rubbish, thereby spreading it far and wide in the Arab-American community, is simply incomprehensible, but obviously at some level they thought it would be in their interests to do so.

At some point we have to decide whether or not we value the truth, both as a category for its own sake and as an important element of effective political engagement. Obviously, everybody prefers to hear what they wish to hear, and everybody wants to put their own spin on matters, but at a deeper level telling people things that you know, or certainly should know, are totally inaccurate doesn’t serve any useful or defensible purpose. It gives people the wrong impression leading to mistakes of judgment and it makes you look pretty silly in the process. Everyone gets their facts wrong sometimes, but errors have to be corrected and one ought to try in so far as possible not to give people false information. Analysis, evaluation and interpretation are another matter. But I can’t see any rational, responsible explanation for saying something has happened when it simply and obviously hasn’t happened.

Of course, it’s not mysterious why people do this: it’s pandering and an effort to generate positive responses in the target audience whether or not there is any validity to the claim. I’m not trying to single out or pick on ADC, although that might sound a little hollow at this point, because many organizations and media outlets in the Arab-American community do this sort of thing all the time. But it’s particularly poignant to me because when I was working there we did our best to try to be the grown-ups and clear up inaccuracies and falsehoods even when we could easily have ignored them. We tried to tell people what they needed to hear as opposed to what they necessarily wanted to hear.

Probably the greatest single source of misleading information among Arab-Americans has to do with the boycott movement. My regular readers will know that I take a nuanced position supportive of certain kinds of boycotts and skeptical of others. They will also know that I’m quite skeptical that a large number of major American institutions can be convinced to divest from Israel and I think the difficulties of achieving this goal are greatly underestimated by a lot of people. Nothing would please me more than to be proven wrong, but my opinions are not based on a lack of knowledge and experience. One of the most salient features of BDS rhetoric is the rather large number of reported successes that turn out, on closer inspection, to be either nothing of the kind, or certainly very different than they are being portrayed.

In numerous instances including Hampshire College a large investment fund and several other recent and highly publicized cases, the entities that supposedly divested from Israel insist loudly and publicly that they did no such thing and that their actions were not prompted by political motivations. These statements are almost always ignored in BDS rhetoric, so that it would be and indeed is entirely possible for people to hear about these developments and not realize that the entities that were supposedly making a political statement by divesting in fact have gone to great lengths to insist that they are not making any political statement or taking a political action. It could be argued that the reality is murkier and that either pressure from pro-Palestinian organizations that prompted consideration of the issue played a role in the eventual decision no matter what the institutions say, or that the institutions are actually taking a powerful political action in spite of their denials. I would say that whatever the reality of the motivations behind some of these actions, if the entity supposedly making a political statement denies that they are making a political statement, then as a practical matter and in reality they are not making a political statement, and it’s misleading to tell people that they have. In instance after instance I find that some of the most celebrated supposed acts of divestment prove on closer inspection to be either nothing of the kind, or at best extremely murky and difficult to interpret.

My objection to being repeatedly told that something has happened, only to discover that, in fact, it hasn’t, is not in any way based on my opinion about whether it should happen or not. I think it would be great if the IRS actually started investigating tax exempt funding for Israeli settlement activities, and I think the more pressure that’s put on them to do it, the better. This whole posting was prompted by my disappointment to learn that there is no basis for thinking they’re going to do that even though I received an e-mail from my former colleagues alleging that they pledged to. I’m not opposed to boycotts as much as I’m skeptical about their plausibility and efficacy (there is a difference, but this is lost on a lot of people who are passionate about the issue), and I think certain kinds of boycotts are extremely useful. I don’t look into these matters hoping to find out that supposed acts of divestment from Israel didn’t actually take place as advertised. But it’s certainly an annoying, unnecessary and indefensible burden to place on your audience if they have to fact-check everything you say because of the amount of inaccuracies you are tossing in their direction, the awkward facts you leave out or a level of spinning that constitutes misleading manipulation.

