January 19, 2004

Diplomacy 101: Sample Foreign Service Exam Question

You are the American Ambassador to, say, Egypt. You attend an exhibition opening. There is a piece of art depicting a smiling Mohammed Atta, perhaps on a plane, flying above a pool of blood with a wicked smile on his face.

You think that the artwork glorifies, in horrific fashion, the events of 9/11. To add insult to injury, this artwork is showcased during a Cairo conference aimed at analyzing conflict resolution initiatives post 9/11.

You:

a) Politely continue to make your way through the exhibit (despite your deep anger and discomfort) and keep your diplomatic wits about you;
b) Leave (in a fit of disgust) the exhibit abruptly without telling your hosts why;
c) Register a verbal protest to both the artist and museum curator/director about the work of art expressing, in forceful terms, how reprehensible you think it is;
d) Destroy the installation (as a pre-planned protest); or
e) Destroy the installation (in a fit of spontaneous rage).

I would pick choice "c". But, in a roughly analogous event (substitute a smiling Palestinian suicide bomber for Atta) the Israeli Ambassador to Stockholm picked "d" (Note: it's being mostly depicted as "e" in the press--but it appears the Ambassador had pre-planned his protest.)

Leave aside that the "artist" (himself a Swedish Jew) sounds hugely lame and that the caliber of his "installation" (like so much cutting-edge contemporary, er, "art" is underwhelming).

Leave aside the moronic title of the piece ("Snow White and the Madness of Truth", highly offensive, as "Snow White" is the artist's appellation for the female suicide bomber) and the artist's risible description of himself as an "eye-bleeding ultimate composer of intifadic and eruptive lung-outs."

Leave aside the Stockholm museum director's hyperbole that the Israeli Ambassador "pulled out the plugs and threw one of the spotlights into the fountain, which caused the entire installation to short-circuit and made it totally life-threatening..." (What is, "totally life-threatening", of course, are Islamic Jihad suicide bombers entering cafes and restaurants and blowing themselves up).

And even, as I don't think it's ultimately irrelevant, leave aside that this exhibit was taking place contemporaneously with a conference initiated by the Swedish government on the lessons of the Holocaust.

Now, you could make an argument that free speech runs both ways. The Swedish Jewish artist enjoys freedom of artistic expression, and the Israeli Ambassador has the right to symbolic protest.

Indeed, given postmodern trends towards 'interactivity" with artwork and such--the Ambassador's actions might not prove as atypical as we think.

Offended or underwhelmed by the latest offerings at the next Whitney biennial? Well, pull the plug on the thing.

But such semi-serious musings aside, here are the deeper issues at play.

To better understand them, check out the text accompanying the artwork.

There is a piece up in Haaretz that describes the text as "beautiful." I find it, rather, discomfortingly relativistic.

But the opinion writer in Haaretz still has a point when he writes:

"This is a beautiful text. It has one serious flaw: it violates an Israeli taboo whereby it is prohibited to look hard at the faces of the suicide terrorists. Breaking this taboo made the Israeli ambassador blow a fuse. However, the ambassador gave us the code for what is happening here, not there, and it is no different from the days when "Queen of the Bathtub," Hanoch Levin's play that satirized Golda Meir's government, was withdrawn from the stage of the Cameri Theater. Now the theaters are cautious. There is nothing really political in them. Similarly, there was the "punishment of Jose Saramago," whose tens of thousands of readers boycotted his important book "Blindness." And there are many other examples." [emphasis added].

What lies behind the faces of these suicide bombers? A female lawyer? A young mother of two?

David Adesnik, a few days back, wrote:

"But as Golda Meir said many, many years ago, there will be no peace until the Arabs love their children more than they hate Israel."

That's too easy. The female suicide bomber probably did love her children more than she hated Israel. The real question is, what nevertheless caused her to commit murder and kill herself in the process?

We need to better plumb the motivations behind the scourge of suicide bombing. The "artist" in Stockholm was attempting that--but in an inflammatory, sophomoric and insensitive fashion.

More serious people need to give it thought, however, and not merely by describing "Palestinian Family Values" as barbaric or the "Arabs," writ large, as a demented lot so consumed by anti-semitism that they will trample over the interests of their families--so vitriolic their hatred towards the "Zionist entity."

The reality is much more complex. A collective psychosis hasn't singled out Arabs or Palestinians as singularly devoid of human fellow-feeling and decency. Conditions surrounding their plight must be taken into account too.

Here's more on the story.