I don’t question the personal or political motivations of organizations and individuals that engage in this kind of distortion of reality in order to advance their often laudable goals. But I do question their judgment and their tactics. And I think there’s no doubt that this sort of thing does harm. Like all other people, and perhaps even more than most, Arab-Americans frequently are not in possession of very good bullshit detectors, and those who put themselves forward as communicators, whatever their political orientation, have an obligation to at least get the basic facts right. This is yet another Ibishblog posting that isn’t going to win me any friends, but as a member of the target audience of various Arab American websites, publications, blogs and e-mail lists I have a right to be annoyed when someone has told me something that I can easily discover is simply untrue. Moreover, someone has to be the grown-up and say, stop talking crap.

Time to add a bottom-up approach to Middle East peacemaking

The Obama administration deserves credit and praise for its determination to push forward with Middle East peace diplomacy. It is very reassuring that the administration has not regarded the frustrations and false starts of 2009 as evidence that nothing can be accomplished or that efforts are being wasted. It is vital that the United States continue to pursue progress towards peace on a variety of fronts, including at the diplomatic register. However, given the extremely difficult internal political circumstances in Israel and among the Palestinians, a healthy skepticism about what can be accomplished in the near term is warranted and serious consideration of innovations and parallel tracks is required.

For all of the considerable efforts and expenditure of political capital by Pres. Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, Special Envoy Mitchell, National Security Advisory Jones and the others, last year the administration was confronted by weakened leaders on all sides who lacked either the ability or the will, or both, to make dramatic moves towards a peace agreement. Prime Minister Netanyahu is clearly hamstrung by a crazy-quilt coalition that includes several parties and many individuals to his political right. He has coalition partners he relies upon that are overtly opposed to any realistic peace agreement. Moreover, his coalition is unsteady, and he does not even have the largest party in the Knesset. So there is no doubt that his ability to maneuver is limited.

However, there are also serious questions about his intentions. Historically, and maybe still in his heart of hearts, Netanyahu is of the party in Israel that does not believe an agreement is possible, or at the very least, that if it is possible, it will not end the conflict. There are at least two factors that may, however, have shifted his perspective in recent years.

First, many right-wing Israeli leaders have reluctantly come to recognize that peace based on two states is a strategic necessity for Israel. If Netanyahu has made this psychological and political breakthrough, he would be only the latest in a long line of individuals who have come to this conclusion privately, although the critical mass to push Israel into serious pursuit of such an agreement has yet to be developed. As it stands now, and as the vigorous debate in the Israeli press on the subject reflects, it’s really not possible to know what Netanyahu currently believes about whether or not a painful, difficult but workable peace agreement with the Palestinians is a strategic imperative for Israel. No one should dismiss the possibility that he does, but no one should be sanguine about it either. He has adopted a sphinx-like posture on the subject, preferring to remain an enigma to friends, rivals and opponents.

Second, this preference for ambiguity on the part of the Israeli Prime Minister is a reflection of his character as a pragmatic and indeed opportunistic politician who has shown many times in the past that he is willing to do whatever is necessary, within limits, to acquire and maintain power. It’s been pretty clear for quite some time that Netanyahu belongs to what we might call the “deal-making class” of political actors, and this is reflected in his ability to assemble a coalition partnership that makes absolutely no sense ideologically or programmatically, but makes perfect sense in terms of political power, beginning with his own. That his ideological fervor is tempered with a pragmatic sense of bowing to what is necessary was also demonstrated during his first tenure in office on several occasions. That Netanyahu is at heart a hawk, and expansionist and a greater-Israel ideologue is really not open to question. The question is, does he now or will he come to see that a reasonable, workable peace agreement with the Palestinians is essential to either his own interests or his country’s, or both? Such a conclusion is by no means difficult to imagine, even if it cuts against the grain of deeply-seated inclinations.

Netanyahu’s calculated ambiguity on his intentions regarding peace with the Palestinians is a reflection of both his own pragmatism and the political cost of having an unambiguous position either way. There would be a heavy political price to pay with his right wing coalition partners if he were to seriously and unambiguously embrace an agenda that pursued a workable peace agreement, since this would involve a willingness to compromise on shibboleths and cross the Israeli far-right’s red lines. On the other hand, it’s clear that the Obama administration has no patience for an Israeli position that unambiguously rejects the concept of a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians, and Netanyahu’s highly attenuated and apparently reluctant acceptance of this principle a few months ago was plainly designed to appease the United States. So was the limited, temporary, partial and semi-fraudulent settlement freeze that is now ongoing, for what it’s worth. These measures go further than Netanyahu ever has in the past, or suggested he would, but they’re not obviously reflective of a government that has a real commitment to seriously pursuing a peace deal.

So in the case of Netanyahu, one can easily see the political limitations on his ability to pursue serious measures that advance peace, and one can easily argue and be forgiven for strongly suspecting that his fundamental attitudes have not, in fact, shifted. On the other hand, there are also firm grounds for suspecting that if he becomes convinced that pursuing peace is a political necessity, he would be willing to do so. It’s by no means inconceivable that in a different coalition, or with a different diplomatic or strategic environment in place, Netanyahu could, as many other right-wing Israeli politicians have in the past, surprise both friend and foe alike. But don’t hold your breath.

Regarding the intentions of the senior PLO and PA leaderships, there can be no serious doubt. They have based their entire political as well as diplomatic strategy on negotiations and peace, gambled everything on this hand and doubled down on it too. The status quo, although some on the Israeli right like to kid themselves about this, is not something the Palestinian leadership can live with for very long. The nationalist leadership is in a zero-sum competition for political authority in the Palestinian national movement with Islamists led by Hamas. These two factions agree on virtually nothing, including the national strategy for liberation and the future of Palestine, as well as the nature and character of Palestinian society. If the peace-oriented strategy of the PLO were to decisively fail over the coming decade or so, there is almost no question that the outcome would be the collapse, marginalization and possibly even disappearance of the PLO itself, or at least as we have known it, and its replacement by Hamas and/or other Islamists. Therefore, both in terms of their personal and ideological inclinations and because of their political interests and indeed survival, the commitment of the Palestinian leadership to a peace agreement can’t really be seriously doubted.

However, its political strength, authority and ability to take bold, decisive actions that show leadership and incur significant costs are all in question. The new PA security forces have done a lot to deliver security to the Palestinian public where they operate and to live up to Palestinian obligations under the roadmap, and progress has been made on numerous other issues in the West Bank. However, the leadership was obviously badly weakened over the past few years due to its irreconcilable differences and wide-ranging confrontation with Hamas, and the loss of power in Gaza.

2009 was a very complicated year for the PLO. For the first six months, the organization and especially Fatah party enjoyed a resurgence of credibility, popularity and authority based on guarded optimism springing from the Obama administration’s re-engagement with the peace process and push for a settlement freeze, and the extremely successful Fatah General Party Congress in Bethlehem. Unfortunately, the last six months of last year involved a series of severe blows to the PLO’s credibility and popularity and its internal political standing in Palestinian society. The Obama administration’s failure to achieve a full settlement freeze followed by its insistence of a Palestinian return to negotiations without a meaningful freeze resonated damagingly with deep-seated cynicism about the peace process, Israel’s intentions and the American role among Palestinians at the expense of the credibility of the PLO. The Goldstone report fiasco — which was partly a result of the unavoidable contradiction between the Palestinian leadership’s diplomatic imperatives on the one hand and domestic political necessities on the other, and partly due to their own prodigious mishandling of the affair — proved another extremely damaging blow. The last straw was probably Secretary Clinton’s poorly phrased and misunderstood comments that seemed to imply a certain degree of satisfaction in the administration with Israel’s gestures. Although this false impression was quickly corrected by many officials, including Secretary Clinton herself, the damage was done.

The point here is that the political weakness of the Palestinian leadership, although its intentions cannot seriously be questioned, has become extremely problematic. The current position is that the United States is trying to convince the Palestinians to return to final status negotiations, but at this point does not have a settlement freeze or workable terms of reference to offer them. The situation is so precarious that the Palestinian leadership obviously feels that it cannot simply return to negotiations under these conditions, but requires some additional measures, assurances or guarantees, along with clearly defined and appropriate terms of reference, not only for strategic and diplomatic reasons, but for domestic political reasons as well. Many ideas for how to square this circle are circulating in Washington, but it does not appear that in spite of last week’s Middle East visit by Jones and Mitchell’s visit that begins today the administration has made any firm decisions on how to proceed.