Another key point:

"Despite the blunt statements of support from the prime minister and foreign minister, diplomatic sources in Jerusalem on Sunday were not happy with what they called "the festival of support" for Mazel and his action. The sources said they worried Israeli diplomatic efforts to defend the government's policies toward the Palestinians and territories were adopting a strategy of "losing control," with diplomats dropping diplomatic niceties to adopt unusual and unconventional methods of protest that could harm the reputations of Israeli diplomats."

That's why, all told, choice "c" above was the way to go--despite support voiced by Arik Sharon, Ehud Barak, and the Israeli FM for the Ambassador's actions.

UPDATE:

Reader Daniel Aronstein writes in:

1) never has there been a post-modern piece whose title - and subject - better captured the vapidity, mendacity, immorality, banality, elitism, silliness, and ugliness of post-modernism: "snow white and the madness of truth"

2) - outrage at genocide (or those aiding, abetting, condoning, or glorifying it) is not MERELY honorable, admirable, and moral - it is IMPERATIVE.

3 - if you leave aside everything, nothing is left; there's nothing outrageous leftover for those of us with the courage of our convictions to attack.

He also admonishes me thus: "do not apologize for genocide or those that would. It is shameful, wrong, and self-defeating."

I'll let B.D. readers decide if this is what I've done in my post above.

Finally, Daniel sends in this additional information worth reading:

SWEDISH 'ART' OUTRAGE

"On January 16, Israel's ambassador to Sweden, Zvi Mazel, attended a Stockholm art show linked to an international conference on preventing genocide. Mazel was shocked to encounter there a large exhibit glorifying the Palestinian terrorist who murdered 21 Israelis at Haifa's Maxim restaurant in October. Dubbed "Snow White and the Madness of Truth," the exhibit showed a tiny sailboat floating on a pool of red water. Attached to the boat was a smiling photo of the female bomber, Hanadi Jaradat. In protest, Mazel pulled the plug on three spotlights illuminating the exhibit, and knocked one light fixture into the red pool.

The exhibit and 'artists'

Media coverage largely downplayed the exhibit's clear glorification of genocide a grave irony, given the theme of the conference. Media reports instead suggested that the exhibit's meaning is open to broad interpretation, or that it merely laments all Mideast bloodshed.

Absent from nearly all reports was the poetic text accompanying the exhibit, submitted by the artists, which juxtaposes the 'beauty' of the red pool of blood upon the moral 'Snow-whiteness' of the terrorist:

For the June 12 deaths of her brother, and her cousin... seemingly innocent with universal non-violent character... Weeping bitterly, she added: 'If our nation cannot realize its dream and the goals of the victims, and live in freedom and dignity, then let the whole world be erased'... Run away, then, you poor child... and the red looked beautiful upon the white.

Here are three examples of the media's selective omission:

1) BBC wrote: "Its Israeli-born creator rejected the charge [of condoning violence], saying the work had a message of openness and conciliation... 'I'm absolutely opposed to suicide bombers', he added."

2) The New York Times News Service reports that one of the artists explained: "I wanted to show how incomprehensible it is that a mother of two who is a lawyer no less can do such a thing," she said, apparently confusing the Haifa bombing with an attack last week by another Palestinian woman.

3) The (UK) Observer spun the story 180-degrees, presenting Mazel not the Palestinian! as the killer: Peaceful Swedes were nearly killed when "an ambassador erupted in violent protest... [Mazel] ripped out electrical wires, grabbed a spotlight and hurled it into a fountain, causing it to short circuit and become a potential death trap."

Dutch television has actual film of Mazel, calmly walking around the exhibit, unplugging the spotlights, and pushing one of the (unplugged) lights into the water.

BROADER CONTEXT

While one could debate if Mazel's act was appropriate, it is essential to recognize that this story runs far deeper than one art exhibit. Associated Press provides important background context to the story:

There has long been debate over where criticism of Israel ends and anti-Semitism begins. The current round touched a deeper chord, because many Israelis feel outsiders often accept the Palestinians' use of suicide bombings against civilians.

As Ambassador Mazel explained:

This exhibit was the culmination of dozens of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish events in Sweden. When you don't protest it gets worse and worse. It had to be stopped somehow, even by deviating from the behavior of the buttoned-down diplomat.

The Israeli government supports Mazel's protest, and the Jerusalem Post had this to say:

As for "diplomacy," Mazel was communicating his point in the only way possible. A formal protest would merely have been "duly registered," filtered and lost in the back channels of European diplomacy. So he chose to scream. But screaming was the only option Europe now gives Israel.

Did your local paper's coverage of Mazel's act of protest fail to note the artists' accompanying text, which casts a mass murderer as a 'Snow-white' victim? If so, write a letter to the editor, questioning the omission of the artist's literal 'whitewash' of Palestinian terror."