This caution is commendable. It is imperative that the administration remains actively engaged in the process at the very highest levels and spares no efforts to achieve progress. However, it is also essential that all parties avoid the potential disaster of getting into high-level, formal permanent status negotiations that result in some sort of spectacular, public failure or collapse. We have seen in the past what the results of such spectacular failures can be, especially when the Palestinian political scene is particularly volatile. Now is precisely such a time. My concern about the potential fallout from a spectacularly failed high-level negotiation is much greater now than it was before the fall, precisely because the Palestinian political scene has become very highly charged and very finely balanced. The diplomatic process must continue, and continue to accelerate, but the timing and conditions for formal, high-level permanent status talks need to be carefully determined in order to assure that not only is failure manageable and not catastrophic, but that failure is also unlikely.

There are a number of safety-nets that deserve and require sustained, serious attention. First of all, it is necessary to get the structure and terms of reference of the talks right. If serious permanent status issues such as Jerusalem are off the agenda or tabled for some indefinite period and future date, to take one of the broadest and crudest examples possible, the talks will be doomed to failure from the outset. Netanyahu is demanding negotiations without preconditions, which might be workable in terms of the settlement freeze issue, but is certainly not workable when it comes to terms of reference and permanent status issues. Those are not conditions, they are necessary mutual understandings about what is being talked about and to what end in order to avoid getting into another situation in which the two sides are talking past each other and trying to raise mutually exclusive issues or keep essential matters out of the discussion. In other words, the top-down world of diplomacy is right now operating in a political context of great delicacy, and care and caution needs to taken to avoid the pitfalls created by this highly charged atmosphere.

These grave difficulties confronting the diplomatic track at the moment necessitate serious attention, support and funding for the parallel bottom-up approach that concentrates on positive changes on the ground. The PA state and institution building program announced this summer is increasingly being recognized in Washington and by the administration as an essential component in the array of necessary measures required to produce a successful peace initiative. Recent remarks by Mitchell urging international donors to support the program indicate that it is starting to become an integral part of the administration’s agenda, and not a minute too soon. The program, which would unilaterally develop Palestinian administrative, infrastructural and economic institutions with an eye to independence in the near future, provides a parallel track that is entirely supportive of the diplomatic register, and provides an alternative source of momentum towards peace that is independent of a diplomatic process which can and is now being greatly complicated by political considerations. It is nonviolent, constructive, not inimical to any of Israel’s legitimate interests or concerns, and has been rhetorically supported by almost all international actors.

Now is the time for the United States and the rest of the international community to take advantage of this crucial component of Middle East peace-building. The state and institution building agenda has been almost universally praised, but has also been far too often ignored or treated casually, and has not enjoyed the attention or support it deserves from governments, multilateral institutions, corporations, NGOs or the media. While it is essential that the Obama administration continue to pursue the top-down diplomatic agenda with as much vigor, wisdom and caution possible, it is just as important for all actors to embrace and engage with the bottom-up state and institution building plan that will complement, reinforce and protect the diplomatic track, and lay the essential components on the ground for a Palestinian state, when it is established, to be successful.

The TSA, discrimination and profiling in the United States

The new TSA security directive following the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit raises the specter of ethnic and religious profiling in the most direct way since the 9/11 attacks. The first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that the primary blame for all kinds of negative fallout from terrorist attacks — whether they succeed in killing the innocent or, as in this case, are simply a halfwit setting fire to his own trousers — belongs squarely with the terrorists themselves and with their sympathizers. Other than the individuals directly affected by these attacks and their families, the maximum negative impact stemming from violent outrages by self-described “salafist-jihadist” groups like Al Qaeda, or solo actors imbued with their ideology like the Fort Hood murderer Maj. Hasan is borne by the Arab and Muslim American communities. Just as these dangerous extremists are the single greatest threat to Arab and other Muslim societies in Asia and Africa at the present moment, they and their supporters also pose the most serious dangers to Arab and Muslim Americans and their ability to thrive in the United States and other Western societies.

Ever since the 9/11 attacks, a veritable cottage industry of self-appointed “terrorism experts,” grandstanding members of Congress, right-wing ideologues, anti-Arab racists and Islamophobic bigots have been demanding that the government institute systematic discrimination against people of Arab ethnic origin or Muslim religious affiliation. The government’s response has been complex. With the exception of a couple of short-lived policies, broadbrush profiling that would affect US citizens has heretofore been rejected by the government as unworkable and ineffective. Indeed, it’s extremely revealing that there was probably more profiling going on at airports before the 9/11 attacks than afterwards, largely because the authorities suddenly had to take airport security much more seriously and therefore recognize that crude ethnic profiling is absolutely pointless.

However, the government did institute a large number of policies regarding immigration and immigration law enforcement that discriminate against, or rather between, non-US citizens on a whole range of subjects. Courts have historically held that immigration policy and law enforcement are essentially branches of foreign policy, subject to the discretionary authority of the executive. Citizens of different states may therefore be treated very differently simply on the basis of their nationality (it is unconscionable but not unconstitutional that historically and typically refugees from Cuba have been virtually guaranteed green cards and eventual citizenship while refugees from Haiti have frequently found themselves in mass detention centers). The post-9/11 restructuring of US immigration policy and law enforcement without question dragged the United States into levels of discrimination that had not been seen for many decades, however these policies were strictly limited to affecting foreign nationals and not US citizens.

The new security directive holds that any individual traveling from or through a list of 14 countries — Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen — will be subjected to as yet not fully specified enhanced security scrutiny and measures. The first question worth asking is, does this mean a return to crude forms of profiling by the federal government? I think the answer is, not quite. But it’s certainly the most dramatic step in that direction in the past 10 years and therefore quite troubling. There is an argument, of course, that the new policies do in fact rise to the level of profiling: there is no question there will be disparate impact for people with origins in those societies, therefore the policy is plainly discriminatory. In addition, the list of countries is fairly homogenous: with the exception of Cuba, all of them are Muslim-majority states (or, in the cases of Nigeria and Lebanon, Muslim-plurality states). Therefore, it might be argued with some justification that this list of countries uses national origin as a proxy for religious affiliation.

On the other hand, it might be pointed out that the policy apparently does not distinguish between which kinds of travelers traveling from or through the countries in question will be subjected to the new measures. The disparate impact is unavoidable, but in theory the policy ought to apply to everyone traveling from or through these destinations, thereby mitigating the overt discrimination built into the policy. More tellingly, the policy does not apply to most Muslim-majority states, or most Arab states for that matter. Therefore, disparate impact and discrimination are not tied simply to ethnicity or religious affiliation, or to national origin or nationality as such, but to the act of traveling from or through certain states. This may be cold comfort regarding a policy that is plainly going to be discriminatory and involve disparate impact on specific groups (especially Arabs), but I don’t think this policy can be described accurately as involving profiling as such. It is definitely a major step in that direction, but it hasn’t arrived there quite yet.

The worst aspect of the new directive, of course, is that it will almost certainly be completely useless as a security and counterterrorism measure. It’s often an unrecognized reality among Arab and Muslim Americans that our communities have an almost incalculable stake in effective security and counterterrorism policies, since it is our communities that suffer most directly from the social and political consequences of the words and deeds of Muslim extremists. All such policies need to be examined carefully on a case-by-case basis in order to determine first of all if they will actually make anybody any safer, as well as whether they are consistent with American laws and core values. The new directive is almost certainly consistent with the law, and enjoys an uneasy relationship with core American values as it will have a discriminatory impact, but it crucially and definitively fails the test of effectiveness. It can’t possibly make us safer, and I think almost everyone who is serious about security and counterterrorism understands this.