MORE:

Nelson Ascher writes in:

"I'd just like to remark that, first, that specific piece in the exhibition wasn't actually destroyed or irrecoverably vandalized, because that is not a unique, irreproducible object that has what Walter Benjamin called an "aura". On the contrary, it could be and was repaired in minutes and, based at it is, on an idea, however bad, rather than on unique materials, it can, with some water, red ink, a little boat and a photograph, be reproduced, reenacted, repeated anywhere, for instance, in my own bath tube. Second, the Haaretz articulist arrogantly questions the ambassador's credentials to judge whether that is or isn't art and then, arrogantly too, passes his own aesthetic judgment on the beauty of the text. More to the point, he generalizes as he wishes the meaning of an individual act, interpreting it as paradigmatic of his country's way of dealing with art or disagreement or the Palestinians, whatever. Well, his interpretation of the act seems to me much more subjective and biased than the ambassador's interpreation of the said art object.

But all this is, at best, unimportant. What seems important to me is that there is a symbolic war going on that's in every way as ferocious as the real one. Symbols are attacked and destroyed. Saddam's statue was destroyed in Baghdad? Well, the protesters in London erected and destroyed a statue of George Bush. But limits are artificially imposed on this symbollic battle. Burning the star-and-stripes is OK and lawfull, even in the US. The burning of "la tricolore", on the other hand, can get you in jail in France, and mocking "La Marseillese" too. The star of David can be juxtaposed with the swastika, but try, either on the streets of London, Paris, Stockholm, either on those of Rammallah, Cairo etc., to do the same with the crescent. It would be nice to see what the reaction would be in Europe to an art object glorifying Baruch Goldstein.
Even more important is the following: the systematic corruption of all concepts that once seemed to be crystal-clear. Human rights? Yes, of course, but not those of people murdered by suicide-bombers. Antiracism? Take a look at what went on in Durban where this noble idea went hand in hand with the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion". The Holocaust? Of course, but only those (in lower-case and in the plural) perpetraded by Jews, sorry, Zionists, against Palestinians. The Haaretz articulist even mentioned that poor excuse of an old-fashioned boring stalinist, Jos Saramago (whose works I can read in his own language). He compared Jenin to Auschwitz, an offensive lie that managed to offend someone who couldn't be suspected of being a right-wing or mainstream Zionist: Haaretz reporter Amira Haas. Well, how did the Israelis react? Many of them by not buying his books, and I think that's their right. Did Saramago have to go into hiding protected by the British secret services? Hardly.
In short, the war has been taken over to the symbolic sphere and, there, it is also being fought in a dirty way. Those who react to a journalist's anti-Arab diatribe by firing him have only nice words to say when it comes to the anti-Jewish diatribe of a poet working for the same organization. Not very even-handed, is it?

If even in the real world of real people double-standards are allowed to proliferate, in the symbolic sphere it is much easier to get away with them.
Finally, just a question. I won't even discuss the futility of programming an artistic event as a forum to discuss genocide. Individual authors or artists might be moved to try to deal with this phenomenon, but thinking that, through a medium that is hardly objective and that is almost always, by its very nature, ambivalent at best, genocide can be productively discussed doesn't sound like a great idea to me. But let's admit that genocide might be debated in a place surrounded by creative work associated in some way to it (since art is never about this or that, right?). Then, admitting all this, what is a work dealing in its own way with the Middle East doing there exactly? To allow that work in that very exhibition means that the organizers agreed with the biased and one-sided thesis that there's a genocide going on in the region. Now, we know genocides ocurred in Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda and during the Holocaust. But the very fact of giving the contemporary Middle Eastern situtation, the Arab-Israeli conflict, a place in that forum is not a way to formulate pertinent questions, but to pass a sentence, an anti-Israeli sentence, an a priori condemnation of Israel, without anything remotely resembling due intellectual or even artistic process. While we may defend the artist's freedom of expression, however unreasonable that expression is, that doesn't mean that the decision of those responsible for the museum might be defended in the same way, because it is their work to be judgemental, to chose and to be able to explain and justify their choices. And I'm still waiting for them to tell us why have other works been refused and this one accepted, what are their criteria, what's the connection between the Arab-Israeli conflict and the exhibition's explicit theme, genocide, and so on. This they haven't done, protecting themselves behind empty talk about artistic freedom, a freedom they, who must chose between many works, are paid for by the public to grant as much as to deny
." [emphasis added]

Posted by Gregory at January 19, 2004 11:36 AM
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