As with so much of post-9/11 air travel security measures, the new policy seems designed to mollify the public and allow the government to claim that they are taking dramatic and effective action. There is no basis whatsoever for thinking that enhanced measures for anyone traveling from or through this, not exactly random but certainly somewhat arbitrary, list of countries is actually going to make anybody any safer or make it more difficult for terrorists to attempt to murder people on airplanes. True enough, the malevolent clown who set his pants on fire on Christmas Day began his journey in Lagos, but he was passing through Amsterdam. Like the 9/11 attacks themselves that were cooked up in Hamburg, a huge percentage of terrorism from Muslim extremists aimed at the United States seems to have its origins in Western Europe. But, of course, it wouldn’t make any more sense if Germany, Britain, Holland, Spain and so forth were added to the list either. It is extremely helpful that virtually all serious security and counterterrorism experts who have opined on the new policy have expressed a negative opinion, ranging from serious doubts about its efficacy to outright scorn at the foolishness and wastefulness of such a silly approach. Since the policy appears to have virtually no support from the experts and professionals, its long-term future is questionable. We’ve already seen a number of ill-conceived post-9/11 security measures shelved because they proved even more idiotic in practice than they looked on paper.

So there is no doubt that the TSA is instituting a policy that is both discriminatory and extremely silly, but I really don’t think it can honestly be described as fully-fledged profiling either. I understand the political motivation for labeling what is a foolish and in effect discriminatory policy as “profiling,” since this term is often used as a synonym for all kinds of forms of discrimination that are not, in fact, profiling as such. But I think it’s probably more useful to try to develop accurate, precise language to describe a troubling and wrongheaded new policy, and that an effective critique is better based on careful accuracy rather than emotional appeals. In fact, widespread, systematic profiling on the basis of Arab ethnicity or Muslim religious affiliation, including US citizens, is unlikely to emerge in the foreseeable future, first because it would be a huge waste of resources which all serious people would readily understand would be totally ineffective, and second because as a practical matter there is no method for distinguishing who is an Arab or, even more absurdly, who is a Muslim. Obviously it would be a tragicomedy of errors and absurdities if thousands of TSA and other security employees were to try to distinguish who is an Arab or Muslim based on appearance or name. Quite simply it can’t be done, even if there were an argument for doing it (which there isn’t).

The proponents of profiling don’t recognize this, of course. Many of them seem to live in an imaginary world where you can simply look at someone or read someone’s name and instantly and accurately distinguish who is an Arab and/or a Muslim. This is obviously a holdover from the historic cultural attitudes in the United States that were shaped by a society generally divided between black and white Americans with the false assumption that the distinctions were readily apparent on sight. There are also proponents of profiling who understand this problem but choose to ignore it because they realize that it makes their arguments completely untenable. But obviously the first question to be asked of anyone who proposes crude ethnic or religious profiling is, how will your average security agent accurately identify the targeted profile? As yet, I have not encountered a proponent of profiling who had a reasonable answer to this most obvious question, and the provisions of the new directive only emphasize these difficulties by creating a blanket category based on the objective and easily determinable fact that someone has traveled from or through a very specific set of countries.

Finally, for all those who worry about the adoption in the United States of systematic ethnic or religious profiling against Arabs and/or Muslims, there is therefore an obvious trigger for major concern that such a policy may actually be emerging. The day that policy advocates, security experts, counterterrorism professionals, members of Congress and so forth actually begin seriously discussing the need for new compulsory national identification cards or a national database that identifies people on the basis of their ethnicity and/or religious affiliation is the day that serious, systematic profiling becomes a real threat in the United States. Such a system of classification is the sine qua non for any really existing program of broad-based profiling, although implementing it would almost certainly be unconstitutional. But as long as people are talking in vague terms about ethnic or religious profiling without any system for identifying the targets of a profile, we are in the realm of grandstanding, balderdash and the imaginary. That the TSA’s new directive is discriminatory because it will have a disparate impact on numerous Arabs and Muslims who travel most frequently to the listed countries is unquestionable. That it will fail to enhance airline security is also unfortunately almost certain. But until we begin to move in the direction of the government systematically classifying people on the basis of ethnicity and/or religion, an actual system of profiling Arabs and Muslims in general will remain the fantasy of bigots and not the policy of the state.